El Rio Golf Course, March 9, 1999.

David Sanders / Arizona Daily Star file photo

As the community temperature spiked over the possibility that Grand Canyon University would replace El Rio Golf Course, and some city officials questioned why any contractor would want to take over running city courses, 15 companies were submitting bids to do exactly that.

On Friday, city officials confirmed they have narrowed the list to the seven private most qualified management companies who believe they can reverse the fortunes of Tucson's struggling golf program.

Last fall, the City Council voted to close Fred Enke and transform El Rio into a hybrid park/golf course as a way to alleviate city golf's approximately $8 million deficit. But before any of those things could happen, the city committed itself to first seeing if an outside company could lift city golf out of the red.

The final seven have now been asked to submit detailed plans for how they propose to fix city golf's woes.

All of the companies share an extensive history of running golf courses across the country and offer impressive résumés.

The seven finalists who have a shot at taking over are:

• Billy Casper Golf - 23 years of experience in the golf business; owns or operates about 140 courses in 28 states.

• CourseCo Inc - Over 20 years of experience; manages or leases 22 courses in California, Oregon and Washington.

• Foresight Golf LLC. - 15 years of experience; manages eight courses in Texas and one course in Pennsylvania.

• Kemper Sports Management Inc. - 34 years of experience; manages almost 100 courses across the country, including 36 municipal courses.

• Kitson and Partners Clubs - 17 years' experience; manages 50 courses across the country and another 50 worldwide. Has managed Quarry Pines in Marana since 2006.

• OB Sports Golf Management - 35 years of experience; manages 23 courses in the Southwest, 14 in Arizona, and over 20 more throughout the country.

• Southern California Golf LLC - a new company founded in 2010. The management team has decades of experience and combined have managed over 300 golf courses across the country.

The volume and quality of responses came as a slight shock to one council member.

"To be honest, I'm surprised that we got such an impressive response to the (initial request)," said Councilman Steve Kozachik. "What it shows is that there are some high-profile private-sector management firms who see our assets as being worth investing in."

Councilwoman Regina Romero, who led the charge to shut down the courses and bring in Grand Canyon, and who led the about-face when community opposition blew up, said, "the bottom line for me will be the same as it's been for the last year: Will it stop the taxpayer subsidy of golf?"

With so many seemingly qualified companies in the running, Councilman Paul Cunningham said the city might not want to shutter any courses in the immediate future before the companies are given a chance to make their final proposals.

"If companies like these are willing to take a risk on our golf courses," Cunningham said, "the community should be willing to take a risk as well."

Kozachik concurs and said there's no reason to be hasty.

"We owe it to all of the companies that took the time and effort … to let the process play itself out," Kozachik said. "If they're willing to take the downside risk and in the end we can net a gain back into the general fund, then why sell off the courses?"

The city will release the second phase of the bidding process within the next six weeks.

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or ddaronco@azstarnet.com