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What will happen if Salt Lake City tees up golf course closures?

The Salt Lake City Council will face the wrath of the golfing community should it decide to shut down one or more of the city's golf courses. But it is less about austerity than it is a debate over the city’s overall recreational diversity.
The Salt Lake City Council will face the wrath of the golfing community should it decide to shut down one or more of the city's golf courses. But it is less about austerity than it is a debate over the city’s overall recreational diversity.
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The Salt Lake City Council no doubt has a pretty good idea of the kind of wrath it’s likely to face from the golfing community should it decide to shut down one or more of the city’s golf courses. But the council seems bound to take a tough stance and seems to regard opposition as a typical reaction of special-interest groups defending their turf — in this case, literally.

But there is more to it than that. The issue is not about cutting costs during tough economic times. If not thriving, the city is certainly healthy. But the golf program, left on its own for years, is suffering from declining use and deteriorating infrastructure, the result of a reluctance to invest in the system over the last decade and a half. As it currently stands, what to do about golf in Salt Lake City is less about austerity than it is a debate over the city’s overall recreational diversity.

In the view of the current administration, it’s clear that golf is not on par with other pursuits. The council’s deliberations on possible course closures were triggered by Mayor Ralph Becker’s admonition to the council to find a way to put the program in the black, “or I will” — the implication being the mayor is more than willing to take a blunt ax to the task.

Golf enthusiasts are permitted to wonder whether such an ultimatum might be issued if the program in question had to do with other city-sponsored services, perhaps involving bicycling or the performing arts.

In fairness to the mayor, he has vowed to maintain the golf properties as valuable open space, and the current economic woes are something he inherited from previous administrations that left the program to sink or swim on its own.

But the golfing community has a point when it asks whether the city’s approach to recreation has become doctrinaire, shunning support for activities viewed in the realm of the fuddy-duddy. Last year, tennis enthusiasts were similarly stirred into action when the city proposed a consolidation of tennis court management, angering supporters of an east side facility they believed would be harmed by the move. The city eventually reversed course and accommodated the desires of tennis patrons.

Should it do the same for golfers? The answer, in the parlance of the sport, is no gimmie. The game is declining in popularity and is expensive to support. The program is currently about $1.8 million in debt, and has racked up $23 million in deferred maintenance costs. In context, however, the game remains one of the nation’s top participation sports, the amount of debt is not atrocious and the deferral of work needed to keep the courses up to snuff has not been the choice of the golf program but of city councils past and present.

The council and mayor deserve credit for tackling an issue that’s been left untended for too many years. The system is upside down and some pruning is in order. But there seems something amiss in moving to shut down even a single golf course in a city that prides itself on having a multitude of world-class recreational offerings.