How Muny Conservancy Aims to Save Lions Municipal Golf Course
THE FIRST DESEGREGATED COURSE SOUTH OF THE MASON-DIXON FACES UNCERTAIN FUTURE AS IT REMAINS OPEN THROUGH SHORT-TERM LEASES
By Bryan C. Parker
Photos courtesy of The Muny Conservancy
On a temperate evening at the end of May, Scotty Sayers steers his golf cart over the vibrant green grass at Lions Municipal Golf Course, affectionately called Muny. Fellow golfers in passing carts give a wave as he passes, and most greet him enthusiastically by name. Navigating beneath the shade of sprawling, gorgeous Heritage Live Oak trees, he pulls up alongside a dense, overgrown area of woods near the green for the 18th hole.
“I think this would make a great site for a new clubhouse,” he says, gesturing outward with a smile. Sayers has a vision for what Muny can become — he just wants the opportunity to make it happen.
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Over its century-plus history, Muny has hosted world-famous golfers, provided a recreational gathering ground to the public of Austin, served as the practice site for high school squads, and was the location of a major turning point in civil rights history. But that long history could be in jeopardy of coming to a close.
The municipal golf course’s story stretches all the way back to 1910, when George Brackenridge donated a 503-acre tract of land along the banks of the Colorado River to the University of Texas. The university’s longest serving regent, Brackenridge made the donation in hopes that the school would relocate its campus to the site, but that dream never came to fruition. In 1924, the Austin Lions Club negotiated a lease with UT to construct a municipal golf course on a portion of the acreage. They operated the course until 1936, when its management was turned over to the City of Austin, who have since been in charge of Muny over the course of a succession of leases.
However, since the 2018 expiration of the most recent agreement between the university and the City, the course has been at the mercy of a rolling short-term lease of just a few months at a time. The notice could come any week that the lease will not be renewed, ending the course’s tenure.
Sayers’ cart careens past a water hazard recommended by famed golf course architect Albert Warren Tillinghast and makes its way into a thicket of woods where a series of buildings sit tucked out of view of the course.
“These storage buildings were constructed by the WPA,” he explains. He points to his left at a small cottage that has housed the course’s superintendent for almost a hundred years. In its time, Muny has hosted famed golfers such as Ben Hogan and Harvey Penick, but the course’s historical significance transcends the game of golf.
In 1950, two Black young men — one of whom, Alvin Propps, worked at Muny as a caddie — arrived at the course and began playing a round of golf. Although court cases such as “Sweatt vs. Painter” (a Travis County case that successfully challenged “separate but equal” doctrine with respect to UT School of Law admissions) had begun to erode segregationist policies, it was still years before the landmark “Brown vs. Board of Education” ruling that precipitated more sweeping change. Many public spaces in the South remained segregated. Propps and his friend were detained by local authorities, and the situation was eventually escalated to Austin Mayor Taylor Glass. The mayor convened with members of the city council and ultimately decided that the men should be allowed to complete their round.
Without court order or official rule of law, Muny became the first desegregated golf course south of the Mason-Dixon line. In the ensuing months, Black golfers came from around the state, or farther, to play the course, including Joe Louis, who visited Muny in 1953. Most famous for his career as a boxer, Louis became an avid golfer later in life and served an instrumental role in desegregating the game.
To attempt to give the course permanent security and preserve its vital history, Sayers and Austin-born professional golfer Ben Crenshaw formed the Muny Conservancy, a private, non-profit organization with a stated mission of preserving the course and keeping it affordable and accessible. Ultimately, the Muny Conservancy hopes to purchase the land from UT and has worked to raise funds through donations and events such as their 2020 benefit concert with Lukas Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel.
“When you add together the history, the civil rights history and the recreational aspects, you’ve got an important reason to save this,” Sayers says. Pausing his drive for a moment along the far Eastern boundary of the property, he notes some scrubby brush that needs to be removed and explains the kind of care required of the majestic oaks and walnut trees. From his perspective, short leases and city budgeting have hampered possibilities of growth and maintenance of the course.
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If the Muny Conservancy is able to purchase the land from UT, it could make it easier to raise funds from private donors and to plan revenue-generating events, according to Sayers. He envisions a new clubhouse that might be rented for events as well as a renovation of the longstanding historic clubhouse. His vision also includes the installation of bocce ball courts, picnic areas and a walking trail that connects Enfield Road with Lake Austin Boulevard — features that would attract an audience beyond just golfers.
In an emailed statement, Eliska Padilla, a representative from the Office of the President at UT, acknowledged Brackenridge’s generous gift, saying, “As with all gifts entrusted to us, we will continue to strive to be good stewards of the Brackenridge land for the benefit of the current and future generations of students we serve.”
Sayers hopes the university weighs the value of the course’s history and the affordable access to golf it provides as a substantial benefit to those students. Despite its name, the University of Texas Golf Club is a private course to which neither students nor the public have access. Because of the expenses associated with acquiring the equipment and accessing courses, golf possesses a fairly high barrier for entry, but Muny’s status as a municipal course affords the opportunity for anyone to play.
Sayers parks his cart back at the clubhouse and stands watching a youth class practice their swings on the driving range. A group of older ladies climbs into a cart to head out on the course. Beneath the shade of a nearby oak, a group of regulars sit in folding chairs, conversing after a round.
“This is two years older than Zilker Park,” he says, gazing out over the grounds. “This is so important to our city.” For him, the course’s history matters tremendously, but its future is even more important. “It’s a gathering place,” he says, and it’s one he’s fighting to preserve.
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