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November 2022

‘OP9’: A New Public-Private Effort Revives an Old Course for Children

By Tom Bailey

On a beautiful October Thursday in Memphis, two 15-year-old boys arrived at Overton Park 9 (OP9) a half-hour early for their 3:50 p.m. tee time.
 
“We’re here because it’s free,” Grayson West said of the new public-private project that redesigned, rebuilt and rebranded the previously-named Links at Overton Park.… “And it’s a really cool thing just to do after school to hang out with your friends and play the sport of golf.”
 
Waiting for two other buddies to arrive, Grayson and his Crosstown High schoolmate, Jonah Leslie, sat under a massive oak that shaded their picnic table near the new practice green.
 
$4 million raised
 
That tree is likely older than even the venerable, 116-year-old course. The diminutive track – 2,200 yards – has nurtured generations of fledgling golfers like Grayson and Jonah over the decades. The old course carries a well-earned reputation as an incubator of Memphis golfers.
 
In fact, many of the middle-aged and senior golfers who harbor fond memories of learning the game at OP9 whipped out their checkbooks when asked to contribute to the make-over. About $4 million has been privately raised in the public-private effort to renew Memphis’s first public golf course. OP9 reopened on June 25 following 18 months of construction and grow-in. Renovation of the historic, 96-year-old clubhouse should be completed this winter.
 
The X-Box & Heartbreak Hotel
 
King Collins Design replaced tired, tiny pop-up greens with larger, pristine surfaces shaped with tiers, rises or even punchbowls.
 
Challenging, yes, but no sand bunkers, severe slopes or other hazards guard the front of the greens, which are designed to warmly embrace kids’ golf balls no matter if they fly or roll onto the putting surface.
Still, OP9 demands strategy. For instance, players on the tee of No. 5, a short par 4, must decide whether to go over, short of, or around the youthfully named “X-Box.” That jagged mash-up of mounds and sand bunkers looms in the middle of the fairway about 40 yards in front of the punchbowl green. And there’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” consisting of tall mounds of native grasses and waste area to the right of No. 8 fairway.
 
Teaching life skills
 
Such obstacles will help children hone their life skills, especially decision-making, said Vince Alfonso Jr. The PGA Professional is a former president and 12-year board member at the National Golf Course Owners Association who now is golf and facilities director for the faith-based Memphis Athletic Ministries. Alfonso volunteered to play a key role in the OP9 project, especially in re-energizing the 75-year-old Overton Park Junior Open. About 160 players participated in the four-day tournament in July 2022.
 
 
 
The junior classic has always gone out of its way to accommodate children who are just learning the game. But last summer Alfonso, tournament co-director Dwight Drinkard and other organizers pulled out all the stops: giving entrants freebies ranging from golf caps and balls to bananas; displaying the kind of large electronic scoreboard used at pro tournaments; hosting food trucks; and having former PGA Tour player Loren Roberts hang medals around the necks of flight winners and runners-up.
 
There’s a bigger point behind all those efforts: unleashing the life skills that golf can convey.
 
“Decision-making at its highest degree,” Alfonso said of golf. “You have to think; you have to make decisions. ‘I want to shoot the lowest score I can, so I need to go over there so I can finish this hole,’” he said. “Also, you are your own policeman on the golf course. It’s your integrity that makes the score. Honesty is the trademark of the game of golf.”
 
A pleasant problem
 
The OP9 project was the brainchild of George Cates, a Memphis philanthropist and civic leader. Tragically, the 83-year-old Cates died in a private-plane crash in June 2021, five months after OP9’s construction started.
 
Taking the reins following Cates’s death were his friend Parks Dixon, vice president of a produce brokerage company, and Gary Shorb, a former hospital chief executive and current executive director of a Memphis nonprofit promoting the education and health of young children. 
 
Shorb leads the fund-raising and Dixon oversees the construction, which now involves monitoring the renovation of the historic Abe Goodman Clubhouse and making minor tweaks to the course.
For example, in early fall Dixon scheduled with city golf officials a tour of OP9’s new teeing grounds to address a pleasant problem. So many golfers have been drawn to the renovated course that the turf on some of the tee boxes already were showing signs of stress. “We’re considering putting turf mats on the back of the tees to protect the course because it’s getting played so much,” Dixon said.
 
Record number of rounds
 
Among those touring the tee boxes with Dixon was Mickey Barker. As Memphis’s administrator of golf, Barker oversees seven public courses and a $5.5 million operating budget. The complexities of pulling off such a public-private project as the OP9 makeover had Barker a “bit apprehensive” initially. But his concerns were allayed by the public’s response. In July, OP9 hosted 2,367 rounds, far eclipsing the previous monthly record of about 1,500 rounds during Barker’s eight years leading Memphis public golf courses.
 
“So far it has turned out to be a great partnership,” Barker said. “(The private partners) want the course to be as great as it can be; we do, too.
“It has created a golf course, in the end, that is great. Fun to play, and a lot more people coming to play golf than we have ever had,” said Barker. 
 
Jonah, the 15-year-old golfer, was playing OP9 for just the second time on that beautiful October afternoon.
 
“So far it’s been really nice because it’s beginner-friendly and overall a really friendly group of people who run the park,” he said. “It’s been great.”
And yes, his friend Grayson was right. Juniors 17 and under play for free.

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