GOLF JOURNAL
Pride of Lions: Crenshaw Among Devotees of Threatened ‘Muny’ March 27, 2019 By Mike Trostel, USGA

Ben Crenshaw looked out the clubhouse window at Lions Municipal Golf Course. It was a brisk late-February day by Austin standards, but the practice putting green, located about 40 feet away, was packed.

High schoolers working on their 4-footers. Two guys in their 50s, both wearing jeans, putting for a Coke. A dad sneaking in some practice while his 5-year-old daughter climbed on the large stone lion that sits on a raised platform in the middle of the green.

“I can’t imagine this place not being here,” said Crenshaw, shaking his head. “‘Muny’ means so much to this community.”

There are 2,497 municipal golf courses in the United States, approximately 17 percent – or one in six – of all golf courses across the country.

Lions Municipal Golf Course – known locally as “Muny” – is Austin’s oldest municipal course, established in 1924 by the Lions Club, an international service organization. It sits in the heart of the city, just over 2 miles from the Texas State Capitol. Its location and affordable green fees – just $26 on weekdays, $13 for juniors – attract an eclectic group of golfers.

Lions is the course of police officers, bartenders and school teachers, but on any given day you might see former University of Texas football coach Mack Brown playing nine with his buddies or actor Matthew McConaughey on the driving range with his son. It has also hosted some of the biggest names in the game, including Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sandra Haynie, Betsy Rawls and Tom Kite.

Lions has long been one of the city’s most popular courses, logging about 60,000 rounds per year. It also hosts Texas' oldest amateur tournament, the Firecracker Open, played annually over the Fourth of July weekend. But the course’s significance goes far beyond the golfers it currently serves.

In 1950, Lions was the first course south of the Mason-Dixon line to integrate. A 9-year-old caddie named Alvin Propps and a friend played the course in defiance of the Jim Crow Laws of the era. They were detained, but Austin Mayor Taylor Glass let them go instead of jailing them for trespassing. Subsequently, the city council decided to let all golfers – black and white – play at Muny rather than build a separate course for African Americans.

At a time when Jim Crow Laws still dictated that schools be segregated and blacks use separate water fountains, Lions became a beacon of hope for African Americans. Four years before Brown v. Board of Education was decided, a pair of determined pre-teens inspired change that quietly marked the beginning of desegregation of golf courses in the South.

“I wish I could express how good I felt,” said General Marshall, who as a boy caddied at Lions from 1946 to 1950. “When they integrated this course, black golfers from all over the state of Texas would come here to play golf.”

In fact, so many people wanted to play at Muny in the 1950s and ‘60s that buses were used to shuttle players in from other parts of the state. Public figures such as boxing legend Joe Louis, an outspoken advocate for black golfers, held clinics at Lions that often attracted thousands of spectators.

But the future of Lions Municipal Golf Course may be in danger.

Lions Municipal Golf Course in Austin, Texas, is rooted in history but needs help to stay afloat. 

The land the course sits on is a part of a 350-acre tract that was deeded from Colonel George Washington Brackenridge to the University of Texas (UT) in 1910 for the “purpose of advancing and promoting University education.”

Since 1936, UT has leased the 141 acres occupied by Lions to the city of Austin. But in recent years, the UT System Board of Regents has considered ending the lease with the city to pursue residential and commercial development of the land. In February 2019, the board and the city agreed to a one-year extension of the Lions' lease, but a long-term solution is still being negotiated.

The core issue is money. Currently, the city of Austin pays approximately $500,000 per year for the use of the land. UT, however, values use of the land at roughly $6 million annually. The question is whether a compromise can be reached.

Defining what constitutes “advancing and promoting University education” is also a significant uncertainty. On one hand, the land could be viewed as a much-needed solution to UT’s student housing problem or allow the school to expand its academic resource centers and laboratories.

But the cost of developing the land where Lions sits isn’t solely measured in dollars.

No one knows this better than Crenshaw, who is deeply intertwined with both entities, as a staunch supporter of the Save Muny movement and a proud UT alum.

“Gentle Ben” has lived his whole life in West Austin. He attended O. Henry Middle School, located directly across the street from Lions, and would walk there nearly every day to practice and play. He won his first golf trophy at Muny as a 4th grader, made his first hole-in-one there as an 11-year-old, and later became a two-time champion of the Firecracker Open.

Crenshaw would go on to win three consecutive NCAA individual championships at UT (sharing one with Kite, his Longhorn teammate), and travel the world as a professional golfer. He won 19 times on the PGA Tour, including the Masters Tournament in 1984 and 1995. But to Crenshaw, Austin was always home. And Lions continues to be a fundamental element of what makes the Austin community special.

“As someone for whom golf has been my whole life, I see what this course means to people,” said Crenshaw. “It would be a horror show if Muny went away. It gives them a reason for being, a reason for friendship and fellowship in a beautiful place. And not just golfers’ lives.”

That last aspect is a key rallying cry for those whose mission it is to save Lions: this course is significant for non-golfers too.

Austin is a city teeming with growth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 150 people per day moved to Austin in 2017. To its supporters, Lions isn’t just a golf course, it is an oasis of green space in an area of urban sprawl.

“Places like parks and golf courses provide many benefits to the community,” said Mary Arnold, an advocate of the Save Muny movement. “Lions has always been accessible to all people since it opened in 1924. It’s a beautiful walk, there are many wildlife habitats and it has some of the most gorgeous trees in all of Texas.”

Crenshaw, for one, isn’t watching from the sidelines. With his course-design partner Bill Coore, Crenshaw put forward a proposal to restore the course in 2017. Their goal is to update and enhance Lions into a nationally-recognized university course that could also serve as a welcoming, affordable and community-focused facility that reminds future generations of a momentous civil rights accomplishment.

“I want to enlist all the help I can from the guys I grew up with,” said Crenshaw. “I am going to put up whatever reputation I have to save this course.”

As Crenshaw and others fight to preserve an Austin landmark, the golf world watches with significant interest. The fate of Muny may well portend the viability of many similar municipal golf courses across the country.

Mike Trostel is the senior content producer for the USGA. Email him at mtrostel@usga.org.

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