You don’t have to be a golfer or even like the game to share an appreciation of historic Brackenridge Park Golf Course, the jewel in the City’s Alamo City Golf Trail, now a network of eight municipal golf courses. Brackenridge Park GC, rebuilt and restored from the dirt up in 2008, will celebrate its 100th anniversary next September, and the nonprofit Municipal Golf Association of San Antonio entity is planning on a full year of commemorative events in the 12 months leading up to the date.
“At 115 acres, it’s a small piece of property, but one filled with history, so people in San Antonio have really come to appreciate it,” said Jim Roschek, president and CEO of the local Municipal Golf Association. “It’s the home of the Texas Golf Hall of Fame, the historic Borglum Studio (designer of Mount Rushmore), and the original home of the Texas Open. As you can see from the parking lot, this is a very active place, filled with people seven days a week.”
Roschek said 45,000 to 50,000 rounds of golf are played at Brackenridge Park GC each year. That’s the equivalent of a full charity tournament every day of the year. The course was designed by A.W. Tillinghast, a famed Philadelphia golf course architect who later returned to San Antonio to design Oak Hills Country Club. At least three of the many courses he designed in the first decades of the 20th century – Baltusrol, Bethpage Black and Winged Foot – all continue to host major tournaments.
Brackenridge Park GC is the oldest public golf course in Texas, and as the birthplace in 1922 of the Texas Open, was one of the first courses outside the East Coast and California to host a professional tournament that attracted the country’s most storied golfers. Ben Hogan played in his first professional tournament at the Texas Open in 1930 when he was only 17. Bob “the Scotty” McDonald won the inaugural Texas Open in 1922 and what was then a national record purse of $1,633.33. Walter Hagen won the following year. Byron Nelson, who as a teenager met Hogan when both worked as caddies at a Fort Worth country club, won in 1940. Hogan finally won in 1946. Two years later Sam Snead won and then again in 1950. The tournament was moved to Oak Hills Country Club in 1960, where Arnold Palmer won three years in a row.
A book that is now out of print and deserves to be republished is Reid Myers’ “The Ghosts of Old Brack,” published in 2010. Myers, an attorney, retired USAA executive and accomplished golfer, was instrumental in the City’s drive to restore Brackenridge and honor its history in the city and the sport. In his book, Myers tells the history of Brackenridge Park GC and the Texas Open, and also recounts the contemporary events that led to creation of the Alamo City Golf Trail.
It’s an underappreciated story of how a small group of city officials, some of them golfers, and local golf community leaders took the city’s municipal courses, which were in deplorable condition, poorly maintained and managed, and losing $500,000 a year, and turned them into a money-making enterprise that today offer municipal course players a quality golfing experience at affordable rates.
Myers was preaching the value of restoring Brackenridge Park GC in the 1990s when he served as the president of the San Antonio Golf Association, which put on the Texas Open in those years at La Cantera Golf Club, where the tournament had moved from Oak Hills in 1995. By the time Mayor Phil Hardberger came into office in 2005, there was growing public discontent with the poor conditions and management of the municipal courses. Those complaints resonated with then City Council members Art Hall and Chip Haas, both municipal course golfers. They found willing listeners in newly hired City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni, who also play. Sculley and DiGiovanni were both former city managers in Kalamazoo, MI, which had formed a nonprofit to manage its city-owned courses. At the time, San Antonio’s municipal courses were managed by the City’s Parks and Recreation Department.
DiGiovanni hired Roschek, who had been the director of golf operations in Kalamazoo for 20 years and was the incoming president of the Michigan section of the PGA, to serve as an outside consultant to help design a plan to turn around the golf course operations. Roschek suggested the nonprofit model to replace the city’s direct management, and the Municipal Golf Association-SA was born. Shortly after that the Alamo City Golf Trail was created to brand the network of municipal courses. Roschek also supervised the $4.5 million restoration of Brackenridge.
The original 10-year agreement, which will expire in 2017, called for the MGA-SA and the City to split any operating profits, but the City amended the deal after one year and now receives a fixed annual payment of $150,000 from the nonprofit, which last year earned a $900,000. That allows the MGA-SA to use its profits to improve the city-owned golf courses. That isn’t enough money to fund all the maintenance and necessary capital improvements, but with each profitable year the network of courses shows marked improvement. Brackenridge Park GC alone generated $350,000 in profits last year.
The MGA-SA has spent $450,000 on improvements at Riverside Golf Course, an 18-hole course and nine-hole Par 3 located near Mission Concepción on the San Antonio River, and needs to invest another $250,000 to fully rebuild the golf cart paths there. It will spend $1.5 million replacing the 13 bridges at Olmos Basin Golf Course and seven bridges at Willow Springs Golf Course. A $1.5 million irrigation system was installed at Mission del Lago Golf Course, and 1,000 trees were planted there, funded by the city’s Tree Mitigation program. Willow Springs also had 1,000 trees added to its layout.
The biggest project undertaken by the MGA-SA will be the planned $4 million redevelopment of the San Pedro Driving Range & Par 3. The project calls for a new clubhouse and lighting the course for night play as it once offered golfers in the 1940s and 50s, according to Roschek. The San Pedro course, when completed, will offer casual players an entertainment venue and amenity where people can go after work to play golf or practice, and afterwards, enjoy a Spurs game and beer in the clubhouse cafe and bar.
This year the City acquired Northern Hills Golf Course in a settlement with developers, making it the eighth course in the Alamo City Golf Trail.
Greens fees at the eight courses range from $29-60, depending on the course and weekdays versus weekend prices. Local golfers who purchase a membership in the Alamo City Golf Trail enjoy lower green fees prices and special offers.
*Top image: Hole 18 at Brackenridge Park Golf Course. Courtesy of Alamo City Golf Trails.