By Ken MacLeod
Dozens of homeowners upset with the prospect of a potential sale of White Hawk Golf Course in Bixby attended a Bixby City Council meeting Monday, where councilors passed a resolution (READ HERE) stating they would take landowners’ opinions into account if and when a sale or request for rezoning the golf property is brought to the city.
While the feelings of those who have purchased housing in developments around the course are natural and understandable, the odds are stacked against White Hawk remaining a functioning golf course beyond Jan. 1, 2019 and doing so would likely require a commitment from the city of Bixby to purchase the course and quickly acquire the expertise to operate a municipal golf course.
Bixby city officials have only recently begun to examine that possibility and all the ramifications that go with it, including the likelihood of heavy subsidies from the general fund or the implementation of some other revenue producing measure such as a bond or an increase in sales tax.
“We’re looking at all options,” said Jason Mohler, the development services director for the city of Bixby. “Certainly the citizens, particularly the landowners at the course, have let us know where they stand. They are very interested in preserving the golf course and the quality of life. At this point the city hasn’t received an application from any developer.”
A 20-year lease between the current ownership group led by majority owner Gerald Pope and golf management company American Golf ends the final day of December, 2018. Pope told Golf Oklahoma this week he would close the doors on that date rather than operate the course at a loss, which he estimated at about $750,000 on an annual basis in recent years.
That loss includes the approximately $400,000 annual “rental” fee American Golf pays to the ownership group, a contract negotiated in a headier, more optimistic time for golf in which upscale daily fee courses such as White Hawk were expected to grow in terms of rounds, revenue and net income over the next two decades. For many reasons, exactly the opposite has transpired, leaving privately-owned public courses such as White Hawk prime candidates for redevelopment as housing, a trend that has reached full steam in the U.S.
There were 171 golf course closings in the United States in 2016, many of those courses purchased by developers who see a golf course as one of the few prime available spaces in densely populated areas for additional housing. National Golf Foundation CEO and president Joe Beditz sums up the trend as “sometimes, the dirt is worth more than the grass.”
That could be exactly the case at White Hawk. Pope has been trying to sell White Hawk as a golf course for a year and “we haven’t even got a humiliating offer.” He does have a potential buyer in an Oklahoma City developer who is currently in the due diligence phase.
The developer, John Pinard of Oklahoma City, said if his group goes to the city with rezoning requests, it will offer a comprehensive land plan for the development including walking trails and ample green space. He was part of a group that this spring purchased Coffee Creek Golf Course in Edmond for redevelopment and said mistakes were made there in not having a clear plan to present to homeowners before final purchase.
Somewhat ironically, the man who designed White Hawk Golf Course has now been employed by Pinard to develop those comprehensive plans. Randy Heckenkemper of Heckenkemper Golf is working on a housing and greenspace plan to eventually present to city officials.
Pope, the former owner of Golf Illustrated and other publications, purchased White Hawk from Bobby Heath three years after it opened in 1994 in the middle of a golf course boom that saw nearly 5,000 courses open nationally from 1986 to 2005. There have been only 492 open since 2005 and several thousand have closed, many in the privately-owned public course category of White Hawk. In the Tulsa market in the last five years, Emerald Falls in Broken Arrow, Clary Fields in Sapulpa, Scissortail GC in Verdigris, Okmulgee Country Club and Cotton Creek in Glenpool have closed, while the last course to open in the area was The Patriot Golf Club in 2010.
Meadowbrook Country Club in south Tulsa is in the process of being sold by owner Arcis Golf to a real estate developer.
A natural contraction of an overbuilt market, the supposed reluctance of millennials to embrace the game, time and cost have all been cited as reasons for the documented declines in numbers of participants and the obvious decline in number of courses.
If not for the American Golf contract, which paid a set amount to ownership regardless of course performance, Pope said he and his partners would have closed the doors years ago.
“The business models that work right now are private clubs that can maintain memberships, resort courses and municipally-owned courses that can subsidize operations,” Pope said. “Everything else is starting to go away.”
Pope said he would be willing to talk to Bixby city officials if they are serious about purchasing and operating the course. Otherwise, he advised residents that their best bet would be a developer committed to doing the project correctly and maintaining property values.
Pope said he is confident that the plans being prepared will ease resident’s concerns if not totally mollify those opposed to losing the only golf course in the city limits.
Heckenkemper took plans originally done by Robert Trent Jones Sr. for what was to be called Hank Thompson’s Celebrity Golf Club and reworked them into a fun and entertaining course that was meant to slip into a niche just below Forest Ridge and equal to municipal courses such as Bailey Ranch in Owasso or Battle Creek in Broken Arrow.
As time went on, many golfers at White Hawk told this magazine they felt the course did not keep pace with its competitors in terms of conditioning, marketing or capital improvements and the course eventually turned to discount marketers who would offer specials far below normal greens fees.
Companies such as American Golf were optimistic in the 1990s that the sport would continue to expand and green fees would continue to rise. Courses once considered part of the “upscale daily fee” surge that were being built in the 1990s were expected to be getting $60 to $70 per round by now. White Hawk’s published rates are $33 weekdays and $39 weekends including cart and far cheaper rates are easy to find on discount sites.
“The problem is not necessarily in the amount of rounds, it was in the price of the rounds,” said Pope.
Pope freely admits that owners in that sort of relationship tend to take a hands-off relationship with the course over the years, perhaps not investing the amount of capital improvement money or demanding the sort of marketing and community involvement necessary for the course to be a success when the lease expires.
After several years of losing significant numbers of rounds in the summers due to problems with its bent grass greens, White Hawk did convert in late 2016 to Champion Bermuda greens.
In researching whether to jump into the golf courses business, Bixby officials will look for input from people such as Warren Lehr, the city manager of Owasso who was also formerly the PGA professional at Bailey Ranch in Owasso when it opened.
Lehr said that though Bailey Ranch made money initially, it has experienced hard times as the golf market and economy fluctuated and improvement projects were needed on greens, bridges, bunkers, etc. The city of Owasso has subsidized the course up to $1 million in some years but it is now back on firmer footing and the debt service on the original construction of $500,000 annually will be paid off in 2018.
“It’s pretty risky to take on a golf course,” Lehr said. “I think they could create some value for their community, but it’s a decision you need to make really carefully.
“We’ve spent $7 million over the years on Bailey Ranch, but that’s like investing in one mile of road improvement. The golf course has been a catalyst for millions of dollars in new homes and taxes, it brings in visitors, we have state championship high school teams that play there. So it’s been a definite boon to the quality of life in Owasso.”