Butler Pitch & Putt lives, but new owners want to make it better
A barrier of majestic cottonwood and pecan trees encloses and shades one of Austin’s greatest outdoor gems. Inside the pastoral oasis, one golfer admires his lofted wedge shot framed against the city’s skyline while four friends scream as a final bet-winning putt drops on the ninth hole.
A horde of buddies who might not yet be of drinking age descends on the ancient brick clubhouse before their round, determined to add their names to the wall that commemorates holes-in-one, as another crew that includes a dog posts up at a picnic table with a cooler, easing into a sunny fall Friday afternoon of golf and camaraderie. The Colorado River ambles by in the near distance. Soon a train will chug over the berm, evoking ideas of frontier travel. You can glimpse passing cars, but Austin’s maddening traffic seems miles away.
The 70-year-old Butler Pitch & Putt feels like an illusion. The park and its nine-hole course, surrounded by non-stop growth and increasing density, holds what can feel like a timeless place in Austin’s cultural and topographical landscape.
The Kinser family ran the recreational park throughout its history, but when the family’s contract ended this year, the City of Austin put out a request for proposals for the operation. A group of longtime Austinites operating under the banner Pecan Grove Golf Partners won the contract in a 7-4 vote from the City Council in June, beating out the Kinser family, which was disqualified because its proposal documents submitted to the city were not signed. The decision was met with some contentiousness from community members who were worried about the fate of the park and course.
Pecan Grove Golf Partners is a group of golf professionals, hospitality veterans and creative entrepreneurs who say they appreciate the course’s role in the Austin community and want to preserve, enhance and evolve the city-owned parcel that has welcomed golfers since 1950. The partners include people from hospitality company New Waterloo (La Condesa, Sway, South Congress Hotel) and golf industry veterans Jason Black and Lynn Shackelford. They are working with collaborators such as Michael Fojtasek, chef-owner of Olamaie, and architect and recreational sports enthusiast Jack Sanders, whose the Long Time is home to Austin’s sandlot baseball revival. They have a 10-year contract with the city that includes two five-year extension opportunities.
Butler Pitch & Putt holds a fond place in the hearts of many Austinites, including members of the new management group. But the gem needs polishing. Pecan Grove Golf Partners plan to replace the greens with all new grass (likely Bermuda or zoysia), install a new irrigation system to keep that new grass healthy, make minor adjustments to a few holes, add a food and beverage operation, and expand the golf programming at Butler. Major changes to the grass and greens will likely start in summer 2020.
The partners at first had visions of more dramatic changes that included artificial turf and high-end golf touches, but as they considered the park, its aesthetic, vibe and place in the community, they dialed back their ambitions.
“Fix it up; tweak it. But it’s a period place. It’s pretty great as it is,” New Waterloo partner and native Austinite Bart Knaggs says. “How do you put some care into it without disrupting it?”
Green fees, currently $9 on weekdays and $11 on weekends, will likely go up between 50 cents and a dollar once improvements are made, and all changes will have to be approved by the City Council. Pecan Grove Golf Partners is also committed to meeting the city’s living wage requirement for employees.
“Seeing the request for proposal when it came out made me even more excited; the city obviously has a really good understanding of what this has become to the community and the city and wants to protect it,” partner Patrick Jeffers of New Waterloo says.
Pecan Grove Golf Partners will fund all of the park improvements while paying the city a base monthly fee of $2,700 and an annual payment of 18% of gross revenues (minus the base monthly fees). So, if the annual revenue was $500,000, which was about what was made in 2018, the city would collect about $57,000. As the course takes in more revenue, the city makes more money.
Native Austinite Black and three-time NCAA basketball champion Shackleford will help oversee golf programming that the partners hope will introduce a broader swath of the population, including younger players, to golf. They also say they believe the improved grass and consistent care will create a course that will attract regular golfers who might have previously bypassed Butler for traditional 18-hole courses.
“With golf changing so much, the rumor is that more and more people are playing. And this is the perfect entry point for people. If they can have a great experience out here, they may take up the game,” Black says.
But don’t expect the spirit of the place to change. The Pecan Grover Partners still want Butler to be a casual experience that all can enjoy, not just those who know the difference between a lob wedge and an attack wedge.
“This place is a park first, beer garden second and golf course third,” Knaggs says.
Part of the attraction of the revamped facilities will be the food and beverage operation led by Fojtasek, who has been a regular on the mini-links of Butler for 15 years. The chef-owner of Olamaie, recently named by the Statesman the No. 1 restaurant in Austin for the third time in five years, doesn’t plan to get fancy with the offerings.
Fojtasek says he has a menu in mind that includes pimento cheese sandwiches, his famous Olamaie biscuits at breakfast, hot dogs and peach ice cream sandwiched between ginger snap cookies, a direct homage to the sweet treats served at the Masters. The clubhouse will also introduce beer and wine sales, though customers are still welcome to bring their own beverages.
The chef, who says he’s played Butler daily or weekly depending on his level of employment, has long been attracted by the course’s super casual vibe and the range of players who show up regularly.
“I’m friends with people who play here on a regular basis, and I want it to stay that way,” Fojtasek says. “The last thing I’d want is for everybody to show up and say, ‘What did you do the place?’ We want to do things that are tasty but don’t wanna take away the Snickers bar.”
Butler regulars will encounter familiar faces under new management. General Manager Neysa Joseph-Orr, who has been at the course for three years, continues in her role, and 17-year Butler veteran Matt Ryan, who many say feels like the spiritual center of the park, has returned after a three-year absence. Those old faces will give an added layer of continuity to the course and park whose history and culture the Pecan Grove Golf Partners and their collaborators take seriously.
“This is one of those places in Austin that is really sacred ground in a lot of ways,” Sanders says.