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May 2019

Resurrection Is Real

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Once shuttered and left to nature, Rams Hill Golf Club was revived

By Steve Eubanks

Everyone in the business has seen the aftermath. A course closes and within a couple of months the place looks like the plains of the Serengeti with grass so high you could lose a golden retriever. Six months later all features that would distinguish the land as a golf course have vanished. A year later forests have popped up. Some forward-thinking planners repurpose closed courses into parks or gardens. But many let the land go to the foxes and rats. 

Fortunately it doesn’t always have to end that way, even in areas as arid and desolate as any in the country. Just look at Rams Hill Golf Club in what some might call the middle-of-nowhere town of Borrego Springs, California, an unincorporated desert stop with a population of 3,500. There you will find a story of rebirth, reinvention and renewal that would read like a movie script if it weren’t so implausible.

Golf began in the area in the late 1980s when money was cheap and everyone bought into the flawed idea that you could build courses forever and never go broke. Some of that money flowed into this high desert region 85 miles from San Diego and 90 miles from the Coachella Valley. Clear air, a beautiful night sky and elevation changes from the Santa Rose Mountains made Borrego Springs breathtaking. But the idea of an 800-home gated golf development with one private and one resort course seems insane in hindsight.  

“Rams Hill was one of many courses that was originally constructed under an unsustainable business model,” said Rams Hill partner and chief executive Harry Turner. “So many golf courses were built by developers under a housing model where the golf operation could never make it and the property owners were left high and dry.”

Rams Hill was a perfect example. The string of owners and financiers included Ted Robinson Sr., a scion of Southern California real estate. Then there was Southmark, an outfit that was junk-bond financed by convicted felon Michael Milken. Charles Keating, who became the face of the savings-and-loan scandal and was convicted of wire fraud and racketeering, was also involved.

San Diego newspaper publisher David Copley owned it for a while, as did a group of swashbuckling Sherman Oaks investors who called themselves GH Capital. The latter brought in Tom Fazio to reimagine the area. As Turner put it, “There was far more optimism than there should have been.” 

In 2010, with the real estate market gone, debt mounting, and water in short supply, the course closed and returned almost completely to desert. More than 300 trees died. The superintendent Steve Gregory, who grew in the Fazio course, left for La Costa.
There the course sat, in limbo, for four years. But while golf courses are often works of art, they are also living organisms with grass and trees that either grow or die depending on how they are maintained. Rams Hill died. In 2014, the current owners got it for the right price.

“The important part of this story is that at the right investment, a place like Rams Hill can be a success,” Turner said. “What we found is that if you build something of very high quality and create a wonderful, memorable experience at a fair price people will come, even if you are not on any major freeways; even if you are an hour and 15 minutes from the eastern edge of the Coachella Valley and two hours by car from San Diego.

“Rams Hill is an example of that. We’re still able to get many repeat customers from those markets because of the quality of the experience we provide.” 

In addition to the lower base price and lack of exorbitant debt, there are several operational reasons why Rams Hill owners can now focus on providing a quality experience at a fair price. For starters the club draws its water from six on-site wells. Despite restrictions and shortages throughout the region, Rams Hill has remained green. But Turner and his team have been smart about it. Gregory returned as superintendent (which gave him the distinction of being one of the only people to grow in the same course twice). He took out large quantities of native grass that required irrigation, leaving areas more native and going with more desert shrubs and grasses.

“We are in the midst of a state-mandated water reduction plan,” Turner said. “Our area is going to have to deal with a lot of water cutbacks over the next 20 years. So we are being very smart with our water. In addition to reducing native grasses, we have acquired additional water rights. We’re very conscious of the grasses we plant and how we irrigate those grasses.

“But if you see Rams Hill today, you won’t notice a reduction in the turf in playing areas. You will, however, see a lot of the interior slopes where native plants were down, areas where irrigation has been turned off. We also changed our irrigation methods. We’re very judicious in our water usage. But the golfer will not know that by the condition of the turf grass. A lot of people come here because of the condition of the golf course. We’re committed to keeping it that way but we have to be smart about it.” 

Certainly experts haven’t noticed any reduction in quality. Rams Hill has made almost every best-places-you-can-play list in the country. The USGA recently held an U.S. Amateur Fourball Championship qualifier there. The clubhouse has been expanded and catering business is off the charts. And the course is playing north of 20,000 rounds a year, a far cry from the bad old days when it lost $200,000 a month.

“That’s what we’ve strived for since the re-birth,” Turner said. “We were fortunate that Tom Fazio gave us an incredible golf course with wonderful bones. And we have spent the time and commitment to ensure that when people do make that drive out here, they find a course that is in pristine condition.” 

Turner also has cut his power bill by $400,000 a year with an array of solar panels, which provide energy for the clubhouse, maintenance buildings and irrigation system. “We’re not totally off the (power) grid,” Turner said. “But the solar array certainly helps.” 

 Those cost reductions and expanded infrastructure have allowed the staff to focus on what really matters in making a course a success.

“What I try to instill in our team here is that our customers pass by a lot of really good golf properties before they get here,” Turner said. “We must make sure that the drive, the extra effort to get here is well worth it.”   

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author. 


 

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