Even Donald Ross isn't safe from development at historic Rackham G.C.
HUNTINGTON WOODS, Mich. - Everyone who knows golf real estate knows the profit pressure to turn prime course property to commercial or residential use. In cities and towns, less-profitable municipal courses can make tempting targets - even historic ones.
Rackham Golf Course in Huntington Woods is the latest potential casualty. But thanks to a vigorous fight by local residents and golfers, this Donald Ross gem has won at least a temporary stay of execution, with an Oakland County judge blocking a sale of the property that would have led to the course's closure and replacement with a housing development.
Rackham was put on the block last year by its owner, the City of Detroit, which is scrambling to claw its way out of deficit. The City of Huntington Woods put in a $6.25 million bid in hopes of preserving the course - but development group Premium Golf LLC bid $5 million more, and earlier this month signed a sales agreement with Detroit.
Don't be fooled by Premium Golf's name - its plan is to shut down the course and build some 400 homes on the site. With property values exceeding those of neighboring communities, Huntington Woods is a particularly desirable spot for developers. Residents of the city, allied with Detroit-area golfers, went to court to stop the sale, claiming deed restrictions dating from the Rackham family's 1924 donation of the land prevent the redevelopment.
Estimated legal costs in the fight to save Rackham are expected to run to nearly $400,000, $90,000 of which has been raised so far through Citizens to Save Rackham, a group that sprang up in opposition to the sale.
"We think it would be a terrible, terrible mistake to allow the golf course to be developed since development of this beautiful land will irreversibly and negatively alter the character of Huntington Woods," the group declares on its Web site.
Rackham Golf Course was originally a gift to Detroit by Horace and Mary Rackham, avid golfers who had had amassed a fortune investing in Ford Motor Co.
After the exclusive Oakland Hills Country Club opened north of Detroit in 1923, the Rackhams wanted to give the common man a place to appreciate the game too. They commissioned Ross to build an affordable public course close to downtown. To protect their gift, they put a restriction in the deed that said the property must be used as a public golf course.
Rackham's historical significance goes deeper than just its famed designer. It was here that Ben Davis became the country's first African-American head golf pro in 1968, just a year after the infamous Detroit riots. Legendary heavyweight champion Joe Louis, a Detroit native, held an annual tournament at Rackham for black amateur golfers.
The 94-year-old Davis still lives in the area and has come out against the course sale.
"At a time when we were not allowed to golf on many courses, Rackham Golf Course stands today as a reminder of the equality we enjoyed when we were turned away at other courses," he wrote in a letter to Detroit officials which was quoted in a July Detroit Free Press article. "It is a great and successful golf course and it should remain as it is today."
Not only would the closure of Rackham mean one of Ross' courses is gone forever; its 120 acres make up 17 percent of Huntington Woods' overall land area and almost all of its park space.
You can't blame the City of Detroit for entertaining its biggest offer, especially considering its current economic state. But in doing so, it risks making monumental - and permanent - damage to Huntington Woods and to metro Detroit's golf legacy.
Ross' imprint is all over Michigan golf, nowhere more so than in the Detroit area. Between 1911 and 1927 he built or assisted in building more 20 courses statewide, including storied Oakland Hills.
Today many of these courses have closed or are private, one of the reasons Rackham remains a draw. It's the most popular public Ross course left in metro Detroit, and in 2002 Travel & Leisure Golf magazine named it one of Ross' 10 best public tracks. The course often has full tee sheets on weekends thanks to its central location, modest prices ($35-$46 including cart), good conditions and traditional design.
For the moment, the course is safe. On Oct. 11 Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Rae Lee Chabot ruled that, under the deed restriction, the property must remain a golf course, park or other public facility.
However, the judge ruled that the City of Detroit may still sell the course, and a spokesman for the mayor's office told the Free Press that the Premium Golf sale remains "the best choice" for the city.
Huntington Woods City Manager Alex Allie said, "I hope the City of Detroit will sit down with us now."
If You Go
Rackham Golf Course
10100 W. 10 Mile Road
Huntington Woods, MI
November 3, 2006