As if driven by a variation of Parkinson's Law, Utah's population of golfers seems to be expanding to fill all of the allotted tee times at all of the public links.
"Golf is experiencing a boom in Utah, no doubt about it," said Utah Golf Association executive director Joe Watts. "The only thing restricting it is the number of facilities."Every major public golf course in the state is being played at or near capacity, a situation that is expected to continue even with the opening of three new courses along the Wasatch Front this year.
Faced with the growing demand, area policymakers are hoping to develop at least eight more golf courses within the next decade. While that may be good news to golfers, some officials fear such expansion could dilute revenues and impede their ability to pay off the debts incurred to develop those courses.
If that happens, green fees will have to be raised - as they were to finance the newest courses - and that's bad news to golfers.
Scott Gardner, the man who has presided over Salt Lake City's $16 million golf course development program and the related unpopular fee hikes, is among those who think too many new courses could hurt everyone.
"I do believe there is a break point. If the courses aren't full, the only way they can pay the bills is to have the fees go up," Gardner said. "I don't know where that break point is, but I think a half dozen new courses right now could be a big mistake."
For Salt Lake City, which incurred a huge debt to build the new Wingpointe course and expand Mountain Dell to 36 holes, too much dilution could spell trouble. Plagued by poor soil conditions, bad weather, critics and an unfavorable location near the airport, the $6 million Wingpointe is one of the few courses not at capacity.
Wingpointe experiencing problems
Gardner acknowledges that Wingpointe has experienced some inaugural problems, but he predicts the course will evolve into Salt Lake City's finest. "It's a championship course, one of the best. It has the feel of a Scottish links to it."
Once Wingpointe's landscaping takes shape and the golfing community becomes more familiar with the course, it will become profitable, he said.
In the meantime, the city is relying on Mountain Dell, its new flagship course, to shoulder more of the debt burden. Officials expect it to generate $1.5 million during 1991-92. However, Mountain Dell is financially more vulnerable than other courses because of the unpredictable mountain weather.
The city must also contend with the political fury of senior golfers who feel cheated by the new fee policy. The cost of their season passes went from $175 to $400 and they are not valid at Mountain Dell or Wingpointe, even though those courses benefit from the increase.
Lou Skokos, a spokesman for a group of golfers that has been challenging the city's policies for years, argues that the courses could have been built with a smaller bond issue and cash reserves. "It would have saved us millions of dollars," Skokos said.
Gardner defends the city's decision to finance the expansion as it did. Without the large bond issue, the work would have taken 10 years, he said. "It was a tough decision for the City Council, a political headache, but I think it was the right decision."
Whether the golfing public ultimately agrees with him may depend on his ability to hold the line on fees.
For the short term, Gardner is optimistic. Gazing out his office window at a another in a series of winter redux snowfalls, he said, "I believe we'll be OK with some good weather."
His optimism is largely based on the enormous popularity of golf in Utah and his conviction that the dreaded "break point" is still a few years away.
"I've been doing this for 15 years and have seen a number of different booms in recreation," he said. "In the late '70s, we couldn't build enough tennis courts. Now tennis has leveled off and golf is growing. Utah has definitely become a golf state."
New courses `absolutely feasible'
Pam Boyles, Salt Lake County's director of sports and golf, agrees and says there is no reason to worry about overdevelopment any time soon. The county's proposed Lakepoint, Old Mill and Riverton golf courses are "absolutely feasible," she said.
"The demand seems to be there," Boyles said. "More and more people are being exposed to golf, especially young people, and golf is a lifetime sport. I think it will continue to grow with our population."
Noting that the county's new commissioners have expressed strong support for golf course development, she suggested work on the proposed Riverton course in the area of 12800 S. 1300 West could begin next year. New courses have also been proposed for the Vitro and Sharon Steel sites in Salt Lake County, and others are being discussed in Davis County, North Salt Lake, Sandy-South Jordan and Utah County.
"I wish I owned a golf course," Boyles said, contending there is enough business for all.
West Valley City will be putting that theory to the test later this month with the opening of the front nine of its new West Ridge course. The back nine is scheduled to open May 11, followed by a grand opening May 17.
Opening won't hurt other courses
"We're expecting quite a bit of play, and I don't think it's going to hurt any of the other courses," said West Ridge pro Mike Richards. "At the start, we'll probably get a lot of golfers who can't get tee times at other places. Before too long, we'll be at capacity."
Richards has seen it happen before, when he worked at the new Murray Parkway golf course. It reached capacity the day it opened five years ago and has evolved into one of the most popular, and profitable, in the state, generating nearly $1 million in revenues last year.
Murray Mayor Lynn Pett says it's the busiest course in the state. "It's so busy that sometimes people are lined up there on Thursday mornings as early as 6:30 a.m. to get a tee time for the weekend."
The experts say Murray got into the golf business at the crest of the wave. Murray Parkway's financial stability appears assured. Pett noted that the course covers all of its costs, has already repaid most of the city's investment and has put $1.5 million into the development of nearby land along the Jordan River.
Like Salt Lake City and Murray, West Valley issued bonds to pay for its new course and must rely on revenues to pay the debt. And like Murray, it may be opening at the right time and place.
"It's right in the center of the population growth in the southwest part of the valley, and it's accessible," UGA director Watts said of West Ridge. "I believe it will be as successful as Murray Parkway."
Richards said West Ridge offers naturally rolling terrain and a spectacular view of the valley. "It has a country club atmosphere for the general public," he said.
Development leads nation
His allusion is all the more significant because Utah is leading the nation in the development of municipal courses while lagging behind in the number of country clubs and private courses.
"We haven't had a private country club built here since the early '60s," said Watts. One reason for that may be that land costs are high and private developers can't compete with government-subsidized courses.
"I feel without any question that local governments have made golf more available to the people, and that's wonderful," Watts said.
Gardner said the municipal system has also helped dispel the image of golf as a rich man's sport. At $6 for nine holes and $12 for $18, the cost of the game comes to about $3 per hour, which he calls a recreation bargain.
"I wish everybody could play for $1, but that's not possible," Gardner said. "For $6, golfers are getting an excellent product. People from all over look at our courses and think they're country clubs."
Getting away from the boardroom
The latest phenomenon to hit the municipal courses is the business game, where executives and salesmen talk business on the links instead of in the conference room.
Rose Park pro Lynn Landgren has noticed it, saying, "A lot of business is now being conducted on the golf course. You see it all the time. And what better place to do it? On the course, everyone is relaxed and you have the other person's complete attention for two or three hours."
Landgren says some executives go so far as to give a hiring preference to employees who play golf because of the sales pitches they can make for the company while pitching and putting the ball. And the cost is lower than other forms of business entertainment, he added.
Because Salt Lake City has the most courses, it usually sets the trend for fees along the Wasatch Front. When it raised fees to pay for the new courses, most other government golf agencies followed suit, whether they needed the additional revenues or not.
"If you take the lead in fees, as we do, you get hit the hardest because people realize that keeping our fees down will keep everybody's down, so we really get worked over," Gardner said, adding that fees should remain at their present level at least until 1993.
He doesn't apologize for the past increases. "In the future, this community will be a better place to live because of the recreation, parks and golf courses we've provided."
East Bay, Provo $10
Salt Lake City 12
West Ridge 12
St. George 22
WASATCH FRONT COURSES
COURSE ROUNDS PLAYED REVENUES PRO
Bonneville, 954 Connor St. 107,384 $786,453 Richard C. Kramer
Nibley Park, 2780 S. 700 East 74,365 $361,455 Jeff Waters
Forest Dale, 2375 S. 900 East 80,720 $379,409 Mack Christensen
Glendale, 1630 W. 2100 South 130,503 $718,741 Thomas G. Reese
Rose Park, 1386 N. Redwood Rd. 106,271 $585,676 Lynn Landgren
Mt. Dell, Parley's Canyon* 98,150 $564,312 Thomas C.
Wingpointe, 3602 W. 100 North NA NA Ronald T. Branca
Mick Riley, 421 E. Vine 86,660 $605,891 Nolan Wathen
Meadowbrook, 4197 S. 1300 West 103,651 $790,747 Jim Healy
Mt. View, 2400 W. 8660 South 102,483 $882,077 Norm Rackley
Murray Parkway, 6345 S. Riverside 115,000 $915,000 Gary Healy
West Ridge, 5055 S. West Ridge NA NA Mike Richards
West Bountiful, 1201 N. 1100 West 45,000 NA Mike Bicker
Bountiful City, 2430 Bntfl Blvd. 85,000 $630,000 Scott Whittaker
Valley View, Layton 90,313 $510,298 Ken Pettingill
Davis Park, Fruit Heights 100,595 $545,095 Brad Stone
Spanish Oaks, Spanish Fork NA $336,000 Roy Christensen
Gladstan, Payson 32,000 $350,000 Jack Lomento
Hobble Creek, Springville 75,000 $375,000 Sonny Braun
East Bay, Provo 84,000 $321,000 Kean Kidd
Tri City, American Fork 96,000 $495,400 Gary Naylor
TOTAL: 1,613,095 $10,152,554
*Before expansion to 36 holes
What is costs to golf
Hat: $10 Shirt: $20-$30
Slacks: $20 UP
Tees: 2 cents each
Golf Balls: 50 cents - $2.65 per ball
Socks: $4 - $5
Initial investment: $175
Average Cost per year is $500-$1,000