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SERVING THE GAME
Venerable D.C. Courses to Receive Much-Needed TLC
November 25, 2020
By Michael Williams
I started my golf career working with the management company that operated the three National Park Service golf courses in Washington, D.C. East Potomac, Langston and Rock Creek provide golfers in the Washington area with affordable, accessible golf in some of the most scenic park settings in the country.
Over the years, the courses became victims of their own popularity. Years of heavy play, degrading infrastructure and a failure to get large-scale maintenance programs approved by the National Park Service led to problems with drainage, irrigation, bunkers and greens that negatively impacted the golfer experience.
For every golfer who came into the pro shop to complain about the conditions, two others simply chose to play somewhere else. Even though golfers visited East Potomac in droves regardless of the conditions, the number of rounds played at Langston and Rock Creek lagged significantly. And the truth is that because of the constraints of the terms of the lease agreement, very little could be done about these systemic problems other than applying band-aid solutions and hoping for good weather. In the dog days of the Washington, D.C., summer, neither was an effective strategy.
Recently the courses changed management companies, with the National Links Trust (NLT) assuming stewardship through an open RFP process. A critical part of the winning proposal was agreement on a program to address the long-term maintenance and conditioning needs of the golf courses. The USGA Course Consulting Service was selected to partner with the NLT in the repair and restoration of the D.C. courses.
“We have a 50-year lease and we have a lot of improvement work that we want to do over the next 10 years,” said National Links Trust co-founder Mike McCartin. “The question is, how do we maximize current conditions? How do we comprehensively think about these improvement projects and the types of things we need to do in order to ensure that we can maintain the courses at a certain standard, but also do it in a way that allows us to keep the fees low? The USGA is the leading source of knowledge in the industry, so going to them is a natural. We're lucky to have their eye on this at this stage.”
The USGA Course Consulting Service started in 1954 as a way for golf courses around the world to benefit from the experience and expertise of USGA Green Section agronomists. The mission of the service is to help golf courses achieve the best possible turfgrass conditions within the course’s operating budget, using the wealth of information and research at the Green Section’s disposal. It’s the type of stewardship these three beloved courses sorely need.
As it turned out, the initial NLT-USGA assessment was planned for the final day of the courses being under contract to my former company. On a sunny day in September, I met McCartin and Elliott Dowling, a USGA agronomist based in the Northeast at Langston Golf Course. Located in a bustling urban neighborhood in Northeast Washington, Langston was built in 1939 as a nine-hole course and expanded to 18 holes to provide a place to play for African Americans who, because of segregation, were unwelcome at most other courses (including, at the time, East Potomac, just a few miles down the river). Langston is on the National Register of Historic Places and has hosted luminaries ranging from presidents to prizefighters. An exhibit at the USGA Golf Museum and Library honors this proud legacy. Langston is laid out beside the Anacostia River adjacent to the National Arboretum, creating a natural green oasis within D.C.’s urban core. The result of the years of stopgap maintenance was predictable yet regrettable, with impacted greens that were inconsistent and prone to disease, and fairways that were barren in places and holding puddles of water for days after a rainfall in others.
The first tee offers a view of several holes, and Dowling slowly scanned the panorama with a practiced eye. With agronomy degrees from Iowa State and Penn State, Dowling served a six-year stint as a superintendent at a Chicago-area golf course before joining the USGA, where he has spent the last seven years helping golf courses maximize their potential. Over that time, he has developed a method for his initial survey.
“I’m trying to take a broad-stroke picture,” said Dowling. “I'm just looking at the health of the golf course as an organic thing, rather than the shape of the golf course, the shape of the holes or anything like that. That gets into architecture, which isn't me. I’m concerned with grass health, plant health and tree health. How do they all go together? Is there balance? Are there enough trees to provide separation and give you the look you want, but not too many trees that you're hurting the situation?”
Dowling pointed out drainage issues on the first fairway that led to bare patches in some places, puddling in others and general inconsistency in the quality of the turf. When we arrived at the green, Dowling took a core sample using a tool that extracted an 8-inch plug of soil, and he was in turn able to extract a remarkable amount of information from it.
“You see all of the roots that are growing into those aeration channels?” he pointed out. “They show the importance of relieving impaction so roots have a place to grow.”
Dowling’s working knowledge of the type of soil typically found in the D.C. area will help to improve the conditions and the quality of turf on the greens.
“There is a lot of clay in D.C.,” Dowling explained. “When you look at roots like this, oxygen is what they want, which is why when we build a USGA green it's at least 80 percent sand. It's not soil, like a lot of people would assume.”
He went on to provide a 5-minute primer on the importance of aeration, misconceptions about rainfall and the performance of different grasses in warm-weather conditions.
The process was repeated on every hole, with McCartin pointing out planned maintenance projects and improvements that would sustain the course until a complete renovation, scheduled several years down the road. Dowling provided advice about items that needed to be addressed immediately for the overall health of the course (e.g., an antiquated and malfunctioning irrigation system), while adding suggestions on clearing trees and overgrown brush that would improve both turf health and aesthetics. It was amazing to see how quickly Dowling was able to take in information from McCartin and assimilate it into cogent answers and possible solutions.
We zig-zagged our way around the course, and I added narrative on the historic landmarks around Langston, including the Joe Louis Tree, an oak on the right side of the par-5 third hole that the heavyweight champ allegedly hit every time he played at Langston. I felt more than a little emotion as we passed the par-3 4th; just over the fence behind the green was the apartment where my family had lived when I was born, providing a synergy that captured both the start of my life and the place where my life’s work began.
Dowling and McCartin made plans for future meetings and established budgets and schedules. In past years, I would have been part of that conversation, but that time was over. I thanked them both and walked past the clubhouse to my car. As I left the parking lot, I felt a sense of warmth – partially from the autumn sun pouring through the windshield, but mostly from within, a comfort that my beloved Langston was in safe hands, for now and for many years to come.
Michael Williams is a freelance writer and radio host based in Washington, D.C.