Pacing back and forth, Mike Johnson shouted out four names at a time as the sun rose above him. More than 100 people wearing variations of khaki pants and polo shirts circled around him, knowing this ritual at 7:30 a.m. on a Thursday could soon end.
Two by two, the men paired up and jumped into golf carts. They drove tracks through the dew-kissed grass of the LSU Golf Course on one of the first chilly mornings in Baton Rouge this fall.
“A lot of older people, this is their life,” said Randy Ellis, 68, who has been playing at the LSU Golf Course since he attended the university. “And you can’t take that away from them.”
But there is a possibility, in fact, that LSU could take away the tradition for the course’s more than 100-member Senior Group. The course is being examined by an LSU review committee right now, as a group of faculty and staff members consider whether the self-supporting entity is the best use of university land.
A handful of Baton Rouge-area golf courses have closed over the past few years, including The Oaks at Sherwood, Briarwood Golf Club, Fairwood Country Club, Shenandoah Country Club Golf Course and the Gonzales Country Club. These closures are part of a larger national trend, as courses struggled financially when the recession set in and fewer players were attracted to the game.
But the problem with the LSU Golf Course is less about declining revenue and more about space.
The course sits on 127 acres of prime real estate across the street from Tiger Stadium, between Nicholson Drive and Gourrier Avenue. As LSU looks to develop its campus, some might conclude these 18 holes of manicured grass stand in the way of expansion.
“Where would 120 of us go to play if they close it down?” asked Art Grimes, one of the most vocal members of the senior golfers. “We’re not gonna give up. We’re not.”
God first, golf second is Grimes’ life motto. He attends 6:30 a.m. Mass every weekday. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he rushes to his green Toyota Corolla after the final “Amen” and hurries to make it for the 7:45 a.m. tee-off.
Grimes, 78, has been an LSU Golf Course regular for 10 years.
His group spent Thursday morning navigating the course until they finally reached the 17th hole, which Grimes insists is the most difficult. He bent over his golf club, a white towel cascading from his back belt loop, and took a swing.
“Gently, gently, gently!” called another golfer. Grimes’ neon yellow ball dropped just past the purple and yellow flag.
The four like to razz one another, and continue this routine until they finish their game around noon. Then they head to Walk-On’s Bistreaux and Bar.
“It’s like a fraternity,” Grimes said.
Many of the golfers have memberships elsewhere but prefer the LSU course. Ellis says the golfers at Greystone Golf and Country Club, where he is a member, take themselves too seriously. He and his LSU golf partner have an ongoing 25-cent bet for the winner of each game.
Ellis said he is a Tiger Athletic Foundation donor, and he believes the group wants to turn the golf course into gameday parking.
“It’s political,” Ellis said as he sat in the golf clubhouse, tapping his foot on the plaid carpet beneath him. “Look at that,” he gestured to younger players on the driving range. “You’ve got all these college kids out here, you’re gonna take it all away from them.”
Tammy Millican, assistant director for Facility Services at LSU, said a review committee will determine if the golf course should stay open and in what form. They will decide within two to three months.
As far as the gameday parking and other potential uses for the space, she shook her head.
“We have heard rumors from everything from parking to a new library — we do not know what’s going there,” she said.
Millican said they are accepting emails and letters, and will forward them to the review committee to consider.
Students get a discount to play at the course, kinesiology classes are taught there and more than 30 students work at the course. The kinesiology department representatives are helping determine if the 18-hole course is necessary for golf classes, and Millican said they would try to place the student workers in other on-campus jobs if the course closes.
The LSU golf teams have not practiced at the LSU Golf Course since 1998, when the more difficult course at the University Club on Memorial Tower Drive opened.
This would not be the first time that LSU expansions have caused the golf course to change. It has moved locations and relocated holes several times during its 50-plus-year history to accommodate a widening of Nicholson Drive, make room for the new Alex Box Stadium/Skip Bertman Field and for other reasons.
LSU’s master plan goes through an update every 10 years or so, and the review of the golf course is part of a larger campus assessment.
“It’s 127 acres of campus space,” Millican said. “We want to make sure we’re using the space the best way possible to meet our academic mission.”
If the golf course closes, Millican and the golfers agreed they would most miss the ever-present golf course director Mike Johnson. Millican said Johnson is considering retiring in the next few months.
Johnson declined to be interviewed for this article but on Thursday chatted with all the golfers, knowing every handicap by heart.
Jackie Thompson works in the golf clubhouse alongside Johnson, and said they have grown close to the regulars.
“They become family to us,” Thompson said.
Grimes agreed that his golf friends are like family.
He said this past Thursday morning was especially great because he birdied on his last hole.
Grimes also saw a white egret perched by one of the ponds, casting a reflection off the water. He loves the egrets, and the bird inspired him to come up with a new strategy to keep the golf course open.
He asked a buddy to take a photo of it. Show people the picture and give it this caption, Grimes suggested.
“Where will he play?”