This story is part of a Madison Commons series produced by master's students in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. These stories explore how people in Madison and Dane County find different ways to develop cultures within our community, looking for opportunities to draw connections with each other to learn more about our world.
Recent development regarding public golf course highlights a growing problem within Madison's golfing community
On the east side of Madison, located half a mile past I-90, lies the city’s biggest golf facility, Yahara Hills.
With two 18-hole courses, rolling green hills and rows of tall trees that keep the outside world at bay, Yahara has been a favorite spot for general golfers since its opening in 1968. But with the recent sale of the east course, the days of playing that part of Yahara Hills are shrinking, and with them — it could be argued — a part of Madison’s golfing culture.
Given its age, the golf course has hosted many events over the years, including several city, state and national tournaments.
Not all of these events are strictly golf-related. In December 2019, Yahara was chosen to host the USATF National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championship, after Madison procured the honor through a successful bidding war. As expected, the championship brought many outside spectators to experience a slice of Madison life for the weekend, boosting the local economy.
However, such a financial boost is proving difficult to transfer to the city’s main golfing outlets.
Much like the rest of Madison’s municipal golf courses, Yahara has suffered from an aging infrastructure. Budget deficits combined with millions of dollars needed for bunker repairs and drainage improvements haven’t helped matters. The course is facing upward of $20 million needed for these woes alone, after the grounds experienced heavy flooding in recent years.
Attendance at Yahara during golf season has slowly dwindled as well, further adding to its problems. Many golfers continue to play at Yahara every spring and summer, but in the end these numbers simply aren’t enough to routinely cover the cost of maintenance.
Worse, with pressure to address these mounting troubles, and no long-term solution in sight, city administrators have wrestled with the fact that returning to a state of sustainability may no longer be possible.
Perhaps this is why in May 2022 the Madison City Council sold a portion of Yahara’s land to Dane County, an act that served as the first step in expanding the city’s landfill. The county eyed this particular spot of land because the current landfill, located right across Highway 12/18 from Yahara, is estimated to reach capacity by 2030.
As part of this deal, 230 acres on Yahara’s eastern part will be dedicated to building the expansion site, a process that will take several years. Unfortunately, those 230 acres also happen to make up the entirety of Yahara’s 18-hole east course — a move that will effectively cut Yahara’s total golf offerings by half. The east course will continue to be playable in its entirety through the 2024 season, but from there the number of holes will steadily decrease, leaving a total of only 18 holes in Yahara for players to enjoy by spring 2042.
Understandably, the recent sale has caused mixed reactions within the golfing community.
“I’ve enjoyed golfing at Yahara for several years now,” said DJ Lamichane, a Madison resident and avid golfer. “It’s a beautiful landscape and provides a lot of enjoyment for me and my friends. I was really sad to hear that a portion of the course would be converted into a landfill. I may be biased here in saying that I want the land to continually be used for my enjoyment, but I also get that repurposing some of the course for a landfill would meet Madison’s growing population needs. It’s a tough one.”
As necessary as it may be, there’s no denying the sale impedes upon general golfers’ enjoyment of the course. 2024 is fast approaching, leaving little time for players to experience Yahara Hills in its entirety before the new development begins.
The overall impact of Yahara’s sale upon the larger golf community is admittedly small, given the city’s many other golfing outlets, but that’s not to say the change is insignificant. Soon enough, golfers will have one less course to play on. That’s one less course on which to practice one’s short game and long game, return a fellow golfer’s lost ball, or simply enjoy the peaceful scenery with friends.
Yahara’s east course may be a small piece in its larger golf picture, but it is an important piece. One whose absence will be felt once it is gone.
“I try to play Yahara East as often as I can now,” said Alex Haugen, a regular golfer. “The sale is motivating me to play there more, and I’ve rarely gotten tired of it. It feels like the course was built for me. There’s plenty of space in the fairway, but if you miss, the rough is soft and even enough that it doesn’t mess up your shot too much. I also love playing up and down the hills the course is built on. It’s all-around just an ideal course for my playing style.”
The silver lining in this situation is that Madison residents still have time to experience Yahara East. Yahara Hills is now officially open for the 2023 spring season, marking its 55th year in business. Yet golfers would do well to remember that such a historic milestone hasn’t come without a price.