Tuesday, June 20, 2006

No matter the buyer, keep club a golf course

Originally posted on June 20, 2006

I enjoyed a nice breakfast with my family on Father's Day Sunday at The Golf Club.

But between talking to my 11-year-old about this week's sailing class and my 21-year-old about why she needed two bottle openers on her key chain, I found myself looking out the window at the golf course.

There were golfers of all ages, rushing to the first tee to begin play or stopping inside for a cold one after nine holes. The dedicated ones practiced on the driving range, putting green and chipping areas.

My mind flashed forward to Aug. 1. On that dark day, all that I was watching would be gone.

The last shots to be hit at The Golf Club will be July 31. Then it will close, apparently for good. No more high-fives between friends for curling in that 45-footer for a birdie. No more lies at the bar about how a hole-in-one was made, but, oops, no witnesses.

The biggest losses will be treasured memories, like:

• A family playing a round of golf together.

• The smile on a father's face when his son or daughter hits one right down the middle for the first time.

• The sheer exhilaration when that same son or daughter beats his father for the first time.

You see the thing about a golf course is it's life laid out among the trees and wildlife. There's joy, heartbreak, lessons learned, stories shared.

On July 31, probably around 7 p.m., all that activity on a course that has been around since 1961 may end. The employees — maintenance people, restaurant and bar staff, pro shop and cart staff, will leave for the final time. The lights will go out, the doors will be locked.

End of an era.

Managing partner Scott Siler says he has lost $3 million over the last five years and could no longer sustain that kind of financial carnage.

He says residents in the neighborhoods and those in the condos along the course, among others, did not support it to a level that it could remain open.

"I'm surprised it's closing," said Cape Coral resident Robert E. Sullivan. "I just played there recently. I don't understand why they can't make it there, although it is overpriced."

And that was one of the major complaints: too expensive. The fees were higher than Cape's other 18-hole public facilities — Coral Oaks and Royal Tee — by as much as $13 for residents in the winter season. The club's prices also were higher than popular public courses like Fort Myers Country and Eastwood.

Golfers are a pretty finicky group. They will stay with you as long as they feel they are getting a good deal. Any spike in price may send them hunting for something cheaper. There are more than 165 courses in Southwest Florida, so there's plenty to pick from.

Siler says his greens fees have climbed only $3 to $5 in the last five years.

I don't believe the course was overpriced. Greens were nice, rolled true. Fairways were green, mowed at appropriate heights. The greens were protected with bunkers that were well groomed. Pace of play was decent.

Maybe there should have been a stronger marketing strategy. With 10,000 people a year moving into the city, many may not have known the place even existed.

The Golf Club offered plenty of selling points: a nice golf shop, decent bar area, nice brunch on Sundays, plenty of room for meetings, weddings and other events.

It doesn't make a whole lot of sense that a city of 155,000 couldn't support this place.

Like the golfer who simply wants to fling the club into a tree after dropping one in the water, some folks were just flat out mad at the place.

"We've played there and been very dissatisfied with the course; too many people on the course at once," said Cape Coral resident William Gregory, 56. "I don't care if they tear the whole place down."

What does the future bring?

Siler needs a buyer, mainly to recoup his total losses of around $15 million. Best bet is the club will be bought by a developer and single-family homes and condos will be built there.

Siler believes it will never again be a golf course. I hope he is wrong.

If you need 175 acres, at a cost anywhere from $15 million to $20 million, this is the place for you. But please keep it a golf course.

"The city should buy the course and make it another muni (municipal) course," said Cape Coral resident Dave Kenny, 50. "With the way the Cape is growing we can use another public course."

Are you listening, city council?

And don't rule out the possibility that this place still could be purchased by the Lee County School District. Land is scarce for big projects like schools. District officials wanted to buy the property a year ago for $26 million and build a five-school complex. Neighbors complained and the district backed off.

In a sense, though, this land is already a classroom. You can learn about wildlife there. You learn how to play by the rules of a game that can drive one bonkers. You can come together as a family there.

Somebody step to the tee and keep it a golf course.

— Staff writer Pete Skiba contributed.

— Tom Hayden is Cape Coral editor of The News-Press.