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'Transformative' restoration of DC public golf courses awaiting approval from National Parks Service

A historic golf course that was part of the civil rights movement is among those in need of repairs.

POTOMAC, Md. — A long-awaited renovation of some of the most vital public golf courses in our region could transform municipal golf in the Washington, D.C. area. But the plans are currently in a holding pattern, frustrating some area golfers. 

Mike McCartin grew up playing at the East Potomac Golf Links. Now, it's one of the three courses he and his friend Will Smith are working to renovate as co-founders of National Links Trust, a nonprofit created to protect and promote accessible, affordable municipal, or public, golf courses. 

“These are really important assets to D.C," said Smith, a St. Albans School graduate. “But more importantly, they're like a personal connection."

"For us, it's really important that we maintain what has developed over time," McCartin added. "And that really means making them the places where people start playing golf."

McCartin and Smith, along with NLT's CEO, Sinclair Eaddy Jr., believe the renovations are crucial to the future health of the sport. 

"We're trying to keep these facilities viable for new golfers to learn, and to get into the game of golf,” Eaddy said. “But we’re really doing a lot more than rehabilitating golf courses. What I like to think is that we are rehabilitating golf in the District of Columbia.”

In September 2020, National Links Trust signed a 50-year lease with the National Park Service to renovate and operate all three of Washington D.C.’s municipal courses: East Potomac in Southwest, Rock Creek Park Golf Course in Northwest and Langston Golf Course in Northeast. NLT partnered with three world-renowned golf course architects on the redesign -- Tom Doak, Gil Hanse and Beau Welling -- and plans to pay for the entire estimated $65 million overhaul out of private donations and revenue from managing the redesigned courses. Not one tax dollar will go to the project. 

But almost two years after signing the contract, none of the major work has even begun, other than some minor cosmetic changes. National Links Trust is still awaiting permitting approval from the same government agency that hired it in the first place, NPS. 

“It'd be great to move it through that process faster,” said McCartin. “But I do think it's all done with the right intentions and a lot of positivity.”

In a statement the National Parks Service told WUSA9 the permits are going through a “standard review process - there have been no unexpected delays in approval.”

“A scope of work is still being developed for the Rock Creek Golf Course and we expect the Environmental Assessment (EA) process to begin soon," wrote National Parks Service spokesperson Chelsea Sullivan. “National Links Trust will be able to begin construction after the EA is complete and final plans have been approved.”

Work at Rock Creek is expected to begin in the next one to two years. National Links Trust said the decision to renovate Rock Creek Golf Course first was made because it is in the worst shape, with four of 18 holes so overgrown and dilapidated they are no longer playable. National Links Trust said it needs Rock Creek to be made viable again as soon as possible to ensure there are as many public golf options as possible in the District while work on the other two courses moves forward.

But after decades of demanding equality on the golf course, golfers of color in Northeast D.C. are demanding equality with this planned restoration project as well.

Kimberly Robinson, Clarissa Dudley and Phyllis Jenkins are all members of the Wake-Robin Golf Club at Langston Golf Course, the oldest black women’s golf club in the United States. The women say civil rights history is clouded with dusty dirt cart paths, disrepair and disappointment.

“I don't want the perception to be that because the demographics in the area are changing that now Langston is getting the attention that Langston should have been getting all along,” said Robinson, president of Wake-Robin.

Langston was built on federal land in 1939 to give people of color a place to play golf in response to the “Caucasian clause” in PGA by-laws preventing non-white people from membership on tour -- racism that spilled over onto existing public courses.

“They were literally having cans thrown at them, bottles thrown at them,” said Jenkins. 

And so, the integration of municipal golf courses started.

“Let them play became the cry for us all across the country for us to be able to play in public spaces that we're paying for through taxes," Dudley said. “So, it's an important civil rights story.”

Credit: WUSA9

Now, public or “municipal” courses have become the gateway, not just for Black people, but all people who want access to golf but can’t pay for a country club membership.

But with the National Links Trust permitting process still ongoing, and no public date for widespread improvements at Langston even on the calendar, some are losing patience, once again, waiting for their turn.

“We are 100% behind everyone who has the best intentions,” Dudley said. “Everybody has their own timeline and we understand that everybody works within their own framework. But you know, for African Americans we've heard about justice and delay for a long time, and there's another famous quote that says justice delayed is justice denied. We’re just excited for the time when we can have this course looking like its old self again.”

National Links Trust said it recognizes the historical significance of Langston, which is why it selected that course over East Potomac to add “Toptracer” technology at the driving range first.

The National Parks Service also said it is essential that each course maintain its historically and architecturally significant elements as well as not negatively impacting any wildlife or species already a part of those courses.

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