In Good Company with Will Smith of National Links Trust

In Good Company with Will Smith of National Links Trust

The National Links Trust (NLT) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to protecting and promoting accessible, affordable and engaging municipal golf courses to positively impact local communities across the U.S.

Our friend, Will Smith, co-founded National Links Trust and is also Managing Partner of Cobbtown Partners and President of the Outpost Foundation.

We're a proud sponsor and attendee of NLT's Hole Hog fundraising tournament each year.

Thanks for having us. Can you describe where we are sitting right now and why we’re here?

It is always a pleasure John. We are at East Potomac Golf Links, which was known for a long, long time as Haynes Point. It sits right in the middle of the Washington Channel and the Potomac River, next to our nation's capital.

Today marks the second annual playing of the Hole Hog - very nicely sponsored by you guys at H&B and we really appreciate it. It's a fundraiser for National Links Trust that I throw along with my good friend Colin Sheean.

East Potomac Golf Links - National Links Trust Hole Hog

This is the second year we're doing this, and we're really proud to be a part of it. The National Links Trust is unique even among other municipal golf  restoration projects. Can you provide an brief overview of National Links Trust, this project and what you hop to accomplish with the organization?

National Links Trust is a 501 C3 nonprofit. Our mission is to positively impact communities through promoting and protecting affordable and accessible golf here in Washington, D.C. and across the country.

We believe that municipal golf courses are essential to the health of the game. This is where people get into and learn the game. If they go away or become expensive, the game is going to change and change for the worse.

So, what we're doing here in DC, we have an incredible opportunity. We have control of the three municipal golf courses and a 50-year lease with the National Park Service. Our goal is to operate and rehabilitate them over the next decade and to really improve them so that they can make even more of a difference in the community.

They already are these vibrant places where people from all walks of life come, gather, play golf, or just sit and have a bacon, egg, and cheese. We want to make them more welcoming, more diverse, better places, but not fundamentally change what they're all about.

So you hope to make high-level golf accessible at an affordable price in the communities these courses were built in to serve.

Exactly! Our hypothesis is that if you invest in the courses, you'll see the return. It's not necessarily on the bottom line. It's about what they can do in the community.

Whether it's working with the First Tee or Youth On Course, we want to expose more and more people to this great game that you and I both love. There'll be a multiplier effect on that investment and on how it affects the community down the road.

East Potomac Golf Links - National Links Trust Hole Hog

East Potomac Golf Links is still a business with a range, rental carts and concessions. Is National Links Trust providing ongoing financial support or just managing the initial construction, renovation, restoration?

We have a partner in Troon Golf who operates the courses on a day-to-day basis, but it is all part and parcel. Any money that is made accrues to our bottom line, which we then roll back into the golf courses to try to improve them.

Is the plan to eventually scale this nationally? 

We want to be very transparent about what we're doing and hopefully have other communities learn from what we're doing. There have been some great examples of wonderful projects like Winter Park Nine down in Orlando, which is the park that just opened down in West Palm Beach.

We feel like there is a movement to invest in municipal golf. People are recognizing its importance in the game, and we want to help bring people together, bring together stakeholders, share all the information so that people don't have to reinvent the wheel every time someone wants to do a project like this.

What are the Adirondack chairs situated in front of the EPGL clubhouse overlooking? 

At East Potomac, there's the blue course that was originally designed by Walter Travis. Then there is a White Course, which is an executive, and the Par 3 red. We're going to play all of them today.

Over at Langston, there's an 18-hole golf course that was interestingly managed by Lee Elder in the late 70s and early 80s.

Lastly there is Rock Creek that was designed by William Flynn, which we're going to play first. Right now it has 14 holes open, but eventually it'll be a 9 hole regulation and 9 hole Par 3 course.

East Potomac Golf Links - National Links Trust Hole Hog

These courses were designed by some incredible names in golf architecture history, and you've brought in some impressive names from the present as well.

Yeah, we are very fortunate. We have Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner donating their services to work at Rock Creek.

Tom Doak will be renovating the blue course here at East Potomac. This was one of the few courses where he had any interest in doing any sort of restoration work. He'll be restoring the reversible Walter Travis nature of it.

Finally, we've got Bo Welling lined up to help at Langston.

Doak is a sucker for a reversible.

Yeah. Well, if you're going to do it, there's no one better to do it. Doak is known for his crazy greens and so is Tom. So it's a wonderful fit.

Incredible fit and what you've done building your career in golf. To bring all these elements together, being a D.C. area native. It's got to have a lot of meaning for you. Give us a little background on golf and how you got started in that field and what you love about it.

I didn't play growing up very much. I wish I had come down here more growing up in D.C. or that I had gone over to Lancaster and Rock Creek, but I didn’t really get the bug until I went to Yale. The golf course there is spectacular, and the stark contrast between the urban environment of New Haven and the natural environment of the golf course really drew me in.

I fell in love with golf and golf courses. I studied up on it and eventually went to work for Tom Doak and Gill Hanse doing some shaping and other construction work. I thought that I would be in the golf course design business, and then took a left turn and started the Outpost Club.

A decade after that, my National Links Trust partner, Mike McCartney, and I had the opportunity to respond to the RFP and do this for our city. By raising the money and investing in these facilities, I hope to give other people the opportunity that I have had through golf. Meeting great people, traveling the world, and building really meaningful and powerful relationships have all come to me through the game. I want to share that with as many people as possible.

East Potomac Golf Links - National Links Trust Hole Hog

It sounds like this is your way of giving back to the game.

Absolutely. It's my way of giving back to the game, giving back to the city that I've lived in my whole life and really trying to make a difference.

H&B and National Links Trust go way back.

That's right. So, when you guys were a little baby of a company, we got introduced and spent some time together in New York. It's been a wonderful friendship and partnership ever since. We really appreciate all that H&B does for the game and National Links Trust. 

Thank you for having us here to support an incredible and worthy cause and thank you for all that you do!

Well, thank you guys. We're going to have a wonderful time. Appreciate it.

Let's play some golf!

East Potomac Golf Links - National Links Trust Hole Hog