For nearly a century, Brookline’s public golf course has offered a rolling expanse of fairways and greens, a place for all-comers to enjoy a game jokingly called “a good walk spoiled.”
But now, in a swirling debate centered on what should count as “open space,” there are calls to scale back the 18-hole course, potentially by half, creating more space for walkers who aren’t driving carts or carrying golf bags.
The future of the Robert T. Lynch Municipal Golf Course — better known as Putterham Meadows or the Brookline Golf Course — has stirred controversy for months, pitting those who want to increase public access to the 120-acre parcel against those who want to protect the popular destination from major change.
The acrimonious debate has played out on social media and in local news editorials, and in a community where local issues have become more divisive in recent years, residents say the golf course has become a flashpoint for broader disagreements about the direction of the town.
“Almost everything in Brookline is contentious these days,” said Heather Hamilton, chairwoman of the Select Board. But this particular issue is “kind of a proxy for something else.”
“I think a lot of people want to see more land use dedicated to everyone in Brookline,” Hamilton said. “But from my perspective, it’s not that simple.”
A resolution that comes before Town Meeting on Wednesday asks that the golf course’s master plan, now under review, be broadened to “consider what environmentally responsible uses are feasible within the 120 acres,” including “at least one option with a 9-hole golf course.”
While the measure is nonbinding, the idea of shrinking the course has gotten a rough reception, with many people saying that a nine-hole version will not be financially viable.
“I don’t understand why somebody would be against this golf course,” said Richard Nangle, 61, a Town Meeting member who has golfed at the course since he was a kid. “The divide comes down to closing nine holes or not. But why? For what reason?”
Between 32,000 and 35,000 rounds of golf are played at the course each year, according to town officials.
“From the middle of May till the end of September — it doesn’t matter what day it is — you’re lucky to get a tee time at all,” said Nangle, who plays regularly at the course.
Jennifer Goldsmith, a member of the group that wrote the proposal, said the course is underutilized by Brookline residents and that its environmental issues — including pesticide use — are “profound.”
She said the debate has been so “rancorous” she is questioning her future in town government.
“While this is a really reasonable proposal, it raises the hackles of people who feel under siege,” said Goldsmith, 55. “They feel like the thing they care about is the thing that’s being attacked, and the instinct is to attack back.”
Discussions about the course’s future have raised questions about its environmental impact amid a heightened focus on addressing climate change at the local level and how such a sizable portion of open space should be used. The Town Meeting measure suggests a range of ideas for the course, including a “perimeter path, wetland restoration, Miyawaki forest, tree nursery, [and] community gardens.”
“Plans should only consider uses that do not result in a further degradation of the natural peatland that currently exists on the golf course,” the warrant article states.
Over the past several years, Brookline has made it a priority to protect watersheds, reduce carbon emissions, and increase open space, proponents say on their website, Reimagining Brookline. While golf is a “terrific leisure activity,” it “reduces tree cover, uses pesticides, [and] requires intensive watering,” the site states.
Len Wholey, 42, said proponents aren’t advocating for a specific alternative to the town’s master plan but want officials to “consider what else is possible,” such as reducing the size of the course to allow for “more of other uses, including walking and biking paths.”
“If we were given 120 acres today, would we allocate that land to be a golf course?” proponents say on the site. “More likely, we would be in an uproar if dozens of acres were slated for deforestation for an activity engaged in by a tiny fraction of residents and non-residents.”
The course is now open to non-golfers only on most Monday mornings until noon.
Both town officials and those who use the course are strongly opposed to the plan, which they say is unfeasible and too expensive. In a March presentation by a master plan design committee, critics didn’t mince words.
“THESE ACTIVITIES CAN NOT JEOPARDIZE THE ABILITY TO OFFER 18 HOLES OF GOLF,” they wrote.
But committee members, including Justin Lawson, the course’s general manager, acknowledged at the March meeting that the course needs to incorporate other recreational programs as a way of being more welcoming to non-golfers, with a goal of undercutting the “perception of golf [being] for [the] wealthy only.” Lawson could not be reached for comment.
Even if the article is approved, it won’t force any changes to the master plan, said Town Moderator Kate Poverman. But with so many people signed up to speak at Town Meeting — for and against the proposal — she expects it to be “a long debate.”
In a letter to the Select Board last month, Recreation Department Director Leigh Jackson wrote that the course is “largely supported by nonresidents” and would “likely create a taxpayer burden” if reduced in size.
The course operates on a “break-even basis, resulting in no fiscal burden to the town,” she wrote.
While a design team is considering adding trails, a dog park, and an ice skating pond to the property, building on the course presents a challenge due to the amount of peat and wetland buffer zones, Jackson wrote.
Jim Carroll, a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission who helped select the master plan’s architect, said the “dramatic changes” being proposed have been “upsetting to a lot of members of the community.”
Carroll and others are putting together a presentation for Wednesday’s meeting to represent those who want to keep the golf course as it is.
“When passions are flying, there’s bound to be a little bit of frustration,” said Carroll, who said his opinions don’t represent the entire commission. “But at the end of the day, we’re all living in the town together.”
Select Board members recently voted to not recommend a version of the measure to Town Meeting, Hamilton said. She noted that Brookline already has a number of paths and parks — including nearby Larz Anderson Park — and that reducing the course could put pressure on the town’s budget.
“It’s questionable whether a nine-hole course” could remain profitable, said Mike Sandman, a Select Board member who is also opposed to the measure.
“There are almost certainly ways to add other activities without risking the viability of the 18-hole course,” he said.
Nangle said the master plan gives the town a long overdue chance to beautify the course, in turn making it a better complement to The Country Club, a highly rated private course where the US Open was held in June.
“If you’re going to play golf, and you live in Greater Boston, you really only have a handful of choices,” he said. “If this golf course ever went away, it would be much harder for working-class people to find an affordable tee time.”
“It feels like an opportunity for us to think broadly,” she said. “But there’s an entrenchment in our approach.”