This story is one in a series of case studies that explores some of the measures golf facilities around the country are taking to improve pace of play.
BROOKLYN, N.Y. – “Welcome to Brooklyn: Home to Everyone from Everywhere” reads the sign on the Belt Parkway as motorists skirt JFK Airport to enter the borough from the east. A similar greeting could be placed in front of Marine Park Golf Course, which sits near Jamaica Bay and is one of the busiest municipal facilities in the country, logging some 50,000 rounds per year from golfers of all descriptions.
Owned by the City of New York, the 50-year-old Marine Park has struggled with the pitfalls that accompany being a public course in a high-volume area. A Robert Trent Jones Sr. design with contoured greens, championship length and more than enough wind to keep things interesting, the course has a lot going in its favor, but it has historically struggled with conditioning and slow pace of play.
“They’d take your money and, after a six-hour round, say, ‘It’s public golf; what do you expect?’” said Rich McDonough, Marine Park’s director of golf operations. “During the boom, you could sell 60,000 rounds a year out on Flatbush Avenue, but it’s not like that anymore. There’s far too much competition for people’s leisure time.”
Things began to turn around five years ago when Michael Giordano and his son, Adam, won the concession to operate the course. The Giordanos have invested heavily in physical improvements to the clubhouse (which now includes a learning center with high-tech gadgetry), driving range and especially the golf course itself. Those who haven’t played there recently would probably notice that turf quality has improved, and they would also note a series of towering mounds, part of Jones’ master plan that was never implemented. Architect Stephen Kay has overseen their installation as part of a program to enhance Marine Park’s visual appeal.
The Giordanos’ strategy also includes leveraging Marine Park’s length and its Trent Jones pedigree to tout it as “the home of competitive golf in New York City.” To that end, the first Brooklyn Open was contested there last year.
The Giordanos envision the course as a “country club for the masses.” The investments will help, but the greatest obstacle to that ambitious goal remains pace of play, which the Marine Park team is confronting with the help of Lucius J. Riccio, a Columbia University professor who has provided the blueprint for improving round times at the facility. Mike is so consumed by the subject that he carries a dog-eared copy of Riccio’s “Golf’s Pace of Play Bible.”
The major planks of Marine Park’s stategy are information and communication. Marine Park is taking several steps to educate golfers, and it is gradually changing the course’s culture. Pace-of-play expectations are set in the pro shop at check-in, elaborated upon at the starter’s box and reinforced by course marshals, re-branded as “player assistants.”
Clocks every four or five holes allow groups to track their position. Wyszinski has made good progress in getting the dawn patrol – the sunrise to 9 a.m. regulars – around in four hours, and the goal is to keep play moving at a good clip for as long as possible. Once the course reaches its saturation point, it doesn’t take much for things to go haywire; and it’s not always due to the golfers’ behavior.
“If we get a hole location in the wrong place on a Saturday morning, it’s like a car accident,” McDonough said, describing the resulting logjam caused by players spending more time to putt out.
Off the course, the elder Giordano stresses the importance of helping people “take golf in smaller bites.” Marine Park actively seeks out unintimidating ways to not only mint new golfers, but to start them off as fast players.
“The technical aspects of the game are demanding,” he said. “But first you have to figure out how to get them through 18 holes.”
To course hosts clinics geared toward beginners, especially women, allowing them to learn some of golf’s basic tenets in an environment free of embarrassment or self-consciousness. Players learn tips such as where to park a cart or leave one’s golf bag near the green; how to mark a ball, repair a pitch mark or rake a bunker; how to help a friend search for an errant shot without holding up play. Marine Park’s Ladies’ League now has more than 100 regulars, many of whom are graduates of these clinics.
In this hyper-diverse community, a course accessible to all has to be ready to confront new challenges every day. Some groups prefer to play a six-hour round, simply to get out of the house for a while. Inexperienced golfers will generally take longer to finish their rounds. When speedier players encounter them, it can be a volatile mix.
Working in these conditions can be tough, and Marine Park’s staff has discovered that maintaining a fast pace is best done through positive reinforcement.
“We’re visible,” McDonough said. “People can see that we’re trying to manage the pace, and they’re grateful for that.”
A certain amount of creativity never hurts, either. On one day with slow place of play, Marine Park’s assistant managers, Paul Wyszinski, challenged two groups to a race down their respective holes, which ran parallel to one another. The winning group would receive a free bucket of balls at the driving range.
“They played those holes in about nine minutes flat,” he said. “We’re not asking anyone to dilute their golf experience, but we like to use the property’s assets – the driving range, the bar, the Players’ Club upstairs – as carrots.”
“We’ve tried the stick, too. It doesn’t work,” said McDonough. He then added a line that is about as Brooklyn as its eponymous bridge: “Some of these guys like the stick far too much.”
Thomas Dunne is based in the New York area and is a contributing writer to Links Magazine.