Bop bop bop bop…
Okay, now that I have Joni Mitchell’s classic song stuck in your head, the following story tells you why she must have been singing about golf courses.
Duarte, CA, is a small city of just over 21,000 souls located along U.S. Route 66, east of Pasadena. It’s best known for the City of Hope National Medical Center, a recognized leader in fighting cancer and other catastrophic diseases.
The Rancho Duarte Golf Course is a nine-holer built atop a 32-acre, 40-foot deep former landfill surrounded by 122 homes. It is not a municipally-owned facility but instead has an owner in China the city considers “absentee.” As a result, the golf course has suffered from neglect. The absentee owner, Americasia Investment, which paid $3.3 million for the property in 2013, has only done the bare minimum to maintain the course and has had it for sale for eight years. Now, it wants to cash out, and it found a buyer.
MW Investment is the hopeful buyer and Joni Mitchell’s antagonist. If successful, it would have the property rezoned and repurpose three holes of the course into a 675-space asphalt parking lot for RVs and boats. True, RVs and boats all have holes too, but not the kind most appealing to the community.
MW Investment went in front of the city council requesting a rezoning of the property to make it amenable to the use that fetches the agreed-upon price. The owner can always sell to someone seeking to operate it per its current zoning, and a golf course would likely be the most financially viable option given the open space/recreation zoning. That is a much lower price, and this property owner is no different than any other; they want the best price possible, which in this case is constrained by its location atop a closed landfill – thus, no housing or “hardscape” commercial.
In a sterling example of how golf must and can defend its turf, longtime PGA Head Professional Jerry Herrera rallied Duarte’s golfers, families, and local residents to save the course. Herrera had already suffered a course closure when the nearby Azusa Greens GC was shuttered and sold for development. He wouldn’t let that happen again. His well-known and loved low-cost junior programs are the epitome of how the game is grown and even produced a current LPGA Tour professional, Lizette Salas. Her parents represented her at the city council meeting.
Golf versus investment represents the stark reality facing golf. Nevertheless, it’s not difficult to argue that, in many cases, the land upon which sits verdant golf courses can be converted to better and higher use. Think housing development in dense urban/suburban/exurban areas that provide new homes, jobs, and higher tax revenue for the tax-collecting authorities.
But in this case, golf took a different and, ultimately, winning path. Rather than espousing golf’s economic impact, likely top of mind at National Golf Day in Washington, D.C., golf won this battle by freely conceding that if money is the only metric under consideration, by all means, pave the green space over and put up a parking lot, Joni Mitchell be damned. However, if the quality of life, green space, recreation, junior/family programming, and quality neighborhoods are the metrics, then keep the golf course – or better yet, perhaps the city should purchase the facility from the “absentee owner” and invest in making it a better green space and more valuable community asset and amenity.
Because, if the golf industry continues its case about its $90 or so billion dollar impact, someone in the weeds might calculate that it represents about .003% of the nation’s GDP while consuming massive amounts of land, especially in dense and sometimes pricey urban neighborhoods. At some point, it’s not going to pencil out.
I’ll give Augusta National credit for investing locally in efforts to support the game. But over the next 10-20 years, the little surviving facilities like Rancho Duarte Golf Course will put clubs in the hands of people who will never step foot on Los Angeles Country Club, Merion, Winged Foot, Olympic Club, or even Torrey Pines and Harding Park.
“Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you got 'til it's gone?" Golf needs more Joni Mitchells.