Someone once said that “Change is inevitable – except from a vending machine.” While funny, change is definitely unavoidable – in life, in business, in sports and more. Golf, like many other industries, has been greatly affected by change in recent years. Golfers’ habits have changed – how they search, shop and even how they play. But golf courses, the crux of the golf business, have been impacted by these changes more than most. Economic woes, supply and demand imbalances, demographic shifts, weather trends and even local issues have led to a drastic increase in course closures, management company consolidation, competitive concerns, real estate fluctuations, weather worries and employee turnover. Yes, the golf business has been hit hard in recent years and have had to adapt to survive, but nowhere have these changes been more evident than right here in Southern Arizona.
Recently, the local golf landscape has seen dramatic changes. A few courses have closed down, namely Palo Duro Creek in Nogales, Turquoise Hills in Benson and Santa Rita in Corona de Tucson. Some owner-operators have thankfully left while new owners have gratefully arrived. A few private courses have gone public. Questions about water availability and the environment abound. And then there’s the fiscal “cloud” hanging over every real estate deal in town. Though change is all around, it’s certainly not all doom and gloom.
There are very important changes affecting Tucson area golf right now, but frankly, most of them will be good for this city, for local businesses and residents and certainly for area golfers. What positive changes can local golfers expect to see? Brand re-launches, private courses allowing public play, a new facility added to the landscape, improved conditions, a renovation to a classic course and a variety of new owners and managers putting energy and effort into improving their new businesses. All of this translates into more choices, improved access and an all-around better product for Tucson’s golfers.
The Golf Club at Dove Mountain
Formerly The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, this 27-hole Jack Nicklaus designed course and current home to the Accenture Match Play Championship is considered one of the finest golf courses in the Southwest. It’s such a great course that it was recently purchased by The Escalante Golf Group, a high-end boutique golf course ownership group out of Texas. While their name has changed and much of the staff has been replaced, what will not change is their commitment to excellence and maintaining their appeal as the high-end golf course in the Tucson area. While they will continue to attract the resort guest/visitor or local golfers with more disposable income, the new ownership intends to be very welcoming to all golfers and more involved than ever before with the local business community. For one week out of the year, during the Accenture Match Play Championship, The Golf Club at Dove Mountain represents Southern Arizona golf to the entire world and this exciting ownership change should ensure that they remain the benchmark for accessible top-notch golf the other 51 weeks of the year.
The Views Golf Club
Known by locals as one of the best golf courses in Tucson, this semi-private hidden gem has earned a reputation as one of the best-kept secrets in town. But with a name change a few years ago, a recent commitment to attracting new public play and substantial improvements to the course in the past few months, namely their bunkers, The Views will not stay a secret for long. The Views has made it their mission to attract new players and their superb course conditions, elevation changes, amazing views, a friendly staff and challenging golf will ensure the public is impressed. When your round is over, have a drink on the patio at The Café, which offers stunning panoramic views of the Santa Catalina Mountains. From start to finish the changes at The Views have all been fantastic; area golfers looking for a great value and a unique experience will be pleasantly surprised at what The Views has become.
The Gallery Golf Club
One of the premier clubs in Southern Arizona and former home of the Accenture Match Play Championship, The Gallery in Dove Mountain has recently hired Troon Management to help operate the golf course and club house. Long known for their expertise in managing high end clubs, Troon brings a wealth of skill and knowledge to the facility, even though it will be hard to improve upon what many consider “desert golf perfected.” The Gallery will remain a private golf club, but limited play will be available for non-members. Like many private courses in this economy, The Gallery is offering creative membership packages that are worth looking into if you want to play one of the best courses in the state. With the addition of The Gallery, the Troon portfolio of courses in Tucson increases to three clubs, along with Westin La Paloma and the soon to open Sewailo Golf Club adjacent to Casino del Sol. Look for announcements about their Troon Card and the benefits attached.
The Highlands at Dove Mountain
Formerly known as Heritage Highlands, this rejuvenated club is the original Dove Mountain layout. Though the challenging course layout and prime course conditions won’t be affected, the recent name change is indicative of a new spirit and style. The Highlands isn’t abandoning their tried and true formula that has made them one of the best private courses in town, but they are hoping to attract a younger demographic and become more accessible to new players; which will hopefully translate into new members. A complete replacement of their irrigation system, which comes at considerable expense, will mean outside play will be welcomed and, frankly, will be imperative for their “brand re-launch” to succeed. This change may seem insignificant to most golfers, but it’s actually going to save a considerable amount of water at The Highlands and will ensure continued excellent conditions all year long.
Shadow Mountain Golf Course
This relatively unknown but fun little golf course in Pearce, AZ was in bankruptcy until this past August when it was ultimately purchased by a local group, Shadow Hills LLC. Shadow Mountain was so adored (and needed) by members of their local community, both golfers and non-golfers alike that during the bankruptcy local area volunteers ran all of the day-to-day activities to keep Shadow Mountain in business. That level of community support is rare and should mean only good things for them moving forward. The new management group has been sprucing up the golf course and restaurant all summer and will continue to inject financial resources into the golf course in hopes of seeing it thrive once again and hopefully attract new clientele.
Tucson City Golf
In spite of many rumors, clunky city politics and some recent bad press surrounding the five courses operated by Tucson Parks and Recreation, nothing has really changed regarding El Rio, Fred Enke, Silverbell, Dell Urich or Randolph golf courses. Though the long-term future of some of these courses may be uncertain, the TCG courses are currently open, are in good shape and remain one of the best golf values in town. These five courses are Tucson classics and need the support of the local golf community to survive and, more importantly, thrive. While most of the changes in the local golf landscape are good to see, most local golfers would agree that any Tucson City Golf course closures in 2013 wouldn’t be one of them.
Arizona National Golf Course and Vistoso Golf Club
Change is in the air at the last of the “Wildcat Trail” courses, but the process has been slow. Over the past year ownership issues have rocked these once prime courses and raised some serious concerns among the public as to the quality of the operation. If perception is reality, then these two courses have some serious PR work to do in the local community, but the reality is, things may be improving. Changes are beginning to take place as evidenced by the more-manicured greens and fairways after overseed, a rejuvenated and friendly staff and improved reviews from golfers who’ve recently played. While Arizona National and Vistoso still have a lot of work to do in order to return to “top-tier” status, they appear to be heading in the right direction. Visit www.GoGolfArizona.com for periodic updates as we learn more.
Rio Rico Golf Course
Formerly Rio Rico Country Club and part of the Esplendor Resort, this long-time favorite course and former home to PGA Tour Q-School, Rio Rico has recently been leased to LMT Management, a golf course management company from California. Due to its location and lack of proper operational funding, the course conditions suffered for years and, consequently, revenues declined steadily. Hopefully the new leadership will mean Rio Rico’s struggle is over, which makes the addition of LMT a welcome one. Their mission is to return the course to its former glory by improving course conditions, upgrading the outdated clubhouse, adding more carts to their minimal fleet and funding new and improved maintenance equipment (and manpower.) These exciting changes should bring back a lot of players who may have abandoned the course in recent years and once again make Rio Rico a gem in the desert.
Sewailo Golf Club (Casino del Sol)
Projected to open late 2012, this course will be the newest addition to the already great lineup of Tucson area golf courses. Sparing no expense, developers of the Sewailo Golf Club have literally moved mountains to make sure this new course is immediately one of the best in town. This course opening is one of the most exciting changes to happen in the local golf scene in many years, and though it means competitive courses will be forced to step up their game, Sewailo Golf Club will mean even more variety and more excitement for local golfers and those visiting Tucson.
Forty Niner Country Club
This venerable old east side favorite, which was one of the original hosts to the Tucson Open, was recently purchased by Ron McKenzie, one of the club’s longest standing resident members. And so far, the reports have been stellar as to the new direction Forty Niner is heading. The former owners had been responsible for letting course conditions deteriorate to the lowest point in decades, but Mr. McKenzie’s passion, resources and devotion to the course will hopefully transform this classic Tucson track back to prominence. Once a favorite of members, winter visitors and locals all year long, the entire community is pulling for this East side success story. Forty Niner is currently a work in progress, but the new team has accomplished a large amount of renovation work in a short amount of time, and Tucson area golfers can’t wait to try the finished product.
Canoa Hills and San Ignacio
The residents of Green Valley will be pleased to know that two of their local courses are now under new management (and potentially new ownership). The team responsible for two other Green Valley golf courses, Canoa Ranch and Torres Blancas, has recently taken control of both San Ignacio and Canoa Hills, previously managed by the IRI Golf Group. According to Rich Elias, Director of Golf for the new collection, “the goal is to improve the quality of golf found in Green Valley and make it a formidable golf destination again.” Deteriorating course conditions, water issues and member woes plagued these once-fine courses under the IRI Golf Group’s regime, but moving forward the new caretakers plan to provide good golf at reasonable prices for both members and non-members alike. This is great news for local golfers and residents of these Green Valley neighborhoods who depend on the courses’ quality and appeal to keep their home values high.
It’s tough to be in the golf business right now, especially here in Tucson. Changes abound. The economy is hurting. Ownership is shifting. Real estate prices are down. Water costs are up. The weather is too hot while golf demand remains lukewarm. But, like everything else, this too shall pass. A rebranded course will bring new customers and new energy. A new course will mean more variety for consumers and ensure other courses put out a better product. Private courses opening their doors to the public will allow for increased revenue streams and mean new members can join local clubs. New owner-operators and management companies will mean improved course conditions, competitive pricing and a better experience for golfers. And a renewed focus on city courses will hopefully translate into more support of this great amenity.
Change is often noisy and confusing, sometimes scary and not always predictable. But change is inevitable and necessary for businesses to evolve, economies to improve and for people to respond. A business that doesn’t embrace change will often fall victim to it. For the aforementioned golf courses in Tucson, though the last few years have been challenging, the future looks bright; both for the courses and the golf community. Like the saying goes, there is nothing permanent except change. And in the case of Southern Arizona golf, the change is good.