By Ken MacLeod
Endless hours of sweat and toil go into the creation and maintenance of every golf course. Losing the course is particularly painful for those who have invested so much of themselves, as well as to those who are financially obligated.
A group of us went to Clary Fields in Sapulpa on a beautiful Thursday afternoon for one last look at one of architect Tripp Davis’ earliest designs, a course that found a niche in the Tulsa-area daily fee market after it opened in 2000, but one that underwent a drastic decline in play in recent years. Owner D.W. Kang made the decision that Clary Fields will shut its doors after play on Saturday, Oct. 31.
Kang did try to sell the course, but was looking to get back most of the $2.5 million he said he’s invested between his purchase and the building of the current clubhouse/event center. Problem is, courses of similar pedigree nationally and regionally that do not offer real estate opportunities (Clary Fields is in a floodplain on the other side of a rise from a landfill), are selling for a fraction of that price.
Owners who take over a course like Clary Fields in a shrinking golf market where competition with municipal courses is fierce know it’s going to be hard to make money. Even with a good design like Clary Fields has, the pressure is on to maintain solid course conditions consistently, make repairs rapidly when something goes awry, and market the course aggressively or risk losing market share to competitors. And the competition is often able to subsidize improvements to greens, bunkers or clubhouses through city or county outlays.
To compete, new owners at Clary Fields would not only have to purchase the course, but be willing to upgrade the greens and, once they had the course where they wanted it from an agronomic and facility standpoint, come up with a winning and consistent marketing plan. To be profitable on operations and maintain any debt service, the course would have to regain all of the rounds it has lost since Kang’s purchase and then some, getting up to around 30,000 or more rounds annually compared to the fewer than 10,000 it has averaged the past two years.
That said, kudos go to Tomas Hnizdo and his limited crew who have done great work to keep Clary Fields in the condition we found Thursday. Hnizdo is a PGA Professional who, early in his employment at Clary Fields, leaned he would be doubling as course superintendent, a job most people go to school for four years then work as an assistant for several years to prepare for adequately.
Even though closure was imminent, conditions at Clary Fields Thursday were solid. The greens were understandably not great, but the fairways and green surrounds were excellent. The course long ago gave up on maintaining sand bunkers and they are all grass hazards now, but the challenge is still there if you get in one.
Clary Fields has some excellent golf holes that will be missed. The par-4 seventh hole, with it’s very Scottish rolling fairway perched on a shelf with a huge hill to the left and a drop-off to a hazard right and a mounded, raised green that slopes away, is rife with challenge. The par-4s on 10, 14 and 17 are also excellent holes that reward two solid shots but punish anything less. There’s a good mix of par-3s of varied degree of difficulty, while three of the four par-5s are risk-reward holes, one by how close you want to come to hitting over a red barn that was there when the course was built, and the other two by a deep culvert that makes the second shot either a short layup or a go-for-glory long iron or fairway wood, depending on your drive.
The course was built in a pleasant valley setting and originally utilized native areas to give great definition to several holes, while others are tree lined. As mentioned, there is no worry about hitting into someone’s backyard. Clary Fields helped Davis launch a very successful career and there was never any question about the course being a fun, enjoyable golf challenge.
Hnizdo said he and his wife will be doing some traveling this winter and then he will look for another job in the industry. He wound up loving the superintendent side and maybe his future will be outside the pro shop. We wish him and all those who fought the good fight at Clary Fields all the best. The Tulsa market is losing a gem of a golf course. While long term it may benefit the overall health of other public courses who are struggling to be profitable, it’s still a sad day.