Lexington’s got golf, and should keep it - here’s why

The 17th tee on Lakeside Golf Course in Lexington
The 17th tee on Lakeside Golf Course in Lexington

Desperate refugees stagger the globe, a dismal year of famine awaits, the republic flirts with quasi-fascism, the always-dangerous legislature meets, the commonwealth flails in mediocrity, and I rise to defend ... public golf!

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government is taking another of its periodic looks at the cost of swimming pools and golf courses. There is discussion in some circles about closing or privatizing courses, converting one or more to parks, or even allowing development. (There doesn’t appear to be behind-the-scenes pressure from private golf operators this time around, so I’ll spare you my case against their past crocodile tears.)

But let me remind the legions of non-golfers (which include most of the council) what a truly special array of golf amenities Lexington has, and make the case that increased investment, not short-sighted hacking, might be in order.

Lexington operates five public courses. Kearney Hill Links, is a first-rate gem. It’s a nationally ranked course with Audubon Sanctuary status, attracts players from all over the Midwest, and hosts national and state tournaments. The travelers who flock there patronize plenty of local restaurants and hotels, and the service at Kearney is close to the level of many private clubs.

Tates Creek and Lakeside courses are a big cut above most public tracks. Both have a lot of character, have hosted their share of tournaments, and cater to loyal bands of public golfers at affordable rates, especially for retirees and veterans. Picadome, compact and challenging, is no slouch either, and the Meadowbrook par-3 serves beginning, average and occasional players with a minimum of maintenance, staffing or investment.

If you’re not a golfer, it’s hard to convey how superior the public options here are, compared to the nondescript pitch-and-putt ordinariness of courses in Everytown. But it’s like the difference between some horse track and Keeneland.

The game can be an easy target for non-golfing budget-cutters, regarded by some as elitist and burdened by an outdated reputation as environmentally unsound. And it might seem a stretch to mention the public-health benefits of an active golfing community, because many people imagine cart-riding, beer-swilling duffers, but there are plenty of walk-and-carry public golfers, logging their regular five-mile hikes with 10-pound packs. (Walking the course is often not allowed at for-profit courses, as golf cart rental is such a profit driver.)

We’ve written it over and over. No public recreation offering should be expected to be a profit center. Not parks or trails, or pools or rinks. Or golf courses. That Lexington’s sterling public golf choices “lose” $900,000 a year, (down substantially from just a few years ago) might reasonably be looked at as a rousing success story. (Annual cost per resident? A whopping $2.98) Sure, most people don’t use them, but plenty of people don’t drive, don’t have kids in school or call 911, either. It’s quality of life we’re trying to build here, not a bottom-line corporation worshiping the race-to-the-bottom god of efficiency.

Should city decision-makers keep an eye on how best to allocate recreation opportunities? Sure. It’s part of their job. Has golf rebounded completely from the nosedive it took during the recession of almost a decade ago? It hasn’t. But looking forward, not back, keep in mind that every day in the United States, 10,000 baby boomers retire. Every city in America is pondering ways to market their golden-year amenities: housing, recreation, etc. It would be an irretrievable mistake to squander Lexington’s and Central Kentucky’s barely tapped potential as a golf mecca just as we stand to cash in on it. We might do better to invest in this resource, an investment that might be returned and then some.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to practice my short game and contemplate politics, an exercise even more maddening than golf.

Joel Pett is the Herald-Leader’s editorial cartoonist.