Keith Johnson, Deseret News
Dan, left, and Jeremy Telford finish their golf round at South Mountain Golf Club. The county fought hard to buy it, finally purchasing it for $17 million.

Salt Lake County leaders have a love/hate relationship with the South Mountain Golf Club.

One day they want it, the next they don't.

County leaders wanted the course so badly that in 1999 they paid twice what they would have paid had another deal gone through in 1996.

Now the county is considering dumping the pricey course and letting a private company run it instead.

It's quite a change from the past, when the county fought through lawsuits and recriminations and a failed bid to buy the property to eventually purchase it for $17 million in 1999.

Councilman Jeff Allen fears the course is too difficult for the average Joe.

"It's a golf course that doesn't appeal to the general golf public," Allen said. "And it is a course that doesn't fit our mission statement for providing golf and recreation in the county."

The course is difficult. That's a fact. But no more difficult than other public courses in the area, South Mountain golf pro Jerry Brewster said.

Bonneville Golf Course, a public course on Salt Lake City's east bench, has a higher slope rating than South Mountain, according to the Professional Golfers' Association. And Old Mill, another county course, is just as difficult from the white tees.

"I don't think it's too hard for most people," Brewster said.

South Mountain just gets a bad rap, since it "doesn't fit the mold of the typical municipal golf course," he said.

The average golfer loses a lot of balls on the course, with its rolling hills, rocky ravines and plenty of brush near the fairways.

Allen fears that average golfers are staying away in fear of losing golf balls, which cost a pretty penny these days.

"Does (South Mountain) fit our priorities and our goals in having a golf portfolio?" Allen said. "If that is to provide golf for the average golfer, and not to have to worry about losing golf balls, then South Mountain doesn't really fit the bill."

Provo resident Ralf Schmirald loves the course.

He drives up about twice a month to take in the scenic views and play a round of 18.

"It's one of my favorites," Schmirald said. And contrary to Allen's assertion that the course is not kept up, maintenance-wise, Schmirald had no complaints. "They do a lot of work on it. It's generally always in good shape."

Brett Taft isn't too impressed with South Mountain. He plays the course every so often, and said, "It's not a very good course."

He said it's too crammed up on the hillside.

If the county ends up privatizing the course, both Taft and Schmirald fear a major jump in green fees. Schmirald loves the course enough that he might continue coming back, but Taft doesn't plan on it.

"I wouldn't pay top dollar to play here," Taft said at the course on Tuesday.

The course is on prime foothill land at the Point of the Mountain, with beautiful valley views. But the county can't sell the property to developers.

The land is locked in a conservation easement that prevents development in the future should the course fold. Just a sliver of the total course — five acres to be exact — could be developed commercially, and a few interested parties have already contacted the county about possible development.

The county tried to buy the course in 1996 for $6.5 million, but developers rebuffed that offer. Later, both sides agreed to a $7.9 million deal.

That deal fell through, however, after paperwork necessary to finalize it languished for months in then-county attorney Doug Short's office. Saying they couldn't wait any longer, developers accepted the offer from Crown Golf Properties, a Chicago-based operator of upscale golf courses, for a controlling share.

Former County Commissioner Brent Overson blamed Short for the demise of a deal that he said would have greatly benefited the county and cash-poor golfers. Short countered that Overson had complicated the deal by holding secret meetings with South Mountain principal Terry Diehl.

Then, in 1999 the county came back and paid $17 million for the course, a huge mistake in Councilman Jim Bradley's eyes.

"Yeah, we made a bad deal when we bought South Mountain," Bradley said. "We made a bad decision, and now we're all paying for it."

The debt payments for the course are hurting the county's entire golf system. The county still owes $12.9 million on the bond.

Instead of paying for improvements on the county's six golf courses, funding is used to pay off the South Mountain debt, said Erin Litvack, the county's community services director.

South Mountain is projected to run in the red through at least 2011, with estimated losses at $91,000 this year alone.

"For the last eight years, South Mountain has been a problem," Councilman Randy Horiuchi said. "It's been a problem revenue wise, and it's draining to a great degree."

County leaders aren't making any decisions on the course's future just yet.

On Tuesday, the County Council voted to investigate the issue further. All options are on the table, including privatization, giving up operational control to a private company but retaining ownership, or keeping things as is and possibly investing more money to perk things up economically at the Draper course.


E-mail: ldethman@desnews.com