The Troon North golf course on the far north edge of Scottsdale is a sight to behold. An emerald grass carpet, smooth, even and weedless, snakes its way along saguaros, next to mesquite bushes and paloverde trees. The grass rises and falls, from tee to green, enveloping manmade lakes, skirting golf-cart paths, cresting ridges and falling back into washes. Every so often, a cottontail or lizard darts out of the underbrush and scampers from one side of the fairway to the other.
Troon North is one of the tougher courses in the state--a good example of the "target" style of golf course that became popular in the 1980s. It is also considered one of the most beautiful courses around, with spectacular mountain views and breathtaking desert scenery from just about every tee and green. Except for the manicured turf and the whir of passing golf carts, it could be a desert park.
One of the reasons for golf's appeal is the "back to nature" overtone the game carries. There are hills to climb, streams to cross, ponds, marshes, maybe even the ocean to skirt and woods to comb in search of hooks and slices. The wind and the sun are factors; the lay of the land, especially on the greens, is crucial.
Small wonder, then, that golf is such an Arizona institution. As soon as wealthy easterners looking for a vacation spot saw the scenic charms of the state, and the rugged, scrub-brush beauty of the desert in particular, they wanted to carpet it with tees and greens. Arizona quickly became a place where golf lovers could feed their jones in the winter, when many of their home courses were closed. What other place in the country offers Arizona's combination of fantastic weather and unusual, striking, even mind-blowing scenery? With well over 200 courses (about 130 in Maricopa County alone), Arizona has more golf holes per capita than any state besides Florida.
Retirees move here to play golf and take it easy. Yuppies save their pennies so one day they can own stately adobe homes along the rims of spectacular Scottsdale golf clubs. Golf has become a part of the Arizona dream, a fixture of the local lifestyle so ubiquitous that to think of the state without it is tantamount to thinking of the state without the Grand Canyon.
Golf is also big money. It brings the state economy as much as $1 billion a year, by some estimates. Golf courses are used by developers as amenities to entice buyers and drive up the prices of new homes.
There is, however, some reason to wonder whether the continued development of golf courses in Phoenix--especially in sensitive desert areas--is a good idea, economically or environmentally.
The Legislature has granted Maricopa County golf-course owners a $10 million annual tax subsidy. More than two billion gallons of precious groundwater are poured on Valley golf courses every year, dropping water tables. Cocktails of pest- and weed-killing chemicals, spread to maintain vast expanses of emerald-green turf, are washed into the sensitive desert abutting golf courses.
It may be time to ask whether Arizona's love affair with golf courses still makes sense.
When he began forming a group to buy the Phoenix Suns in 1987, Jerry Colangelo met Dial Corporation Chairman John Teets on the links at the Phoenix Country Club. After he traded for Charles Barkley in 1992, Colangelo and his new franchise player shot a round while they discussed signing then-Portland free agent Danny Ainge.
And nobody knows the icebreaking value of a good golf game better than Governor J. Fife Symington III. A few years ago, he and an aide were playing golf with two Japanese businessmen in an effort to expand trade between Japan and Arizona. The mood among the foursome was somber and reserved until Symington, a notorious slicer, teed up the ball. It went high, then took a sharp right turn into a transformer box atop a telephone pole. There was an explosion. The transformer was blown completely off its perch. When the governor turned around, his Asian guests were rolling in the grass, laughing hysterically.
Besides being good places to conduct business, golf courses are good businesses themselves. Although they are expensive to build and maintain--higher-quality courses can cost upward of $10 million--much of the initial outlay often is recouped quickly. Nowadays, developers use golf courses as centerpieces for subdivisions whose homes carry premium price tags.
Local golf boosters, including the Arizona Golf Association, are quick to point out that the game also provides broader economic benefits. In the last few years, the AGA has tossed around the figure $1 billion as golf's overall annual contribution to the Arizona economy.
While $1 billion is a nice, round, big number, ascertaining whether it is an accurate one is not a simple task.
A 1989 study by two analysts at the University of Arizona in Tucson revealed that the average large Arizona golf course provides the equivalent of 36 full-time jobs per year to staff its pro shop, maintenance crew and food and beverage operation. Those jobs were not of the high-paying variety; the study said such employment paid an average of around $5 per hour. Clearly, golf courses are not one of the state's big providers of upper-middle-class jobs. Nor is there a sizable golf-equipment-manufacturing presence in the state.
It is because of its perceived importance to the tourist industry that golf has become a serious player in state economic circles. The same UofA survey reported that tourists are responsible for about half the play at Arizona courses during the winter months, and about a third of play during the spring and fall. Nonresidents play less than one-sixth of the state's golf in the summer.
The University of Arizona study examined only the immediate, local impact of golf-course operations; no attempt was made to gauge the amount of money visitors spent away from courses. In fact, no scientific study seems to have been done to determine how much money golf brings into the state that would not have come anyway--or where that money goes once it leaves tourists' pockets.
The Arizona study found about $225 million in expenditures directly related to golf. Whether that money turns over more than four times--so it has the $1 billion impact the golf association claims--is entirely an open question.
Arizona's civic and political leaders seem to harbor few doubts about the value of golf, however, and they have rolled out the red carpet for course developers. In one especially hospitable move, the 1994 Arizona Legislature handed golf-course owners a break worth tens of millions of dollars per year--straight out of the tax coffers of local governments.
For years, Arizona golf courses were assessed property taxes in the same manner as other businesses. An appraiser from the county valued the land the course was built upon and any improvements made to it (such as a clubhouse or a lake). The course owner paid a tax based on that value.
After the law was changed last year, however, that process is no longer used. Now, land used on a golf course is valued at a hard-and-fast $500 an acre--regardless of its market worth. The value of any improvement is determined by calculating what the Legislature calls its level of "obsolescence."
The spectacular Grayhawk Golf Club, on Pima Road north of Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, is a good example of how much less good land can be worth--after it has been moved around and improved upon.
What was once a more-or-less flat piece of parched land has been transformed into a Disney desert masterpiece. Acre after acre of lush green grass stretches out from the first tee, bobbing and weaving its way through cactuses, ocotillo bushes and mesquite trees, rushing up to the edges of yawning bunkers and shimmering water hazards. Typically, 750,000 cubic yards of earth must be moved to build an 18-hole golf course. The dirt is used to create bunkers, elevated tees and greens and other geographic features of the links. At Grayhawk, however, workers moved two million cubic yards of dirt--enough to fill America West Arena to the top, three times--and used it to spectacular effect. They created a canyon, hollowed out space for an artificial lake and the island green that appears to float in its center, and built the steeply graded banks and ridges that make the courses so challenging.
The 173-acre expanse of north Scottsdale desert that Grayhawk occupies was originally valued by the county at $4.3 million, or about $25,000 per acre. As soon as the land became part of a golf course, however, its assessed value dropped, by law, to $500 per acre--a 98 percent reduction.
The county tax rolls instantly lost $4.2 million in taxable property, or nearly $50,000 in annual tax collections.
The county also lost taxable value when the course was built. The usual improvements--cart paths, bridges, the clubhouse--were made. In years past, all of this construction would have increased the golf club's assessed value and, therefore, the property-tax bill its owners would have paid.
Now, though, the Arizona Department of Revenue instructs county assessors to evaluate each course relative to other courses in the state, and assign a "per-hole" value to it--the key number in a complicated formula that determines a golf course's final tax bill.
Grayhawk, as a high-value course, is assessed at a maximum of $58,000 per hole. By that standard, the total value would add up to a little over $1 million--less than a fourth of what the raw land was worth before it became a golf course. But there's still one more accounting trick the law allows golf courses. Each course is allowed an "obsolescence" rate, based on the difference between how many people play there during busy and slow months.
In the case of Grayhawk, which through the year is only played at 70 percent of its optimum capacity, the automatic tax write-off was 30 percent of its total assessed value.
In other words, the course's owners began with a piece of land that was worth $4.3 million. By turning it into a golf course, they immediately reduced the taxable value of the land to about $1 million. Putting millions of dollars' worth of improvements on it--moving literally a mountain of dirt, building lakes, roads, bridges and a clubhouse--did not do much to increase the value on which the owners pay taxes; after the per-hole assessment is factored in, the improvements were judged to be worth only about $1 million. Then, the 30 percent obsolescence factor was subtracted from the overall assessment.
In the end, the $4.3 million in land and an estimated $10 million in improvements now have a taxable value of about $1.3 million. At current tax rates, the $13 million value reduction saves Grayhawk's owners nearly $100,000 in county property taxes each year.
These tax breaks apply to all courses, new or old. Even allowing for differences in the level of development and amenities at each course, it is not difficult to see that huge amounts of property value are taken off local tax rolls by the rule. Maricopa County assessor and treasurer records show that the county loses nearly $10 million in revenue per year as a result of the new golf-course valuation law.
County Assessor Pete Corpstein says the golf property-tax giveaway is indicative of legislative efforts to shift tax burdens off developers, utilities and industries and onto the general public.
"With all the [budget] trouble the county has had in the last few years, the Legislature still shrinks the tax base," Corpstein says. "We're talking about a lot of money."
It may be worth remembering that a $238 million subsidy for a baseball stadium caused outrage in the Valley. Because the golf subsidy is less visible, however, there have been few protests against it--even though it will cost taxpayers a lot more than Bank One Ballpark over time.
The Arizona Golf Association lobbied hard for this change in the law, and it's easy to see why.
As more courses were built in Arizona over the past few years, overall attendance numbers have not gone up. New, flashier courses may pull in more tourists during the winter, but the total number of annual rounds played in the state has remained basically flat. With more and more courses vying for the attention of golfers, business at all of them has suffered somewhat. Removing virtually all of their property-tax burden--that is, giving golf courses an indirect but huge public subsidy--is one way to keep profitability high.
Curiously, Arizona is the only state in which golf-course owners enjoy such protection. In the other big golfing states--California, Texas and Florida--no such appraisal law exists. And despite the annual boost the income gives the courses, average year-round greens fees are higher in Arizona than in any other state.
Local preservationists say that Reach 11 is one of the Valley's most significant desert areas not yet overrun by rapacious growth. A "reach" is an area along a canal that is unbroken by roads, bridges or the like. Reach 11 runs on the north side of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) between Cave Creek and Scottsdale roads. The city of Phoenix, with Scottsdale's help, plans to turn much of this rich habitat area into developed land--complete with two golf courses.
Five years ago, there was one fully operational golf course in the area loosely defined as "Carefree-Cave Creek." Now, there are 11. At least ten more, including the two in Reach 11, are on the drawing boards. Besides the increased traffic, noise and pollution that longtime residents bemoan, there is a less obvious but more serious problem: water.
Golf courses in Arizona use at least 1.5 million gallons of water per acre each year. They need much more water, per acre, than do courses almost anywhere else in the world. Course superintendents can truthfully say that golf courses have drastically reduced their water use in the last decade, through the use of special sprinkler heads and closer supervision of their watering regimens. But those claims are little consolation to the planners who must contemplate the unslakable thirsts of desert golf meccas such as Palm Springs, Las Vegas and Phoenix. At the hot, windy Palm Springs Country Club, for example, about 430 million gallons of water--enough to meet the daily needs of almost 11,000 people--are pumped from an aquifer each year to maintain the golf course. So alarmed were town citizens when they realized how much of their water was being used to irrigate the course that they drastically changed the club's water-use rules.
So far, no one has done that in Cave Creek.
Look at a map of the Cave Creek area and you'll see a more-or-less straight line of golf courses and clubs stretching from Tatum Ranch, near the intersection of the Carefree Highway and Tatum Boulevard, to the north and east. Other courses in the chain include the Boulders, at the Carefree Highway and Scottsdale Road; Desert Forest, at Pima Road and Cave Creek Road; and Desert Mountain, near the Carefree Airport. These courses form a part of the hodgepodge of courses which depend, to one extent or another, on groundwater from the Cave Creek Basin. The basin is an underground aquifer about eight miles long and two miles wide. It was formed around 13 million years ago after volcanic rock in the area cooled and cracked, and water began leaking in from surface and underground sources. It is one of the smaller aquifers in the state and has provided well water for residents of Carefree and Cave Creek ever since they began moving there more than 100 years ago.
In the last few years, however, locals have noticed something disturbing. Their water table has fallen at the rate of nearly 20 feet per year in some areas.
Longtime area water watchers like Joe Bernier claim the dramatic drop in subterranean water levels can be traced to one major cause: water use by local golf courses.
"We started seeing big drops about the time those courses started pumping," Bernier says. "Things had been more or less stable before that. The drop just accelerated immensely."
Demand for groundwater by golf courses in the area is staggering. In 1992, the last year for which groundwater numbers are readily available, courses used 700 million gallons of water from the basin. That's more than seven times the amount of water taken from the next largest source, the Central Arizona Project. And Bernier says golf-course pumping is a big part of the reason residents and newcomers are being forced to dig deeper and deeper wells under their homes.
In fact, Bernier says the courses' demands for water have been so overwhelming that a "cone" has started to develop in the basin. Resembling an inverted traffic pylon hundreds of feet deep, the cone is a spot inside the sediment basin where water has been withdrawn so rapidly that no more has had time to seep in its place. Residents of this area are especially worried that one day soon they'll turn on their taps and nothing will happen.
Local courses have worked with the City of Scottsdale and the Arizona Department of Water Resources to find new sources of water and stop the rapid depletion of the basin--with some progress. One step has been to gradually increase the use of CAP water as pipes and hookups to the canal have become available. Unfortunately, even as some area courses have hooked into the CAP, the dramatic water drop in the basin has continued. No one knows whether the area groundwater will last long enough to get all the nearby golf courses onto CAP water.
Valley golf courses have also begun to use effluent--wastewater taken from city sewer lines and treated to the standards necessary for agricultural or industrial use--for irrigation.
Municipalities all over Arizona support the use of effluent on golf courses, and many golf-course developers claim that effluent from homes surrounding their courses will eventually be sufficient to keep their golf grass green.
Unfortunately, some basic math shows that effluent is unlikely to be the silver bullet that can kill the Carefree-Cave Creek water problem.
The foothills surrounding the two towns are expected to have 20 golf courses at the turn of the century. Each one will use, according to state water guidelines, about 450,000 gallons of water per day. In order to support all those courses, it will be necessary to collect nine million gallons of effluent per day, all year round. The population necessary to keep the courses watered would, therefore, be somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000.
That is more than twice the number of people the cities' own long-range plans show living there once they are fully built out--in 30 years. Those people would all need to live in the area east of Cave Creek Road and north of the CAP canal. Such population density is not likely to be achieved, according to local planners. For a good reason.
Too much land in that area has already been set aside for golf courses. Planners say there won't be enough room to put all the houses needed to shelter all the people whose effluent would be needed, just to water golf courses already on the planning books.
The antigolf lobby would contain fewer environmentalists if all golf-course architects were as sensitive as those in Scotland. In the ancestral home of golf, the aim has always been to design courses that use the existing contours of the land, rather than move thousands of tons of earth, as American designers do.
Currently, America's golf-course architects, who set the standard for course design around the world, are divided generally into two camps. On one side are traditional, "lay of the land" architects, who like gentle contours and designs that offer players strategic choices. At the other end are the modernists, or "constructionists," who sculpt the earth dramatically to create courses that exact harsh penalties for missing the target.
Led by Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus, the modernists reigned during the 1980s, when more golf courses were built in America than in any decade since the 1920s. Armed with modern construction techniques, they turned out one stunning creation after another--courses that seem chiseled out of the land. They moved earth on a massive scale, creating artificial lakes, enormous hazards and conical mounds. Many of these courses were built to have an immediate visual impact, so they could be used to sell real estate. That may explain why such striking yet artificial course layouts became so common in Arizona, where courses seem to be built less to be played upon than to be lived near.
Incidentally, the new wave of design not only altered the landscape, it altered the game. Many of the strategic decisions that came into play on older courses--choices between direct but risky routes to the green or safer, more conservative approaches--went by the wayside. Strategy golf was replaced by target golf, played to greens ringed by sand and water, as exemplified by the "stadium" courses on the PGA Tour. This trend clearly influenced Jack Nicklaus, whose courses show the yawning hazards and sharp edges that demand aerial accuracy from the golfer--the strength of Nicklaus' own game. His hyper-pricey, perfectly manicured courses have also proved expensive to maintain because of their steep grades.
One of Nicklaus' most recognized designs from the '80s is Desert Highlands Golf Club in Scottsdale, which was described at its opening as "the first in-your-face desert course."
What's in the face of today's golf-course architects is environmental activism. People in some of the most beautiful areas of the country are criticizing golf courses not just for depleting water tables, but also for destroying natural habitats, tampering with animal populations and leaching pesticides and fertilizers into groundwater.
Todd Wilkinson, a spokesman for The Nature Conservancy, says golf courses can be especially dangerous because of the areas in which people want to play.
"We're seeing a lot of development in sensitive areas, because that's where a lot of the most spectacular scenery is," he says.
Golfers, and so golf-course developers, covet splendid natural backdrops for their playgrounds; in response, some developers are pushing their own unnatural creations closer to wetlands, streams and other riparian areas to provide more "natural" settings.
Golf-course superintendents can claim some progress on the environmental front. Computerized sprinkler systems with thousands of heads use far less water and are less obtrusive than older systems; at the start of construction, native trees are carefully uprooted and boxed for replanting; miles of concrete golf-cart paths are "color-coordinated to match the indigenous soil"--which means they're brown instead of black or white. Also, many golf clubs claim to be making environmental amends by pointing out their affiliations to the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program, which is, unfortunately, not all it seems (see sidebar).
Some of these environmental innovations--even the legitimate ones--sound a bit silly. But golf courses possessing such features are at least more friendly to the environment than many other sorts of development. A tree-lined fairway certainly nurtures more birds and insects than a parking lot or a strip mall. And a golf course is arguably just as eco-friendly as a farmer's field that also is soaked with herbicides, fungicides and pesticides.
In Arizona, there are rules about golf-course habitat destruction, but not many. Cactuses that need to be uprooted during construction must be transplanted facing the same direction. Attention must be paid to the natural washes and gullies that provide drainage during downpours.
In climates such as Arizona's, pesticide use follows water use as the critical issue. A 1982 EPA survey showed that the average course was sprayed and spread with more than nine pounds of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides per acre each year, about three times the amount of chemicals applied by the most intensive agribusiness operations to an acre of corn or soybeans.
Among the estimated 126 pesticides currently in use on golf courses, three of the most popular--chlorothalonil; 2,4-D; and trifluralin--have caused cancer in laboratory animals, according to the Eugene, Oregon-based Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP). Golfers rarely know what chemicals have been applied to their favorite courses. Only about 20 states (Arizona is not one) require clubs to post chemical notices, and few elsewhere voluntarily inform the public. Even the United States Golf Association says it is not uncommon for golfers and golf-course workers to have adverse reactions to the array of chemicals used to maintain turf grass.
To understand why golf courses are awash in chemicals, think about the most chemical-dependent area of the course--the putting green. There, grass is mowed as short as one-tenth of an inch, so putts will roll evenly toward the hole. Because greens are shaved to such smoothness, says Steve Jones, a botanist who lives in Cave Creek, they constantly exist on the edge of life and death. "Shaved grasses have less mature root and shoot systems," Jones says. "And they're usually less tolerant of heat, cold, drought or excess moisture, and more subject to disease, than higher grass."
Superintendents must fight moisture, wind, heat extremes, molds and fungus to keep their greens green. If they don't, golfers and club owners whine. Too much whining, and the supers may be out of a job.
Such rigid standards exist because a golf ball will not roll consistently across patches of dead or dying turf. And after the chemicals are put on the grass to keep it alive, there's more bad environmental news.
Putting greens are more susceptible to chemical leaching than fairways or roughs because beneath that thin, smooth layer of turf is a base of 70 to 90 percent sand. Chemicals routinely leach through sand, especially after heavy rainfalls, and can migrate into streams or rivers. Recently, high concentrations of the herbicide Surflan, which is used to kill rough desert grasses and small bushes, were found in a wash at a golf course in north Scottsdale. Surflan is considered dangerous to humans and animals in high concentrations. A couple, whose child developed a rash after playing in the wash, called the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality; the couple was astonished when the department said it had no jurisdiction over this level of contamination on the golf course.
Besides weed- and insect-killing chemicals, golf-course run-off also can carry fertilizers that can play havoc with local habitats. When plants in the desert receive more water and nutrients than they naturally would, they grow too quickly and become dependent on artificial help. When the extra water and food are cut off, the plants die and are more likely to pose a fire hazard.
In the desert, where plants and animals are in some ways tougher but in other ways more vulnerable than they are in other habitats, the effects of chemicals can be far-reaching. One accidental run-off of pesticides in Palm Springs several years ago killed most of the fish in an artificial lake. When several hundred birds came along to eat the fish, they died, too.
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The United States Golf Association hopes to arrive at more definite conclusions about chemical use on golf courses by spending $3.2 million on 21 different studies now under way in ten states. Some superintendents are trying to educate golfers so they understand that it is unreasonable and unhealthy to expect a wall-to-wall carpet of green grass at their favorite courses. One north Scottsdale course superintendent, who asked not to be identified, says, "Golfers shouldn't worry so much about color, especially [in Arizona]. Brown is okay. That nice green appearance is not really that important."
His point, though valid, may be a bit difficult to sell to golf-course neighbors. Having shelled out a minimum of several hundred thousand dollars for their palatial courseside homes, plus the yearly $10,000 or $15,000 membership fee many clubs require, well-heeled golf lovers may be less than thrilled with the prospect of hosting cocktail parties on decks overlooking brown grass, tumbleweed-dotted fairways and dried-up artificial lakes. True environmental reform of the golf-course industry will have to deal with the demands of the people it caters to.
For the time being, then, the best advice for those who live with and around golf-course chemicals may be found on leaflets like one passed out recently at Troon North, which reads, in part:
"Is it safe to walk on the course after it has been sprayed?
"Yes, with common sense. Clean golf balls with a towel, not your hands. Don't use your mouth to clean balls. Don't chew on tees. Avoid animals and insects which may have been sprayed. Clean your clubs and shoes immediately after your round and take a shower--especially if you've been wearing shorts."
Or cocktail dresses.