Bobby Jones' Legacy Spawns Local Change
Driving north on Northside Drive not far after crossing over I-75, a new view has emerged. On the right hand side, a major renovation of Atlanta Memorial Park is almost complete. Atlanta Memorial Park isn’t just any regular park in Atlanta, it also happens to house a municipal golf course named after one of the sport’s most iconic names: Bobby Jones, a native Atlantan. The same Bobby Jones who learned the game of golf on Atlanta’s historic East Lake Golf Course, where Tiger Woods’ recently claimed an exciting victory at the season ending 2018 Tour Championship.
This bold renovation is filling a much needed demand among golfers in the city who are seeking a reasonably priced yet premium golf experience (designed by one of the games former top architects) matched with a convenient practice facility and driving range.
The 128 acres of historic rolling hills on the southend of Buckhead has stimulated a side of town normally not used to change. In a sport that’s declined in popularity since 2008, the project getting a brand new golf course on historic acreage has infuriated some residents to the point of legal action.
Outside of neighborly tiffs, regional demands have pushed the project along with a textbook city-state partnership. Regional needs include a convenient golf option for the millions of visitors to the Georgia World Congress Center, a new home for the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame, and local practice facilities for Atlanta universities.
Regardless of what epoch we are in politically, at a state or local level, or ebb we may or may not be in around golf’s popularity, the Bobby Jones Golf Club is making a profound change amidst a conservative community intertwined with a name and legacy still heralded world wide today.
Bobby Jones, The Atlantan
Play on Bobby Jones Golf Course began in the spring of 1933 which is three years after Bobby Jones the golfer had retired from his historic Grand Slam win. To put in perspective the magnitude of Atlanta’s most famous athlete, there were four finalists for Time Man of the Year in 1930: Joseph Stalin, Mohandas Ghandi, and Adolf Hitler. Bobby Jones was the fourth. He is one of two people to receive two ticker tape parades in Manhattan, the other one: astronaut John Glenn. If those American praises aren’t convincing enough, the people of St. Andrews respected him so dearly they made him an Honorary Burgess of the Borough. Only one other American has received such an honor: Benjamin Franklin.
There is no question time has hampered the local hero’s impact, but his legacy is continued most notably by golf’s greatest players every spring during the The Masters Tournament. Bobby Jones the athlete, Georgia Tech, Emory, and Harvard grad, produced a legacy still influential today.
Bobby Jones, The Golf Course
Which is where the story of the golf course is picked up.
The Jones’ Family lawyer, Marty Elgison, spawned the change. Upon retirement in 2011, he took up this initiative to elevate the standards of the course named after the man. Initially the plan was to get one of Georgia’s finest golf architects, Bob Cupp, to renovate the course. Cupp was quoted as saying “there’s no amount of money you could pay to renovate this—it’s too bad and too dangerous, and for all the money you would need to fix it, you could build a new golf course.”
Bobby Jones Golf Course was the first 18-hole public facility in the city and it was developed to satisfy the appetite for the city’s growing desire for golf. The sporting legend played there once. It was a cold day during the winter of 1933. Jones, the consummate, humble competitor was once quoted as saying he had “the dubious honor” of anything named after him -- including the golf course. Jones’ sentiment would be clairvoyant of the reputation and experience Bobby Jones Golf Course has created for generations.
Three months later in 1934 and approximately a hundred and fifty miles east of Atlanta, the inaugural Augusta National Invitation Tournament founded by Bobby Jones, later to be renamed The Masters Tournament, would be played.
For a course that has been sub-standard for nearly a century, why change anything now?
Outside of a lawyer’s desire to buff out a blemish on a legacy, numerous elements made the renovation occur now. The initiative is lead by the Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation, a non-profit which includes former Georgia State Golf Association President and local lawyer, Chuck Palmer along with a wide variety of local and state golf enthusiasts including a Bobby Jones’ family member.
Land Swaps Between City and State Spur Neighbors
One key element to the upcoming renovation was a state-owned parcel of land once part of the old World of Coca-Cola (a company where Bobby Jones has a long legacy) property and a parking deck in downtown Atlanta. The city had been working for over a year to sell Underground Atlanta. Councilman Howard Shook was quoted as saying: “I want to get rid of Underground so bad I can taste it, and I’ll bet everyone out there does too.”
At this point, the sale of Underground had reached a 9 month stalemate. The land downtown was potentially the missing piece of a complex puzzle to finalize the deal.
Appraisers valued the golf course at $12.7 mm and the downtown parking deck and land at $10.5mm. The difference was paid by today’s owner of Underground Atlanta, WRS Inc, a South Carolina-based developer. And the land swap from city to state was consummated.
On the Bobby Jones Golf Course front, in order to garner local interest and funds, it was clear the course could not be owned by the city. From Cupp’s perspective, a full course redesign would be needed -- eventually $23mm. “We would not be able to get the resources and funding needed to do the renovation if the City continued to own and operate the course” stated Palmer in an interview. Mayor Reed made it clear the city didn’t want to be in the business of renovating golf courses.
On June 3rd, 2016, then Mayor Kasim Reed met again with a large crowd of Buckhead residents to discuss the proposed land swap deal. According to the AJC, some local residents held signs exclaiming “shady land swap” deal. Many local residents were upset about the nature of the deal. It did not go through the traditional NPU process. Yet on June 6th’s Council meeting, the swap was approved 12-3. Buckhead residents and Council Members Yolanda Adrean and Mary Norwood were 2 of the 3 who held out.
The sale of Underground Atlanta eventually closed in March of 2017.
Currently, the city owns and operates four other courses. Until 2016, American Golf Corporation had managed and operated all five golf courses for thirty years. Now that Bobby Jones Golf Club is no longer on the list, the city is managing the other four through contractors and sub-contractors.
One caveat to the land swap deal is the new owner, the State of Georgia, does not have to comply with stringent tree removal laws, most notably: “no net loss of trees within the boundaries of the city.”
According to the SaportaReport, Elgison was quoted as saying: “We had an arborist come out. There were 1,182 trees, and only 143 were in good condition.” According Saporta and local residents, approximately 800 trees have been cut down. In our interview with Chuck Palmer, he stated “525 trees have been cut down and the Bobby Jones Golf Foundation is going to replace every tree that was cut down. They may not all be on the actual golf course, but plans to replace them will happen.”
Public sentiment has varied from excitedly anticipatory to legal-action disdain. A resident who lives in townhome right off the course was quoted as saying: “the grass has finally started to come in so I’m optimistic, for the last year, it has been a pleasant view.” Another neighbor we interviewed stated: “the new Bobby Jones course is going to be an incredible addition to a city that doesn’t really have that much good, public golf.”
Some neighbors have been forceful with legal action against the removal of the trees, with the intent to have the course comply with local rules. The neighbors were unsuccessful.
In mid August, the Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation and the Chattahoochee Riverkeepers announced additions to the original plan which includes more trees and environmentally reduced impacts.
Regional Opportunities In the Golf Market
All of this effort was spawned by a desire to enhance a legacy but the argument for regional benefits are significant. Public golf options are limited as a resident in the city. Before the land swap, as mentioned, there were five city owned golf courses. None of them have a sufficient driving range and according to reviews online, all of them are substandard. The new Bobby Jones Golf Course seeks to solve a regional problem first by starting with championship golf from a world-class designer. This piece would be longer than a PHD thesis paper if Bob Cupp’s accomplishments were expounded on. Sadly, he passed away during the project due to pancreatic cancer. Golf Digest writer on all things architecture, Ron Whitten sat down with Cupp in his last few months. Here’s an excerpt from a moving writeup after his passing:
I could tell, but Bob didn’t want to stop until he filled me in on his latest project – what, sadly, will be his last project – the re-engineering of the Bobby Jones Golf Course in Atlanta. I had played the course during my 2010 research on golf and the Civil War, because the course sits on a small part of the vast site of the Battle of Peachtree Creek. We both agreed it was an awkward, unsafe design, prone to flooding, dreadfully maintained and an embarrassment to the memory of the greatest amateur golfer of all time. The state of Georgia was willing to take it over and have Bob reduce it to nine safe, maintainable holes, along with a first-rate practice facility and learning academy. To add versatility, he proposed making it a reversible nine-hole course, playable one way on even days, the other way on odd days. Late that afternoon, the city council voted to approve a complicated land-swap with the state, and Bob was positively gleeful. His course would get built, even if he weren’t around, as he’d completed a detailed set of plans that his older son, Bobby Jr., an experienced golf architect himself, could use to see the project through to completion.
The new course will be new 9 hole-reversible design, meaning every other day, the superintendent switches between setting up one nine or the other -- one nine called Azalea and the other Magnolia. Here are the details of the design. A Bob Cupp designed golf course is one you want to bring your friends and business colleagues to.
This was another selling point for the state of Georgia. Millions of people visit the Georgia World Congress Center every year. For the golfers in that population who are traveling in town, now they will have a short drive (approximately 15 minutes) to a world-class golf facility.
The second regional opportunity, although much more specific to college recruitment, is now Georgia State University will have a home course and premiere practice facility. Former Senior PGA Tour stalwart, Joe Inman leads the golf program at GSU and is very supportive of the Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation. Ironically enough, this facility will help compete for talent against Bobby Jones’ alma-mater, Georgia Tech..
The third and final regional demand, which may bring more visitors than expected, largely in part to Jones’ legacy is the new building and home for the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame. The projected “Disney World of Golf” didn’t pan out in Augusta, only time will tell if the execution is up to par in Atlanta.
Golf for the Next Generation
Regional demands will drive the popularity of the course, however popularity was never a problem. On average, there were 48,000 rounds a year at Bobby Jones Golf Club with an all time year high of 78,000.
The goal for the Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation is to have 25,000 rounds a year. Shorter, 9 hole golf courses have sprouted up across the South over the past few years including critically acclaimed Sweetens Cove just outside of Chattanooga and Pinehurst’s, The Cradle. The ability to enjoy the game without a five hour time expense is critical to engage a generation of iPhone users scrolling miles on a screen.
Support for junior and adaptive golf is woven into and additional 6 holes less than 100 yards long aptly named Cupp Links, after Bob Cupp.
Between the interchangeable 9 holes, enhanced driving range, and short course for juniors and adaptive golf, Bobby Jones Golf Course will have plenty of options to improve your game and grow the sport.
Tomorrow’s generation of golfers grow further away from the man, Bobby Jones. Outside of black and white clips of him during Masters’ Week or the Tour Championship, mainstream golf receives little exposure to unquestionably the greatest amatuer golfer to play the sport and perhaps an even better man. Herbert Warren Wind was quoted about Mr. Jones: "In the opinion of many people, of all the great athletes, Jones came the closest to being what we call a great man."
The new course renovations and overall facility seek to live up to a name and legacy unparalleled in the sport. The jury will always be out on if that was achieved or even possible -- but fortunately for golfers in Atlanta, they’ll soon have access to an experience inspired from a local legend.