When retired Atlanta attorney Marty Elgison set out to renovate the city’s long-ignored Bobby Jones Golf Course, he instead may have reinvented the model for how public golf courses can operate.
Elgison is the attorney for the heirs to Bobby Jones, the legendary American amateur golfer who co-founded Augusta National Golf Club and was one of the most influential figures in the game’s history. Elgison has spent most of the past decade working to rebuild the neglected course, squeezed into just 128 acres in the heart of Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood. The Bobby Jones Golf Course was the first public golf course in Atlanta when it opened in 1932, a tribute to one of the greatest golfers of all time, but like many urban golf facilities, it fell on hard times.
“It was bad,” Elgison said of the original shoehorned 18-hole layout, which was run (not very well) by the city of Atlanta. “It was dangerous. There were blind shots all over the place. It was in horrible condition. It cost just 25 bucks to play it and I didn’t want to pay to play it. It wasn’t worth the 25 bucks.
“The family lore is that (Jones) played here once and did not really think much of the course and didn’t want it named after him, but he felt it would be bad form to say no.”
If Jones was alive to see his course now, he would most certainly feel differently.
The new course re-opened in November 2018 after Elgison and Chuck Palmer, chairman of the Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation and a former president of the Georgia State Golf Association, raised a total of $23 million for the project.
The course now features a unique 9-hole reversible layout and eight tees on every hole to accommodate players of all ages and all abilities. The large double greens have two holes cut every day. On certain days, the course is played in one direction (the Azalea Course); on others, it will be played in the opposite direction (the Magnolia Course). During events with a shotgun start, golfers can play nine holes and then turn around and go in the opposite direction for the second nine.
The redevelopment also includes a new state-of-the-art, double-sided driving range, an indoor instructional building, a short-game practice area, and a 6-hole “Cupp Links” short course that’s named in honor of course designer Bob Cupp, who died in 2016. Cupp, who lived in Atlanta, took on the project for free as a way to honor Jones and give back to the city.
By establishing the course as the centerpiece of the non-profit foundation, Elgison and Palmer were able to attract significant charitable donations from major corporations to fund the project. And thanks to a city-state partnership, the course is now owned by the state, which subsequently leased the course back to the foundation for 50 years.
“We sold naming rights to everything,” Elgison said. Every hole was sold to a sponsor for $150,000 each for 50 years. “The fact that it’s named after Bobby Jones doesn’t hurt. That’s a big factor.”
Golf Course Sponsors
PGA TOUR Superstore sponsors the 40-station driving range. Club Car Inc., which is donating carts to the course for its first four years, sponsors the cart barn, and Delta Airlines sponsors the instructional facility. Other corporate sponsors include Coca-Cola Co. and The Southern Company, as well as numerous family foundations.
“We have proven it’s viable,” Elgison said of the unusual non-profit model. “Sponsorship and charitable donations are what you have to do to raise the money.”
Through The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, PGA TOUR Superstore donated $1 million to support the Bobby Jones Foundation’s mission to grow the game of golf, which includes a focus on junior and adaptive golf. The Bobby Jones Foundation also endeavors to hire employees from the local community which aligns with Blank Family foundation’s efforts over the past five years to catalytically and positively transform Atlanta’s historic Westside communities.
A new clubhouse will be named the Murray Foundation Golf House in honor of Stuart Murray, a former Georgia-based Budweiser distributor who regularly played golf with Jones at nearby East Lake Golf Club. The 23,000-square-foot building will also be the new home to the Georgia State Golf Association, the Georgia PGA, and the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame. In essence, the building will become the state’s home of golf.
And while corporate sponsors were instrumental, it’s unlikely the project would have gotten off the ground without first getting the support of the state’s golf community.
“Without that, this wouldn’t have happened,” Elgison said. “The municipalities don’t have the money to renovate golf courses. It’s not in their budget and it’s not on their list of things to do. It’s up to the golf community to save these old golf courses.”
To top it off, the practice facility, located at the far end of the driving range, will be the new home of Georgia State University’s golf teams.
And that driving range is being put to good use with six programs per week for beginners, kids, juniors, women, and adaptive golfers. The course also hosts the local YMCA of Metro Atlanta twice a week in an effort to expose underprivileged children to golf.
“I chuckle nearly every day when I see the activity we have on this driving range.” said Justin Martin, Director of Instruction. “We have as many things as possible designed to expose as many people as possible from as many walks of life as possible to the game of golf. If you think of every ‘Grow the Game’ initiative that has been thrown out there for the past 10 years, it’s all in one facility here. We’ve got everything.”
Supply and Demand
The Atlanta area is home to almost six million people, but public golf is lacking. While 75% of golf courses nationally are open to the public, that falls to 52% in and around Atlanta, which is better known for prestigious private clubs such as Atlanta Athletic Club or Peachtree Golf Club. And the demand is there, as NGF research shows the Atlanta Metro area ranks ninth nationally in the number of interested non-golfers.
“There has never been a public facility in the center of town this good,” said Martin, who grew up just a few miles from the Bobby Jones Golf Course. “Ever.”
On the course, the so-called Bobby Jones Tee System provides eight teeing areas per hole, allowing every player to find a distance that suits their ability. The tee system was developed by Dan Van Horn, founder and CEO of U.S. Kids Golf, and was formerly known as the Longleaf Tee System. It is designed to allow all players the opportunity to reach par-4 holes in two shots.
Because the entire course, except for its greens, will be cut at fairway height, the tee boxes don’t interfere with the layout.
While not every public course can adopt all aspects of the Bobby Jones model, there are a few elements that other course owners might be able to incorporate, such as its multi-tee system and innovative dynamic pricing model. There are no set rates. Prices fluctuate based on day and demand, similar to pricing for airline tickets or ride-sharing. The concept is something that has been easily adopted by the public in other industries, but hasn’t gained a real foothold in the golf world.
“It allows you to build a pricing model that doesn’t require you to just fill the house and cram as many groups on the course as possible every day,” says General Manager Brian Conley. “We built the system to control how our customers consume our inventory.”
For example, a 9-hole round on a Tuesday afternoon can cost between $25 and $55, while an 18-hole rate on Saturday morning can range from $38 and $98, depending on demand and time of year. Prices also vary depending if the round was purchased on the course’s website, in-person, or through a third-party tee-time booking system.
First priority goes to customers who book through the website.
“That is our loyal database,” Conley said. “That is who we take care of and that is always the best rate.”
A walk-in customer requires more labor and the course isn’t able to gather as much data or information on the visitor, so the price goes up slightly.
“To influence their behavior and try to get them to cooperate, they are charged a little higher,” Conley said. “We tell them that, too.”
Golfers can either walk or opt to ride around in Shark Experience golf carts, which are outfitted with Bluetooth and can stream music and live TV. The latter is a key feature to attract golfers on Saturday mornings in the fall, otherwise known as college football season in the south.
“We all agree, golf needs a change,” Elgison said. “We need to bring in Millennials and we need to make it more interesting.”
When you visit Bobby Jones Golf Course, it’s clear that the model for modern public golf has evolved dramatically.
“It’s better than Field of Dreams,” Elgison said.
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.