Greg Hansen: Ailing golf courses can learn from Highlands

2013-06-25T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: Ailing golf courses can learn from HighlandsGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 25, 2013 12:00 am  • 

No longer can you play golf at Canoa Hills, San Ignacio or the Santa Rita golf clubs. They've all gone bust.

In the last two years, once-mighty Forty Niner Country Club and Arizona National were similarly shut down, although both have been rescued and reopened.

That's a tenth of Southern Arizona's golf inventory, and it doesn't include the five Tucson City Golf facilities, which are famously in financial stress and apparently available to the highest bidder.

The golf supply far exceeds the demand in the greater Tucson area, especially in summer, when the transition from winter rye to summer Bermuda grass leaves many courses brown and turf-challenged, and, of course, afternoon play can be oppressive.

But it doesn't all have to be so dispiriting.

A bit after sunrise Monday, I drove to the Highlands at Dove Mountain and witnessed something that defied Tucson's immutable laws of midsummer golf.

I saw 128 names on the day's tee sheet. I saw all 20 berths at the driving range occupied. I heard cheery "good morning" welcomes in the pro shop, and I sat in a recently-bathed golf cart with a supply of tees, clean upholstery and a motor that responded to the first tap on the accelerator.

No, this wasn't Fred Enke or El Rio, bless their troubled souls.

It's ironic that the Highlands is often obscured on Dove Mountain, sitting in relative anonymity down the road from the upscale Gallery Golf Club and in the shadow of the Golf Club at Dove Mountain, site of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

Highlands staged 55,000 rounds last year, far above the national average of 23,000, and a significantly better pace than Tucson City Golf's 193,000 rounds of 2011.

Whenever I come upon a financially-challenged golf course, I think of what former UA golfer Dennis Palmer, vice president of the Tubac Golf Resort, says about running his laudable facility: "It's blocking and tackling. If you don't do the little things, the big things won't matter.''

The Highlands at Dove Mountain is into blocking and tackling. It could give a clinic for many of the region's struggling golf operations.

Much of the Highlands' success is because it has about 530 members, part of the fully-built out 1,128-home development on Dove Boulevard. The Home Owners Association pays most of the bills, such as $500,000 to replace 114 sprinkler heads a year ago, an investment to save water. The yearly bill for reclaimed water: about $450,000.

But it goes far beyond an HOA and an on-site membership. About 15 percent of those 55,000 yearly rounds are from the general public. That number is likely to grow as the first generation of Highlands' members ages and transitions out of golf.

Brad Engel, director of operations at the Highlands, an Iowan with an Arizona State degree, has been on site since the course opened in 1997.

His pitch is simple: Your standards must be uncompromising.

Here's an example: On Monday morning, a maintenance worker drove a shiny green utility trailer down the 14th fairway.

"New trailer?" I asked Engel.

"It's 10 years old," he said. "We give every piece of equipment a bath every day and keep them on preventative maintenance schedule."

You do not see shiny maintenance vehicles at any of the five over-wrought City of Tucson golf courses.

A year ago, as my foursome was waiting to tee off at Silverbell Golf Course, a nearby maintenance worker hammered away at a dingy mower, stalled and inoperative. We stopped and stared. The man, cursing robustly, was hitting at the mower every which way with a large piece of metal.

We might've laughed had it not been so telling of a failing business model.

"The industry has dramatically changed,'' says Engel. ''We've had to decrease the labor in our golf services by 30 percent since 2007 and we've decreased water usage. Those are the two big expenses, but we've been able to maintain rates and keep our standards high.

"I don't think you can raise rates in this industry right now. In fact, we've lowered ours over the last two years. But your standards must remain the same.''

It's conceivable that a HOA-driven golf facility such as the Highlands will become the model of golf's future, here and in other golf precincts.

Given the time it takes to play golf, an oft-cumbersome five hours, and given the economy and the lack of involvement by younger generations, municipal courses are apt to continue to struggle.

The Tucson City Council is in the process of choosing an agency to lease its five golf courses, a wide-ranging, seven-way runoff that includes firms operating the 2015 U.S. Open in Tacoma, Wash., and another that oversees Marana's Quarry Pines.

Before making that choice, it might be wise to seek input from someone who excels in blocking and tackling like Brad Engel at the Highlands of Dove Mountain.

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

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