Greg Hansen: Re-brand El Rio golf course

Loss of El Rio course would leave big divot in Tucson golf history
2013-05-17T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: Re-brand El Rio golf courseGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 17, 2013 12:00 am  • 

At 8:30 Wednesday morning, I punched the gas in golf cart No. 68 and took a lap around the 114 acres of El Rio Golf Course. I did not count shots. I counted trees.

I encountered a hawk and its offspring near the No. 9 tee. I spotted the neighborhood owls in the trees near the No. 7 green.

At the 17th tee, I saw Tim Brady, course superintendent, who maintains those 114 acres with a mechanic, one full-time assistant and four men who are permitted to work 29 hours per week.

It's a skeleton staff without all the bones.

A few years ago Brady's work force totaled 14, yet El Rio Golf Course is in mint condition, the best I have seen it since I began playing golf there 12 years ago.

Brady knows that the Tucson City Council, triggered by embattled Regina Romero, wants desperately to shut down El Rio and turn it into (a) a college campus (b) a park or (c) well, if you've got some cash, they're listening.

As Brady and I were talking about the 716 trees on the property - "only one of them is dead," he said proudly - six men and women carrying notepads and cameras drove by in a series of golf carts.

A scouting crew from Grand Canyon University, perhaps?

As it turned out, those surveying the 84-year-old golf course were from a community keep-it-green task force.

Those supporting the old golf course - the neighborhood coalitions and environmental concerns - have only begun to fight. This is apt to be an ugly and protracted controversy.

For years, El Rio has been looked upon as the last resort of Southern Arizona municipal golf courses, a threadbare facility in a beat-up neighborhood that saw its best days in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s when it was an upscale country club played by Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan, and a regular stop on the PGA Tour.

"When the Tucson Open was there I parked cars in people's yards for 10 cents a car," remembers Bob Gaona, a self-taught golfer from the neighborhood who rose from El Rio caddie to Tucson High state champion to Champions Tour standout.

As recently as 10 years ago, Tucsonan Gene Catalano, a caddie master for Tucson's PGA and LPGA events, was a starter, man-of-all-trades at El Rio.

"On Monday mornings, we'd have people lined up out the front door," Catalano says. "The tee sheets would be filled up all day."

The first round of golf played at El Rio, on Nov. 10, 1929, was by Hi Corbett, then the most powerful man in Tucson.

All that has changed in the last decade. A stressed economy hit golf smack in the nose, and El Rio now struggles to break even. The city suggests it loses money, but I don't trust any of those figures. The accountants creatively toss around decimal points between the five city courses so adroitly that you don't know what to believe.

But I do fear that Romero will keep firing, hoping to shutter El Rio because, well, nothing's sacred anymore.

A week ago, 76-year-old Hollywood Park, the horse track in Inglewood, Calif., you see as you fly into Los Angeles International Airport, announced it would close in December and be replaced by 3,000 housing units.

History and nostalgia didn't save Hollywood Park. Citation and Seabiscuit and Affirmed won there - the Warner Brothers built the track - but it will soon be bulldozed.

One obstacle in the City Council's way is the Conquistadores, Tucson's most influential group of businessmen. In conjunction with the PGA Tour, the Conquistadores have spent about $2 million activating the First Tee program and its life skills/practice facilities on El Rio turf.

The contract, originally 15 years, has roughly five years remaining. If the City Council wishes, it could reimburse the Conquistadores for what it has spent and for further damages. The City Council could then suggest relocating First Tee to nearby Silverbell Golf Course.

That's the easy and fully unimaginative way out. Would the City Council really prefer to pave paradise and put up a parking lot? That can't possibly be in the best interest of the community.

A better option would be to re-brand El Rio by lowering prices, marketing it for kids, families and older golfers. That would put more people on the course and more money in the bank.

El Rio already has a strong core constituency. This month alone, 22 groups scheduled play on the course: Pima Masters; Mexican American Golf Association; Sunrise Golf Group; Old Pueblo Golf Club; El Rio Women's Club; El Rio Men's Club; Desert Snakes; Grumpy Old Men; Ashton Construction; and on and on.

It's a long shot that Grand Canyon University will ever build a campus on El Rio's 114 acres, tear down those 716 trees, uproot the owls and hawks, and turn all of that green into a monument for bricks, mortar and heat-producing cement.

The city government must be more imaginative and responsible than that.

Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or ghansen@azstarnet.com. On Twitter @ghansen711

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