Gray Chapman: Take Back Our Golf Courses

Imagine you’re a time traveler from the future Mega-Atlanta, a utopian city with no cars as far as the eye can see, one complete with taco trucks on every cornerparking lots fully equipped with solar panels, and public libraries flush with funds. You arrive, for some reason, in 2022, where pretty much everything seems to be in rough shape. (Amongst other things, people are really upset about all their favorite local businesses closing.) Things are looking pretty bleak until you stumble upon something rather promising: a beautiful stretch of green, with gently rolling hills, picturesque ponds, and trees swaying in the breeze. 

Best of all? It’s smack-dab right in the middle of the city.  

But! Imagine then learning that what you thought was a public greenspace (because, hey, it sure looks like one on Google Maps) can only actually be used by a maximum 70 or so people at a time, to play a sport involving a ball slightly larger than a walnut. 

Worst of all? The chain-link fence encircling the thing costs six figures a year to cross.

As a sport, golf is inherently wasteful to an absurd degree. The average 18-hole golf course is about 150 acres, covered mostly by one single species of uniformly mowed, regularly watered, pesticide-treated grass. Think about what it takes to maintain that amount of greenspace, to that level of micromanaged uniformity for cosmetic appeal. Think about, again, how tiny the ball is, versus the space on which its sport is played.

Seen through this lens, golf takes on an antiquated, almost Victorian level of folly to it, akin to nobility having a court of pet monkeys or amassing a private library of rare orchids plundered from the tropics. It’s a frivolity of a bygone era. A curiosity for the elite. Knowing what we now know about climate, about biodiversity, about the importance of community spaces, about urbanism, about everything, golf feels like something we should start thinking about leaving behind.

Moreover, with enough creativity, it feels like an opportunity.   

Yes, private golf clubs are for-profit businesses, which are different from community spaces, and owe nothing to the general population. (Another essay entirely could be written about public courses and what happens when you open them up.) Yes, private golf clubs own the land upon which they operate and have the right to exclude their neighbors from engaging with them. And, sigh, yes, golf requires an absolutely absurd amount of space—and resources to maintain that space—for a sport (let’s be real, though: hobby) played with such a tiny, tiny ball. Sure.

But despite knowing all these things, I still have this nagging feeling each time I walk past one of those chain-link fences and peer through to see a group of people in pastel and plaid playing an elaborate game of putt-putt inside Atlanta’s urban core. An intrusive thought, growing in intensity with every luxury SUV sporting a Cobb County license plate I see gliding through the compound’s guarded front gates. A lingering notion that grows and grows each time I stroll past a scrum of polo-clad men hunched over their little dimpled white balls: We should take back the golf courses.

I’m not the first person to arrive at this conclusion, of course. My own sentiment against golf courses first took root years ago when I happened to hear Malcolm Gladwell, of all people, ranting about them on the radio. (Turns out, George Carlin was lightyears ahead of him. Then again, Carlin was pretty much always lightyears ahead of everyone.) More recently, the anti-golf course movement has spread online through memes and merch. And in the past year, I moved from Grant Park to East Lake, where I became radicalized. 

While the East Lake Golf Club operates differently than most (it donates its profits to the neighborhood foundation and funds things like the nearby YMCA), it’s still a huge, picturesque greenspace surrounded by a chain link fence that for the most part can only be crossed if you have lots of cash (a $125,000 membership) or some highfalutin social connections who do.

But it’s hard not to compare it to the 130-acre public park in my old neighborhood, which I and anyone else could—can!—visit anytime. There’s a sense of community vitality to Grant Park, the park, because there are so many ways Atlantans like to enjoy it: family reunion cookouts in the gazebos, stoners napping under live oaks, people playing tennis or baseball or jogging with their dogs through miles of paths. When I walk past East Lake’s fenced-in, dead-silent golf course, sprawling and surrounded by people yet so vastly underutilized, it feels stale, sparse, lifeless.

There are roughly 23 golf courses in Atlanta, and another 35 within 20 miles of the city center. Inside the city, private courses like East Lake, Ansley Golf Club, Druid Hills Golf Club, Cherokee Town and Country Club, Capital City Brookhaven, Peachtree Golf Club, and Piedmont Driving Club comprise hundreds and hundreds of collective acres of members-only playgrounds.

Set your cynicism and internalized neoliberalism aside momentarily, and walk with me down the path of imagining what these spaces could be instead. Imagine, in place of a manicured landscape mowed and sprayed into submission, a hundred rewilded acres of protected, carbon-sucking biodiversity. Imagine, in place of a fenced-in and guarded private country club, a shared space for the community to enjoy together. Imagine, in place of empty expanses of land serving solely a luxury hobby, a space for beautiful and affordable housing. A food forest, a solar farm, bike paths, community gardens. I don’t think there’s one right answer—the power, rather, lies in the sheer, ridiculous possibility.

Maybe rewilding Druid Hills Golf Club into wetlands or making East Lake into environmentally friendly affordable housing is the answer. Maybe it’s not. But fixing Atlanta starts with asking deeper questions and pondering bigger maybes.

What if we tried moving away from this mentality of seeing land only in the context of how much capital can be extracted from it? When we think of the highest and best purpose of all this land—is this really it? What if we even dare to imagine something different and better? Maybe, rather than actually seizing the golf courses (a girl can dream), fixing Atlanta starts with flexing our imagination.

Consider this, then, an invitation for all Atlantans—but especially those with money and power—to interrogate our relationship to these huge swaths of land, reimagine what could be possible of them, and maybe even work toward a mindset shift toward a new purpose.

Gray Chapman

Gray Chapman is a freelance writer who has called Atlanta home for more than 15 years. She’s reported on maternal mortality, urban wildlife, Instagram-famous possums, and more for outlets like the New York Timesthe GuardianAtlanta MagazineGarden & Gun, and ViceRead more of her work or follow her on Twitter. That is, unless you’re just going to yell about the golf thing.