Metro golf courses hit popularity high mark despite staffing reduction

Budget cuts, short staffing and spotty upkeep doesn’t keep public courses from raking in players and revenue

By: - July 10, 2023 6:03 am
Golfers line up at the McCabe Golf Course driving range in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Golfers line up at the McCabe Golf Course driving range in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Metro Nashville golf officials say it’s a “challenge” to run the local public courses amid personnel cuts and a golf explosion, while those who frequent the courses search for smoother lies and a chance to play.

“The shape of the courses could be better,” says Austin Stratton, a member of the Buckeye Golf League at Ted Rhodes Golf Course in North Nashville. “I don’t think we’re getting enough funding for golf. But I will say they have more business in the Metro Parks than any other golf courses in Nashville by far. It’s not even close.”

Stratton, who pulls triple duty as Buckeye organizer, grill master and golfer, has been playing at Rhodes since the early 1990s when it shifted from nine holes to 18-hole layout. His grandfather, the late Albert Stratton, played there for three decades before dying in the early 2000s.

And while he acknowledges Ted Rhodes, which is named for the legendary Black golfing pioneer, just completed an irrigation system, he points out it took years of pushing to get it done. 

Stratton contends Metro should put more money back into the courses. But he points out the staff at Ted Rhodes is “great,” possibly the best in Metro.

In fact, Metro’s golf courses are not a money pit for taxpayers, nor are they pampered grounds.

A round and a stogie: A golfer puffs his cigar between swings at Nashville's Ted Rhodes Golf Course. (Photo: John Partipilo)
A round and a stogie: A golfer puffs his cigar between swings at Nashville’s Ted Rhodes Golf Course. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Spending and revenue are up over the last eight years, and Metro’s seven courses are nearly breaking even. But staffing is down, dropping to 96.5 full-time equivalent people in fiscal 2023 from 110.8 in fiscal 2016, making it harder to maintain the courses, run the pro shops and handle an increase in golfers.

The Metro Council budgeted $5.5 million for the government-owned tracks in fiscal 2022, and they brought in $5.4 million, not including Vinny Links, which did not produce reported revenue, according to budget information provided by Metro Parks Department. That marks a nearly $675,000 revenue increase over eight years as spending increased about $750,000.

McCabe Golf Course, a 27-hole layout in the Sylvan Park area, is believed to be the most heavily-played course in Tennessee, and it ends up in the black just about every year. 

McCabe PGA professional Audie Johnson II says Metro courses are recording more rounds than they ever have despite higher prices — $50 for the typical golfer to ride 18 holes on weekends.

From July 1, 2022 to May 31, 2023, McCabe recorded 106,970 nine-hole rounds. It has the luxury of being able to send golfers with tee times out to play 18 holes and walk-up golfers out to one nine-hole each day. Yet it is down a total of four workers from eight years ago.

It is also believed that Shelby Golf Course had one of the toughest holes in Nashville about 30 years ago when golfers were being robbed by bandits who hid along the railroad track at the No. 16 tee box. Legend has it the robberies ended when golfers started packing pistols, in addition to golf clubs. 

McCabe had to move most of its tee markers up this spring because of a December 2022 cold snap that killed the grass on its tee boxes.

The decision left some golfers grumbling when they paid full price to play about two-thirds of the course. 

Those who play there often believe the tee boxes were beaten up already from heavy play and poor maintenance. Most were resodded.

The course, which sprang from Nashville’s first airport, McConnell Field, was in good enough shape to play host recently to the annual Schooldays Golf Tournament for boys and girls, though the number of players dropped dramatically. 

But Johnson says staff cuts have caused problems in all aspects of operating the course. For example, the course had to shorten its hours because it doesn’t have enough people to work the front desk.

McCabe averages more than 500 players a day, with the line running out the front door to the flagpole every morning, and winds up turning away about 100 players a day, Johnson says.

“There’s not anywhere for them to go. Private clubs are all full. You can’t join a private club. They’ve got a hundred on the waiting list at every one,” he says. “Golf is at its all-time high.”

Tee times are typically booked seven days in advance, though Metro courses will squeeze players in where they can. Even groups that once enjoyed a block of tee times have been scaled back at popular courses such as Harpeth Hills in south Nashville and Two Rivers in Donelson.

McCabe consistently brings in more than it spends, grossing $1.83 million through the first 11 months of fiscal 2023 compared to expenses of $1.33 million. It is the only Metro course in the black over the last eight years combined and could push even more rounds if it had more staff, Johnson says.

McCabe’s driving range, which sometimes is two to three deep with people waiting to hit balls, brought in $282,401 in fiscal 2022.

Another prime example of Nashville’s golf success — or excess — is Shelby, where more people are playing the past few years, even with few improvements, except a renovated 10th tee.

Revenue at Shelby Park Golf Course, one of Metro’s oldest and hilliest courses, jumped to $556,111 in fiscal 2022 from $371,950 in 2016, likely a result of East Nashville growth and despite being hit by the 2020 tornado that destroyed dozens of old trees.

Getting into the numbers

Revenue from the courses goes into the Metro general fund each year to run programs and services. The Metro Council sets a budget using its own slate of revenue, and the parks department receives $1 from every green free to fund improvements.

Since 2016, Metro has spent $1.8 million on course projects such as Two Rivers greens renovation, $117,513; Harpeth Hills greens, $147,190; Rhodes irrigation for greens, $216,875; Rhodes greens renovations, $188,014; Rhodes pump/irrigation, $225,612; McCabe greens renovations, $232,717; McCabe driving range netting, $163,500; Harpeth Hills blower, $10,256; safety cameras, $108,969; and a Two Rivers pumping station, $29,500. 

However, positions started being eliminated in fiscal 2018 and fell more in fiscal 2020. Those followed a “saving reduction directive” from Mayor John Cooper’s administration and an effort to increase hourly pay for seasonal employees, according to Metro Parks spokesperson Jackie Jones. 

Yet the hourly pay rate still isn’t competitive with the private sector, and hiring freezes, COVID-19 and alternative work schedules caused problems with staffing at Metro golf courses and other departments, according to Jones.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Metro closed its golf shops but allowed people to play free of charge for a short time. Golfers could walk as many holes as they wanted, and flags were removed from the cups, forcing golfers to figure out a new way to pick a target.

Course maintenance was spotty during that time frame because employees stayed at home, and staffing began to fall further to 91.66 full-time positions in fiscal 2021.

Cooper’s office points out Metro hit a “crisis” budget in fiscal 2021, while the pandemic forced spending freezes. Those were followed by pay increases.

Where are they headed?

Some golfers speculate that revenues are really much higher than the amount Metro puts into the golf courses, though the figures provided by the parks department doesn’t support that idea.

De-emphasis on staffing also leads to the theory that Metro could be cutting priorities on golf and planning to turn the courses into surplus land it could sell or use for some other purpose. 

But Two Rivers, Ted Rhodes and McCabe are surrounded by walking trails, which are integral parts of Metro’s passive recreation offerings, making those areas even more vital parts of the park system.

Besides, figuring out what to do with hundreds of acres of surplus property that isn’t causing a huge drain on Metro’s budget would turn into a political firestorm that leaders don’t want.

The best part about having a public entry point to golf is that it takes it away from being the province of country clubs only or private golf clubs and offers anybody who wants to swing a club a way to get on one of these golf courses.

– Freddie O'Connell, Metro Councilmember At-Large

Most Metro Council members don’t even dig that deeply into golf course budget figures, preferring instead to focus on a bigger picture. It’s easier to eat about $80,000 a year than to deal with the complaints.

At-large Metro Councilman Bob Mendes hopes the council will keep the courses from declining as long as it owns and operates them while also charging reasonable prices. 

“The easiest way to force the city to get rid of the golf courses is to have a bunch of deferred maintenance and then to ultimately get out of the golf course business because it’s a massive price tag to catch it up,” Mendes says.

He also points out the golf courses mirror Metro, which he says has the “perfect size” government for 10 years ago, which has been true for the last 25 years, a jaded version of saying it’s hard to keep up with growth. 

Metro Councilman Freddie O’Connell, a mayoral candidate, calls it a “step in the right direction” for the golf courses to be close to breaking even. Their worst year came during the pandemic when they turned only $3.36 million with a $4.8 million operating cost.

O’Connell, who has focused mainly on the management of urban parks and broken river docks, admits golf courses have been further down his priority list.

“The best part about having a public entry point to golf is that it takes it away from being the province of country clubs only or private golf clubs and offers anybody who wants to swing a club a way to get on one of these golf courses,” O’Connell says. 

He certainly isn’t looking to expand Metro Nashville’s golf course portfolio, but he has no concerns, either, about the government operating them.

Picking up the pace

Metro Council members approved a move Thursday to contract with the Tennessee Golf Foundation, a nonprofit entity, for a $2 million renovation project at Shelby Park and Vinny Links golf courses, where children participate in the First Tee program, learning golf fundamentals and life skills. The foundation also partners with the Sneds Tour for junior players, a program sponsored by PGA player Brandt Snedeker, who grew up playing on Metro courses.

The deal, which is also designed to improve the courses after the tornado did major damage three years ago, must receive two more votes. It’s part of an overall plan to bolster Shelby and bring it up to the level of Metro’s other courses as officials broach the idea of taking golf in a new direction, either by making it self-sustaining or privately supported.

The local government would retain ownership of the courses, and the foundation would simply benefit from having improved facilities for its youth programs, such as First Tee, according to Tennessee Golf Foundation President Whit Turnbow.

The foundation, Metro and Friends of Warner Parks are wrapping up a similar $2.5 million project at 84-year-old Percy Warner Golf Course, a short, nine-hole layout near Harpeth Hills in southern Davidson County. 

Metro Councilman Sharon Hurt, another mayoral candidate, says Metro would retain control of the properties even with the foundation helping with renovations.

In eyeing the future of Metro golf, Hurt believes the council is interested in maintaining and upgrading the courses. She wants to make them “more pleasant and more challenging,” even “immaculate” for those who wind up in bunkers and need decent sand and lies to get back into play.

“We have lost employees, but we’ve got to upgrade our salaries for our employees, whether they’re with parks or any other department,” Hurt says.

Stratton has a similar outlook.

For a course such as Rhodes, which plays an integral role in the community’s life, Stratton says it should be maintained as well as other public and private courses.

“You want to be able to enjoy the course, but in order to have fun, you want the golf course to look good. You don’t want it rinky-dink,” Stratton says. “It’s not motivating for you to come out and play on a crappy golf course when you go to different golf courses and the upkeep is totally different.”

Editor’s note: Senior Reporter Sam Stockard is a dues-paying member of Two Rivers Golf Association.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.