Thirty years ago, Robert “Doc” Graves set the course record at the Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course in Phoenix. Forty-nine strokes, 11 under par.
Back then, Graves played golf all over the world, and he believed the Ahwatukee Lakes course was one of the top 10 executive golf courses in America.
The course was meticulously maintained – a velvety-smooth expanse of green grass trimmed to one-twentieth of an inch each day. The sand traps were carefully raked.
Today, it’s a trashy, weedy wasteland, the victim of demographic shifts, climate change and prohibitively expensive water bills.
“If you go to a movie, you don’t want to sit on a chair full of gum and trash,” said Graves, now 84 and a retired chiropractor. “That’s the way golf courses are, too.”
Graves comes from a generation that views golf as a gentleman’s game and a status symbol. He still loves golf, but the game is now too strenuous for him. So, instead, Graves serves as a PGA and U.S. Golf Association rules official at tournaments across Arizona.
It saddens him that his beloved Ahwatukee Lakes course is no longer available for tournaments. He blames mismanagement for the demise of the course.
But the saga of the course is not an isolated story in the Phoenix metro area. Other golf courses are reportedly in bankruptcy, and Phoenix struggles with what to do with its money-losing municipal golf courses.
Golf’s popularity declining
Recently, the Urban Land Institute warned developers to “stay away from golf.”
That’s because golf’s popularity has declined for almost a decade. More courses have closed than opened for eight years, according to the National Golf Foundation. A 2013 study by the foundation notes the industry lost 4.7 million golfers since 2005.
Here’s why: Golf’s most ardent devotees, members of the Silent Generation, are dying out. Many Baby Boomers can’t afford golf and don’t like it much anyway. Millenials care even less about golf than Boomers.
Phoenix is no exception to the national industry trend. If anything, Phoenix has it worse than other metropolitan areas the same size.
Maricopa County alone has more than 220 golf courses. The reason: Builders used golf courses as sales gimmicks for their housing developments.
“Just in the last 30 years, the number of golf courses has doubled, maybe tripled and primarily because of residential development,” said Dale Larsen, a former director for the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department who now teaches at Arizona State University.
“I don’t think there’s any dispute that we have more golf courses than we have golfers to supply them. … The sport itself is in a funk,” he said.
Closing courses causes angst
Wilson Gee, owner of the Ahwatukee Lakes course, let the course go fallow because the water bills were too high.
Then, he became embroiled in a years-long dispute with angry homeowners who’d paid premium lot prices to face the golf course. Gee wants to convert the dead golf course into homes, and the homeowners are threatening to sue him.
He said the course lost money for five years.
“When the cost of water gets up to $1 million per year, 30 to 40 percent of revenue goes toward water. It’s impossible to keep it open,” he said.
What’s more, Gee recently got slapped with a tax bill from Maricopa County for closing the course. Gee owes $1.6 million in back taxes, according to the Maricopa County Assessor’s Office.
That’s because of a 1985 statute that gives a golf-course owner a tax break of $500 per acre each year as long as the course operates as a golf course. If the owner takes the tax break and closes the course, he or she must pay 10 years of the tax break plus interest and a penalty.
Gee won’t comment on his tax situation.
But he has more headaches than the Ahwatukee Lakes course. His other golf courses aren’t faring as well as he would like. Three of the golf courses are breaking even, while the fourth, Club West, is losing money like Ahwatukee Lakes.
“When you look at the business end, it’s very difficult. Sometimes, we’re cutting our own throat just to survive, so everyone is dropping prices,” Gee said.
For now, Gee says he just wants to sell his dead golf-course property. He’s sympathetic to the residents’ anger, but to him the golf industry isn’t viable anymore.
“There are one too many golf courses in Phoenix,” he said. The Ahwatukee Lakes course, he notes, “can’t be a golf course. It will never be a golf course again.”
Courses eat up water
In the Valley, during the summer, when temperatures can reach upwards of 115 degrees Fahrenheit, golf courses use 1 million gallons of water per day.
That water could be used for 9,000 residents for an entire year based on current per capita water usage rates in Phoenix.
Most golf courses in Phoenix use effluent – recycled water that has been treated but is not potable – but scientists say in theory that water could be cleaned up enough for human use.
Phoenix has learned to cut down on water, and city officials predict renewable water supplies will last 100 years. However, the prediction is just that – a prediction. The 2011 City of Phoenix Water Resource Plan warns that sustainable water supply predictions were made for “non-shortage” conditions.
Some argue that golf courses in a desert city are more environmentally sustainable than some options to replace them.
The bulk of water demand in Phoenix comes from residential use. Residents use 66 percent of Phoenix’s total water while golf courses use only 2 percent, according to the 2011 Water Resource Plan.
Many golf-course managers say they go to great lengths to make sure water is never wasted on the course. The “science” of watering a golf course means that many courses now use drought-resistant grass coupled with wetting agents that hold the water in the root zone longer.
Many course managers also calculate exactly how much water is needed to sustain the grass, so the grass is never over watered.
Despite the negative news about the golf courses, Graves is an optimist, and said the golf industry will bounce back. He sees more players on the greens now than he did a few years ago.
Although he can’t play, at least he can still get out on the green and close to the game by refereeing. He plans on being a ref, he said, “until the day they put me in the ground.”