June 24, 2020 By: Scott Allen — In February 2019, Washington natives and accomplished golf course designers Michael McCartin and Will Smith founded National Links Trust, a privately funded nonprofit dedicated to promoting and protecting affordability, accessibility and engaging architecture at municipal golf courses throughout the country. Their first project? Restoring the District’s three public courses, all of which have seen better days.
The National Park Service on Monday announced that it will begin negotiations with National Links Trust on a long-term lease to operate East Potomac, Rock Creek and Langston golf courses, with the goal of having an agreement in place no later than Sept. 30. That’s when the Park Service’s contract with concessionaire Golf Course Specialists Inc., which has provided services at all three courses since 1989, is set to expire. The Park Service issued a request for proposals to find a long-term operator of the courses last July.
McCartin has designed public and private courses all over the world, but his latest project is a dream come true and one he is certainly qualified to undertake. The 39-year-old, who lives on Capitol Hill, learned to play golf at East Potomac Park, graduating from the par-3 Red Course to the nine-hole White Course and finally the 18-hole Blue Course. He developed an interest in golf course design at an early age and earned his master’s degree in landscape architecture at the University of Georgia. His graduate thesis was titled “Making a Model Municipal Facility: A Case Study of East Potomac Park.”
“Everything has come together because I have an extensive history at the courses and they’re meaningful places in my life,” McCartin said. “It’s cause to kind of reflect over all of that now, and it’s definitely a cool feeling.”
As McCartin argued in his thesis, affordable golf and interesting course design are not mutually exclusive. National Links Trust intends to “make a substantial investment in the comprehensive restoration and rehabilitation” of D.C.’s three courses while keeping greens fees among the least expensive in the area. It helps that several of NLT’s partners for the project, including some of the biggest names in golf course design, pledged to waive their regular fees.
When the lease is finalized, Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design, for which McCartin worked as an associate and independent contractor for more than a decade, will lead the effort to revitalize East Potomac Park. Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner of Hanse Golf Course Design will tackle Rock Creek, where the back nine holes have been closed for more than a year. Beau Welling, who is part of the team at Tiger Woods’s TGR Design, will renovate historic Langston Golf Course on Benning Road NE, which opened as a segregated facility for African Americans in 1939.
All three courses have fallen into disrepair over the past few decades, and the next lessee will inherit millions in deferred maintenance, including drainage issues. The National Park Service prohibited Golf Course Specialists from making capital improvements to the properties because the concessionaire always has held a short-term contract.
East Potomac Park was originally conceived as a “model public playground.” The first nine holes of the golf course, designed by Walter Travis, opened for play in 1920. A second nine, designed by a different architect, opened in 1923, and the facility hosted the second U.S. Public Links Championship later that year. One feature of East Potomac Park’s original course that McCartin would like to see restored is its reversible design because reversible loops offer more variety and spread out the wear and tear on the course.
“If you’re going to be rebuilding stuff — greens and bunkers — it doesn’t cost much more to build something that’s thoughtful and interesting and is different than what was there before,” McCartin said. “In the case of the D.C. courses, that could mean bringing back what was lost from back in the day.”
NLT’s proposal also includes promises to expand golf opportunities for underserved communities, promote youth golf programs and share the history of the three courses. The group plans to partner with First Tee of Greater Washington and Golf. My Future. My Game., a nonprofit that fosters greater diversity in the sport.
“All three of the courses in D.C. are amazing for their history and the people who play there,” McCartin said. “You can build something cool for everybody to experience and not just the people who are lucky enough to afford it. There’s a lot of reasons that people like golf, but I feel like entry-level courses have always kind of shot for the lowest possible bar from a golf course perspective, and that misses one of those hooks to get people excited about golf. The course can engage you and make you want to go back and play.”