The Brown Deer Park Golf Course can't seem to catch a break.
First, the Greater Milwaukee Open/U.S. Bank Championship folded in 2009 after a 42-year run - the last 16 at Brown Deer - and the Milwaukee County-owned course no longer had the distinction of playing host to the PGA Tour.
Then an unfortunate case of winter kill in 2010 left in its wake splotches of dead turf and the mistaken notion that the course wasn't being maintained up to its previous standards. Some leaped to the conclusion that because the Tour no longer was coming, the county was letting Brown Deer go to pasture.
It didn't seem to matter that many other courses in the area were affected by winter kill, which is caused by ice sheets and snow mold and not a pared-down budget. Perception is reality.
The latest blow occurred when Brown Deer was left off Golfweek magazine's list of "Best Municipal Courses 2010-'11" earlier this month. The county gem had been a staple on the list and its omission puzzled Jon Canavan, the golf and recreation turf manager for Milwaukee County Parks.
"It was disappointing," Canavan said. "So how do we get back to where we need to be? We think it's by adding value to the golf course, by adding amenities."
To that end, the county has made several upgrades to Brown Deer.
A continuous cart path was finished late last year, which means golfers who do not want to walk can play the course even after heavy rain.
An extensive bunker renovation project is under way and will be completed in August. The original bunkers had no drainage and water pooled in them after downpours; that problem is being addressed. Every bunker will get new sand.
Brown Deer will open its locker room and showers - previously used only by the touring pros - for everyday play. Golfers will be able to purchase an annual locker pass or rent a locker for the day.
A staffed bag drop located near the clubhouse will be available Thursday through Sunday.
A second tee is being built on the driving range, a necessity because the original tee is small and tends to get chewed up.
I toured Brown Deer last week with Canavan and the course was in excellent shape. The fairways were plush and thick and the greens were fine, albeit on the slow side because of the unusually cold, rainy spring.
"We're about three weeks behind because of the weather," Canavan said.
Canavan, 33, knows what a top golf course should look like. He spent four years as assistant superintendent at Oakland Hills in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and then seven years at Brynwood Country Club (now the Wisconsin Club), the last four as superintendent.
He said the winter kill problem last year was a case of unlucky timing, considering the PGA Tour had pulled up stakes months earlier. But contrary to what many think, Brown Deer didn't receive money from the Tour.
"The PGA Tour never gave us any money," he said. "They only accounted for the two weeks of lost tee times (while the course was closed for the tournament). As far as money that goes into the golf course, it was always parks."
Arnold Walker, president of the Milwaukee County Public Links Association for 28 years and a longtime champion of public links golf, said rumors that Brown Deer was being neglected weren't true.
"Everyone says without the Tour, Brown Deer is going to go down and that's a falsehood," he said. "They're continuing to improve the course. They are not neglecting their facilities."
Thirty-three of the 50 courses on Golfweek's "best municipal" list have opened since 1990 and only nine opened before 1957, which suggests a possible bias on the part of the magazine's raters. Are modern courses really that much better than courses built during the so-called "Golden Era" (Brown Deer opened in 1929)?
"I would say it is more that the old courses are pretty much run-down," said Bradley S. Klein, architecture editor for Golfweek. "The newer courses have bentgrass turf, cart paths, effective tree management, high quality bunkers. Whether that's a bias on the part of raters or the new courses are better built and maintained, I don't know.
"Certainly, newer courses have made an impact. I do think older courses have a tougher time competing."
Klein said he had "a couple" comments from raters on the "extensive tree growth" at Brown Deer "that has impeded lines of play and maintenance and shots and so on. That's one dynamic that I think is pretty clear."
Canavan said more than 100 trees had been removed around greens, so the putting surfaces will get more air and sun. The tree removal also should help minimize damage from winter kill in the future.
"My message to golfers would be to just come out and give Brown Deer a try, see what you think," he said. "It's a fun golf course."
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