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Persevering through golf downturn paid off for Sun City

Back in the 1990s, Las Vegas home developers borrowed a phrase from “Field of Dreams,” one of the all-time great baseball movies, and as a result they sold lots of houses.

The movie was released in 1989, and in it a mysterious voice tells farmer Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, “If you build it, he will come.”

But instead of a baseball diamond, the developers became big on building adjoining golf courses. Their byword, after a slight twist, was more like, “If you build it, they will come.” And indeed they did come, immediately after Palm Valley Golf Course opened in Sun City Summerlin in 1990.

Developer Del Webb was selling houses at such a rapid pace that Sun City’s Highland Falls Golf Course followed only four years later. And in 1996 Eagle Crest became the third golf course to open in the retirement community of 7,800 homes.

Not to be outdone, other developers in Summerlin and throughout all of Southern Nevada were also building golf course communities for retirees, many of whom had discovered that the dry, sunny climes of the Southwest were far preferable to the alligators, mosquitoes and humidity of Florida.

Then, before you knew it, construction of many of the golf retirement communities was completed. The only problem was that not every retiree played golf, and there were more golf courses than anyone knew what to do with. Moreover, the fad that brought droves of seniors to Summerlin and elsewhere in the Southwest was beginning to lose some of its luster.

Why? Well, people in the know will tell you that the cost of playing golf coupled with the aging of retirees are two major reasons.

Throughout the valley we hear constant references to golf courses that have gone into bankruptcy or are being earmarked for redevelopment. The National Golf Foundation, an encyclopedia of information relating to the sport, will tell you that in the last decade alone more than 800 golf courses across the country have gone kaput.

“We have seen the reduction in play by residents right here in our community,” said Joe O’Connell, president of the Sun City Board of Directors. But O’Connell also explained that at a time when some folks in the community took issue with maintaining three golf courses and were calling for at least one of them to go barren, he and other members of the board took an alternate route. They fought back by making improvements to the courses and becoming competitive.

One of the results is that “Highland Falls has been designated as the number one course in Las Vegas for the second year in a row, and for the third time in the last five years,” O’Connell said. Sun City brought in JJ Keegan, a leading national golf consultant, to do a study.

“Based on Keegan’s recommendations, we spent money to upgrade all three courses in many areas, and we became aggressive in the marketing of our courses,” he noted.

Donny Long, golf operations manager for Sun City’s courses, explained it this way: “The big thing was that Sun City was way behind the curve. We did many renovations that were necessary for courses that are between 20 and more than 25 years old. And it has paid off; it was certainly worth the investment.”

He said that one of the big moves after attending national golf marketing programs was to initiate a “Stay and Play” package for out-of-town visitors who stay at the Suncoast or Aliante hotels.

“That and other marketing techniques have helped increase our outside play to about 60 percent,” Long stated. He provided figures that show there were 48,280 outside golfers who played in Sun City during the fiscal year that ended last June 30, compared with 39,101 resident players.

“Outside play increased by 4,918 rounds over the year before, while Sun City resident play was down by 1,265 rounds, for an overall increase of 3,653,” Long added.

Herb Jaffe was an op-ed columnist and investigative reporter for most of his 39 years at the Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey. His most recent novel, “Double Play,” is now available. Contact him at hjaffe@cox.net.

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