RIO RICO —
Along the Interstate 19 corridor, 55 miles from Tucson to Rio Rico, there are 10 golf courses: Desert Hills, Canoa Ranch, Canoa Hills, San Ignacio, Quail Creek, the Tubac Golf Resort, Torres Blancas, the Haven, Rio Rico Golf Club and the Country Club of Green Valley.
For 30 or 40 years, the I-19 Golf Trail was as vibrant as any of America’s most-known golf destinations, including Las Vegas and Myrtle Beach, a blissful mix of snowbirds, retirees and spirited Tucsonans who filled the tee sheets from sunrise till sundown.
Something was always popping. Lee Trevino showed up to help design Torres Blancas. Kevin Costner bunked at Tubac while filming “Tin Cup.”
The PGA Tour staged its annual Qualifying School tournament in Rio Rico in 2004 and 2005, and I remember turning off Pendleton Drive toward the charmingly-named Calabasas Bar and Grill just as 2002 U.S. Amateur champion Ricky Barnes — an Arizona Wildcats All-American — walked to the first tee.
“This is my Road to the PGA Tour,” he said.
Since then, the Rio Rico Golf Club has been on the Road to Ruin. The transformation is such that it hurts my soul to see what has happened to a once-grand golf course.
When I turned off Pendleton Drive and headed for the Calabasas Bar and Grill on Wednesday, I was shocked.
The front nine is closed.
All of the employees were let go.
The yellow fairways look like untamed farmland.
Five people were playing golf.
This is not the first I-19 golf course flattened by the overbuilt — and overpriced — era of American golf. Canoa Hills went dormant and died. San Ignacio came back from a two-year coma and is green again.
If not for long-time Tucson golf instructor Jane Chanik and certified LPGA golf teacher Margaret Wolverton, the Rio Rico Golf Club would be as dead as its fairway grass.
“I know at my core this will be successful one day soon,” says Chanik, an Amphitheater High School grad who has taught golf at San Ignacio, Haven and Torres Blancas. “My goal is to have 18 holes up and running by fall. If you open it, they will come.”
Chanik’s own “Field of Dreams” hymn rests on two things: fundraising and a resolute belief that she can reverse the negative momentum of Southern Arizona golf which, over the last 10 years, found once-hardy golf facilities such as Arizona National, Forty Niner Country Club and Golf Club at Vistoso struggling to keep their doors open.
“We’ve been doing the irrigating and mowing ourselves,” says Wolverton. “We’re here seven days a week, 13 to 14 hours a day.” Volunteers from Rio Rico’s Future Farmers of America showed up with a small army of weed-wackers.
Now, it’s an all-volunteer work force.
To make it work, Chanik and Wolverton believe they need 60 players a day paying $22 a round over 300 days a year. But that’s Part II. The first part is raising at least $250,000 to get the suitable machinery (and grounds crew) to put a one-time home of the PGA Q-School back in acceptable condition.
The two women signed a lease-purchase agreement with the out-of-state group that owns the golf operation.
Driving through the gates, I thought this was an impossible mission. But as I toured the 46-year-old course designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., I got lost somewhere between impossible and possible.
The hilly back nine at Rio Rico used to be a piece of golf paradise. No wonder the iconic Jones chose to design a course there. Chanik describes it as a “mesquite bosque.” Last weekend, a local bird-watching group identified 58 species of birds on the 155 acres.
“It’s like the wild kingdom out here,” Chanik says. “Bobcats, lynx, a mountain lion or two.”
Sometime over the last decade, Rio Rico Golf Club was the loser during America’s economic recession that cut deep into the golf industry. The finances and participation numbers plunged dangerously at scores of Southern Arizona golf courses.
Stopping that negative momentum and recreating the beauty and financial solvency in Rio Rico is a challenge that few would accept. For their part, Chanik and Wolverton are hardy souls who don’t seem to know what no means.
“The needs of the course may seem insurmountable to the naked eye,” Chanik wrote in a series of emails seeking assistance. “I assure you, to bring the course back to 18 holes of health, the number we must match is not that large.”
They must reseed the tees, the fairways, the greens — everything. They must replace two of those mega-mowers, acquire a new water pump and irrigation conveyance, purchase a spray rig for proper application of feed and pesticides. And that’s just the big stuff.
To do so, Chanik and Wolverton hope to sell up to 25 “memberships” for $10,000 each. Those “founding members” would provide seed money to refashion all 18 holes.
It’s a wonderful ambition.
Since it was built in 1971, the Rio Rico Golf Club has played host to almost every important golf event in Arizona: the Southern Arizona Open, the Arizona Stroke Play Championships, the high school state championships, the AGA Championships and on and on.
As Chanik walked into an empty clubhouse Wednesday, she talked about “uncovering the bones” of a once-thriving golf property.
“I’m not sure people understand what a gem this can be,” she said. “Somebody just had to get the ball rolling.”