Muni golf: Save it and they will come — the story of Goat Hill Park
Goat Hill Park was a dying city-owned facility located 20 miles north of Torrey Pines, site of this week's U.S. Open. Now it is a blueprint (...)
(Editor’s note: After the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, there are no municipal golf courses on the majors schedule for the foreseeable future. In a series, Golfweek is shedding a spotlight on municipal golf, why it’s a crucial piece of the golf industry and how it’s evolving. Here’s the first part on Ben Crenshaw, and here’s the second part on finances, featuring Peter Hill).
OCEANSIDE, Calif. – If they ever make a movie about the unlikely success story that is Goat Hill Park, “Field of Dreams” could serve as its inspiration. Instead of “Build it and they will come,” the inspirational words that motivate an unlikely undertaking may instead be “Save it and they will come.”
John Ashworth, the visionary designer behind multiple golf lifestyle brands, is the Ray Kinsella-Kevin Costner figure in this story. Goat Hill Park was a dying city-owned facility located 20 miles north of Torrey Pines, site of this week’s U.S. Open, and less than a mile from the headquarters of Linksoul, Ashworth’s latest apparel company. He and friends viewed the lovable layout as a city park with pin flags, a public garden, a recreational-leisure amenity on par with a swimming pool or tennis court, and a community hub with golf as its centerpiece.
Those who regularly played the 18-hole, par-65 layout built on 75 acres right by the I-5 Freeway and that stretches just 4,500 yards in length loved it, but it was hard to ignore the truth: It was a neglected jewel, a loss-leader for the city in need of capital improvements and sitting on valuable acreage. In short, it was on the verge of going the way of persimmon like many other courses during the ongoing market correction that spans more than a decade and had drifted into disrepair.
“It was on life support. There wasn’t much grass. It was dirt, really,” Ashworth said.
In 2014, Ashworth enlisted a small army of supporters in a “Save Goat Hill” effort, including printing T-shirts with those three words that ended up being worn by celebrity friends Bill Murray and surfer Kelly Slater. Their campaign had one thing going for it: The land couldn’t be developed without the consent of a vote of the public. The course, which opened as a nine-hole layout in 1952, was built on prime Southern California real estate so there were serious suitors with their own visions to remake the course. The San Diego Chargers (before moving to Los Angeles) were proposing building a stadium there, and a separate group proposed a soccer stadium and adjoining soccer academy. The future of the land sparked great debate in the community, including at a city hearing where 45 impassioned golfers spoke.
“When you put in those soccer fields, those divots will be mine,” one of the golfers famously said.
The city awarded the lease of the land to Ashworth and his merry band, and they took over on July 1, 2014. He concedes that they had no idea what they’d gotten themselves into.
“It was like, honey, I bought a zoo,” Ashworth said. “Now what?”
In a show of civic pride, 60 local residents participated in a course clean up on Oct. 26, 2014. They have poured concrete and replaced the mainline irrigation, reduced the turf corridors and revamped the driving range all in an effort to remake this little engine that could into an informal dog-friendly place where juniors play for free, there is no dress code, music is played and a fire pit stays lit well into the night.
“He’s not just talking the talk, he’s digging the dig,” said Goat Hill Park regular Matt Ginella, who opened the headquarters to his media company, Fire Pit Collective, not far from the course.
Ashworth interchanges calling Goat Hill Park either “the Central Park of Oceanside,” or “the people’s park of Oceanside.”
“We look at it as a park, not as a golf course,” he said. “We have a disc golf course. We allow people to bring their dogs. We’ve got ‘The Playground’ which is our three-hole kid’s course, where kids play free. There’s even a sand pit for the littlest kids to play. It’s a throwback to Scotland.”
The Playground is open to all ages, with those who are kids at heart able to contribute to an honor box, and it’s well worth doing so. Noted golf course architect Gil Hanse, who built the golf course for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, designed the kids course gratis between Goat Hill Drive and the driving range. (Origins Design architect Todd Eckenrode also contributed to the definition of the turf corridors and reducing the turf.)
The layout is quirky, demanding equal parts accuracy and imagination, and on a warm San Diego Saturday in January, was packed with a melting pot of golfers, foursomes of varying ability with coolers in their carts and speakers attached to their bags. The course, which previously went by names such as Oceanside Carlsbad Country Club and Center City Golf Course, was redesigned in the early 1990’s by Ludwig Keehn into an 18-hole layout and became known as “Goat Hill” to locals.
It has evolved into a true community asset with a fun, low-key vibe and home to a popular Friday evening Skins Game. For proof of its successful formula, look no further than the 42,000 rounds it did in just 11 months last year – it was closed for a month due to COVID-19 restrictions – and providing a blueprint for municipal courses around the country to follow. It’s still scruffy around the edges and there’s plenty of work left to be done, but Ashworth remains undaunted.
“It’s definitely a work in progress,” Ashworth said. “It just needs a lot of TLC, you know, and that’s what we’ve been able to do the last seven years. It’s like the piano that never stops playing.”