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Golf in Utah is unique. About 80 percent of Utah's golf courses are owned either by the state, a county or a city. No other state can make that claim.

Government's role in golf in Utah is the main reason the state has a thriving participation rate. Some players might complain about high green fees and packed courses, but one out-of-state golf trip would quickly remind them that Utah has the lowest green fees and most-accessible courses in the country."Utah golfers don't know how good they have it," said Mark Passey, manager of the U.S. Golf Association's South-Central Region.

According to a recent poll conducted for the Deseret News by Dan Jones and Associates, about 70 percent of residents want the public to maintain its ownership in golf courses. Only 17 percent of the 602 respondents felt government should turn that ownership over to the private sector.

"If government was not involved in golf we would have very high prices and very limited golf," said Joe Watts, executive director of the Utah Golf Association.

While Watts and other golf officials credit government for making Utah golf so affordable and accessible, they also know that government can take those benefits away. The decline in government-built golf courses and changes in golf-course management philosophies are two trends that have golfers and golf officials worried.

Some government officials say taxpayers have invested millions of dollars in golf and it's time non-golfers as well as golfers get a return on that investment. Others say government should not be involved in a business that the private sector is willing to provide.

Golf history

Most of Utah's first courses were country clubs built in the early 1900s by groups of golfers with their own money. In 1922, however, Salt Lake City decided to make golf accessible to more than just the wealthy and built Nibley Park Golf Course. A couple years later the city purchased Forest Dale Golf Course, the original site of The Country Club. In 1929 the city built the first nine holes of Bonneville Golf Course.

During the next 20 years few new public courses were built. It really wasn't until the 1950s that cities jumped one after another into the golf business. Television and Arnold Palmer came along and popularized the game to the point that golfers couldn't find enough places to play.

"There was a lot of demand for golf, but no private capital willing to invest in it," Watts said. "And golf had become such a popular sport that recreation departments decided to start offering golf."

Since 1950 more than 40 public-owned golf courses have been built in Utah - more than 20 were built during the 1960s alone.

Today, the popularity of golf is increasing at an even faster rate, but the construction of public-owned golf courses has slowed significantly. Only about a dozen public-owned golf courses have been built in the past two decades, and many of those were built to replace existing ones.

"Without new golf courses it is inevitable that prices will go up and it will become a rich man's game again," Watts said.

Construction trends

In Utah's early golf years government built golf courses because of recreation demand - not profit. In fact, most early public-owned courses were subsidized for several years with general fund money.

Today few courses are constructed for recreational reasons alone, and if a course can't pay for itself it won't be built. Nowadays a golf course carries a price tag of between $5 million and $10 million and it usually takes several years before a course is profitable. Gladstan in Payson opened in 1988 and turned a profit for the first time in 1993.

Golf courses are built today for a variety of reasons - to provide recreation, to enhance the value of surrounding land, to promote tourism, to improve an economic climate and to generate revenue for a city. Utah's newest course, Eaglewood Golf Course in North Salt Lake, was built for all of the above reasons.

"We didn't buld the course because we had an outcry from the citizenry as far as golf is concerned," City Manager Collin Wood said. "But we did recognize the need was there, and golf has always been a good venture in this state and creates a lot of side benefits."

Washington and St. George built two of the state's more popular courses, Green Spring and Sunbrook, knowing the courses would increase winter tourism and generate thousands of dollars in new revenue.

"We realize that golf is the main attraction for people to come to this area," said Herb Basso, assistant director of St. George's leisure services department.

Some government officials believe golf is a service that government should not be providing. Provo Mayor George Stewart has said tennis, softball, soccer and other sports are provided by government because the private sector won't. But, he says, golf does not fall into the same category.

"I think it's a business more than an amenity, and it's something the private sector would provide if government didn't, " Stewart said.

Golf officials, however, say private investors will not meet the demand for new courses, because there are better returns on a $7 million investment. When most courses are being built with private money, that's a sure sign that golf is becoming too expensive and less accessible, they say. Passey said government should continue to build golf courses, because it has the access to land and financing, and it can keep golf available to all socioeconomic classes.

"Because cities are now looking at golf for the profit motive, we might not get the golf courses built that we need to meet the increasing demand, and many might be denied the same opportunity we had to enjoy the game," he said.

And those entities that want to build more golf courses are finding more obstacles than ever before. Many residents don't want scarce undeveloped and open land consumed by fairways. Construction on many courses has been halted or altered because of concerns over wetlands displacement. Some environmentalists say golf courses consume too much water and contribute dangerous fertilizers and pesticides to the environment.

"No other recreation is held to the same standard as golf," Passey said. "For some reason golf is now painted as a villain, and those who don't play golf tend to discount the value of the game. They say golf is a game of the rich and elite, a game that takes up too much valuable land and water and is environmentally unsafe, when it does none of those things."

Passey said many golf courses revitalize land, preserve open space and use recycled water for irrigation. He doubts residents would want to replace golf courses with housing developments.

Change in philosophy

Golf courses didn't start showing profits until the late 1970s and early 1980s, and they've never made as much money as they are making now. Only a few of Utah's public-owned golf courses lost money last year. When golf changed from a money-loser to a moneymaker, however, so did the operating philosophy.

Several years ago Salt Lake City set its profits aside in an enterprise fund used to improve courses and build new ones. Other cities and counties followed suit, which is one reason Utah has so many public-owned golf courses.

Two years ago Salt Lake City, the innovator of the enterprise fund, decided to dissolve the enterprise fund and start using some of its golf revenues to subsidize other recreation programs. Salt Lake City is not alone in this thinking. Even though most cities and counties have golf enterprise funds, most are not hesitant to dip into those funds for reasons other than golf.

For years Springville has been promising a new sprinkler system at Hobble Creek Golf Course, but the City Council has continually robbed the enterprise fund to cover other city expenses. The Utah Division of Parks and Recreation dumps profits from Wasatch State Park into a fund to maintain all state parks. Washington, Murray and other cities have used golf profits to pay other city expenses.

Salt Lake officials say it's a matter of supply and demand and that all residents deserve a benefit from city assets. Bonneville and other courses are built on land that would bring a much greater return to the taxpayers if used for other reasons. Since golf courses are taking away thousands of dollars in property taxes, residents deserve a return on the land investment through golf course profits.

"Instead of coercively taking tax money away from households of modest means for programs that serve the few, the new policy simply puts market principles to work for the benefit of all," said Roger Black, Salt Lake director of management services.

If East Bay Golf Course in Provo does not turn a profit of at least $150,000 this year to help fund other recreational programs, Stewart says he will lease the course next year to a private operator.

"The taxpayers should not have to subsidize something that could run profitably," he said.

Stewart said Provo taxpayers have subsidized the course for many years with general-fund money and, therefore, the taxpayers deserve a return on their investment.

"If it was OK to subsidize the golf course, then it should be OK to get a return on that investment," he said.

Golfers say they are the ones paying the operating and capital improvement expenses at golf courses and, therefore, all profits should be returned to golf. Tennis courts, swimming pools, baseball diamonds and parks also take property off tax rolls. Spending golf profits elsewhere is likely to make the game less affordable, because fewer golf courses will be built. And increasing green fees to subsidize other programs is the same as double taxation, they say.

"We have too many city councils dominated by non-golfers who view golf as a cash cow and are totally unsympathetic to golf's history and tradition and it could very seriously impact our game," Watts said.

Passey fears that the quality of golf courses in Utah will diminish. Cities and counties will become more concerned with cutting costs than properly maintaining courses.

"I'm very pessimistic of the future of municipal golf in Utah because of city officials continually raiding the budgets," he said. "Pretty soon you're not going to have golf courses, you're going to have city parks."

Many entities also have eliminated the role of the golf professional in an effort to make even greater profits. Professionals say this is just another sign that government officials are more interested in golf as a budget enhancer rather than a quality recreational service.

"In less than 10 years time, area golfers will be bemoaning the lost good old days of golf in Utah," said Jeff Beaudry, director of the Utah Section of the Professional Golfers of America.



Deseret News/KSL poll

Would you favor turning over Utah's golf courses to private ownership or would you prefer to continue keeping some golf courses owned by the public?






Poll conducted May 3-5, 1994. Margin of error +/-4.0% on interviews of 602 adults. Conducted by Dan Jones & Associates. Copyright 1994 Deseret News. Dan Jones & Associates, an independent organization founded in 1980, polls for the Deseret News and KSL. Its clients also include other organizations and some political candidates.


Utah's public-owned golf courses




Birch Creek, Smithfield 1965 $14 $406,000 $412,000 -$6,000

Bonneville, Salt Lake City 1929 $17 $945,000 $557,000 $388,000

Bountiful, Bountiful 1975 $14 $775,000 $565,000 $210,000

Cedar Ridge, Cedar City 1962 $14 $237,000 $226,000 $11,000

Davis Park, Davis County 1963 $14 $620,000 $470,000 $150,000

Dixie Red Hills, St. George 1967 $15 $500,000 $450,000 $50,000

Eagle Mountain, Brigham City 1989 $14 $500,000 $500,000 $0

Eaglewood, North Salt Lake City 1993 $16 N/A N/A N/A

East Bay, Provo 1987 $15 $490,000 $550,000 -$60,000

El Monte, Ogden 1930 $14 $220,000 $180,000 $40,000

Forest Dale, Salt Lake City 1924 $14 $427,000 $315,000 $112,000

Gladstan, Payson 1988 $14 $442,000 $366,000 $76,000

Glendale, Salt Lake City 1973 $15 $751,000 $500,000 $251,000

Green Spring, Washington 1989 $25 $1,092,000 $940,000 $152,000

Hobble Creek, Springville 1966 $14 $487,000 $465,000 $22,000

Jordan River, Utah State Parks 1985 $10 $67,000 $102,000 -$35,000

Logan River, Logan 1993 $14 N/A N/A N/A

Meadowbrook, Salt Lake County 1951 $15 $953,000 $600,000 $353,000

Mick Riley, Salt Lake County 1965 $15 $682,000 $473,000 $209,000

Moab, Moab 1960 $13 $450,000 $450,000 $0

Mountain Dell, Salt Lake City 1962 $17 $1,162,000 $836,000 $326,000

Mountain View, Salt Lake County 1968 $15 $957,000 $603,000 $354,000

Mt. Ogden, Ogden 1985 $14 $440,000 $380,000 $60,000

Murray Parkway, Murray 1986 $16 $1,200,000 $960,000 $240,000

Nibley Park, Salt Lake City 1922 $15 $411,000 $323,000 $88,000

Palisade State Park,

Utah State Parks 1972 $12 $81,000 $147,000 -$66,000

Rose Park, Salt Lake City 1958 $15 $603,000 $433,000 $170,000

Southgate, St. George 1969 $15 $657,000 $450,000 $207,000

Spanish Oaks, Spanish Fork 1982 $14 $345,000 $335,000 $10,000

St. George Golf Club, St. George 1975 $15 $550,000 $460,000 $90,000

Sunbrook, St. George 1990 $24 $1,030,000 $600,000 $430,000

Tri City, American Fork,

Pleasant Grove and Lehi 1973 $12 $567,000 $494,000 $73,000

Valley View, Davis County 1974 $14 $638,000 $490,000 $148,000

Wasatch Mountain State

Park, Utah State Parks 1969 $14 $811,000 $585,000 $225,000

West Bountiful City,

West Bountiful 1966 $14 $368,000 $333,000 $35,000

West Ridge, West Valley City 1991 $16 $865,000 $773,000 $92,000

Wingpointe, Salt Lake City 1990 $17 $746,000 $598,000 $148,000

*Weekend green fees for 18 holes