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What it’s like to watch someone debate the fate of your muni

I love Jacksonville Beach Golf Club.

I love the routing. Or at least most of it. I love the logo and the bucket hats they sell in the golf shop. I love that even though the greens rarely have grass on them they have signs on the putting green with enough audacity to inform you of the distance to Pine Valley and Pebble Beach, as if those were your other playing options on that given day.

I *really* love that during the summer it costs $12 to walk as many holes as you can, a walk you can happily take wearing basketball shorts, tennis shoes and a Randy Moss jersey, which I have done. I love that people think I’m joking when I compare the strategy of the 16th hole to No. 15 at Augusta National. I love the driving range even though the ball machine eats tokens and the mats are so worn out that the concrete under them snapped the head off my 8-iron. (#Lag)

Showing off new bucket hats with Tour player Luke Guthrie at Jax Beach GC

When I heard that the city of Jacksonville Beach was considering a renovation of my beloved muni, my instincts were more fight than flight. When I told Tron, he was ready to storm the Jax Beach city council with the fury of John Lithgow in “Footloose.”

Watching the municipal golf process from afar is hilariously stressful. There was only one news story about the project (shout out, News4Jax). Even that story, which carried the big, scary headline “Big changes could be coming to Jacksonville Beach golf course,” was only 132 words long, a quarter of which was this ambiguous nonsense:

A proposal shows the last three holes of the course would see the most changes. The proposal includes moving the green more away from nearby homes and planting trees to better protect the house.

WHAT GREEN? PLANTING TREES WHERE? DON’T PLANT ANY TREES! THE HOUSE? WHAT THE HELL DOES THAT MEAN? THE CLUBHOUSE? THE BROWN HOUSE WITH THE DOGS? WHY ARE YOU NOT ANSWERING ME? I’LL BE RIGHT THERE PLEASE DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING!

Inspired by The Fried Egg’s recent local activism, this is the part of the story where I dove deep into the online presence of the Jacksonville Beach City Council. All of a sudden I’m digging up meeting minutes and speaker agendas. I’m thinking my FOIA options might be in play. All of it. Finally, I stumble on an hour-and-a-half YouTube video with 79 views that turns out to be a recording of the October 2 city council meeting at which the golf course plan was presented. I jump for joy at my discovery of what I now realize is very rudimentary local government transparency (shout out Bob Woodward).

I find out that the proposed architect of the project is Harrison Minchew, a longtime architect for Arnold Palmer Design, who lives here in nearby Ponte Vedra Beach. The AP Design tie doesn’t fill me with huge optimism, but I try to keep an open mind as he’s invited to the podium to make his pitch. As he begins, I ready myself to loudly and smugly refute all of his ideas and points (quick scene-setter: Like most people getting passionate about local government decisions I’m alone in my wife’s home office at midnight watching a grainy video of a meeting that took place 3 weeks ago).

Minchew starts his proposal by saying the 1950’s Sam Snead design needs a little more “pizzazz” and I’m terrified and headrushed by petrifying visions of new pond fountains and comfort stations and punishing new lateral hazards. My cheeks get hot but I maintain my composure, take a deep breath and allow him to continue.

Tron Carter taking aim at the par-4 17th at Jax Beach GC

As he rolls on through his presentation, something delightful happens. Minchew lays out, point by point, a beautiful vision of the new Jax Beach. He explains the need to minimize the course’s pointless forced carries (Nos. 2, 6 and 8), which serve almost no purpose to low handicaps and only make beginners want to quit faster.

As politely as he can, he explains how poorly the greens were originally built and irrigated, a pretty obvious explanation for why they are typically more top dress than grass. His plan includes re-doing and re-irrigating 17 of the 18 green sites. He explains how reshaping the surrounds will allow the grounds crew to keep the turf tight, overwhelming good players with short game options and allowing beginners to putt their way up onto the greens.

On the social side, he lays out a plan for a new putting course, as well as a revamp and expansion of the driving range, allowing both to be lighted, nighttime sources of revenue that also push people to the course’s bar and restaurant.

He lays out two options for changing the 16th hole, which Tron has called “the best hole in the state of Florida,” as well as the 17th and 18th. Admittedly, this part gets a little fuzzy since the actual presentation screen is outside the view of the locked down camera recording the meeting (shout out Jax Beach City Council A.V.). But from the way he describes those changes, I’m even OK with a re-do of my favorite hole for the benefits of the many.

He concludes the presentation by laying out the timeline for the project: Break ground in January. Finish the shaping and irrigation by May. Use the hot, long, summer days as a prime grow-in season and re-open by September. Perfect.

When he concludes, I lean back in my chair and let out a deep, satisfied sigh of relief. I picture my beloved Jax Beach following in the footsteps of my former hometown muni: Orlando’s Winter Park 9, which was brilliantly reimagined by Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb a year ago. (Seriously, if you have a chance please go check it out.)

After firing off excited text messages about the plan to my Jax Beach golfing friends, I’m almost ready to triumphantly shut my laptop. That’s when the meeting is opened up to city council reaction. Into focus comes the hellscape of bureaucracy I had, somehow, never quite considered in the golf world.

(Let me quickly say that I want to give huge credit to the city of Jax Beach for even entertaining, let alone supporting, this project. I’m thrilled and thankful for the enthusiasm and understand that we are miles ahead of many other cities with regards to golf. With that said…)

Municipal golf is one of the biggest – and, arguably most important – parts of the game. In 2012 there were nearly 2,500 munis in the U.S. Yet, for some reason, it wasn’t until I was helplessly watching the fate of mine being discussed on a YouTube video that I really thought about the uphill battle these facilities face. Think for a moment about the ego of the average golfer. The player who thinks everyone else is the slow play problem and that they can definitely get a 7-iron there because of that one time they hit one 180 downhill, downwind.

To fully capture the vibe and saltiness of the Jax Beach range, I highly recommend strapping on the bag and riding your bike.

Now put that average golfer up on the city council dais. Sandwiched between monotone conversations about quarterly financial reports and potential contractors for new radio towers, that golfer gets a chance to be Mike Davis for 30 minutes. All of a sudden, they’re given a platform for their half-baked opinions on bunkering, strategy, tee placements and the overall spirit and ethos of the game. Combine that slog of a process with the fact that golf is already too expensive, too slow and too hard for the vast majority of people and it’s really pretty astounding that any of these facilities turn into enjoyable places to play.

I’m sure the parliamentary procedure of vetting a sewage contractor is an organized, logical process for most councils. But when the conversation turns to golf, the members can’t seem to stop their biases from taking over and derailing the conversation. Golf has a weird way of firing people up, as the fine readers of this site know full well.

Here’s what I mean:

• After the presentation, the majority of the council continually shoots down the idea of adding a lighted putting course to the new plan. One council member – admittedly not a golfer – starts her reaction by saying she was initially concerned that the new putting course would be in competition with Adventure Landing, a mini golf/water park combo down the street. (Thankfully, she admits that she was able to move past this concern.)

Another councilman declares broadly that there would be no interest from the general public in this concept (sorry to tell you, St. Andrews) and that the money would be far better spent covering the driving range bays. In the video Minchew is politely giving examples of where this concept has been hugely successful around the world and at the same time I’m getting responses to my earlier texts. Everyone I talked to – from friends in their 20’s to parents of small children to professional golfers that live in the area – is thrilled by the idea. It’s not hard for golfers, particularly the coveted #millennials, to picture the appeal of the clubhouse turning into something that’s part sports bar, part practice facility. It’s all the social aspects of TopGolf mixed with, you know, golf.

• The same councilman dives into the proposed hole changes, writing off certain ideas with comments like, “That hole is fine the way it is” and “hitting over water is part of golf.” He goes on to explain to Minchew, an architect of 30 years, why it takes three shots to hit the green on a long par 5 and why a tee box can’t be next to a road (sorry to tell you, St. Andrews). He explains how holes should not be able to cross one another (sorry to tell you, nvm…) and starts explaining how the prevailing wind will impact certain holes as if the dude they hired to renovate the golf course would never have thought to take this into consideration. For the better part of 15 minutes, he’s mansplaining golf to a guy who builds golf courses for a living.

• A separate debate breaks out about the overall par of the golf course and the horrors of having a par 71 or even – and I can’t believe I’m even going to write this – a par 70! I’m not going to take up much space writing about how meaningless par is but the conversation serves as a perfect example of how golf has no idea how hung up it is about the wrong things. The council is so smitten with the idea of “par 72” that they engage in an impromptu re-design, changing par 3’s into 4’s into 5’s and trying to keep that magic number intact with no thought to how their changes impact the overall variety and strategy of the routing they asked someone else to create.

It’s a funny, frustrating process to watch when you think about the fact that what they’re really discussing is whether their 95’s are going to be 23 or 24 shots over par. Finally, a councilman speaks up about par being flexible (shout out Councilman Buck!) and the conversation moves on.

• • •

This big ass rant isn’t meant to poke fun at the city council (some of it is) and I want to stress again that I really admire and am thrilled with their interest in giving a modern revamping to what could be a true muni gem. I’ve played Jax Beach with everyone from brand new golfers to PGA Tour players and everyone says the same thing when they leave: “If they would just put some money into this place….”

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit I was too cynical to think that was a real possibility.

The main reason for writing this was because, for the first time, I started to think about how the fates of these muni’s get decided. I’m fortunate to live in a place where the city council has an interest in golf, but you may not be so lucky. You could have people out there proposing – on your behalf! – those stupid-ass 8-inch cups. Your city council could have dudes on it who use headcovers for their irons! Think of this!

The point of this is that when these types of projects are up for debate (and frankly, even when they aren’t) they need input from passionate golf fans like the people on this site. Input from people who understand changing trends of playability, sustainability and much more can help pull us out of the Dark Ages of golf course architecture at the municipal level. If there’s something that needs changing at your course, let someone hear about it. Go be a menace at a public forum and #GetInvolved. They might listen!

And to the city council members (who I assume are still skimming this piece looking for their names):

Don’t write off a putting course without at least Googling the Himalayas or the Punchbowl or the Thistle Dhu and picturing their principles at Jax Beach.

Don’t scoff at a potential “straight, boring hole with no water hazards” before you’ve seen the shaping of the green complex or the bunkering or considered how that hole will play its part for both the best and worst players. Trust the professional you are hiring and get out of the way.

Most of all, don’t get stuck in convention. The personalities and proposed changes at Jax Beach could make it the East Coast version of Goat Hill Park. At a place like that, the focus lies so much more in community building than the fact that it happens to be a par 65 and everyone is so much better off for it. In order to build something that resonates with golfers in that way, you need only to build fun golf holes and to think outside the box, bringing in new ideas like much of what is proposed. Let the experts do their thing. Humble yourself and take an extra club.

Now, let’s move on to Agenda Item 17-174…

Note: The Jacksonville Beach golf project goes before a City Council vote on November 6. While there is optimism that the majority of this renovation plan will be approved, it never hurts to call or email the city council with your enthusiasm, suggestions or more. To contact the Mayor and the City Council, click here.

About the Author

D.J. Piehowski is the video producer and unofficial consigliere of No Laying Up. He is perpetually between clubs and terrified to go low. Email him your takes: [email protected]

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