When my twin sister told me she was getting married, I had one major concern: Her fiancé was a golfer.
She might as well have told me she was marrying a Republican. Golf, as I saw it, is the sport of hedge-fund managers and country-club members, and it symbolizes so much of what is wrong with America: Not only is there a long history of golf clubs denying people membership based on their ethnicity, sex, or skin color, it’s still inherently exclusive. Membership at Broadmoor, for instance, a private club on Lake Washington, is invitation-only (even the website is private), and while the club declined to tell me the cost, according to the Seattle Times, the initiation fee was $142,500—in 1990. God knows how many bitcoin they’re charging these days.
There is so much to hate about this sport. In addition to the sometimes exorbitant cost of private clubs, golf is an environmental catastrophe. Maintaining those immaculate green courses requires so much water, it can deplete water resources, especially in the Southwest, where water is as rare as golf courses are common. Clubs also tend to drench courses with fertilizers and pesticides, and those chemicals then leach into the water table, wreaking all kinds of havoc downstream. The overuse of fertilizers, for instance, causes algal blooms that rob waterways of oxygen and cause large die-offs of aquatic species and other parts of the ecosystem. This is also bad for people, as nutrient pollution can seep into drinking water and pose serious risks to public health. (Agriculture, it should be noted, is a much greater source of pollution than golf, but food, unlike golf, isn’t exactly something we can do without.)
And then there are the tax breaks. Malcolm Gladwell, a known hater of golf, looked at the economics of golf courses in Los Angeles on his podcast. Along with referring to golf as “crack cocaine for rich white guys,” Gladwell explained that in the last century—at a time when many clubs still weren’t letting black or Jewish people join—golfers in California successfully lobbied to get clubs added to a constitutional amendment known as Proposition 13, which has a massive impact on how property is taxed today. Gladwell explains:
“Proposition 13 said that, for tax purposes, the value of any piece of property in California is frozen at pre-1978 levels and the only way that property can be reassessed at its real, current value is if the property is sold or, to be more specific, if ownership of more than 50 percent of the property changes hands. In other words, California has two kinds of taxpayers: the post-1978 people who pay normal property taxes and the people lucky and old enough to be living in the same house they owned in 1978, who pay a tiny fraction of their fair share.”
In that pre-1978 group is a number of privately owned golf courses. That means, for instance, that the LA Country Club, which sits on land worth about $6 billion, pays about $200,000 a year in property taxes, and not the $90 million in property taxes they would owe if the club was assessed at its current value. If you want an example of white-collar welfare, that’s it.
All of this—the exclusive nature of the sport, the misuse of water and land, the way golfers and clubs have finagled their way out of paying their share of taxes—is why I urged my sister not to marry her now-husband. Unfortunately, she failed to listen (and actually had children with the man), but since then, my loathing of golf has only grown, mostly because the current president really seems to enjoy it. (Although, now that I think about it, the more golfing and the less governing he does, the better.) And so, when Seattle started floating the idea of turning the city’s four municipal golf courses into affordable housing, I was all about it. What better use of city-owned space than giving people someplace to live? I don’t want to eat the rich, but I wouldn’t mind living in one of their golf clubs.
The conversation about turning Seattle’s four city-owned golf courses into housing was sparked by a study commissioned by the City of Seattle. The study, which cost around $100,000 to conduct, found that just under a quarter-million people played the Jefferson, Jackson, West Seattle, and Interbay golf courses each year between 2009 and 2017, but that number is trending downward as golf decreases in popularity both locally and nationally. And these courses are not cheap to maintain: The four city-owned courses occupy 528 acres of (highly valuable) land in the city, and while they are able to cover their own operating costs through fees, merchandise, and concessions, they are in need of serious improvements: $35.6 million worth, according to the study.
Rather than funding these improvements, or keeping the courses at all, many in Seattle suggested that a better use of money and land would be to scrape the golf courses and build affordable housing. Democratic Socialist Seattle City Council candidate Shaun Scott endorsed the idea on Twitter: “Seattle’s publicly-owned golf courses should be swiftly decommissioned and replaced with housing,” he wrote. “Any dollar Seattle spends on golf courses is a dollar it is not spending on preparing the land to absorb more deeply affordable housing.” The mayor’s office was amenable too, and said in a statement that Seattle would begin to “explore a range of potential options for these City-owned properties,” including affordable housing.
Golfers, of course, were not having it, and as many pointed out, municipal golf courses are some of the only affordable means of golfing left. And affordability here is important, because, as I found out, Seattle’s golf courses are not exactly the country clubs I’d been imagining.
Mark Lloyd has quite a few interests. I first learned about him through his work constructing portable toilets, which he donates to homeless encampments around town. He also plays the tuba, does computer programming, and golfs, usually at the Jefferson Park course in Beacon Hill.
Mark sent me an e-mail shortly after Mayor Jenny Durkan said she was open to the idea of turning golf courses into housing. “My understanding is that you have a less than positive view of golf,” he wrote. Was I interested in tagging along one day at Jefferson? I thought about it for a moment, vanquished a brief vision of Donald Trump in golf pants, and then responded. Okay, I told him. Why not? I might be morally opposed to golf, but I am not opposed to a few hours outside of the office.
We met on a clear Monday morning. As I rode the 36 bus from downtown, we stopped through the International District and picked up a gaggle of elderly women with suitcases speaking Korean. At the Jefferson Golf Course, I exited the bus behind two young black men, who immediately headed for the clubhouse. They were far from the only people of color. There were more white people, to be sure, but the crowd was surprisingly diverse for a sport I’ve always thought of as lily white. The players spanned the ages from young to old, there were a decent number of women, and the cars in the parking lot were overwhelmingly normal. I’m not sure what the parking lot at Broadmoor looks like, but I’d assume there are more Teslas and fewer Corollas.
I met Mark in the cafe along with his two golfing buddies, Denzil and Preston. Mark, at 61, was the youngest player in the bunch. The three men, with a handful of others, have had regular golf dates for the last 12 years, and Denzil and Preston have been playing together for longer. (Preston said they started 1993; Denzil said it was ’97.) Mark still works, but the others are retired, and while I didn’t ask their ages, my guess is that both are in their 70s, maybe older. In some ways, both are relics of an earlier era: They worked blue-collar jobs (Preston was career Army, and then Postal Service; Denzil worked in warehouses for grocers) but both moved to Seattle when working class people could still buy a home, even in the heart of the city.
Covering 127 acres on the top of Beacon Hill, Jefferson was the first city-owned golf course in Seattle. It opened in 1915, at the time when Jim Crow was still in full effect, and in many places, Preston, who is black, would not have been permitted, much less welcomed. Jefferson, however, was different: It’s been open to all people and cheap enough for most to afford from the very beginning. Today, the prices vary depending on the day, but on the morning we played, it cost just $7.50, or about half the cost of seeing a movie. Equipment rentals and golf carts cost extra, and there are discounts for youth, seniors, and members of the military.
There are two courses at Jefferson, plus a driving range. Mark, Preston, and Denzil took me to the nine-hole course on the west side of the park. Planes coming and going from Sea-Tac flew overhead, and there was a stunning view of Mount Rainier in the distance. The grass was slightly manicured but it was hardly the perfect deep green you’d see at a private club like Broadmoor, and I was glad to see that it looked like they haven’t been watering.
Mark, a tall, white-haired man with a staccato delivery and a deep affection for the word “fuck,” gave me a short intro to the rules—try to get the little ball in the little hole in as few strokes as possible—and then immediately launched his ball at least 50 yards away from where he was aiming. That day (maybe most days), he was clearly the worst of the bunch, and Preston and Denzil never let him forget it.
Even though he now requires an oxygen tank and cataracts make finding his ball somewhat difficult, the best player that day was Denzil. At each shot, he removed the breathing tubes from his nostrils, inhaled deeply, bent from the waist, and sent long, arcing shots onto the green. Breathing was a struggle, but here he was, golfing. That’s one of the beauties of golf, Mark told me as we searched for his ball in the grass: Unlike most other sports, golfers tend to peak later in life, and while you’re unlikely to see octogenarians shooting hoops, with golf, you can play almost forever.
Before meeting up with the guys, I’d never touched a golf club before in my life. When my turn was up, Mark walked me through the basics: Aim, swing, and follow through. I lowered my head, focused on the little white ball in front of me, tightened my core, raised my arms, and smashed a wad of grass into oblivion.
I was terrible. Not as terrible as Mark, but my aim was on par with a drunk toddler aiming for a pinata. And yet, as the three old friends played—doing just as much shit-talking as they did golfing—I started to see the appeal. It was a beautiful summer morning, everyone was in a good mood, and by the time I knocked my last ball into the hole (it took many tries), I was actually starting to enjoy it. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m about to go buy clubs and start taking lessons. Besides the fact that I’d rather spend my outside time surrounded by tall trees than short grass, I’d never hear the end of it from my sister. But still, after my morning at Jefferson, I can see why golfers will fight to save these public courses. Without public access, golf really is a sport for the rich.
At any rate, the conversation about turning these public golf courses into something else has largely gone mute: As Danny Westneat wrote in the Seattle Times, it turns out that in 1997, Seattle voters passed an initiative that bans turning parks into housing—or anything else. Once land has been designated for parks, that’s basically it. Of course, the city council could overturn the law—or voters could pass a new initiative—but until that happens, Jefferson and the other public golf courses are safe.
Right before the game ended, Denzil reached into his golf bag and handed me a bright-yellow ball with his name stamped on it. A friend of his had a dozen made some years ago, and here he was, giving me one to take. And while I still know, in my brain, that golf is an inherently wasteful sport and golf courses would be better used for anything else, after my morning with Mark, Preston, and Denzil, my heart says, let these old men, and everyone else, have their sport. I don’t know that I’ll ever play golf again—or what the future holds for these public spaces—but when I thanked the guys for letting me join them, this time, I actually meant it.