When U.S. colleges are prioritizing areas of investment, decisions — and dollars – often go towards developing educational programs to better prepare students for life after graduation. At some institutions, millions of dollars are spent on new student living areas, upgraded football facilities or even high-profile coaches.
Recently, many top universities have also found golf to be a viable investment, putting money into new efforts to generate interest, embrace golfers of the next generation, increase revenue from their college fairways and greens, and connect with the local community.
“There is a significant return on investment with these collegiate golf projects — beyond investing in the program and the kids,” says architect Tripp Davis, who is overseeing a $6.5 million golf course revamp at the University of Oklahoma, where he got a Masters degree in landscape architecture after helping the Sooners win the 1989 national championship.
Ultimately, Davis says the golf investment being made by universities is a win‑win – good for the schools as well as the game itself.
In total, there are 126 golf facilities owned or operated by U.S. colleges, according to National Golf Foundation data – from the 9̴̴‑hole Amherst Golf Club, owned by Amherst College in Massachusetts, to Zollner Golf Course on the campus of Trine University in Indiana. Many others are located near schools or used by their college golf programs.
In September 2017, the University of Texas opened a new 6‑hole, par‑3 course — with former Longhorns golfer Jordan Spieth providing design input. The course, built on 4.5 acres adjacent to the University’s Roy Bechtol‑designed 18-hole layout, has holes ranging from 90-123 yards and features design elements from courses such as Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth and Riviera in Pacific Palisades, California, where Spieth and his Texas teammates won the 2012 NCAA Championship.
“I’m excited about it,” says Spieth. “It’s going to be a cool little par‑3 golf course that will be demanding visually but still fair for really solid wedge and short game work.”
Spieth isn’t just putting his name on it. The three‑time major champion got his hands dirty on the project.
“I was definitely very hands on,” he said. “I looked at the blueprints, the mapping, the scale and the green contours. It’s cool being part of the design process with Roy because I’m interested in doing that later in life.”
Joining Spieth among PGA Tour players giving back to their alma mater is five‑time Major champion Phil Mickelson, whose design firm is building a short‑game complex at Arizona State University.
The Sun Devils’ new practice facility at Papago Golf Course, near Tempe, will include 6,750 square feet of air‑conditioned space and 2,400 square feet of exterior covered space, plus a short‑game area and a driving range. Arizona State golf coaches Matt Thurmond and Missy Farr‑Kaye will also be part of the design team. Mickelson, a 1992 Arizona State graduate, says it will be “the single greatest short‑game training space in the country.”
In Tallahassee, Florida, Jack Nicklaus is renovating Florida State University’s Don Veller Seminole golf course. Davis Love III is building a new course at the University of Virginia. Pete Dye donated his services to help completely overhaul the Ackerman Hills Course at Purdue University, while the University of Michigan opened a new $15 million clubhouse at its on-campus course early in 2017.
“There’s some great things happening,” says Kris Hart, CEO of Nextgengolf, which caters to golfers between 18-34 and organizes over 130 tournaments a year for college club golf teams as part of Nextgengolf’s National Collegiate Club Golf Association.
While several campus courses have closed over the past few years, more colleges have recognized that golf can be a worthwhile investment if done properly. Davis, the Oklahoma‑based architect, says most of the money for these college projects comes from donations and fund‑raising rather than from the athletic programs or universities themselves.
At Oklahoma, $1.5 million was spent on a new 4‑hole practice facility named after a 1966 OU graduate, Jerry Ransom, who helped foot the cost and first began playing golf while he was a student. Another $5 million has been allocated for the renovation of the existing 18‑hole course.
At a school like Oklahoma, where the men’s team won the 2017 national title, Davis acknowledges that having great facilities is an essential recruiting tool. Shortly after the Sooners won their 1989 NCAA championship, rival Oklahoma State in the 1990’s opened the highly‑acclaimed Karsten Creek course, which was named after PING founder Karsten Solheim, a long‑time supporter of the OSU golf program.
“If you don’t have good facilities, it’s hard to attract the top kids in the country. Oklahoma State started that as much as anyone,” says Davis. “And we don’t like Stillwater showing us up in any way.”
In addition to serving as a draw for recruits at the upper levels of the sport, college campus golf courses are an amenity for students and often provide access for local residents to play at a reasonable price.
“When you invest in these college golf facilities, it’s a community asset beyond just being there for the university,” adds Davis, who was the runner‑up to Nicklaus for the Florida State project. “That’s plays a part in the willingness to do it. If done right and with the right economic model, it really makes sense.”
Hart, who played collegiately at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island, points to Michigan State University, where the school’s two 18‑hole courses are regularly packed with hundreds of student golfers every day.
“They’re doing very well,” he said of the Lansing, Michigan‑based university. “The course embraces students.”
Not surprisingly, Hart is among those in the industry who remain hopeful for continued growth of golf at the college level.
“There are some operators who really embrace the next generation, but there are some operators who are just very dismissive of it,” he said. “In reality, college students are some of the best customers you can have. They don’t think ahead and plan. They need to buy golf balls, they forgot their glove, they don’t pack a sandwich in their bag. They’re going to buy a sandwich and a beer in the clubhouse.”
At Michigan State, students can play 18 holes on either of the school’s two Forest Akers courses for as little as $21. A 9‑hole round costs just $14. Those in the local community also get access for just $2 more.
Hart said he wishes more courses would follow Michigan State’s lead.
“It still baffles me to this day why every golf course in this country doesn’t offer a college rate,” Hart said. “It’s the simplest thing you can do to help grow the game.”
Mike is a former senior golf business writer for Bloomberg News, where he focused on the most significant companies, organizations, people and trends in the industry. He still writes about the game as an Atlanta-based communications specialist.