Wednesday, February 22, 2006 | San Diego city leaders have over the years provided golfing residents with deep discounts at its three municipal courses, especially at its crown jewel Torrey Pines, but planned renovations to make way for a major tournament as well as consistent budget shortfalls are prodding officials to consider higher greens fees.

Knowing that Torrey Pines is a world-renowned facility that garners national exposure because of the professional events its hosts, officials have allowed the seaside La Jolla-area course to charge out-of-towners nearly threefold what city residents pay (county residents also get a decent discount). Providing that markdown, as well as preference for scheduling tee times for residents, has benefited San Diegans who are receiving an affordable round of golf on a picturesque course where throngs of golf fans flock to every year to either watch the Buick Invitational or play themselves.

Torrey Pines will host the 2008 U.S. Open, one of professional golf’s four major tournaments. It’s an event that will further highlight the tug-of-war between capitalizing on the course as a revenue-generating asset and providing recreation to residents at an affordable price.

The city’s Park and Recreation Department is proposing a series of fee increase over the next five years in order to provide the amenities city staff says is needed to make Torrey Pines a world-class attraction, including a $13 million clubhouse, while also upgrading the aged facilities at the Balboa Park and Mission Bay courses.

“The buildings and infrastructure are very, very tired,” said Mark Woodward, the city’s golf operations manager. “The system is not living up to its potential. You can take that anyway you want.”

Tuesday, the proposal drew about 150 individuals to a Kearney Mesa meeting of the city’s Golf Advisory Council, a panel of residents and businesspeople, where attendees were overwhelmingly chilly to the five-year proposal.

“People say, ‘You got a beautiful golf course here,’ and I say ‘yeah, but you can’t get on the thing,” Clairemont resident Jim Thursby, said, referring to the backlog at Torrey Pines. “The part that irritates me the most is that we’re trying to make this a Pebble Beach Golf Course and not a municipal golf course.”

One query by Del Mar Heights resident Lola Feitelberga during the meeting’s public comment portion was particularly telling.

“Who wants the clubhouse?” she said

If there were crickets in the room, you probably could have heard them. Everyone else was silent.

Besides the proposed Torrey Pines clubhouse, most of the ire was focused at the suggested across-the-board fee hikes, the elimination of a county resident discount and the setting-aside of tee times for brokers and nearby hoteliers.

The city’s golf business plan accounts for $36 million of upgrades to the three courses over the next 13 years, which will be mostly supported by the proposed fee increase for nonresidents. The nonresident and resident fees are tied together by varying percentages, and golfers also get discounts for starting their games later in the afternoon or by avoiding weekend play.

The fees the city currently charges its residents come close to what it costs to operate a round of golf on some of the city’s courses, but not all of them, Woodward said. For example, at Balboa Park, resident green fees on the weekend are $9 while it costs the city $6.36 to operate a round on the nine-hole course. Resident weekend fees on Balboa Park’s 18-hole course are $23 when it costs over $35 to operate a round.

“If we own the city, it’s incumbent upon all of us to take care of our facilities,” Woodward said.

The City Council’s Natural Resources Committee will consider the business plan on March 8 and the full council is expected to hear the proposal later that month.

The nearly three-hour public comment period drew mostly negative comments and featured speakers ranging from a high school golf coach, several senior citizens and former Councilman Michael Zucchet, who is a member of the Torrey Pines Men’s Club.

Zucchet noted how brokers were charging exorbitant rates to market tee times, and supported a proposal to prohibit brokers from making tee times and then sell the reservations to the public, which the City Attorney’s Office has submitted. The city should be raking in more from non-residents if that is what the market will bear, Zucchet said. The city is also allowing Torrey Pines’ pro shop operator to sell reservations itself when the city can unilaterally pull out of that agreement, he said.

“Everybody is making money off this course except the city,” he said.

Paul Spiegelman, a resident of University City, went as far as establishing the San Diego Municipal Golf Association last month, which has gathered over 650 signatures from individuals opposed to the department’s business plan.

His opposition resulted from being let into the discussion at a late stage, Spiegelman said.

“The city found itself public opposition by virtue of not giving us a seat at the table,” he said. “We were never given the chance to give meaningful input.”

City Attorney Mike Aguirre asked questions Tuesday night, and noted that he thought the meeting served as an appropriate forum for public comment. San Diegans will also be able to address the City Council when they consider the proposal.

Bob Thomas, spokesman for the Southern California Golf Association, said communities struggle with the how to maintain a municipal course’s quality while also making it accessible to the general public.

“Certainly there are a group of people who say Torrey Pines has ocean views that might be worth a $195 round on the weekdays, that it’s underpriced and not in line with the market,” he said. “Then you really do start cutting out chucks of people and that’s certainly not how the golf course was designed to be.”

The advisory committee did not make a recommendation on the plan as of press time, as Tuesday’s meeting approached an hour of midnight Wednesday.

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