Ashley Lowery, Deseret News
Golfers play on the 9th hole at the University of Utah golf course. It may be closing soon to make room for new buildings on campus.

The golf course has hosted big tournaments such as the Western Open and the Utah Open. Golf legends such as Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson have walked its fairways and putted its greens.

By this time next year, however, the University of Utah Golf Course will be history, eaten up by still more buildings for the ever-expanding university.

The U. Golf Course, which has been shrunk to a 9-hole executive course, used to be the Fort Douglas Country Club. It was the premier golf course in the state and hosted the PGA Tour and its stars in the 1940s.

It became the property of the University of Utah in 1959 but, after being chopped up and changed around several times, it is finally meeting its doom.

Two large "U STAR" (Utah Science Technology and Research) buildings are scheduled to be built where the current No. 1 and No. 9 holes are located, with work scheduled to get under way in the spring of 2009. Future plans call for expansion of the medical center in the area where the current Nos. 3, 4 and 5 holes are situated.

Talk of the demise of the golf course has been going on for a couple of decades, but since Michael Young became president of the university five years ago, the plans have accelerated.

"In 2003 with the new president, Michael Young, it was very appropriate, with his vision and for the mission of the university to have an updated campus master plan," said Mike Perez, associate vice president for facilities management. "That campus master plan is now complete and we're doing the final documentation."

Although some folks don't believe all hope is lost until the first bulldozer or shovel hits the course, there's little chance the course can be saved. According to Perez, the construction on the U STAR buildings will likely start early next year, perhaps in April, just about the time the golf season gets going in Utah.

The golf course was started in 1923 "principally to improve public relations between the Fort Douglas Military Administrators and the local civilian population," according to the history of the Fort Douglas-Hidden Valley Country Club.

Prisoners from World War I were housed at the Fort, and at one time it housed more than 700, including 331 German sailors. They were put to work by General Ulysses Alexander, using horses and equipment at the post with funding from neighbors and the business community.

It began as a three-hole course, with six holes added in the 1920s and the other nine in the '30s.

In 1959, the University notified the club it would take over the operation and maintenance of the golf course. The club moved to Draper and became the Hidden Valley Country Club. Vinnie McGuire took over as the head pro at the U. course and for years worked out of a tiny 4 by 6 shack.

One person who is clearly frustrated by the impending death of the U. course is current head pro James Kilgore. He understands the need for progress at the U., but wonders if some folks in the administration have any idea what goes on at the U. course.

He believes there's a misconception that the course is dominated by old men who play the course most of the day. While he acknowledged a lot of older golfers play in the mornings, only about 15 percent of his total business comes from senior golfers.

"Our bread and butter is junior golf and college students," Kilgore says. "About 45 percent of our golfers are college students."

He said the course often hosts groups from various organizations on campus, including the law school, medical school, business school and fraternities, as well as groups from outside of campus.

The green fees at the U. are as low as you can find in the state, just $5 for students, juniors and seniors and $7 for the general public. Most courses that charge more than twice as much are losing money annually, but the U. manages to make a profit. In the fiscal year that just ended, the golf course was $16,000 in the black.

"Our expenses have increased just like everybody else," says Kilgore. "We're a marginalized little golf course, but we turn a profit annually. I think that is truly remarkable when you see other courses with cafes and banquet facilities and golf cart fleets and all that stuff and they can't make a profit. We're charging five bucks and we make a profit."

Kilgore is passionate about salvaging whatever he can from the remnants of the historic course. Ideally he'd like to build a state of the art golf center with a lighted driving range.

"If we were given 7 acres and a little money, the sky's the limit with what we could do here with the people we could draw here from the east bench," he said.

Utah's most prominent golf architect, Bill Neff, who helped with the most recent redesign of the golf course in the 1990s, is working on plans for a golf center where holes 6, 7 and 8 are located along with parts of holes 3, 4, and 5.

The idea would be to have a golf shop just west of the current No. 7 tee and north of the Eccles Broadcast Center. The 7th hole would stay as a practice hole for chipping while a driving range would extend to the north about 300 yards where the No. 4 and No. 5 holes sit.

The problem right now is money. The U. is allowing Kilgore to work on plans for a golf center, but isn't about to pony up any money for the project.

The other problem is commitment. Because of the continual expansion of the university, there's no promise that the golf center would be there long term. It leaves Kilgore in kind of a Catch-22. He needs the money to build a golf center. But the money could be hard to come by, if donors believe there's no long-term commitment.

Perez says the university isn't abandoning the idea of golf at the U.

"We intend to continue to support golf instruction and education with some sort of facility," he said. "We'll have some level of golf instruction at least for the foreseeable future. We think it will happen rather quickly."

So are these the last couple of months you can play the old U. course? That's the question a lot of U. regulars keep asking Kilgore, who doesn't know the answer.

But Kilgore is one person of several people who still have hope the course will last a little longer.

"I truly believe it's not a done deal until they start digging," he said.

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