The city of Atlanta’s experiment to close the North Fulton Golf Course at Chastain Memorial Park in Buckhead to golfers while opening it for individuals to walk on won’t last beyond its original two months.
In March, when the 18-hole course was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, residents stuck at home flocked to the links, walking on them regularly. So, when the course reopened for golf June 15, the city started a 60-day period in which it would be closed to golfers on Tuesdays, when residents and visitors could walk on it as greenspace.
But District 8 Atlanta City Councilman J.P. Matzigkeit, who represents the park and lives near it, said the experiment wasn’t extended beyond those two months, partly because fewer individuals walked on the course this summer compared to the spring.
“We don’t have exact numbers because there’s no way to count,” he said when asked how many residents and visitors walked on the course this summer and spring. “People come and enter the park from lots of different entry points. Anecdotally, the number of people was quite a bit less than what had been what we had seen previously during COVID.”
In early June, when interviewed about the 60-day period, Matzigkeit pointed to a longtime tradition at the famed St. Andrews course in Scotland, the oldest golf course in the world. It’s closed on Sundays (except when it hosts major tournaments such as the British Open), so it can be opened as greenspace for the community.
“If they can do it in St. Andrews, it’s probably worth a test here,” he said.
In a Sept. 10 interview, Matzigkeit said the choice to not extend the trial period past two months was made right after it ended.
“The decision was made looking at multiple things: how much use it was getting, how much revenue was being lost, how much damage was done to the course (by walkers), those kinds of factors,” he said.
The course’s reputation – Matzigkeit said it’s the most popular one in the state, with over 50,000 rounds played a year – and the revenue it generates for the city may have been the biggest issue in keeping it closed to golfers one day a week.
However, Matzigkeit said he’s happy the city did the trial period.
“We need to be able to experiment and test things,” he said. “Sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t, but you never know until you experiment. I appreciate the parks department (for being) willing to take a chance and do an experiment.”
Rosa McHugh, executive director of the Chastain Park Conservancy, a nonprofit that protects and maintains the park, said “it was a perfect time for the experiment.”
“The conversation had come up in the past,” she said, referring to the park’s 2008 master plan. “… What really got me, and I think it got J.P. as well, was one comment: ‘There are lots of places in the park where you can picnic and ride bikes, but there’s only one place you can play 18 holes of golf, and that’s the golf course.’”
McHugh said another factor is golfers will play on the course regardless of weather conditions (except lightning), but during the 60-day trial run, walkers would not use it if it was too hot or rainy.
She said the conservancy is focusing on making 68 acres of greenspace in the northern part of the park more accessible by removing some invasive plants and rehabilitating some pavilions in need of repair or replacement.
“The golf course looks beautiful because it’s maintained well,” she said. “But if we continue to maintain the rest of the park, we’ll really be able to give back with the passive greenspace areas.”
Brinkley Dickerson, the board chair for Atlanta Neighborhood Planning Unit A, which includes the park, was on the board of the Chastain Park Civic Association, a nonprofit neighborhood group promoting the park, when it worked with the city and the conservancy to create the master plan.
When the master plan was formed through a multiyear process, the idea of closing the golf course to golfers so others could walk on it was one of several items pitched. At the time, Dickerson said, no one spoke in favor of doing that, so the course remained open only for golfers. He said the summer heat and other factors may have caused the drop in individuals walking on the course during the trial period.
“The demand for park use was huge early in the summer, but it fell as the country clubs reopened and people went on vacation or returned to their vacation homes,” Dickerson said. “Even the usage of the (bicycle and pedestrian) path has declined, possibly due to the heat.”