Seattle Golf's Master Plan: Is it Happening or What?

By: Tony Dear


After last year's dismissal of Andy Soden as Seattle Golf Director and growing speculation over the city of Seattle's intention to implement the Seattle Golf Master Plan, it is encouraging to see improvements being made to Interbay as it shows the city is still willing to invest in its golf facilities. But the money to pay for the Interbay improvements is coming out of the Golf Capital Improvements Fund, which is separate from the Seattle Golf Master Plan. So what is the status of the Master Plan, a slightly diluted version of which (Option 4B Lite) was eventually approved by the city last year? Is it still going to happen and, if so, when?

At the beginning of last year, golf in Seattle appeared to be in rude good health. Revenues and net income were continuing to increase after a miserable set of results around the turn of the century; the courses - Jefferson and Jackson Park in particular, were making some welcome improvements. Premier Golf LLC, which operates the four city facilities (and six others in the Puget Sound area), had developed a hugely popular members program and was attracting accolades for its excellent customer service, and Andy Soden had the ear of Seattle golfers who saw the Golf Director as one of them rather than some remote, suited official making uninformed decisions from City Hall. Better still, the Seattle Golf Master Plan, first conceived in 1991, was back on the agenda and up for approval by the Park Board and, ultimately, the Mayor.

After several public hearings and Parks Department meetings, the Master Plan gained final approval from the Parks Board on April 23, 2009. Then, in a Seattle Golf Master Plan update published August 5th, Parks Superintendent Tim Gallagher announced he had recommended to the Mayor an option referred to as 4B Lite which included most of what Gallagher regarded as the most important elements of the original Master Plan but cost $9.4 million less. Though certainly a shame not everything in Option 1 would be included in 4B Lite, Seattle golfers seemed able to handle the loss of such things as expanded maintenance facilities and improved restroom facilities.

"Of course I would have liked to see everything in Option 1 become reality," says David Wood, a regular at West Seattle. "But it was understandable that a few parts had to be shelved because of the present economic situation. A new or restored clubhouse would have been nice, but at least it looks like we'll get the driving range, which I'm thrilled about."

However, what hadn't yet come to light by the date his report was released, was that Superintendent Gallagher had in fact dismissed Soden four or five days previously and immediately replaced him with Paul Wilkinson, who had worked in the Parks Department for 28 years but had no experience in the golf industry. Seattle golfers were understandably angry. They vented on various websites and a petition demanding Soden's reinstatement was established (its objective was later revised once it became clear that Soden's position, had he returned, was largely untenable).

In the space of less than a week, Seattle golf was plunged into a state of confusion. By the middle of August, that confusion had morphed into a disquiet that became apprehension and finally fear: fear that all of Soden's good work would soon be undone and that instead of being reinvested for the good of the city's golf facilities, revenues would be directed elsewhere in the Parks Department and that, as a result, customer service and course conditions would suffer dramatically. "I wanted to think the consequences of Andy Soden's removal were going to be minimal over the long haul," Wood said. "But I wasn't very optimistic."

The word that quickly gained momentum was that Gallagher had no intention of implementing the Master Plan, and that he "hated golf and golfers" - a rumor that seemed to be validated when he dropped the "Golf Director" title and installed Wilkinson as "Senior Recreation Manager" instead. To make matters worse, Gallagher apparently forced Wilkinson, within a few days of his appointment, to slash West Seattle's pesticide and fertilizer budget, a move that appeared horribly ill-timed as the course was suffering a pythium outbreak at the time. "We had some very serious disease that was ruining our greens," Wood says. "And our superintendent didn't seem to have the money to fight it."

Gallagher's spokesperson, Dewey Potter, addressed these concerns saying the city did not have a line-item budget for pesticides and fertilizer and that, because of a predicted shortfall in revenue, all the courses had been told to cut operating expenses. "The staff, in an effort to meet budget goals, reduced the number of preventive applications of fertilizer and fungicides during the late spring and early summer months," said Potter. "This was a calculated risk based on a normal weather pattern summer. However, in August we had a period of mid-90 degree heat followed by rain, which caused unusually humid conditions for our area. This humidity was the main factor in the outbreak of pythium, which none of our staff had seen in this area before. The reduction of the late spring, early summer preventive program was implemented well before Wilkinson's appointment. When the fungus outbreak was discovered and identified, Paul immediately authorized appropriate treatments."

West Seattle's greens were soon back in decent shape, and within the next few weeks $863,000 will be spent on planning and developing its new range, an exciting prospect not only for West Seattle golfers but every golfer in the city concerned that Gallagher was siphoning assets away from the facilities they hold so dear and stalling the Master Plan at every opportunity.

"I'm not sure where that belief sprung from actually," says Wilkinson. "It was Gallagher that resurrected the Master Plan a couple of years ago. No, he's not a golfer, but those comments he made about hating golfers were made tongue in cheek I think. And I'm convinced he's committed to seeing the Master Plan through to its conclusion."

Bill Schickler, President and CEO of Premier Golf LLC, agrees it was the superintendent that bought the Master Plan back to life. "Tim was absolutely the one that put it back on the agenda," he says. "Tim called Andy Soden and me to a meeting in early 2008 during which he told us he thought that the facilities surrounding the courses needed upgrading and that he was ordering an update of the 1991 Master Plan. He indicated he wanted it started right away. He felt performance of the courses had improved to the point where they could potentially support significant infrastructure improvements."

Gallagher, who ran the Parks Department in Los Angeles and its 19 municipal golf courses prior to arriving in Seattle at the end of 2007, agrees it was indeed his idea to bring back the Master Plan. "When I was first shown our golf courses, my reaction was that they looked like municipal courses with poor infrastructure, and little attention paid to presentation, customer needs and customer service," says Gallagher. "We are lucky to have a great partner in Premier, which has done an excellent job in promoting and helping to manage the courses, but the city was not stepping forward and managing the financial resources we had available."

Having made that initial push, Gallagher accepts it is his responsibility to see that the city's golf facilities are improved and open to all of its residents. "With that in mind, you will see a major push toward junior golf in the next few years," he says.

That's reassuring news for Seattle golfers even if many still harbor resentment for the way Soden was treated, or rather mistreated. "Now that Paul Wilkinson has been at his post for a few months, and has even started playing the game, I think he is warming to his new responsibilities and will, in the end, be good for Seattle golf," says Wood. "Of course, he can only be as good as he's allowed to be and that all depends on Gallagher. It's good to know it was him that was responsible for bringing back the Master Plan, and the money being spent on Interbay at the moment (slightly over $1 million on new artificial turf, exterior paint including on the net poles, and new ball dispensers) and West Seattle is very encouraging. But I still have questions about Andy's dismissal."

Concerns over the removal of Andy Soden from office, and what it says about the man who removed him, still seem perfectly justified. Why, after all, would you sack the guy whose energy and expertise helped get Seattle golf back in the black? Why would you get rid of the man who developed such healthy relationships with those that maintain the courses (the city), those that run them (Premier Golf) and those that play them (us)?

Gallagher was elusive about his controversial decision six months ago, and he remains similarly non-committal now. "The response hasn't changed," he says. "We do not discuss specifics of human resources issues mostly for employee confidentiality. That said, I believe golf course staff had not brought forth a vision of great facilities and we were simply maintaining the courses for existing users rather than addressing their obvious need for better conditions. Further, we were weak with our relationship to community centers and new populations in Seattle."

No doubt, if you walked into any of Seattle's four municipal clubhouses, you wouldn't have to talk with many people before finding one who took issue with Gallagher's comments. "The public golfer in Seattle had no greater friend than Andy Soden," says Wood. "We all marveled at the vastly improved conditions his reign heralded: better drainage, improved fairways, country club-quality greens and, even more, the welcoming spirit his leadership generated. I've played municipal golf on five continents, and can say without hesitation that Soden was one of the best I've seen at his job. What a loss to Seattle golf."

If Soden's sudden exit caused turmoil, the economy is playing its own dirty tricks. Current investment is a positive sign, of course, but at the end of the day (quarter?) no one can guarantee Option 4B Lite of the Seattle Golf Master Plan will ever be carried out in full. Funding for the Interbay improvements came out of the Golf Capital Improvements Fund and, though the money to be spent at West Seattle is Master Plan money, it was approved by former Mayor Greg Nickels for the 2009-10 budget cycle. Seattle now has a new man in charge who, as yet, has made no indication as to which way he swings when it comes to golf and golf in the city.

"To be honest, I really have no idea yet how Mayor McGinn feels about the Golf Master Plan," says Wilkinson. "Nor do I know how Council Member Sally Bagshaw, who is Chair of the Parks and Seattle Center Committee, feels about it. I'm not certain councilwoman Bagshaw really knows what is going on with golf actually, but that's perfectly understandable given that she was only very recently elected."

Emails to the Mayor's office asking for his likely policy toward golf have yet to be returned, and one to Bagshaw took six weeks to receive a response; one in which she said the Master Plan was indeed "on my radar" and that her office had touched base with the Parks Department and "heard the same."

Despite all the positive vibes coming out of Wilkinson's office, it seems the Master Plan is far from a No. 1 priority for either Bagshaw or the Parks Department right now. For it only to have appeared "on their radar" suggests they are not exactly consumed with its details and, as Wilkinson points out, the new mayor does of course have a mandate to "unapprove" what the previous Mayor approved.

Says Schickler: "In this economy, there are no guarantees that projects - even previously approved projects - will happen until you see contractors out there actually starting work. A driving range renovation and expansion was approved for Bellevue Municipal last year. Design work was begun and then due to the economic downturn the project was put on hold, and it now appears it will be done in phases over a few years."

Colin Gants, head professional at West Seattle GC, is at first animated upon hearing news that the course at which he has worked for 20 years is on the verge of getting a two-tier range to be built on the west side of the ninth hole, but his mood suddenly darkens as he remembers how many times plans for that range have been rejected at the last minute. "I sincerely hope that three times are a charm," he says of the city's latest pledge. "We get our hopes up, but each failed attempt is a bit demoralizing for me and our golfers. I want to believe deep down that this time West Seattle will finally get what it has needed, not to say deserved, for a long time."

Doubt, despondency, speculation and anxiety hover like black clouds over Seattle's public golf courses right now, and have done so since Soden departed. His replacement, Paul Wilkinson, is slowly but surely gaining acceptance, however, and together with Superintendent Gallagher could well oversee the most positive reformation of the Emerald City's munis since they were built. Interbay's new paint job and plans for a new range at West Seattle are a great start. Seattle golfers will be watching with great interest to see what happens next.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.


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