Another One Bites the Dust

By: Jeff Shelley

The closure of our nation's golf courses has reached epidemic proportions. According to the National Golf Foundation, the nation "lost" 220 18-hole courses between 2006 and 2010.

In 2010, the NGF reported there were 46 18-hole equivalent course openings compared to 107 closures, for a net loss of 61 such equivalents. That was the fifth straight year in which closings outpaced openings.

The total number of golf facilities in the U.S. at the end of 2010 was 15,890, 167 fewer than the all-time high of 16,057 in 2004.

Just this week the doors on the popular Pecan Valley Golf Club in San Antonio were shuttered, its owner complaining that the course - which hosted the 1968 PGA Championship - was too difficult for the average player and had become a money-loser. Other recently closed Texas courses include Colo Vista Country Club in Bastrop.

The Lone Star State isn't the only area being hit hard, with other states of the Union also bidding goodbye to once well-trod fairways. Michigan has particularly suffered, losing dozens of courses in the past decade.

The reasons for the demise of so many courses are myriad: golf now takes too long and costs too much; during the build-it-and-they-will-come era of proliferating high-end courses in the 1990s and after the turn of the new century, developers constructed difficult, expensive layouts that the average golfer found too punishing and not fun; many once-popular mom-and-pop operations have been squeezed out by escalating staff, insurance and maintenance costs; and the projected upsurge in Baby Boomers taking up golf has never materialized.

Regardless of the reason(s), the loss of a favorite course - whether in one's backyard or a short drive away - is tough to stomach. (Indeed, the demise of Pecan Valley was like "a kick to the gut" for local golfer John Pierce, who made that comment to San Antonio Express-News' reporter Jason Buch.)

Before I joined a private club in Seattle nearly 20 years ago I'd venture all over the greater Puget Sound area to play public facilities. Though it was far from the most difficult test, one place I often headed to was Tall Chief Golf Course, which started out in the mid-60s with nine holes and expanded to 18 a decade later.

I liked the place because I could get on easily and it was out in the country, in this case the lush Snoqualmie River valley east of Seattle. Instead of homes and roads, various agricultural operations were on view in the valley below; the odors emanating from a dairy farm on the course's south end left little doubt where you were, especially on warm summer days.

In the spring, deer fawns and fox kits would be spotted on and alongside some of Tall Chief's more secluded fairways, romping across the fresh-cut fairway turf or cavorting amid wildflowers blooming in the rough.

I took several first-time players to low-key Tall Chief for their maiden rounds of golf. I also played on a company golf "team" at Tall Chief for nine-hole "matches" on Friday afternoons; the cold beer and barbequed hamburgers and hot dogs on the clubhouse deck were something we looked forward to all week, to hell with any "competition."

One of those exposed for the first time to the Royal & Ancient Game at Tall Chief was my soon-to-be wife, Anni. I took her out to the Snoqualmie Valley one bright spring day in the early 1990s. On the drive to the course she blurted, "I can't believe I'm going to a golf course. My family hated golf!"

Without clubs, she walked along as I played a round. On one tee I badly miss-hit the ball, sclaffing it off the toe and shooting my drive into underbrush 10 yards in front of us. Anni noted, "Where are you going dear?"

A couple of holes later, she found a knitted head cover that had fallen off someone's club. She said, "Look, someone lost their hat!"

And then we arrived on the remote stretch of Tall Chief's back nine, five holes that went out and back through towering woodlands above the aforementioned dairy farm. We soon came across a half-dozen fawns, watched by the wary mother in the trees, and a couple of holes later encountered three baby foxes, all having a grand time on this wondrous spring day.

That natural experience got Anni hooked on golf. She quickly ignored her family's admonishments and, ever since that round years ago, has probably racked up more rounds than me.

Tall Chief closed at the end of 2011 for the same reasons as so many similar mom-and-pop golf operations. The new owner of the property with the sweeping views of the Snoqualmie River valley, which floods annually when the Cascade Range snow melts and spills broadly over its banks, wants to convert these fairways into 18 high-end home sites and 40 acres of farmable land.

Local farmers aren't happy, especially the one at the south end of the former Tall Chief course. Erick Haakenson told KING TV's Gary Chittum that he was sad to see his friend and neighbor, who owns the golf course, go out of business.

I am too. It's the closure of these kinds of places that should be a wakeup call for the golf industry. Often-rural, low-key and affordable places to play that serve as such special starting points for beginning golfers are becoming, sadly, relics of our past.

Jeff Shelley is Cybergolf's editorial director.