MIAMI – This isn’t about a shuttered golf course. There’ve been more than enough of those in an industry that notoriously struggles with the concept of supply and demand. Nor is this about the loss of public golf and a for-the-people oasis mired in the heart of urban sprawl.
This is a story of public trust and a land deal that, many contend, feels like a lot of South Florida land deals – shady. It’s about politics and progress and a broken promise. It’s uniquely Miami and not really about golf at all.
“It would be tragedy if it were not a farce,” says Billy Corben, a South Florida political activist and award-winning documentary film director whose credits include the ESPN 30-for-30 “The U” and the recently released Hulu film “God Forbid” on the sordid fall of Jerry Falwell Jr.
Corben has no use for golf – “My dad is a fan, he didn’t pass that along,” he admits from the outset.
What he does care deeply about is Miami and a city with much more need than resource. Enter Melreese Country Club, the only municipal golf course in the city that’s wedged between Miami International Airport, a 10-lane toll road and some of the roughest neighborhoods in South Florida. Corben may be no fan of the ancient game, but he hates cronyism and political chicanery far more. His fight here is not for public golf or a junior program that dates back decades and has endeared generations of South Floridians to the game, but for what he believes is right.
“I’m open to the idea there was a better deal to be made with the golf course managers. This is clearly not a better option than the golf course,” Corben explains. “The course does provide an open green space, the largest in the entire city, something desperately needed. [In] a city with very little quality of life, crumbling infrastructure, very little functioning civil services, roads and traffic lights, the last thing we need is to take the largest piece of publicly owned property and pave it. Particularly not for another sports stadium.”
In April 2022, the Miami city commission approved a redevelopment project for Melreese Country Club – a 99-year, no-bid lease to build a stadium for Major League Soccer's Inter Miami CF. The project, led by Inter Miami CEO Jorge Mas and soccer legend David Beckham, who is a member of the Inter Miami ownership group, will include a 25,000-seat stadium, at least 750 hotel rooms, a 31.4-acre retail area, an office park with hundreds of thousands of square feet of space and a 58-acre public park.
Progress, it would seem.
The problem, at least as Corben and many others see it, isn’t the loss of the city’s only municipal course and a First Tee program that was a model of how transformative golf can be given the potent combination of recourses, location and passion. The problem is that Miami Freedom Park, which it will be named, is a bad deal for the city.
“I don’t really have a dog in this fight between golf versus soccer; my dog is the people of Miami,” Corben says. “It’s not about sports. The stadium is simply a shinny object, a distraction to create a conflict among passionate people and generate support. But that is a total distraction. It’s a real-estate heist. Is there any piece of real estate bigger than a golf course?”
For the record, Melreese was profitable for the city of Miami. According to Charlie DeLucca III – the course’s director of golf and the president of the facility’s First Tee program – the course generated net revenues of $680,000 last year and $490,000 in 2021.
Those revenues, however, fall well short of what Inter Miami promised. According to the bid from Mas, the project will generate at least $2.67 billion in rent payments to the city over the life of the lease and create 15,000 jobs. While those projections are impressive, critics like Corben contend the city is renting the land for far less than market value and that officials, in their haste to complete the deal, ignored other bids that would have generated even more revenue.
But then the economic and political semantics don’t really matter to those who have called Melreese home for decades.
Erik Compton came to Melreese when he was 9 years old and long before The First Tee created a program to leverage golf and the green space into a learning center and, along with fellow program alum and 20-time LPGA Tour winner Cristie Kerr, became the model of Melreese success when he overcame not one but two heart transplant surgeries and earned his PGA Tour card in 2012.
Now 43, Compton remains at Melreese paying it forward. It’s what you do. There’s an unmistakable sense of pride as he walks through the club’s courtyard to the 19th hole, an airy spot called the Duffer’s Den with all the normal post-round fare – cheeseburgers, hot wings and hot dogs – along with the perfectly Miami offerings of empanadas with extra pico de gallo and Masitas de Puerco (pan-fried pork chunks).
“It’s where I grew up and learned how to play golf,” says Compton, who was a member of the Dade Amateur Golf Association, which was the precursor to the area’s First Tee. “It was a place for inner-city kids, kids with disabilities, kids like myself would come out here and learn how to play golf.”
That legacy and Melreese’s future began to unravel when a 2018 referendum passed with roughly 60% of the vote authorizing the city commission to negotiate the lease with Inter Miami's owners. Having grown up in South Florida and watched its unique type of governance his entire life, Compton immediately recognized a fait accompli.
“This facility,” Compton says with a wave of a hand, “it was built through a lot of influential people in Miami, there’s a lot of back-room politics that have been associated with this place. Judges and police officers, everybody who was anybody ultimately came through this place and Charlie [DeLucca Jr.] was like the Godfather.”
If all politics is local then Melreese could be considered the happy byproduct of Miami’s political underbelly. The irony is that the same “network” that was able to transform the rough-around-the-edges municipal layout into the heartbeat of South Florida junior golf ultimately made the course irrelevant and expendable.
“Jorge Mas is a very powerful guy who has done a lot of good things for the community, but he’s also being scrutinized because this is a place that a lot of people don’t want to see go because it’s got so much tradition and it’s a beautiful place,” Compton says.
Corben is not nearly as measured as Compton. “The city is working for Jorge Mas,” he says flatly.
Politics aside, on the ground at Melreese the reality is, Sunday marks an end of an era. When the last group putts out, likely well after sunset, the course will close for good and construction will begin the next day on Miami Freedom Park. There’ll be no farewell party. As DeLucca III figures, it’s probably best just to let as many golfers as possible enjoy the course for one final loop.
“We’ll be there and shake hands and cry, it’s what we’re going to do,” he says.
Unlike Corben and Compton, DeLucca III has moved on from Melreese’s political plight and instead is focused on what’s next for the flourishing First Tee program. When Melreese closes, The First Tee will relocate to Miami Lakes Golf Course, which is about 12 miles north of the current location. The plan is to build a new junior center and start a new legacy with help from “the soccer people who are committed to donating some capital.”
DeLucca III says Miami Lakes’ location is a more residential area which will benefit the junior program and he’s confident his father’s legacy will continue at the new location. Like Compton, he’s been around Miami long enough to know how these things go and has chosen appreciation over anger.
“The city gave us that opportunity for a long, long time. They’ve decided it’s a better use for their property. All I can do is thank them for the opportunity. What else can I say?” DeLucca III asks. “Golfers aren’t happy because they’re losing a golf course, nobody wants to see that. Everyone understands that.”
From the outset the Miami Freedom Park project had a tilting-against-windmills feel. For those like Corben and Compton, progress almost always triumphs purpose in South Florida.
“Golf is still, in the eyes of the community here, a rich, elite sport which is exactly the opposite of what this place is doing for the kids,” Compton says. “Kids come here and play for free. There’s nowhere else for them to play for free. What’s going to happen when this place is gone?”
But this isn’t about another golf course closure. To be honest, this isn’t really about what some consider a bad land deal, because as Corben has noted on numerous occasions, “Florida is simply a sunny place for shady people.” This is about loss.
“I’ve never used it [the golf course], I’ll never use it, but I love that it’s there,” Corben admits. “There’s a world where I would say build a soccer stadium and shopping mall if it was a good deal. It’s not a sports stadium, it’s a fraction of the property. It’s a real-estate deal and it’s a bad real-estate deal.”
On Sunday, Melreese becomes nothing more than another transaction, be it a financially sound transaction for a city that desperately needs the resources or otherwise. Lost in that twilight will be countless generations of South Florida golfers who once called this particular transaction home.