Lee Ross: How would you describe Rancho Park's role in the Los Angeles or Southern California golf scene?


Craig Kessler: Along with Wilson it forms the fulcrum of municipal golf in Los Angeles. Wilson was the original, but Rancho is the one that has hosted all the professional tours. It sits right in the middle of what used to be the west side of town, but it's really almost midtown right now in a highly packed urban area. In some years, it's been the most highly played golf course in the United States. It's kind of the very definition - much like Torrey Pines is the definition of municipal golf in San Diego - But Rancho is a little bit more of an affordable, accessible everyman definition, I think, of golf. And at the same time - an excellent golf course.  It's a good test of golf and a fair test of golf. And for that reason, all golfers treasure it. And that's why it's so popular. But at the end of the day, when you go there, it doesn't smack at any level of a country club. It has the look, the feel, and the rhythms of anywhere in Los Angeles on any day of the week. And it attracts people from well outside the community in which it's located. And it's a genuine park.


Lee Ross: Rancho Park is run by the city of Los Angeles, which has many other golf courses and parks to operate. You mentioned Wilson and of course, everything else that comes with being the nation's second-largest city. So what does the city get right and what could be improved?


Craig Kessler: One of the things the city gets very right is treating all of its municipal golf properties equally. Not that they're all equal in terms of layout or aesthetics, obviously, Rancho and Wilson, they're superb championship layouts. But unlike some other cities, which will sometimes neglect the golf course, let's use Hansen Dam in Pacoima which is not exactly the same kind of neighborhood as Cheviot Hills. One could argue it actually has a better infrastructure than Rancho at the moment because it has a newer irrigation system. It has new cart paths and so forth. And I think that's one of the great strengths of the system is the sort of the equality within it and that's not true in all jurisdictions. I think it has a lot to do with the politics of Los Angeles.


Craig Kessler: Another upside is that because it's very much part of the family and not contracted out to private companies, unlike other jurisdictions, who tend to be very covetous and protective of their elite championship golf courses that have high play and generate real revenues. And then take a look at, you know, with their green eyeshades, they'll look at the developmental facilities, the executive courses, the ones that don't have the great bones, but are the sites of all the junior programs, the developmental programs. Other places will tend to ignore those because they're looking entirely at the revenue generation and the bottom line. And so Los Angeles protects the little 3 Par on the corner of Motor and Pico – [that] is just as important to the city of Los Angeles as the big 18-hole championship course or some of the others.


Craig Kessler: One of the downsides is it can take longer to get things done and it tends to be more expensive. More expensive in the sense that the planning process takes longer and it has to go through more plan checks, more approvals, and the purchasing is more cumbersome. So you lose a little bit of the economies of scale that you might otherwise have. And so there's an upside and a downside to it.


Lee Ross: Much of your attention of late has been on legislation in Sacramento that would give communities like Los Angeles the ability to repurpose municipal golf land for other uses, especially housing, and provide taxpayer dollars to incentivize takeovers. Thankfully, that legislation failed. We could spend hours talking about what happened and why, but what's the key takeaway going forward for the political sustainability of courses like Rancho Park?


Craig Kessler: AB 1910 was much more of a threat to what I'll call the developmental, the less financially productive facilities, not necessarily the Rancho's. AB 1910 was still a permissive piece of legislation. Yes, it dangled free money to both municipalities and to developers. And you've got to be careful when you offer free money to anyone to create powerful incentives. But for a variety of reasons Rancho Park would not have been endangered. In part, because Los Angeles is a charter city and firmly embedded in the charter is the inviolability of the parks. Of course, moving forward, that can be preempted by state law. You'd be creating a powerful incentive for cities and counties to collude with the developers to simply flout the law and then wait for citizens groups or golf groups or some other open space groups or the trusts for public land to come up with millions of dollars in legal fees to prevent it. And of course, once you get too far into the process, there's no going backward as a practical matter.


Craig Kessler: Those who understand the history of golf in Los Angeles know that when the city had far less population and far smaller percentage of that population played golf, we were dotted with daily fee golf courses. In other words, golf courses that were privately owned but run as open-to-the-public businesses. And we had all kinds of standalone driving ranges. But just simply the operation of market capitalism in a city like Los Angeles, which is now developed to the gills - if you take a look at the use of the property now, generations yet unborn will live off the proceeds of that sale 40, 50, 60 years ago. So Los Angeles today has now been reduced to two kinds of golf courses - municipally-owned parks and private clubs. And most of those private clubs are extremely elite and extraordinarily expensive. And there's nothing in between.


Craig Kessler: If there's one takeaway I would have from this is we went against the grain of what I would call the common ill-wisdom. Golf, because it's a game, because at the private level it's a club activity, it is not really a business. There's an element of it that's a business. But municipal courses are parks and private clubs are the domain of 400-500 people who are well off. They don't make money there they spend money to get something they want. So there's a small niche because of golf's success. And for whatever reasons, golf's wise men and women who I don't think have been very wise, like to talk about the economic heft of golf, which in California was about $13 billion industry. I don't like to call it an industry - I call it a community because it's not a business. And thus never recognized that when the subject becomes the highest and best use of land - Golf is way down that list. So we didn't focus on that. We simply used the power of 3.5 Million people who play this game and they live in all 80 Assembly districts. And when they stepped up to let their legislators know that they thought it was a really bad idea to take their particular recreation passion and single it out among the myriad others for development and denial. And they just didn't think that was a good idea. Unlike most lobbying efforts, which are efforts of people who clearly show up in Sacramento, they show up at L.A. City Hall because they have a financial interest at stake, you can't argue that golfers have a financial interest. Every golfer has one thing in common - they pay for the privilege of this and they're happy to do so.


Craig Kessler: By being really directly attacked - and this was an attack on golf - it calls for actual rank and file golfers to step up and not just defend their passion, but to make the case positively.


Craig Kessler: And I think one of the problems was golf was able to overcome many of the caricatures of it, many of the misunderstandings, which thinks that all of golf in America is Augusta National, the second week of April. And those of us who play golf know that it's anything but that. That most of golf is like most of the other recreational activities. I think the average price of the greens fee in America at a public course is $38. And the demographics of golf, particularly in a place like Los Angeles, are probably more reflective of the population than most activities. And golf was able to make that case, sustain it and convince lawmakers of it, and actually set the record straight about a lot of things so that moving forward in the future, we will be judged not by stereotypes and caricatures, but judged by the facts.


Craig Kessler: The key thing about 1910 is if [golf] goes away. Golf ultimately shrinks dramatically in California. And I think the prospect of that was what galvanized rank and file golfers to do something that most citizens are loath to do, which is actually send an email, make a phone call, write a letter to an elected leader about something. But they did this in large numbers, and I think that rattled some cages in Sacramento.


Lee Ross: I want to address another major public policy concern and that's our water supply. Which is vital to any golf course and is seen by some as a big waste of a precious resource. So how do municipal golfers prevail in making sure that the broader community sees the value in keeping golf viable?


Craig Kessler: Well, that's actually the most difficult issue when it comes to the water situation and golf at a moment like this. And this moment is probably more critical than most understand. 2022 is worse than 2016 in terms of the actual cutback of the State Water Project, which is at 5%. And this may go to zero very quickly - the same as the 2016 situation. The difference is in 2016, there was considerably more in reserve at that critical moment. Golf courses are part of a special category that under California law is called Special Landscapes. They're not ornamental turf like your backyard. They're functional turf. So they come under a different category and their category allows them 100% control over irrigation practices. In other words, none of this two nights a week or two nights only. But you can do it any time of the day, any time of the night. However, it would appear that under a level three drought contingency golf courses are going to be restricted to irrigating no more than 65% of a budget that's derived from a formula based upon a plant factor of turf and something called a maximum allowable water allocation that's deeply embedded in various state codes that the city of Los Angeles more than a decade ago adopted as the standard for establishing it here. It's a little bit complicated if you haven't worked in it, but it's manageable.


Craig Kessler: The General public drives by and sees something green and they don't like it when they can't water. But they have no idea of just how efficient that golf course is and they have no idea that the amount of water that's used is considerably less than they may imagine. And it's considerably less than all kinds of other functions, particularly businesses. But unlike those businesses which are behind walls and closed doors and so forth, golf is exposed to the world. So if your backyard is brown and when you see some green on a golf course, that that is really the perception problem is going to be the greatest problem moving forward. I don't think there's going to be any problems in meeting those level three restrictions, which is 35% off of the assigned budget. I think people need to know that if we have a fourth year and even worse, a fifth-year like the last three. It isn't just golf that's in trouble. Everything's in trouble.


Craig Kessler: I think people need to know that if we have a fourth year and even worse, a fifth-year like the last three, it isn't just golf that's in trouble, everything's in trouble. I think what I'm emphasizing is that as resilient as golf is and I was on a call yesterday with the LADWP and all the golf courses and our comment to them was we've been through this drill so many times that we have contingency plans-we're prepared. I think we're more ready than they are. Having said that, at some point, if it carries on too long into a fourth year and a fifth-year there isn't a whole lot we're going to be able to do. It's a precarious moment because no one knows what Mother Nature is going to bring us in the future. But it's best that the golf community be absolutely prepared for whatever comes our way.


Lee Ross: The U.S. Open will be at LACC in 2023 and in 2028 the Olympics will be in Los Angeles with golf at Riviera. Will either event bring about any meaningful investment in L.A.'s municipal courses?


Craig Kessler: Yes.


Lee Ross: How so?


Craig Kessler: I can tell you that the United States Golf Association and the Los Angeles Country Club and golf's organizations are working - the goal is to raise somewhere between $4.7 - $7 million for junior golf programs in the city of Los Angeles. And to actually put much of that money, not just in the programs, we’re pretty good on programing, but into actual facilities. So, for example, the Maggie Hathaway facility at 98th & Western in the middle of South L.A., which is an L.A. County facility in the city of Los Angeles, is operated by the Western States Golf Association, which is an African-American group. They're going to invest money in that, invest money in programs. 


Craig Kessler: The L.A. Olympics - already LA28 is working with the city's Recreation and Parks Department to do something similar, I think at the Tregnan Academy at Griffith Park and to literally pay for all kinds of programs and coaches to the city, to up the junior golf program in the city of LA which like so many things fell by the wayside during COVID because you couldn't do any programming. So I think you're going to see both events bring major monies to LA and to LA golf. The PGA Tour's not done that in Los Angeles, [they've] been here since 1926.


Craig Kessler: The answer is a definite yes, and I think you'll be hearing more and more about that, you know, between now and the 2023 Open, because pledges have been made, the money is out there, programs are coming. And I think you're going to see a lot of that - it just hasn't quite been made public yet.


Lee Ross: I've heard a number of people say with the Olympic bid, that the LA host committee should have offered up Rancho Park or Griffith Park as host courses and then had the USOC, IOC, IGF, invest millions in upgrades that would have been left for us to enjoy. Why did that not happen?


Craig Kessler: The city of Los Angeles made a move not for Rancho, but for Griffith Park. Wilson and Harding, to do precisely what you stated. And Riviera is a ready-made major championship site that's here - has the bones - has a history of accommodating obviously not only major championships, major amateur, major professional, and of course a yearly tour stop. And they stepped in against the city of Los Angeles and the Olympic Committee went for that. But I don't think it's because the city of Los Angeles didn't attempt to do what you said. It just couldn't pull it off.


Lee Ross: And that leads to my final question. There seems to be a slow but steady reinvestment in municipal golf across the country. In recent years, we've seen courses like Bethpage, Torrey Pines and Harding Park each get massive infusions of cash and attention to host major championships. But we're seeing something similar in places like Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, my hometown of Washington, D.C., or back in the Bay Area, like at Sharp Park, Corica Park, where there are less high profile efforts to revitalize the muni courses there, but still significant in those communities. So how could the same happen here?


Craig Kessler: Excellent question, and one that a lot of people who are involved in golf are asking and trying to answer. I'm familiar with every one of those efforts. I think there are going to be some opportunities that come up. And I'm just not free to talk about them at this moment. That within L.A. County, within the populated area, to construct some new facilities. I think there will be public money, private money, and if there is golf money like National Links Trust or like the Jackson Park Project or Cobbs Creek. Or I'd add Madison, Wisconsin, where Mike Keiser Jr. is doing some things, then I think that will be the ingredient that finishes it off.


Craig Kessler: We're going to have to step up with some money to the table, which means we're going to have to maybe create a West Coast version - may be under the umbrella of National Links Trust - which is a national organization. But obviously, you know, no one's going to give to Langston in Washington, D.C. who doesn't live in the immediate Maryland, Virginia, or D.C. area. The same thing here in California. No one's going to give to a facility in Carson who lives in Maryland. Of all the places in the United States with the wherewithal to do this, I can't think of a better position than Los Angeles.