SPRINGVILLE — His hair is silver and he still dresses in the uniform of a PGA professional: slacks and a clean, new golf shirt. Friday morning he trekked back and forth from storage garages to the staging area by the clubhouse at Hobble Creek Golf Course, bringing carts from their caves to sunlight. It’s a routine Sonny Braun has been doing here for 47 years.
At age 80, he has worked this one job at this municipal course longer than any Utah head professional at any kind of course anywhere in the Beehive State. That includes legends Dick Kramer and Tee Branca. This week, with his able and popular assistant Craig Norman, Hobble Creek will host the 46th Annual Art City Amateur Saturday through Sunday.
From 1967 to 2008, the tournament was so popular, its 200-plus field was completely filled the first day of signups.
“The thing I like is the people, the relationships,” said Braun, “It’s all I know. Every year I think, ‘I can do one more.’ ”
Braun got his start at the old Timpanogos Golf Course in Provo while in grade school. He then worked in the Monterrey Peninsula Country Club in Pebble Beach before moving back to Utah as a young aspiring club pro under legends Jimmy Thompson, Billy Johnson and Dave Crowton.
Braun has seen just about everything in golf at this course. A hunter once shot a deer near the No. 6 par-3 green and gutted it right on the foot path, leaving the cleanup for the greenskeeper.
Back in the mid-60s, when Springville opened Hobble Creek as a nine-hole course (the current back nine), Braun had a golf shack just off the current No. 18 tee, which was then No. 1. One day he had a BYU student come in, rent clubs and quickly return. “Could I get a different set to rent?” asked the student. “It seems every time I hit this driver, the ball curves to the right and goes over the fence out of bounds.” “Yeah, it’s the clubs,” thought Braun as he exchanged the rental set.
Today, Hobble Creek remains one of Utah’s most popular golf experiences after expanding to 18 holes in 1973. “People come from all over the world to play here and they are amazed at the price and the course,” said Braun. “They think it’s a private country club course.”
Like other golf course professionals, Braun has noticed the effect of the economy on golf the past decade. With a local clientele comprised of many in the building industry, unemployment and lack of jobs have slowed down play by some regulars. “Many of the young people in their early 20s, who might golf a few times a week, are finding they can only afford to go two or three times a year when they used to go 40.
“And it takes time. A golfer from American Fork counts on 45 minutes one-way to travel here. Our pace of play is about 4 hours and 20 minutes, so it takes almost an all-day commitment to play a round here for those who travel,” said Braun.
USGA and PGA studies cited by Braun show that from 1990 to 2005 the United States saw 30 percent of its golf courses built. The inventory got too big for the demand. “There became an oversupply of courses. People with money wanted to get in the golf business, but it was too much.”
Last year, Braun says 167 golf courses closed in this country. “It’s a trend that might continue through 2025 when it will even things out and level the playing field for the courses who should be in the business.”
As popular as Hobble Creek is, it covers its operating budget for the fiscal year that ends in June. Its staff remains small and it is self-sufficient, even in this golf drought. “What we don’t cover is equipment and parts replacement, and you’ve got to do that.”
This weekend, some of Utah’s best amateurs will go head to head. Braun surveys the list of winners and calls it a Who’s Who of Utah golf. The list includes James Blair, Bruce Brockbank Jr., Dean Wilson, Ron Hitchcock, Todd Barker, Chris Moody, Dustin Volk, Darren Overson and Ryan Job.
Braun’s been there for it all.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at email@example.com.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company