Greg Hansen: City Council will likely turn five golf courses over to national firm

2013-07-05T00:00:00Z 2013-07-05T07:14:47Z Greg Hansen: City Council will likely turn five golf courses over to national firmGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 05, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The most valuable piece of sports property in Tucson isn't McKale Center, Kino Stadium or anything connected to football or soccer.

It is the Randolph Golf Complex, a 36-hole paradise of green smack in the middle of the map. In the last decade, it has been beat up and underappreciated. It has been allowed to wrinkle, blow its reputation and be abandoned by both the PGA and LPGA tours.

And yet you can't put a price on it. It has location, history, economic potential and about 400 of the most beautiful acres in the state.

The UA investigated the possibility of moving its golf operation to Randolph but backed away, scared off by the tattered edges and groaning engine of a complex that in 1980 was said by Golf Digest to be the "busiest golf complex in the world."

Now the Tucson City Council is examining bids from seven national golf management firms and will almost surely offer one a chance to take over the entire Tucson City Golf operation, five courses, including Randolph and it southern neighbor, the Dell Urich Golf Course.

That the local golf crisis has reached this stage, on this type of premium turf, is sobering.

A betting man would be smart to put his money on Billy Casper Golf, a management team so vast that it operates 127 municipal courses in the United States, a firm with such a sparkling reputation that it has grown to include 18 vice presidents, each one in charge of a small army of employees in every category from agronomy to guest services.

Its corporate literature says, in bold letters, "WE WILL MAKE YOU MONEY."

That's a fastball down the middle for the Tucson City Council, which, in general, would like golf to go away and never again take from the city's bottom line or grace its calendar.

There are so many reasons that the once-thriving Randolph Golf Complex, and Tucson City Golf, is available, for lease, that you only need three social media letters - SMH - to describe the nature of its business.

Shaking my head.

This is the busiest summer golf weekend of the year in Southern Arizona, and on Thursday morning everything should've been in order to showcase all five courses, including Fred Enke and El Rio, which rarely have been in better condition than currently.

But if you played early Thursday at Silverbell Golf Course, you played the first six holes through an inescapable spray of reclaimed water, which went on at full pitch for those who chose to play early.

Among those in the reclaimed water shower were three of the best customers of Tucson City Golf (full disclosure: three of my regular golf partners), those who bought the annual Mega Pass, worth about $2,850 after taxes.

SMH. Just another day at TCG. Shower your top customers with smelly water.

Remarkably, after all the negative press and public comment about Tucson City Golf the last few years, the entire operation is again profitable. Even Fred Enke, which once seemed doomed, is now in the black, according to figures obtained from the city.

The driving range at Fred Enke, which is something out of the movie "Tin Cup," a threadbare and spartan facility, makes as much as $150,000 annually, according to city figures.

No wonder Billy Casper Golf, and six other national and international golf management firms, wants to get its hands on Tucson City Golf. The Randolph-Dell Urich complex is a potential jewel, among the best in the country.

The gamble of hiring a management firm, out-sourcing the entire operation, is that it adds another layer of expense and salaries. But with, say, Billy Casper Golf running the clubhouse at Randolph, those golfers (again, my golf partners) who recently finished play on a hot afternoon at Dell Urich, wouldn't have been greeted by "closed signs" and locked doors at 3:30 p.m.

Can't a man get a cold beer around here?

The conundrum of Tucson City Golf is that the old Randolph South (now Dell Urich) facility once played host to almost 90,000 rounds in a year. That's unprecedented in Tucson and almost anywhere in the world.

Randolph South was short, about 5,900 yards, and flat. Golfers would frequently arrive 45 minutes before dawn, lined up to get a tee time, before the pro and cashiers arrived at the clubhouse. The South course thrived because it was not a monster. The majority of America's muni golfers can't break 90 (or even 100) but they would drive to Randolph because it was one course at which they could dream big dreams about that 88 or 99, and not look for a lost ball.

But now its replacement, Dell Urich, struggles to get even 50,000 rounds a year. It is a beautiful facility, built for a federal flood basin program, but it is no longer short or easy to some guy who can't break 100. You can lose a few golf balls there.

It's a better course but with fewer players, and the change essentially triggered, along with a busted economy, the slide of golf in Southern Arizona.

My best guess is that the City Council will not close any of the five courses, not even money-losing and politically charged El Rio. It will simply find someone to take the financial risk and trust (put into the contract) that it will make the necessary marketing changes and capital improvements to put the sparkle back in our municipal golf facilities.

In 2007, Billy Casper Golf took over two similar city complexes in Tulsa, both under threat to be closed, and those four facilities - Olde Page, Stone Creek, Woodbine and Pecan Valley - are now profitable. They did so without raising daily fees.

If you played any of those four courses today, walking, it would cost between $12 and $22.

If Tulsa can do it, why can't Tucson?

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