Chandler Park, City Courses Moving Golf Forward Detroit Style

Editor’s note: This story appears in the 2020 GAM Michigan Links Course Directory that is being sent to members this month.

  DETROIT – Karen Peek and Lisa Woodcox have more than a vested interest in keeping the game of golf alive and well when it comes to the city of Detroit.

  The LPGA professionals, who operate and manage the city’s three remaining public courses — Chandler Park, Rackham and Rouge Park — are born and bred Detroiters who want to see the game remain readily accessible to community members regardless of age, gender or race.

  Peek, the first black member of the Michigan LPGA, started playing golf in 1969 at age 14 at the Detroit Free Press Golf School at Palmer Park. She worked for American Golf Corporation for about 15 years before the current management company, Signet Golf Associates, took over managing the city of Detroit golf courses.

  “It just captured my imagination immediately,” Peek says. “I loved the game and took private lessons from Chris Williams at Palmer and, after that, from the legendary Ben Davis at Rackham. That was my start; it has been a love affair ever since. I had the privilege of teaching with Ben in the ’80s and ’90s, and what an experience.”

  As director of operations for Golf Detroit, Peek has had the opportunity to manage all the city courses during her career, which at one time also included Rogell, Belle Isle and Palmer Park.

  In 2018, Peek was hired by Signet, based in Pinehurst, N.C., which was able to obtain the management contract from the city to operate Rackham, Rouge and Chandler for two years.

  “That also has been a very, very positive experience for us,” Peek says.

  Woodcox, who manages Chandler Park, began playing the game at age 7 with her mother and has made it a fulfilling career as well.

  “My dad had grown up playing golf and learned from the Free Press golf schools in Detroit at Rogell,” she says. “He loved golf growing up, and at the same time, I thought it would be something fun to do with my mom and dad together, and so I tagged along and fell in love with it right off the bat.”

  Woodcox started working for Peek in 1988 at Rackham. She also spent time with the LPGA’s urban golf program and The First Tee of Greater Detroit.

  Like Peek, she has managed all four city of Detroit courses. The two have been intertwined for over 30 years.

  “I think Karen and I are the only two people that have managed all four city courses, and unfortunately, there’s only three now with Palmer Park (closing),” Woodcox says. “I had the opportunity last October to come back and to work managing Chandler and working for Karen again, and I couldn’t pass up that opportunity.”

  To provide affordable and available opportunities for the golfing public at-large, the city of Detroit recently made a $2.5 million commitment to give its three courses a facelift.

  Chandler Park, located on the east side, has undergone a major renovation.

  “This has really been an exciting development over the last year and a half,” Peek says. “It’s been a real partnership with the city. They have invested in all three properties. It starts when you come in. If you look around here, you see all the boundary fencing was replaced, so completely through the park, around the neighborhood, the expressway (I-94) and north on the Dickerson (Road) side. It really gave a fresh, clean look to the course.”

  The Chandler Park clubhouse has also been renovated.

  “We have new flooring, new furnishings,” Peek says. “Lisa built the bar. We’re making some improvements to the pavilion area so the golfers have additional space now to sit down either before, during or after a round, have a burger and a beer.

  “Maybe the biggest project here was the installation of a new, fully automated irrigation system. That’s really the lifeblood of a golf course — being able to manage your water, maintain the turf — so that was a huge project.”

  Rouge Park, located on the west side, has undergone some marked improvements as well.

  “There are six bridges at Rouge Park — they were probably the original bridges — so all of those were repaired and replaced,” Peek says. “The wood that you see on the bar area (at Chandler) is actually from the (Rouge) bridges. It’s a pretty cool story. We’re building some new tees. … We’ve done some irrigation work there as well, drainage work. We’ve built a brand-new pavilion at Rouge Park. It seats up to 100 people; it’s fully enclosed. That’s something they desperately needed because (the) clubhouse is very, very small.”

Rackham, located on the border of Huntington Woods adjacent to the Detroit Zoo, had its clubhouse repainted and cleaned up, according to Peek.

“And the greens are wonderful everywhere,” she says. “We’ve got great superintendents that have done an amazing job in restoring really the quality and the consistency at each one of these golf courses, so I couldn’t be more proud of being involved with the city and also with our company (Signet) in pulling this together.”

While renovations have certainly helped the cause, growing the game is the number one objective for Peek and Woodcox going forward.

The city golf courses will continue to partner with three well-known grassroots programs.

One is “Golf. My Future. My Game.” It’s a nonprofit that targets women, millennials, communities of color and youth to foster greater diversity in both business and the sport of golf through awareness, mentorship, access and achievement.

Another of their favorites during the summer is Kids on the Go, a pediatric nonprofit designed to provide physical, occupational and speech therapy to children with special needs (ages 3-17).

The First Tee of Greater Detroit has also been a staple for local kids. Regardless of background or previous experience, the six-week spring, summer and fall programs teach life skills and provide character education through the game of golf.

The Detroit public courses have also partnered with the Youth on Course program, made available through the Golf Association of Michigan Foundation. Kids ages 6-18 can register online for a $5 Youth on Course card that allows them to play at participating facilities around the Detroit area and throughout the state for $5 or less.

“In addition to raising the money to offset some of the $5 greens fees, every child that walks through this door, we ask them, ‘Are you part of Youth on Course?’” Woodcox says. “And we have the collateral information right at the counter if the parents haven’t heard of it. We don’t have numbers to know actually how many kids, but we know there’s been a lot of the kids that are so excited. They walk up to the counter and present that card. And then that’s fun.”

Peek is also trying to reach out specifically to high school golfers.

“We’ve encouraged their entire teams to sign up — and they have — for Youth on Course,” she says.

Bringing women into the fold is another big initiative for Peek.

“We’ve talked about doing programs like a ‘Nine and Wine,’ where hey, come out and have a little social activity, then go out and have a little lesson and go out and play,” she says. “Those are some of (the) things we’re going to do next year as a player development-type program.

  “The industry has gone through some dramatic changes from when we were initially involved in the ’90s and early 2000s … when golf was booming. There’s no question that every segment of the industry … whether you’re talking municipal, or the daily fee, even in private clubs environment, they’ve struggled with participation. We definitely need to think about things to reinvent ourselves as operations. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Chandler Park has been considered a “player friendly” course, its distances not as long or difficult as some others.

“But for a beginning-level player, it still can be very daunting,” Peek says. “Even if you’re standing back here at 280 (yards), that’s a long way. How about if we start play at the 150? And every hole is a par-3. We can create scorecards for that. We can go out with those players that might be intimidated, and very often, it is women, and that’s such an untapped group.

“Women start golf and play golf generally for different reasons than men do. At the head of the list of reasons is that it’s a social experience. We want to have that environment here, specifically, because it’s a great course to do it — where people feel they can go, ‘And let’s go out to Chandler and have some fun.’”

Written by BRAD EMONS / Photos by DAVID DALTON