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Lofty goals ground future plans for golf courses

The future of Torrey Pines golf course remains very much in question as golfers and city officials continue to debate how much a round at the course should cost, how tee times should be allocated and whether the course needs high-cost capital improvements.

Earlier this month, the city released the third version of its proposed five-year plan for its municipal golf courses, which include the courses at Torrey Pines, Balboa and Mission Bay. The city says the plan is intended to maximize city revenues for the courses while keeping them easily accessible for San Diego residents, but nearly every aspect of the proposal has encountered criticism since it was introduced earlier this year.

Torrey Pines is by far the best of the city-owned courses and has been at the center of the debate over the golf plan, which continued at a May 17 meeting of the City Council’s Natural Resources and Culture committee. Torrey Pines brought in more than $7 million in revenue for the city in fiscal year 2005, but city golf operations director Mark Woodward said the course is operating at a slight loss.

Golfers packed the May 17 meeting, with many coming to object to the proposed increases in greens fees at Torrey Pines over the next five years. The city is only proposing slight increases in the fees over the next four years because the course will host the 2008 U.S. Open and, as a result, is subject to rules designed to stop price gouging.

After the tournament, however, San Diego residents would pay $79 to play Torrey Pines South Course on a weekend in 2011, a 75-percent increase over the current rates. The weekend rates for the North Course would rise 47 percent to $54 under the proposal.

La Jollan John Beaver, who has created an orginazation called the San Diego Municipal Golfers Alliance and collected more than 1,200 signatures opposing the city’s plan, appeared at the meeting to propose an alternate plan with much more modest increases. Beaver’s group argued that limiting resident fee increases to 4 percent per year would help preserve the original purpose of the course.

“These are municipal golf courses,” Beaver said, “and they were designed for use by the tax-paying citizens of San Diego.”

Woodward said that the proposed fees for residents were set with the intention of covering what it costs the city to produce a round of golf, and that the proposed non-resident fees were set to what golfers would be willing to pay on the open market. Beaver and other golfers argued that the proposed non-resident rates fall short of market value and questioned the city’s assertion that it costs more than $56 to produce a round on the South Course and more than $27 on the North Course.

Mayor Jerry Sanders stepped into the golf plan fray last month and made some changes to the plan. The city had originally proposed eliminating the $10.50 monthly junior golfer ticket, but has since removed that from consideration.

“We decided that junior golfers are very important, they’re the future of our game and the fees will stay the same,” Woodward said.

Sanders also took the idea of building a new clubhouse at Torrey Pines out of the plan, instead supporting the creation of a $6 million capital improvement project not funded by city money. The new clubhouse has been opposed at nearly every step by most golfers, who have argued that the money for it could be better spent improving the course and keeping fees down. Some reacted to Sanders removing the course from the plan with skepticism.

Former City Councilman Michael Zucchet, a member of the Torrey Pines Men’s Club, said that the projected cost of the clubhouse has dropped from original projections, which put it at about $13 million. He noted that the cost of proposed improvements to the Torrey Pines parking lot, which are still part of the plan and estimated to cost $8 million, had increased greatly over original projections.

Zucchet suggested that the changes in the figures might be a way to keep the clubhouse plan alive despite community opposition.

“Suddenly, the parking lot is going to cost $8 million,” Zucchet said. “Why have these numbers changed? When they come back to (the City Council) in 2009, they’re going to say, ‘We’ve already spent $8 million and we only need $6 million more.’ You’re basically being asked to slowly support the clubhouse.”

Linda Colley, chair of the University Community Planning group, also noted the change.

“This project came before the UCPG in December and I asked for information on your financing, and I never got any answers,” Colley said. “It’s interesting, because the parking and clubhouse figures are different than what I’ve heard.”

Assistant golf operations director Mark Marney said the $6 million figure for the clubhouse was strictly for construction costs and didn’t account for “soft money” spent leading up to construction. City Councilwoman and committee member Toni Atkins said the city has already spent $2 million on planning for the project.

Other controversial aspects of the proposal remain intact, for now. The city intends to do away with the discounted senior greens fees, instead proposing offer discounts through the Parks and Recreation department’s low-income fee waiver.

“It would be based on need, not age,” Woodward said. “If you can prove you need it, you get 50 percent off.”

Zucchet and other golfers criticized that reasoning, saying it is nearly unprecedented for a golf course to not offer senior rates.

“Do we have something against seniors now?” Zucchet said. “I’ve called golf courses all over the county, and I couldn’t identify one without a senior discount.”

The distribution of tee times has been perhaps as hot an issue as fees. We will never be able to meet the demand to play this golf course,” Woodward said.

Sanders has proposed cutting the tee times allocated to the Torrey Pines Men’s and Women’s clubs in half, to two tournaments per month for each club.

“I cannot support any vested interest, in which you have to pay to play, receiving preferential treatment over average San Diegans,” Sanders wrote in a letter to the committee.

Torrey Pines Men’s Club Vice President Stephen Roberts argued that average San Diegans are what makes up his club’s membership.

“We’ve existed for 50 years, all you have to do is pay 100 bucks and you’re in,” Roberts said. "(Our club) is the only opportunity for residents to play tournament golf at Torrey Pines.”

Golfer and city resident Michael Jakes spoke about the longstanding policy, which is endorsed in the city’s plan, that 70 percent of tee times at Torrey Pines go to local residents. Jakes said he requested tee sheets and sales records from the course and conducted his own audit, and found that more than half the tee times go to non-residents.

“I don’t see anything in the five-year plan to ensure that this won’t get worse,” Jakes said.

Part of the city’s plan to make the course more accessible to residents involves outlawing the resale of tee times at the course. Ticket brokers purchase blocks of tee times then re-sell them at a profit, often to tourists. In a February meeting of the City Council in which the original golf plan was voted down, the council unanimously voted in favor of creating an ordinance to prohibit the resale of tee times.

The city has a plan to conduct advance ticket sales on its own, but the plan was questioned several times at the meeting. Ticket broker Rick McDonald said the city may realize that selling the times is harder than it looks.

“The course does not sell itself. The hotels can’t sell all the times they’ve got,” McDonald said. “There were 12 people working full time to sell 20,000 tee times last year, about half of the goal the city wants to hit. There’s no details on how golf operations plans to manage this.”

The golf plan does not call for any additional staffing or funding to implement the advanced ticket purchase plan. Committee member Ben Hueso said that while the concept of outlawing ticket brokers has been widely supported, the golf plan itself seems to suggest uncertainty about whether the city is up to taking over the task.

“I see language like, ‘If viable, we will make it illegal to re-sell tee times,’ ” Hueso said. “I’m not in favor of outlawing the process.”

The Natural Resource and Culture meeting dragged on past its end without the committee having time to take a vote, which would have served to advise the entire City Council when it votes on the golf plan proposal. Committee chair Donna Frye said the proposal may come back before the committee or could go straight to the entire council, depending on scheduling.