The plan to dramatically remake the Bobby Jones Golf Course under state ownership started out simply as an effort to fix the place up a bit, as Marty Elgison remembers it.
“Our original plan was to renovate the existing golf course,” Elgison said one recent morning during a chat in the Bobby Jones clubhouse. At the time, Elgison worked with the Atlanta Memorial Park Conservancy, a group that promotes improvements in the park that included the venerable Buckhead golf course.
Now a new – and controversial – plan for the facility calls for replacing the existing course with a reversible nine-hole course, adding a driving range and building a new building that will house the course clubhouse, several golf associations and the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame.
“This is better than I imagined it would be,” Elgison said. “I was just trying to renovate and make a disappointing golf course better.”
Not everyone agrees. Tony Smith of the Friends of Bobby Jones Golf Course Inc., a group that lobbied to maintain the 18-hole course, questions whether the city did the right thing turning the course over to the state.
“The city did not have a duty to deliver the parking deck in the original agreement. The plans can sound exciting, but in reality it looks like more construction (plus the replacement of the bridge over Peachtree Creek on Northside Drive) in a corridor that has seen so much digging/paving over the past three years,” Smith said in an emial.
“We still believe there is a disparity of value between what the city is exchanging versus what it is receiving, and no appraisals have been produced for review. Lot’s of golfers are concerned about the timeline for the course being closed, and when construction may begin.”
Smith said members of group also await “confirmation from the state that the funding exists for the $25 million that was promised to persuade City Council to approve the exchange. “
The change in plans came after local golf course design expert Bob Cupp looked over the 128-acre course and informed members of the conservancy that without major changes, the course couldn’t be made safe or remade as a championship course, Elgison said. There just wasn’t enough land.
Conservancy members decided they had to reimagine the 18-hole golf course as something relatively new—a reversible nine-hole course.
Their proposal drew loud objections from some golfers who play at Bobby Jones and said they wanted to keep an 18-hole course. Other residents objected to a related city proposal to give the course to the state of Georgia.
But after months of public debate over the proposal and a vote by Atlanta City Council to trade the golf course property to the state for downtown properties near Underground Atlanta, the proposal for nine holes appears to be moving forward, Elgison and other supporters of the changes say.
Construction on a new $15 million to $20 million course could begin later this year, and the course should be ready to open in September or October of 2017, said Elgison and Chuck Palmer, chairman of the board of the Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation Inc., a nonprofit set up to raise money for the course, oversee construction and operate the course. Elgison is president of the foundation.
Elgison says has lived for years in neighborhoods near the course. He’s a golfer himself, but doesn’t play the Bobby Jones course, which opened in 1933 and was named for the hometown golfing hero. “I play golf avidly but I don’t play here,” he said. “Because it’s dangerous … It’s not fun.”
There are places on the course, Elgison said, “where you’re totally blind. You can’t see.” Golfers can find themselves dodging slices from other players, launching drives into other foursomes they don’t know are on the course or hitting balls into nearby yards or bouncing them off cars on nearby streets.
In a 2015 letter to City Parks Commissioner Amy Phuong, conservancy president Roxanne Giles Smith and Elgison, then vice president of the conservancy board, said “the course … is unsafe because the modern golf ball travels so much further than it did when the course was built more than 80 years ago.”
Elgison may not have played regularly on the Buckhead course, but he has other links to the place. He’s a lawyer and represents Bobby Jones’ family. He says he first got involved with the golf course in an effort to protect Bobby Jones’ legacy.
In 2011, he contacted city officials to see if something could be done to fix up the course. He discovered others had similar ideas. Soon, Elgison said, he was meeting with like-minded neighbors who wanted to see improvements to the entire Atlanta Memorial Park, which includes the golf course and the Bitsy Grant Tennis Center.
In their letter to the city, Roxane Smith and Elgison argued the nine-hole configuration would provide a more efficient use of the property, improve safety on the course and improve chances of raising money for improvements.
The nine-hole design, Palmer and Elgison said, is intended to be played in two directions, which creates 18 holes overall. Through use of different tee locations and differing pin locations on the green, each hole can be played in different ways. To create 18 holes, the course might be played in different directions on alternate days or at different times of day, they said.
“What Bob [Cupp] has done is he’s taken this 128 acres and given us 18 great holes, a driving range and more,” Parker said.
“The efficiency of that design on this land is remarkable,” Elgison said. “This is amazing use of a limited amount of land.”
Several organizations have indicated a willingness to contribute money to the project, Parker and Elgison said, as long as the new facility includes a driving range or facilities for teaching golf to youngsters.
Georgia State University, for instance, had agreed to raise $500,000 toward the cost of construction of the driving range and practice facility so its golf team would have a place to practice. Team members now must drive to courses in Gwinnett or Henry counties to practice, Palmer said.
The project includes no provisions for the existing clubhouse, Palmer said.
But Palmer and Elgison say the new facility will provide new opportunities for young players to learn the game. They predict it will bring new attention to golf in Atlanta.
“This facility has been a disappointment for so long,” Palmer said. “We’re finally doing something that we think will reflect brightly on the name Bobby Jones. Everything he’s been involved with has been of the highest quality.”