It is a scene right out of When Worlds Collide. On a garbage-strewn side street off Atlanta's Second Avenue, a man is lying under his jacked-up air, trying to get the damn thing started. Around the corner, above a crumbling sidewalk, cinder-block buildings, tagged by gang artists and pockmarked by the occasional stray bullet, stare blankly through boarded-over windows at strange goings-on across the street. There, in all its incongruous glory, sits the refurbished East Lake Golf Club, the home of Bobby Jones and the centerpiece of what might be the most innovative golf course development in the country.
To outsiders, the undertaking at first seems cruelly inappropriate, its grand scale mocking the humble neighborhood. What's this? Golf comes to the ghetto? Closer inspection reveals that it's not like that at all. East Lake has always been here, a part of the place. A swath of East Lake was once sliced away so that public housing could be erected on what had been lush fairways. No, this project is not about putting up walls. It's about putting a neighborhood back together. And it's about Bobby Jones.
East Lake once was one of the most famous golf clubs in America solely because of Jones, the most famous golfer in the world. When, in 1907, a five-year-old Bobby came down with whooping cough and the measles, the Jones family moved to a converted barn behind East Lake's second green. Although he traveled around the world, winning 13 major championships including the Grand Slam in 1930, Jones always came back to East Lake. Most of his golf was played there after he retired, at 28, to practice law. Jones played his last round at East Lake on Aug. 15, 1948. Shortly thereafter, he quit playing because of syringomyelia, a nerve disorder that causes progressive paralysis. He died in 1971.
East Lake's decline mirrored Jones's. The year he died, part of the property was sold to the Atlanta Housing Authority. Over the next two decades, as the neighborhood slowly spiraled downward, so did what remained of East Lake Golf Club. Two years ago East Lake's members, separated from their neighbors by Cyclone fences topped by razor wire, were on the verge of packing it in. Enter Tom Cousins.
At 63, Cousins is one of the richest men in Georgia and the largest developer in Atlanta. He bought East Lake for $4.5 million, but knew that that was just the start of his investment. He intends to do what the government has in his opinion failed to do: launch a successful urban-renewal project. In short, here's how it works: first, restore the original course, making it a shrine to Jones. Then sell high-dollar memberships, a hefty portion of the fees going to buy and bulldoze East Lake Meadows and in its place construct 175 acres of new housing and a second, public, 18 holes. Voil�! Instant low-income golf community.
The first step has been taken. The renovation of the original Donald Ross-designed course and its clubhouse has been completed, to the tune of $25 million. Rees Jones redid the course by working from old aerial photos, and the golf establishment is impressed. The U.S. Golf Association awarded the 2001 U.S. Amateur to the club. The PGA of America is talking about bringing in the Ryder Cup—East Lake hosted the matches in 1963—while the PGA Tour views East Lake as a site for the 1998 Tour Championship or a President's Cup.
Perhaps more important has been the groundwork laid within the East Lake Meadows community, where the project was at first viewed skeptically. The fact that 400 to 450 families will be displaced during construction and only 250 allowed to return—the rest are promised "blight-free" housing by the Housing Authority—set off alarms. There are fears that this is all about a rich developer simply wanting to improve the neighborhood in order to protect his investment in a golf course.
Cousins scoffs at these notions. "There ain't any hidden agendas here. Nobody is making money off this," he says. "This is a way to address a problem. We hope to become a model."
Candice Bolston, chairman of the East Lake Planning Unit neighborhood association, is ready to get onboard. "At first it was some rich person coming in and buying and doing what he pleased," she says, "but as soon as we saw there was a willingness to give back, we started to appreciate it more. It sounds like this is something that has been pressing on Mr. Cousins's heart."
Bobby Jones would have liked that.