Hitting in the Rough 

Critics ask why Tennessee is building golf courses

Critics ask why Tennessee is building golf courses

Golfers will soon be trying to master four Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses that are to be built in four Tennessee state parks. But some are questioning their construction on financial and environmental grounds.

In 1995, the Tennessee Legislature borrowed $20 million to build the four courses, dubbed the “Bear Trace.” One course, in Cumberland Mountain State Park, is already open. Courses at Chickasaw, Natchez Trace, and Harrison Bay parks are still under construction.

State architect Mike Fitz, who reviewed and approved the plans for the courses, says Golf Services Group, a company based in Houston, won the contract to build and manage them. Over the next 20 years, Golf Services will pay quarterly rents ranging from $221,000 to $860,000 on the courses—thus eventually paying back the money taxpayers loaned it.

Should the company fail, the state would be left with the tab and would have to manage the courses itself or find someone else who could. Golf Services would also lose the $2 million it paid the state up-front for the project.

Golf Services was one of four companies that bid on the project, and was the only one willing to make any up-front payment, Fitz says. He adds that it was Golf Services—and not the state—that secured Nicklaus’ design services. Interestingly, Erskine Bond—a long-time state parks’ employee whose job was to negotiate the contract for the four golf courses—retired from the state Oct. 31, 1996, and went to work for Golf Services.

With the addition of the Bear Trace, the park system will have 12 courses. As Fitz explains it, the developer was given the right to choose which parks would get the new courses. That took what would have been a very political decision—arguing in whose legislative district a golf course would be built—and placed it in the hands of people who supposedly bring some knowledge of golf issues to the table. “The state didn’t have anything to do with it,” Fitz said.

One of the new courses was originally to be built in Panther Creek Park, in Morristown. However, according to Fitz, “the community didn’t want to have anything to do with it.” Among those objecting to construction of the course were operators of private golf courses in the area, who opposed the location because they didn’t want to compete with the state. Rather than build the course in Panther Creek, a course was instead built at Harrison Bay, outside Chattanooga.

The issue of building courses has raised the hackles of some who question their construction on environmental grounds. Construction requires the reshaping of the land and the removal of the majority of trees and plants. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are heavily used in their maintenance, and the courses are used by a relatively small percentage of people, they say. A number of people also charge that building golf courses is a questionable use of state monies.

“I’m not sure that subsidizing golf courses is a legitimate use of public dollars,” says Alan Jones, executive director of the Tennessee Environmental Council. “Why is this state in the business of subsidizing golf courses that compete with private sector businesses?”

Dick Horton, the executive director of the Tennessee Golf Association, managed the golf program at Fall Creek Falls for 22 years. He says that there is, in fact, a demand for more courses. Public courses are more affordable than private ones, he adds, which makes them even more attractive.

“Most every park that has a regulation golf course is playing 50,000 rounds of golf [a year], and that’s 50,000 people coming to your park,” Horton says. “It’s one of the fastest growing sports right now, especially for women and juniors.”

Horton does admit that putting the courses in rural areas—where most state parks are—is a disadvantage, since they’re not near population centers. But, he adds, “golfers will find places to play and go to them.”

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