By Adam Schupak
AUSTIN, Texas – Ben Crenshaw, a World Golf Hall of Famer and Austin native, calls himself just one of the many "sentimental golfers" supporting an effort to "Save Muny."
Lions Municipal Golf Course, affectionately known as Muny, is located on the west side of the city on land given to the University of Texas in 1910 by then-Regent George Washington Brackenridge. Muny is where Crenshaw scored his first hole-in-one – "with my mom's Patty Berg 5-iron," he said – earned his first trophy and later won the Firecracker Open, Austin's longest-running amateur championship, twice.
The course was constructed by the Lions Club and opened to the public in 1924. In 1951, it became the first desegregated golf course in the South when it adopted a policy that anyone could play there.
"Those were some wise city folks that let that happen," Crenshaw said.
That rich history and nearly 100 years of continuous operation as a public golf course is in jeopardy. In 2011, UT’s Board of Regents voted to allow the lease for the city-operated course, which does 72,000 rounds annually at less than $30, to expire in May 2019.
As with most stories, it's important to follow the money. The university makes slightly less than $500,000 a year from leasing Muny to the city. That money is used for scholarships, bringing distinguished faculty to the university and funding innovative programs. It's complicated, in part, because the annual lease revenue is only a fraction of the estimated $5.5 million a year that the land could fetch if leased for a mixed-use development, the UT System's executive director of real estate said in 2011.
"The phrase that's always repeated is when Colonel Brackenridge bequeathed the land, he said we want the highest and best use for the land," Crenshaw said.
Parkland in the middle of one of the fastest-growing cities in the country is invaluable. Some real estate experts have estimated the school could reap a $200 million windfall if it sold the entire 350-acre Brackenridge land. But at a time when green space in the city is rapidly diminishing, the land also offers intangible benefits to society. Commercial development of Muny would mean the loss of 141 acres of central urban green space.
“When and if our city loses a place like this, it never comes back,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said at the 2016 ceremony in which the course joined the National Register of Historic Places.
Among those supporting "Save Muny" is State Sen. Craig Estes, who in February filed Senate Bill 822, which would protect Lions by transferring control of the facility to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
“I have never been anything but proud of the University of Texas … but I feel very strongly that what we will hear today represents a miscalculation on the university’s part,” Estes said at Tuesday's Senate hearing. “Value is not simply a monetary calculation. History has value.”
Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson played Muny, as did Tom Kite, whose record score in winning the 1968 Firecracker Open held for many years. Renowned teacher Harvey Penick used to bring the University of Texas team to play at the course where his brother Tom was the longtime pro.
"It's just a sweet little place," said Crenshaw, who unveiled plans in February to restore and improve the course and offered to donate his architectural-design services.
“I’m a product of the University of Texas,” Crenshaw said during his Senate testimony. “I grew up in the shadow of the Tower and I love it, too, and this has been very difficult for me. But I am going to put up whatever reputation I have for saving this course.”
A Jan. 17 letter from UT President Greg Fenves to the city has renewed hope that the university is willing to negotiate an extension to the lease "on terms closer to current market value past the initial term."
Crenshaw, for one, is convinced the course deserves a bright future.
"It can continue as a great place for the public to play in a beautiful part of the city, open to everybody. We are being hopeful that things will work to a good resolution. As Harvey used to say when Tommy and I used to leave for a tournament, 'I'll keep my fingers and toes crossed for you.' "
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak