The Golf Club at Vistoso has becomes the latest fatality in a sport that continues to struggle nationwide. A golfing staple tucked in the shadows of the picturesque Tortolita Mountains, Vistoso will shut its doors for the foreseeable future Wednesday, June 6.
According to the latest numbers from the National Golf Foundation, 205.5 golf courses closed nationwide in 2017. Only 15.5 opened over the same period.
Course superintendent Chris Blake, who’s shepherded the club’s maintenance operations for 18 months, said the decision to suspend operations is sad, but not surprising.
The issue, according to Blake, stems from the availability, or lack thereof, of water access for Southern Arizona’s golf courses. That lack of access, in combination with a seasonal population, creates a tough economic environment for courses to survive, Blake said.
“It just gets harder and harder and it’s even more difficult out here or any other places where they’re paying for water,” he said. “Again, the big hot spot here is the water costs. Even in other parts of the country where guys aren’t paying for water, they’re still struggling because it’s just where the game is.”
Blake said there was little to no warning from course operator OB Sports that such a decision was imminent, with the course coming off one of its best seasons in recent years.
“We’ve got a great facility here,” Blake said. “We’ve made a lot of improvements. We were headed in the right direction with improvements on the golf course and our putting greens are excellent, they’re some of the best in Tucson. …I mean, if I owned the company that lost $500,000 a year, I’d probably do the same. I’d probably do something else too.”
OB Sports Chief Operating Officer Phil Green said the decision to suspend operations at the Oro Valley course was strictly economic.
Green said the course has never turned a profit in the four years that OB Sports has operated it.
Green did not disclose how much the course lost since OB Sports took over in 2014, but said the decision to shutter operations was not a spur of the moment call.
“All I know is that we’re suspending service, because [golf’s] not a sustainable business, under current conditions,” Green said. “And the owners have reached out to the HOA board of directors, and are meeting with governmental agencies to explore possibilities of some form of sustainable solution.”
The future of the Tom Wiskopf-designed course, which opened during the sport’s heyday in 1995, is unclear.
Blake will continue to water the course’s greens indefinitely, as the surfaces are the most difficult to restart should water be cut off.
The rest of the course’s 18 fairways, roughs and tee boxes will not be watered, hypothetically leaving the door open for operations to resume in the future, should demand warrant it.
Blake is ready to take on the task of maintaining the course’s putting surfaces and water pumping machines on his own.
It’s merely the sad reality of working in the game right now, with an excess of facilities and a dearth of demand.
Blake said that the game hasn’t recovered from the downturn in play that followed the 2008 recession, which he highlighted as the beginning of the end for the game in America.
“When the s---t hit the fan in 2007 and 2008, the game just started to decline,” Blake said. “It was expensive, it takes a long time to play a round of golf. And operating costs for a 150-or-200-acre facility are expensive. The numbers just don’t line up like the day in the ‘90s when everybody was playing golf and things were going great.”
Green said he’s seen highs and lows at the company’s 67 courses, spread out across 17 states, with some turning a profit and others struggling. He believes that each course operates in its own bubble of circumstances, leading to varying outcomes, rather than a uniformly ominous outlook.
“Every market is different. Every golf course has its own set of circumstances, when it comes to costs involved in maintaining a facility,” Green said. “So, there’s still a number of courses, that are not profitable, for one reason or another, even though the golf industry has started to turn more positive.”