Have golf's glory days gone by?

The game that brought grass to the desert appears to be drying up


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "The Lure of the Lawn."

TUCSON, Arizona — The Sycamore Canyon development is a patchwork quilt of subdivisions and ocotillo desert, tucked up against the Santa Rita Mountains at the southern edge of Tucson. Now halfway through construction, the project puts tract homes, streets and cul-de-sacs next to palo verde-lined washes.

What’s missing from this 1,600-home development? Golf. Grassy fairways and manicured greens were once the centerpiece of large master-planned communities in Tucson and throughout the Southwest. Instead of building a golf course, developer Alex Argueta has set aside 70 percent of the land as open desert. He says that today’s homebuyers treasure open space in their backyards as much as they once loved living next to a fairway.

There were other reasons, too: "I think developers are finding it’s not as profitable as previously thought," Argueta says. "A golf course today costs a million dollars a hole. If you want to do it right, you are using a lot of space, water and imported materials. The upkeep and maintenance is horrific."

Developments like Sycamore Canyon are becoming more common across the Southwest, and nationally. In the four counties surrounding Tucson, only four big projects out of 30 plan golf courses. Nationally, 129 courses closed in 2005, while only 124 new ones opened, according to the National Golf Foundation, an industry research organization based in Jupiter, Fla. It was the fewest openings since the mid-1980s, and the first year the foundation had reported a decline since 1945.

Many in the industry say the downturn is only temporary. But it is clear that the game that brought turfgrass to the desert has hit a new dry spot.

Overbuilt and underplayed

Golf is still a $3.4 billion industry in Arizona alone. But the game is under sharp economic pressure from a combination of overbuilding and changes in Americans’ leisure habits.

Nationally, the number of golfers stayed steady in 2005 at about 30 million, but the total number of golf rounds has dropped by 6.5 percent since 2000, according to the golf foundation. In Southern California, the number of golf rounds has fallen only slightly, but the number of new courses has dropped sharply in recent years. Bob Thomas of the Southern California Golf Association says the lengthy playing time makes the sport less appealing to modern adults. And greens fees are high these days: They start at $25 to $35 for 18 holes at a municipal course, and go up to $300 a round at Donald Trump’s new Trump National Course in Rancho Palos Verdes.

"People get married and have children later, wait until their mid-30s, and at the time they can afford to play golf, their late 40s, they’re in their peak earning capacity and have got kids in school," Thomas says. "Playing five hours on the golf course is not as appealing as it used to be."

In the Tucson area, courses are filled to capacity in winter. When the summer heat drives people indoors, however, some golf courses slash their greens fees by half and give away gasoline and lunches to draw customers. And the scarcity of golfers is only exacerbated by the overabundance of courses.

"In 1984, the Tucson area had 21 golf courses. Today there’s 52," says Mike Hayes, who runs five municipal courses for the city of Tucson. "We’re way overbuilt, probably by eight or nine courses."

Still, the National Golf Foundation denies that the sport is in a long-term decline. The foundation’s research director, Jim Kass, says the drop in new course construction makes sense, given the recent drop-off in rounds played: It’s "an appropriate culling of facilities which should happen in a rational market." But now that the baby boomers are retiring, he forecasts an increase in the number of golf rounds that will be played in the next 20 years.

What about the water?

But there are other forces at work here besides the market. Golf courses have gotten very good at making their water go a long way. They have to be, according to state water officials in Arizona and Utah, because it is such a huge expense. Nonetheless, water use remains astronomical, and that’s becoming an issue.

In the Tucson area, golf courses use a total of 21,000 acre-feet of groundwater, treated sewage effluent and Central Arizona Project water each year. That’s 6 percent of the region’s total water use, enough to water the lawns and supply the showers of more than 60,000 Tucson families.

Those figures persuaded Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry to propose the once-unthinkable. Earlier this summer, he asked his County Board of Supervisors to consider killing plans for golf courses on four developments‚ even though they’d already been approved, because they would have to pump from Tucson’s chronically stressed groundwater supplies.

Five years ago in Tucson, only environmentalists complained when the board unanimously agreed to add nine holes to a golf course in the Canoa Ranch development adjacent to Green Valley, where seven courses were already slurping groundwater (HCN, 2/15/99: Yankee stay home). But this year, for economic reasons, owners of two of the proposed courses had already considered dropping them prior to Huckelberry’s announcement.

A third course site, not far from the Sycamore Canyon development, was paved over for a subdivision a few years ago. Developer Eric Abrams, whose project abuts the paved-over fairways, says it doesn’t make any sense to build more golf courses that use groundwater. His company’s existing course, now 30 years old, does OK, he says — it sees about 35,000 rounds played annually — but he hopes the area doesn’t get another new course anytime soon.

"You’re asking me if we would build a golf course again if we had the choice now?" Abrams says. "No."

The author is the Arizona Daily Star’s environmental reporter.

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