Troubles at Torrey Pines

Updated: May 30, 2006, 7:01 PM ET
By John Strege | Golf World

Where to begin in this sordid saga of politics and passion that has provoked an uncivil war in San Diego and is sucking the euphoria from Torrey Pines GC's imminent appointment with history? The South Course renovation? Fait accompli. The North Course redesign? Tabled. A new clubhouse? A tournament support building? Expensive minutiae.

So let's begin with the strip club. The irony is irresistible. Last summer, city councilman and interim mayor Michael Zucchet resigned when he was found guilty of accepting money from the owner of Cheetah's, who wanted the city's "no-touching" ordinance repealed. Today Zucchet is the leading advocate on behalf of San Diego golfers asking the city to keep its hands off their municipal golf courses.

U.S. Open is back in Black
The 2002 U.S. Open not only rescued Bethpage Black from disrepair, it also provided revenue that elevated the Red course to private-club quality and turned the Blue, Green and Yellow into top-notch public layouts. The relationship with the USGA, which will bring the Open back to the Black in 2009, was a clear win for Bethpage (N.Y.) State Park and its golfers. Lost, however, was some of the charm of the sleep-in-your-car-in-the-parking-lot days. While a hard-edged New York accent still dominates, the better-kept facility with a new celebrity status and computerized reservation system now gets more country club members looking to play a U.S. Open venue.

When Rees Jones visited Bethpage before he began his renovation in 1997, he found a neglected masterpiece and inadequate maintenance staff. Jones restored the Black course to its Tillinghast intent, and USGA money ($3.5 million for the renovation, according to USGA executive director David Fay, plus nearly $10 million in revenue from the tournament) enabled the state to keep it that way. New York State Parks commissioner Bernadette Castro says the five courses now make a $1-million profit annually.

Bethpage general manager Dave Catalano says the maintenance budget has tripled, "but to say [the facility] is 10 times better would be an understatement," he adds. Catalano says director of maintenance Craig Currier has added about 15 employees to a staff numbering a half-dozen when Catalano arrived in 1997 and attracted quality workers schooled in agronomy because they want to be associated with a prestigious facility.

What else has changed? Rounds played are still between 37,000 and 40,000 a year on the Black course. Green fees for New York residents have gone from $31 on weekdays and $39 on weekends to $41 and $51 respectively. Nonresidents, who used to pay the same as New Yorkers, now fork over $82 on weekdays and $102 on weekends. Also, the line of cars waiting for the 4:30 a.m. clubhouse opening is greatly reduced since most tee times now are allotted through a computerized phone system. Only the first six tee times of the day and one other every hour go to those who sleep in their cars.

"They might have lost a little bit of the mystique and charm of the Black course because the process has changed," says Jim Weiss, the head professional at nearby Cold Spring CC, who grew up five minutes from Bethpage. "There are now people coming over from their clubs with caddies," Weiss said. "It's almost like Madison Square Garden in that it weeded out the ratty crowd." Weiss says most club pros in the area consider the Black course equal to Long Island's private clubs -- including Shinnecock Hills GC and National GL of America -- and feel the Red course is nearly on that level.

Jim O'Connell, a New York sports journalist who first played Bethpage more than 30 years ago "when you needed to hammer your tee into the ground with your driver," says the Red is a hidden gem. "It's like the joke about squirrels and rats. They are the same, it's just that squirrels get better P.R. Everyone knows about the Black course, but the Red is right there."

More changes are coming to the Black before the U.S. Open returns in 2009. No. 5 goes from 451 yards to 478 yards; No. 9 from 418 to 465; and No. 7, which played 489 yards, will be pushed past 500 yards and the fairway angle changed to allow players to use driver. A bunker was added left of the 14th green and the 10th fairway was brought back 10 yards, reducing the forced carry many pros complained about in 2002. The Black has gotten harder, and all five courses have gotten better.

"It used to be that people's shoulders slumped when they heard they were going to play a state park," says O'Connell. "Now people are proud to say they are going to play a public course." Even those country club players finding their way to the most-public course ever to host to a U.S. Open.
-- Ron Sirak

"It's a battle for the heart and soul of the golf course," Zucchet says. "That did not exist until recently. There wasn't any question that it was a municipal golf course owned by the residents of San Diego and operated on their behalf exclusively."

Zucchet's concern as a long-time member of the men's club at Torrey Pines is that the city is quietly preparing to renounce Torrey's municipal pedigree and recast the course as a destination resort that will trade on the prestige of hosting the 2008 U.S. Open. Bottom line: higher green fees, fewer tee times for locals.

He paints the issue in black and white, though he understands better than most that complex matters don't delineate so neatly. His conviction, for instance. It was overturned in November by a judge who cited lack of evidence. Zucchet also understands politics, which inherently occupy the gray area.

Zucchet took his experience and reluctantly re-entered the political arena, a politician without an office, and attempted to broker a compromise with the city last week. But where is the middle ground for a city strapped for cash, a U.S. Open on its horizon, special-interest groups at its heels including a group of taxpayers -- many of them retirees on fixed incomes -- who expect their municipal golf course to remain as affordable and accessible as ever? Where is the happy medium amid a labyrinth of stakeholders that include the city, the Century Club (the nonprofit group that operates the Buick Invitational at Torrey), Torrey Pines' men's and women's clubs, the San Diego Municipal Golfers Alliance, the Lodge at Torrey Pines, the Torrey Pines Hilton, tee-time brokers, city residents, even the PGA Tour and the USGA?

A better question: Is this dispute chiefly a manifestation of the awarding of the U.S. Open to Torrey Pines? "It's not to the point that you can blame it all on the Open," Zucchet says, echoing what seems to be a consensus opinion. "But it helped speed it along."

The Open notwithstanding, a compelling argument could be made that Torrey Pines is a seaside gem that in an unpolished state has fiscally underperformed for a city burdened with a $1.4 billion pension shortfall. The rebuttal is that it is a municipal course, not a profit center, and the ocean view is incidental, a fringe benefit to residing in America's Finest City, as San Diego immodestly calls itself.

The sunny disposition that the city's claim largely is based on has taken its leave in the wake of this growing rift. "I won't say it's a Hatfield and McCoy situation," says USGA executive director David Fay, who has rejected overtures to enter the fray. "It hasn't gotten that bad. But it's definitely a family feud. I think there's a compromise position. What that is, I don't know."

So another hearing was called last week -- what is that, five this year, and counting? -- over a game that stimulates emotion without outside interference. When the game moves inside, better get there early. Fireworks always bring out a crowd.

"I've sat through a lot of city council meetings, and I can't tell you of a single other time when this joint has been packed," says Donna Frye, chairwoman of the City Council's Committee on Natural Resources and Culture. "This is one of the big, big issues to the residents of this city. They love their golf. You have to respect that."

Like one woman who stepped to the microphone and passionately argued on behalf of retaining the senior discount that Mayor Jerry Sanders has proposed be discarded. "I was menopausal," she said, explaining the genesis of the golf addiction that ultimately led her to the podium. "My prescription was to get out in the sunshine."

Frye's committee, which operates San Diego's three municipal courses (including Balboa Park and Mission Bay), had scheduled the hearing to solicit testimony on the mayor's controversial five-year business plan for the city's golf operations and to reach a consensus that it would take to the full council next month.

The line of speakers was longer than a par 5, and it ran out the clock before the committee ever debated the issues, requiring the scheduling of another meeting, probably two. That these meetings are held on a building's 12th floor does not represent the heightened prestige Torrey Pines was promised for hosting the Open.

To the contrary, the unspoken sentiment permeating the Council Chambers of the City Administration Building last week seemed to have been that some would prefer giving back the Open in return for the status quo. "It's a real mess and ought to be an embarrassment to the USGA," says Paul Spiegelman, who founded the San Diego Municipal Golfers Alliance to combat issues at Torrey. Spiegelman and his group, which claims 1,250 supporters, even wrote to Fay asking that the USGA not assume the role of Pontius Pilate and stand by while municipal golf is crucified.

"Being a resident of New Jersey," Fay says, "I'm no stranger to squabbles involving municipalities. This is a San Diego issue that not only elected and appointed officials have to sort through, but also the citizens. I can't control the perception. It would not surprise me that some might look at the 2008 Open and wish it weren't being played at Torrey Pines, but that's not unique, either. It happens at every club, every championship we go to, even Winged Foot [site of the 2006 Open]. We had that at Bethpage, too. But it's definitely a minority."

There is at least one point on which everyone agrees: The status quo is in jeopardy. Sanders' proposal includes eliminating the senior discount (seniors play the South Course for as little as $25, the North for $13.50), and replacing it with a low-income fee-waiver program; cutting men's and women's tournament play by half; raising green fees for residents by as much as 69 percent by the year 2011; and building a new clubhouse after the Open, at a cost believed to be in excess of $8 million, a sum that almost certainly would be funded by escalating green fees.

Torrey Pines is among the busiest 36-hole complexes in America, with 172,000 rounds its annual goal (72,000 on the South, 100,000 on the North -- an average of 274 rounds per day, 365 days a year). Sanders argues that by curtailing events played by the men's and women's clubs, access to Torrey's courses would increase for all citizens. "At the end of the day, that's the right thing to do," says Mark Woodward, manager of golf operations. "There are a lot of golfers out there who may not be as vocal. A lot of them truly have given up playing there because they can't get a tee time."

The clubs infer from the proposal that they're portrayed as villainous, for paying too little and playing too much. Zucchet counters the latter point by noting the clubs take up only about 7 percent of the available tee times a year. Moreover, Torrey Pines' core constituents are proposing saving the city money. They change their shoes in the parking lot. Why, they ask quizzically, do they need a new clubhouse?

Befuddlement has become a perpetual state of mind for them, a malady that traces to the awarding of the Open to Torrey. Several well-heeled San Diegans, inspired by the 2002 Open going to a state-owned course, the Black Course at New York's Bethpage State Park, formed the Friends of Torrey Pines, which anted $3.5 million to have course architect Rees Jones renovate the South Course with the purpose of enticing the USGA to bring the Open to Torrey Pines.

The redesign rendered the course unplayable for a large faction of golfers, most of them elderly. "We had a couple of seniors over on 16 who got in a couple of the traps and we haven't found them yet," Art Stromberg, the president of the men's club, says, laughing again at a joke he has often told.

They understood the reasoning, at least, and grudgingly ceded the South Course to better players and masochists. Just leave the North Course alone, they said emphatically.

Then they checked their mail. A newsletter published in November 2004 by the Lodge at Torrey Pines and mailed to San Diego homes, said, "Beginning early next year, the North Course at Torrey Pines will undergo a renovation that will bring it to the level of excellence required by the PGA Tour."

The projected cost was $3 million, and Jones was again chosen to oversee the renovation, though the council had yet to consider the proposal. Still a city councilman, Zucchet aggressively opposed a renovation he was convinced went beyond rebuilding the greens to USGA specifications (an eventual necessity, all agree), and by a 9-0 vote, the council supported him.

"They absolutely swore that it was simply a maintenance issue," Zucchet says. "I played with Rees Jones. It was a complete course redesign under the guise of maintenance."

The erosion of trust had begun and inevitably rumors followed. The Friends of Torrey Pines was said to be behind the North redesign, that to entice the USGA to return with, say, a U.S. Amateur, a strong 36 holes would be required. "I heard that," says Jay Rains, who heads the Friends of Torrey Pines and later became a member of the USGA Executive Committee. "The Friends of Torrey Pines is dedicated only to the U.S. Open in 2008."

Another rumor identified the Century Club as the culprit, that it was concerned that the North Course, used for two rounds of the annual Buick Invitational, was beneath competitive standards on the PGA Tour, and that the tour, bothered as well by the absence of a decent clubhouse, was threatening to move the event up the road to the La Costa Resort and Spa.

"There was subjugation from some people when this controversy was going on," says Tom Wilson, executive director of the Century Club. "Certainly [moving the Buick] would be an option if things would not work out the way we think they'll work out with Torrey Pines, but it's a very slim chance."

It even was suggested that Evans Hotels, owner of the Lodge, was agitating for a new clubhouse so that the existing pro shop building, an eyesore by any measure, would be abolished, clearing an ocean view north for Lodge guests.

Then the mayor's five-year plan landed like a mortar round, its verbal shrapnel striking mostly nerves. Spiegelman, who admits to having played 140 rounds at Torrey Pines last year, suggested a recall of the mayor was in order and went so far as to consider asking the USGA to revoke its U.S. Open invitation to Torrey Pines.

Hotelier Bill Evans was not amused. "If anyone plays the same golf course 140 or 150 times [in a year], there are issues," he says. "People get compulsive." He argues that their compulsions blind them to perspective.

"They've had a very, very, very good deal," says Evans. "I have to ask again, why is this their turf? Over the years they've developed a sense of entitlement."

The mayor's proposal requires citizens to pay the actual cost of a round, worked out by Woodward to be $56.50 for the South Course, $27.91 for the North, a substantial increase on the South (currently $40) and a virtual wash on the North. "Residents should pay their way," Woodward says. "Fees are on the low side right now, especially for a facility of this type."

A facility of what type? This is the elemental question, and Torrey regulars are concerned they won't like the answer. Will it remain a municipal course with a muny's inherent biases on behalf of locals and low rates (and bumpy greens and spotty fairways)? Or will the facilities be upgraded to reflect the grandeur expected from a U.S. Open course, with commensurate rates, notably for out-of-towners who will agreeably pay several hundred dollars for the privilege of playing an Open course?

"It's like a Wal-Mart moving into town," says Mike Riley, father of PGA Tour player Chris and a former club champion at Torrey. Riley caddied in the foursome that inaugurated the course in 1957 and has played there ever since. "You're used to certain things, certain privileges. Torrey has gotten big. Unfortunately, that's the nature of the game. People cater to money."

Money begets money, business interests would argue. The out-of-town golfer paying in excess of $250 to play Torrey Pines also is paying a hotel bill and restaurant tabs. The benefit eventually spreads to 1.3 million citizens, at the expense of the fraction of whom are estimated to play golf at Torrey Pines. This isn't altogether wrong, Zucchet says, so long as the proper balance is maintained.

To achieve that, he is proposing a compromise: Resident fees will go up but only 4 percent a year for five years; the city will charge a market rate for out-of-towners, who in effect will foot the bills; the men's and women's clubs will retain their tee times; tee sheets will be routinely audited to ensure that residents receive an equitable share of prime tee times; and the clubhouse will be stricken from the plan in the absence of a concrete financing strategy.

"Let's compromise, so we can all have a big, happy hug in the city council office," he told the committee last week. In the absence of hugs, Zucchet still intends to embrace the Open. "It won't hurt my enjoyment of it," he says. "I'm proud it's coming here. Like everyone else, I'll try like hell to play the course right after the pros do."