Leslie Park Golf Course earns national praise from Golf Digest, loyalty from locals
Shortly after 6 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, sprinklers catapult water across fairways, and a maintenance worker shuts down his riding mower's headlights, as the sun lifts above the trees at Leslie Park Golf Course
Yunshik Kim steps to the first tee, smacking a crisp shot down the right side of this par-four opener on Ann Arbor’s north side. “My life is about playing golf,” Kim says, striding toward her next shot. “My play is still not very good,” she adds, perhaps too modestly, “It’s a mysterious thing.”
If her game lacks anything, though, it isn’t effort. On this day, Kim, 47, a South Korean, mixes in 18 holes at Leslie Park before driving north to Traverse City for 18 more. It’s typical for Kim to play two rounds a day, most of them at Leslie Park.
“It’s very nice here, the walking and the people,” she says. “The people who play here frequently, I know most of them.”
Kim is part of a growing community of golfers who claim Leslie Park as their home course. Even as the economy sputters and people slash their recreation budgets, Leslie Park is hosting more rounds of golf than ever - it’s on pace for 30,000 rounds this year, compared to 27,000 last year and 25,000 in 2007.
Not only is city-owned Leslie Park enjoying more rounds played, but golfers also say the quality of the greens and fairways has improved during the last couple of years. The city has increased staffing and pumped nearly $900,000 of much-needed funding into new maintenance equipment (sharing some with Huron Hills Golf Course), resulting in a course that has earned national honors and local favor.
Golf Digest this month named Leslie Park the state’s top municipal golf course, and gave it a 4.5-star rating in its list of best places to play. But Pat Harrison doesn’t need a magazine to tell him Leslie Park has become an attractive option.
“This is the best shape it’s ever been in,” Harrison, 62, of Ann Arbor said. He should know - Harrison has played the course since it opened in 1967, and remembers when “three or four holes were just brutal as far as the greens.”
But the city’s investments have resulted in great progress, Harrison said, a good sign for a course that has strived to retain golfers like Harrison.
“The course is only 44 years old, so a lot of our veteran golfers have seen this course come from the open field and forest, and the pear orchard that it was, to this beautiful masterpiece,” said Doug Kelly, director of golf for Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation. “There’s really a sense of pride I’ve seen with the ones who’ve been playing here forever. The old-timers come tell stories of when we were operating on a trailer on a hill instead of a clubhouse.”
As for the clubhouse, Leslie Park hasn’t expanded too much beyond that trailer, keeping its clubhouse offerings relatively modest. But it’s Leslie Park’s greens and fairways - not extra amenities - that have won over local golfers, Harrison said.
“The grounds crew has done a great job,” he said. “People come here to golf, not to eat at the snack bar.”
Leslie Park also has scored points by eliminating a $4 surcharge for people who live outside of Ann Arbor, as well as reducing weekday green fees from $30 to $25.
“That was a huge boost in terms of being able to attract people from outside Ann Arbor again,” Kelly said. “It has brought back a lot of groups.”
The combination of improved terrain and lower prices has renewed the loyalty of longtime golfers and endeared Leslie Park to growing number of folks seeking a new favorite course.
“The degree of difficulty is good,” said Santosh Mehra, 65, of Ann Arbor who just started playing Leslie Park within the last two years. “Anyone who wants to play can, and it’s cheap.”