Go for the green

For decades Dale Robinson has left his Lakewood home and headed over to Tenison Park, golf bag slung over his shoulder.

Four times a week every week since he retired from his job as a mechanical contractor 20 years ago, Robinson has risen early in the morning, paid the reduced greens fee for seniors, and played a round of golf with his friends. He knows the course, he knows the golfers there, and he likes things the way they are: the familiar faces, the low rates, and the thick groves of trees that characterize the park.

So when he heard that the Dallas City Council and the Dallas Park Board had unanimously approved a $5.2 million dollar plan to redesign Tenison Park West--one of the two courses at Tenison Park--making it fancier, more expensive, and tougher to play, "it really got my Irish dander up," he says.

To longtime golfers such as Robinson, Tenison is about more than just golf. Designed in 1934 on land bequeathed to the city in 1923 by the Tenison family, the Old East Dallas course has entered into local history. Famed players such as Lee Trevino, Lloyd Mangrum, and Ralph Guldhal honed their skills and hustled their way up on Tenison's greens before they went on to win major championships on bigger and better grounds.

Dallas natives like Robinson who remember those times regard Tenison Park as "historical, just as important as the old courthouse downtown. No one is going to knock that down or change it, are they?" he asks.

Neighborhood golfers weren't the only ones angered by the Park Department's plan to upgrade Tenison. Gail Bevers and Maelissa Watson, two nongolfing Lakewood residents, had heard of the neat landscaping proposed for the new course and opposed it for entirely different reasons: It killed old-growth trees.

They drafted a petition to the city council asking them to reconsider the proposed changes, as the new design would require the sacrifice of 180 protected mature trees and 120 other native trees. Signed by more than 700 residents, the petition was presented to the city council, but no one changed their mind.

That's because where Robinson sees history, and more than 700 Dallasites see trees, the city of Dallas sees a prime piece of real estate with promising potential. Throw in a few lakes filled with water pumped in from White Rock Creek, some sand traps, sculpted fairways, contoured greens, and a modern sprinkler system, all paid for by greens fees raised from $14 on weekdays and $17 on weekends to $34 and $37 (without a golf cart), and Robinson's familiar and inexpensive Tenison West becomes an upscale course, competing with suburban public golf courses for tournaments and conventioneer dollars.

Even at the low rates charged now, public courses bring in more money than their maintenance requires, and the leftovers go into a general fund that services the police, libraries, and other departments under the city's care. Robinson knows that, and fears that a gentrified Tenison West could become the city's "cash cow," racking in out-of-state dollars at the expense of the older neighborhood golfers.

Not so, says Veletta Lill, the city council member whose district encompasses Tenison park, and who is "cautiously supportive" of the plan. "This was not intended to provide us [the city] with additional income. We wanted to offer choices to local citizens as well as to cater to golf tourism and conventioneers."

Bob Smith, the Tenison Park pro, agrees enthusiastically with the proposed changes, and "for the right reasons," he says, not just because he owns the carts, the restaurant, and golf shop on the premises.

He explains that Dallas public courses have been attracting fewer players over the years, even after the Tiger Woods phenomenon and the increasing popularity of golf with women.

"There is a segment of the golfing public that wants a better course to play on, and we are losing them," he says. "We also lose a lot of groups and company tournaments.

"Players concerned with price will still be able to play the east course, where the greens fees will remain the same," Smith says, while higher-dollar golfers will have in Tenison West a course good enough to "host USGA Publinks and major state tournaments" and compete with other premium public courses. Suburban public courses can charge green fees from $40 to $65 and from $55 to $85 (golf cart included) on the weekends.

To Robinson and his friends, however, the upscaling of Tenison West represents more than a sudden break in a long-established routine, or the possibility of having to wait a long time to play the east course, which they think will be crowded once greens fees in the west course go up. To them, he says, it felt like a slap in the face.

"To me, this means that the city cares more about the almighty dollar than about the people who have patronized the course for all these years. They are interested in outside corporation tournaments, and even people from other states who come here on conventions, since that is where the money is. They don't care whether we play here or not."

So on Thanksgiving eve, when it became clear just how serious the city was about pushing forward on the planned renovations, opposition or no opposition, Robinson decided something had to be done.

He was lingering at Tenison after his day's rounds when he saw the bulldozers and the construction material pile up on Tenison West. "They were doing this on purpose," he says. "They wanted to take advantage of the Thanksgiving holiday and do it at dawn on Friday, because they know everything is closed and no one is paying attention."

Knowing of Watson's interest in the case, Robinson looked her up and asked her to "please get an injunction," remembers Watson. She is an attorney, and they spent the day before Thanksgiving together drafting the document. By the time they got to the courthouse, however, it was 4:40 p.m., and it was already closed. They knew that when it opened again on Monday morning, it would be too late.

The two were discussing the case and wondering what to do when James Murphy, an attorney who had also been golfing that day at Tenison Park, overheard the conversation and decided it was a worthwhile cause. They contacted Mary Ellen Bluntzer, a founding member of the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition, an organization dedicated to the preservation of urban trees. She and Robinson agreed to become plaintiffs in a case against the city and the Parks and Recreation Department.

All together, on Thanksgiving Day, they went over to state District Judge John Marshall's home.

"He had just run the Turkey Trot," says Bluntzer, "but he and his wife graciously welcomed us into their living room, where the judge read [our request for an injunction] and signed it.

Injunction in hand, they informed the Parks Department the construction would have to wait. It was November 26, and Tenison West was safe at least through the holidays.

But the reprieve was short indeed; it lasted no longer than the break. By December 1, Dallas city attorneys were back to work, filing a motion that asked Judge Marshall to dissolve the temporary restraining order. They claimed that construction must begin or there would be a significant delay in the completion of the project.

On December 4, Judge Marshall ruled on the motion, upholding the injunction. He criticized the plan to upgrade the course at the expense of the golfers, charging that the city would be essentially building a "municipally sponsored country club that would yield over $2.3 million in revenues to the city from a shrunken segment of the population that was supposed to enjoy it."

That's when the controversy shifted to how public a "public park" needs to be. The plaintiff's attorneys argued that the renovations--and the higher greens fees--would defy the language in the deed in which the Tenison family bequeathed the property to the city.

The original deed spelled out that the land must be a "public park for the use and enjoyment of the people of Dallas." If not, the land was to return to the heirs.

At a second hearing on December 9, Judge Marshall ruled that the injunction would remain effective until the resolution of the lawsuit, and reiterated his doubts.

"The limitation of access to the park [to those who have paid the green fees] impinges on the common meaning of the word public," he stated at the end of the hearing. "Evidence indicates that the green fees are really a hidden tax, not only supporting the course," but also generating additional revenue for the city's general fund.

"Parks are an ever shrinking resource," says Watson. "We need to keep these parks for the people, without commercializing them. But different people see different shades of green--some see the green of the fields, others see dollar bills."

Robinson agrees. "There are lots of people who play there that just want to hit the ball, be able to find it, and then go on their way," he says. "They like to walk up and down those hills for health reasons, and they don't play difficult courses, and they won't be able to go down there and pay $40 to play.

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Juliana Barbassa