Los Angeles' municipal courses offer good golf value within easy driving range
The city of Los Angeles offers golfers plenty of opportunities to drive -- not only around the sprawling metropolis but also on the city's extensive municipal golf system.
It includes seven 18-hole championship courses, three executive nine-hole layouts and a trio of par-3 pitch and putts.
The tracks are spread out across the vast Los Angeles metro area and offer a wide variety of terrain and levels of difficulty.
James Ward has overseen the courses for a dozen years as golf manager for the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks. He said there's something for everyone, but there are some standouts.
"Wilson and Harding (in the mammoth Griffith Park) are a 36-hole complex, it's a historical setting. Wilson recently celebrated its 100th anniversary," Ward said. "They're grand, great courses. Rancho Park Golf Course (on the city's Westside, across the street from the 21st Century Fox movie and TV production lot) is laid out like a private club."
Aside from these better known courses, Ward said there are some great alternate tracks.
"I like Hansen Dam Golf Course; it's on the far end of the San Fernando Valley. It's like two separate nines. It's an 18-hole golf course that has some nice subtleties to it. It doesn't have a big freeway next to it. It's a nice, quiet course."
For less experienced duffers, the L.A. golf chief recommended Woodley Lakes Golf Course: "Woodley Lakes is a nice course; it makes you feel good if you're a mediocre golfer. It has big greens, open fairways."
And tucked away in Griffith Park near Hollywood, players can get some exercise and then go hear a concert in a storied outdoor venue. "Roosevelt is a nine-hole golf course next to the Greek Theater," Ward said. "It has no electric carts, it's an executive 9 that you can play in two-and-a-half hours. (The tee sheet) is open most of the time. It's a real hidden gem."
L.A.'s municipal golf courses used to be among the busiest tracks in the nation, but the economic downturn took many casual golfers out of the game, and some simply haven't returned.
"Rancho Park is our busiest course, with right around 90,000 rounds in 2014," Ward said. "That's down by 12,000 rounds from before the recession. The peak, right around the end of the 1990s, was around 120,000 (rounds in one year)."
The L.A. city tracks may be carding fewer rounds, but that hasn't hurt the bottom line. Ward said the golf division has been profitable for the past four and a half years, which is good since it's a self-sustaining entity run by city employees who maintain, marshal, start, manage and generally operate most aspects of the course except for concessions and some of the driving ranges.
"The entire golf division is off the city budget," Ward explained. "We're an enterprise fund. We pay all salaries, CAP rate utilities and any money above that goes into the capital improvement fund for golf courses."
And muni executives said golfers benefit from fewer rounds: the courses aren't as worn down, the rounds are faster and the tee sheets are not nearly as crowded. Ward said golfers can walk on many courses at 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. during the week, whereas they were "booked until twilight" just a few years ago.
These are all "benefits" from golf's slow recovery from the economic downturn, according to long-time course manager Robert Cavanagh, who is now back in Encino managing the L.A. muni Balboa Golf Course after managing Rancho Park for a couple of years.
"There's no longer the five-and-a-half-hour rounds, so the players that come out are enjoying it more," Cavanagh said. "Golf has not returned to pre-recession levels, but we're not on a downward spiral. We're growing the business with positive customer service and inviting our players out to enjoy the day."
The course manager said they are trying to boost interest among kids by getting the word out to area parents that junior golf on the city courses is very inexpensive. Prices for children less than 18 are $6 for a round during the week and $7 on weekends. They're just $2 for SCGA youth members.
"Most of the time they need to play with an adult on the weekends," Ward added. "They can go out on their own during the week, but they have to prove they can advance the ball (and be at least 13 years-old)."
L.A. city golf courses may also change the pricing structure to attract and keep younger golfers on the course at a time in their lives when many millennials are currently giving up the game due to the financial constraints of student life or post-graduation cost-cutting.
"We're trying to look into a program that may grant different weekday rates for college students and graduate students," Ward said, "and a rate for 18-25 year olds."
Prices are pretty reasonable overall; for adults, the most expensive is $33 for an 18-hole round at Wilson Golf Course ($40 on the weekend) for residents. Non-residents pay $5 more.
Golf clubs can be rented at the courses, and lessons are also available but are set up directly with instructors -- contact information is available on site.
Ward said they are also upgrading the online reservation system, which will bring the muni system squarely into the on-demand economy: "We're going to go to dynamic pricing, fluctuating during the day. We're working on that and considering modifying or scrapping non-resident or local rates."
And a nice feature for locals and visitors alike: L.A.'s muni courses never close.
"We're 365 days a year golf. We used to close on Christmas Day, but it was more affordable to collect green fee revenue," said Ward, chuckling. "We'd take pins off the cups (on Christmas), and there were branches in the cup when we came back the next day. People were jumping the fences and playing any way."