How a group of golf missionaries and movie stars managed to save a simple little Southern California golf track.
Overlooking US Interstate 5 in invariably sunny Southern California, Goat Hill Park is an unassuming, rough-around-the-edges, pint-sized 18-holer surrounded by high-density/low-rent apartments, a large laundromat, pizza parlours and auto body shops. Space is obviously at a premium in these parts and it feels like this sandy little sanctuary just shouldn’t be here!
In very nearly wasn’t!
Established in 1952 as a Par 36, 9-holer, ‘Center City Golf Course’ as it was then called was later configured into a short 18-hole rollercoaster ride around a stand of sand hills which locals, for some unfathomable reason called "Goat Hill”.
Throughout its short life, the little Goat was continually threatened by land developers and overambitious politicians wanting to ‘zone’ this green Elysium into yet another paved, partitioned source of civic revenue.
As we drove through the link fence gates, I wondered why Pete, my old pal from AmateurGolf.com had brought me here! The clubhouse, a mid-century American diner affair, sold beer and balls. There was a buzz about the place with a few older patrons drinking at the bar and a bunch of kids getting ready to play. It was certainly a world away from the exclusive San Diego properties I’d thus far been sampling!
There was, as I’m sure you suspect, a backstory!
COPSE AND ROBBERS
In 2014, Goat Hill Park and the local community made national headlines when they stopped yet another attempt to transform this woody, rustic copse into yet more condos and strip malls.
Local resident and clothing magnate John Ashworth (he of the Ashworth golf shirt empire) with a team of local volunteers and two Hollywood A-listers stepped up to save ‘the Hill’ for the community. And so they did!
Largely unaware of all this, I set off to play a few holes with Pete and his son Lawson. I found the course a bit noisy being so close to the busy Interstate but it was fun with plenty of challenge playing over the sandy canyons and Cypress trees.
LOSING HIS SHIRT
And as we stepped off at the 18th, here was John Ashworth! Pete knows him and I suspect a call or text had gone out to say I was in town. I had met John many years before when he was involved with a project in East Lothian, Scotland which is now basically an upmarket housing development with two golf courses and club collectively called Archerfield. “Oh, that!” he snorted when I mentioned it; clearly not his fondest memory. At that time, John had ‘let go’ of his apparel empire and put his time and money into re-establishing an ancient links course next door to Muirfield, Scotland’s celebrated Open Championship venue. That venture hit funding issues along the way and John had to ‘let go’ of that too!
Goat Hill Park is clearly at the other end of the scale and I asked him why he got involved. “I grew up in Escondido about 15 miles inland from here,” he told me “and always loved Goat Hill. I played it as a kid in junior tournaments. Then, when we launched our new clothing company, ‘Linksoul’ and set up shop just down the road here in Oceanside, Geoff, my co-founder and I played 9 holes here probably 4 to 5 days a week. It was always a bit rough around the edges but the greens were generally good and the layout is a blast for shotmaking.”
Goat Hill ran into trouble in 2012 when many of California’s local municipal courses, subject to post-2008 local government austerity measures were going by the way. The severe droughts that plagued the state through the past few years didn’t do it any favours either.
“The course I learned the game on called San Luis Rey had just been closed,” John went on. “The course I played high school golf called Escondido, the same!. And another local course named Los Penasquitos closed. We felt we had to at least make an effort to save this historic little gem. Being in the golf industry and a golf nut my whole life, I couldn’t sit on my hands and do nothing. So Geoff and I put together a plan to save and fix up Goat Hill Park.”
SAVING THE GOAT
They were up against some big-time developers and a billionaire owner of a professional soccer team who wanted to flatten the ground for training pitches and a stadium. Meanwhile, the local Oceanside authorities stopped spending money on grounds maintenance and were only watering the greens. “The course went downhill badly,” reflected John.
“We started a ’ Save Goat Hill’ campaign which included celebrities like Bill Murray and Mark Wahlberg wearing our ' Save Goat Hill’ t-shirts along with a bunch of PGA tour players. At the same time, we started getting support from the locals, whether they played golf or not, who wanted to keep this historic, green space in Oceanside. By the time we went to the City Council meeting we had rallied the community and it was looking pretty good in our favour.”
“How did it work out?” I asked. “Good news/bad news,” John answered. “The good news was we won the process and were told we could work out a lease agreement with the City. We partied all night that night! The bad news was - we had absolutely no idea where to start!”
“We never actually thought we would win,” confessed John. “We were just into fighting the good fight for the good of keeping a green space and not losing another golf course in the area!
By the time we ‘got the keys’, the greens and tees were barely hanging on, there was no grass on the fairways, the greens mower was held together by bailing wire and we had 8 golf carts that actually worked. The course at that time was doing about 10 rounds a day!”
“But we had the energy and formed volunteer groups to do the early clean-up work. Believe it or not, we were actually lucky there was a drought. We desperately needed a new irrigation system so we applied for a turf reduction rebate for 27 acres which is approximately 1,150,000 sq feet or a $2.3 million dollar rebate!!… “
This gave the project a much needed lifeline and with the funds, they were able to redesign the irrigation system and put in a reclaimed-water line that made the project more socially and environmentally responsible. John put some of his own money into the venture and organized an ‘equity founders club’ to get a handful of friends to invest also including actor and golf enthusiast, Bill Murray.
“We made amazing progress,” John told me. “We took a ‘day by day’ approach, improving things little by little. And 4 years later we’re still keeping the original, low-level green fees yet operating in the ‘black’ and being sustainable. Every dollar we make goes back into improving our little 75-acre slice of heaven.”
Listening to John’s story, I looked at Goat Hill afresh. Kids were coming back in and there was some nice music coming from the bar. It was the end of the afternoon and more players were showing up for an ‘after-work’ round.
“We have an amazing community spirit here at Goat Hill Park,” John went on. “Our group is a very eclectic; blue collar, white collar, tradesmen, military, retirees, kids, moms, and everyone in between. I’m big on trading for anyone that wants to take on any building fix-ups or concrete work. Yes, the community does use the Goat and takes pride in the fact that it was themselves that came together to save their golf course and park.”
I asked John what they were going to do next on this apparently never-ending gardening project they’d started?
“There used to be asphalt cart paths running down the middle of most of the holes which were odd and a bad look so we removed them. We’ve updated the clubhouse with a new roof, new bar, and the surrounding areas with a new patio and fire pit.”
One of the more interesting developments is a 3-hole kids course called ‘The Playground’ designed by Gil Hanse whose list of course construction projects includes the Rio (2016) Olympic Golf Course and Castle Stuart Links in the Scottish Highlands.
The purpose of The Playground is to create an environment that is fun, interactive and welcoming for small children so that they can spend time outdoors with their parents or grandparents and get comfortable in and around a golf setting. “We hope they’ll begin to learn the etiquette involved in how to behave on a golf course,” added John, “and develop their own game of getting the ball in the hole.”
“I spent a bunch of time on the East Lothian coastline in Scotland which is where the game was played for a couple hundred years before it got exported to America. The Scots invented the game and created a unique culture of teaching their children on small ‘ kids courses’ right in the middle of the villages and next to the ‘big course’ like in Gullane or North Berwick. I was blown away by this and inspired to do the same thing at Goat Hill Park.”
MAKING BETTER PEOPLE
There seemed to be an interesting ethos behind the projects he was getting involved in so I asked John about his philosophy generally and how it applied to the game of golf.
“I feel golf is important,” answered John. “The game is holistic and transformative on so many levels. Core values and virtues are embedded in the game. I’ve always tried to expose all the good and beautiful things associated with golf so that more people will be attracted to it and in doing so might become better people.”
That’s a pretty lofty ideal, I thought but, to be honest, I’ve felt like that too… maybe just not found the right way to express it as John and his Goat Hill buddies have.
“Crazy probably but I feel golfers are for the most part really good people. People are products of their environment and their activities so if more people become golfers, I reckon there'd be more better people!”
“Idealistic I know but what the heck! A guy can dream! After all these years, I suppose I'm nothing more than a golf missionary.”