Maintenance employees at the Golf Club of Vistoso will stop watering the fairways on Sunday. They will cease watering the greens on June 10.
Then, at age 23, not yet close to its prime, the once-shining Oro Valley golf facility will close, although management prefers to use the phrase “suspending operations.”
This isn’t much of a surprise. In recent weeks, the Golf Club at Vistoso began offering prime tee times on golfnow.com for $25.
Talk about a going-out-of-business sale. Those once-coveted tee times rarely went for less than $90. In its boom years, Golf Club of Vistoso often banked up to $50,000 per weekend.
Maybe the homeowners and community associations surrounding Vistoso will rally to its aid. It’s possible that neighborhood groups will produce suitable financing to get the water turned back on in a few months.
Romspen, a Canadian mortgage firm that bought the course at a foreclosure auction four years ago, didn’t intend to be in the golf business for long. It hoped to flip the picturesque Vistoso facility, pocket the profit, and let the next buyer worry about the future of golf in Southern Arizona.
“It’s a shame, but I just don’t see it getting any better,” says Rich Mueller, who operates the nearby Crooked Tree Golf Club. “Water prices will continue to rise. The number of players is decreasing. Vistoso was such a gem.”
Here’s the abridged version of why Golf Club at Vistoso is suspending operations: There are 17 competing golf courses in a 15-mile radius of the No. 1 tee at Vistoso. That’s overwhelming. That’s Russian roulette with a Titleist.
The Tangerine Road corridor and its tributaries provide so many golf options that most of them are in some stage of financial distress, battling one another for a diminishing golf population.
When British Open champion turned golf course designer Tom Weiskopf arrived on the once-remote Vistoso property in January 1995 — it was snowing that day — he announced that Oro Valley was sure to be a “golf mecca” like that in Scottsdale.
Weiskopf’s long-ago words now carry a chill.
That was during an era that Tucson’s five city courses were so busy that there was a waiting list to play.
Now you often walk up to the cashier, no waiting.
Here’s the imposing golf lineup — the mecca — from the front door of Golf Club at Vistoso:
2 miles away: The Stone Canyon Club.
4 miles away: The Views Golf Club.
5 miles away: Two courses at El Conquistador Country Club.
6 miles away: Oro Valley Country Club.
7 miles away: 9-hole resort course at El Conquistador Hotel.
10 miles away: Crooked Tree Golf Club.
10 miles away: The Highlands at Dove Mountain.
11 miles away: Two courses at the Gallery Golf Club.
11 miles away: Omni Tucson National.
12 miles away: 27 holes at Dove Mountain Golf Club.
13 miles away: Saddlebrooke Ranch Golf Club.
14 miles away: Quarry Pines Golf Club.
15 miles away: The Preserve Golf Club, Mountain View Golf Club and Saddlebrooke Golf Club.
The options are endless.
“The Vistoso model no longer works,” says Mueller, a former UA golfer who has operated Crooked Tree for 14 years. “It is a stand-alone, high-end, pricey golf course. It’s just not sustainable.”
Starr Pass Golf Club survives because powerful Marriott Golf runs the 27-hole operation. La Paloma Country Club is fortified by Westin Hotels, and the majestic Ventana Canyon Golf Club is backed by Loews Hotels.
Almost every other course is on the hit list. The Tucson city council last week said it will explore the repurposing of Silverbell (born in 1977) and Fred Enke (born in 1984) golf courses. Blanchard Golf Course at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, age 55, closed earlier this month.
The golf business no longer promises a full and happy life.
The closure of Vistoso means that those who play there will scatter to other courses in the Tangerine area. Ironically, it could be a salvation for the financially-challenged 36-hole operation at the El Conquistador courses.
Tucson’s now busted golf boom was never more sizzling than in 1996. The Golf Club at Vistoso opened a few months before the Raven at Sabino Springs — now called Arizona National — in the foothills near Catalina Highway. Both thrived for a decade then dived.
The Toronto-based Romspen group also bought once-resplendent Arizona National in 2014, rescuing it, paying its long overdue water bills, putting a shine back on a course that couldn’t even pay for grass seed.
Romspen isn’t in the golf business. It’s in the buy-sell-and-make-a-profit business. It has been unable to sell either course. As Arizona National’s debt grew, Romspen recently informed homeowners it would close the course.
To their credit, the Arizona National homeowners group began working on a lease deal with Romspen, which, if approved by homeowners, would avoid a Vistoso-esque shutdown.
“For 15 or 20 years, golf courses in Tucson sold like hotcakes,” says Mueller. “Developers built thousands of homes surrounding those courses and moved on. It’s sad to say, but for the golf industry in Tucson to improve, Vistoso and several other courses might have to shut down.”