Kids enjoying Philly's First Tee program

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The 18 holes at FDR Park have run their course.

After almost 80 years in operation, South Philadelphia’s public golf course is set to close for good on Oct. 31. Its demise is among a handful of changes coming to the park by 2020, part of a $200 million renovation that touches all 350 acres.

One hundred and fifty of those acres — more than a third of the space — are currently made up of tee boxes, fairways and greens. Under the new plan, the grounds will be turned into 12 new fields, several tennis and basketball courts, a playground, multi-use trails and restored natural areas. Of note: there will still be a driving range, and the First Tee of Greater Philadelphia will maintain its HQ there.

Why shut down the golf course? According to city officials, there are two good reasons: following a national trend, sales are down. Plus, the darn thing is plagued by flooding.

From 2017 to 2018, FDR Park saw a 22 percent decrease in the total number of rounds of golf played. Consequently, the city recorded an 18 percent sales drop in just one year.

And since the entire park was built over literal marshland, the challenges to maintain the course were huge. With dropping revenue and constant waterlogging, the Department of Parks and Recreation determined the course was no longer worth the burden.

“Golfers may use one of the city’s other golf courses,” said spokesperson Maita Soukup.

FDR Golf Course had a picturesque view of the Philly skyline Credit: Facebook / FDR Golf Course

Golf: a dying trend?

The city has five other public courses: Cobbs Creek, Juniata Park, Roxborough and two in Northeast Philly. In contrast with pricey private clubs, where memberships can cost tens of thousands or more, these are much more accessible. Greens fees (what it costs to play a round) can cost less than $20 per person, and you don’t have to be a member to play.

But the farewell to South Philly’s fairway fits with a national trend.

Many experts say golf is dying. From 2002 to 2016, the number of regular golfers fell from 30 to 20.9 million. And in 2015, the world’s largest golf manufacturer, TaylorMade-Adidas, recorded a 28 percent loss in sales.

Playing is seeing the sharpest decline among millennials, “who just aren’t that into an expensive, poky sport that provides few health benefits,” per a CityLab report. Instead, many courses are being redeveloped into more modern uses — like apartment complexes and office space.

Driving ranges have been successfully redeveloped in places like Arizona, California, Florida and Texas.

“Golf from a participation standpoint, and how it translates to retail, is in a structural decline,” Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Edward W. Stack told the Washington Post. “And we don’t see that changing.”

Credit: Courtesy Billy Hyndman

More than just a sport

But the leader of Philly’s First Tee youth golf program still sees value in teaching the game.

The chapter teaches 20,000 kids to play every year — and has operated out of FDR Park for as long as executive director Bill Hyndman can remember. When he was in eighth grade, he learned to play there.

The nonprofit’s mission is to teach more meaningful lessons by playing golf, specifically growing their interpersonal skills, setting goals, being resilient and managing their emotions.

“When kids come in and they can’t get it off the ground, then all of a sudden they get it off the ground, they gain some confidence,” Hyndman said. “Our vehicle is the game of golf to teach these kids life skills.”

The lifelong recreational golfer is a little disappointed to see the South Philly course go. Parents of program participants have already come to him and expressed their dismay.

Still, Hyndman said he knows his program will survive, and to him, that’s all that matters. He’s already arranged a deal with Parks & Rec to keep First Tee running in the smaller FDR Park setup.

“You just have to be flexible,” he said. “Our organization is all about the people. We’ll work through the transition and figure it out.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...