Tale of two downvalley golf courses
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – As downvalley golf moves into its second decade of operation the Charles Dickens quote applies – it has been both the best of times and the worst of times.
Eagle Ranch Golf Club is marking its 10th season in 2010 while Gypsum Creek Golf Course is celebrating its 14th season of play and its first with a new name. Both courses were born during a time of exploding golf course development and in response to market studies that indicated there was a need for more golf in Eagle County.
“At the time the national trend was golf, golf, golf,” said Glen Ewing, former Eagle Town Board member and current member of the Eagle Ranch Golf Course Advisory Committee. “Every course that went up had wonderful expectations.”
“Back in the late 1990s, there were lots of corporate groups playing,” added Jeff Boyer, director of golf at Eagle Ranch Golf Club.
At that time, he was working at the Beaver Creek Golf Club and Boyer remembers it was not unusual for three different corporate groups to book tee times in one day. Then came a series of corporate scandals, 9/11 and the 2008 stock market crash.
“The golf industry has changed greatly since then,” said Boyer. “There are just too many golf courses for the demand right now. Golf has overextended itself.”
June 1994 marked an important milestone for golf in western Eagle County when developer Tim Garton presented the plan for a 550-unit residential development centered around an 18-hole golf course. The 420-acre site was the former Cotton Ranch property south of Gypsum.
That same month, East West Partners announced it had purchased the 1,100-acre Eagle Ranch site south of Eagle.
During a yearlong public process, the Cotton Ranch deal was hammered out to eventually include 546 residential units. Renown course architect Pete Dye was hired to design the course and the operation was proposed as semi-private, with membership options available that included access to a clubhouse and pool facility in addition to golf. However, from the beginning, Gypsum stipulated that and least 20 percent of all golf rounds play would be made available to town residents.
On June 1, 1997, the course opened for play. Green fees were $75, with a cart, for 18 holes during prime play periods. After 4 p.m. the fees dropped to $60. At that time, an 18-hole round at the Eagle-Vail Golf Course was $80 and at the Vail Golf Club it was $85.
From the time of its earliest operations, the course built a strong relationship with Eagle Valley High School to develop both boys and girls golf programs. To this day, it remains the school’s home course.
For four years, the semi-private Cotton Ranch was the only public golf course in western Eagle County. That changed when Eagle Ranch Golf Club opened in 2001.
The Eagle Ranch Golf Course opened for play on June 29, 2001. It was the centerpiece of a large development that had been the subject of two years of town review. The final approval for the 1,500-acre plan, which included 1,100 resident units, came in 1999.
But Eagle Ranch, as it exists today, was actually first proposed as a golf course development in 1992. At that time, former ranch owner Jessica Catto proposed an 18-hole course and 550 residential units at the site.
The town board approved the plan, but it was then taken to a citizen referendum. While the development was eventually approved by town voters, subsequent efforts to sell revenue bonds to finance construction failed.
At that time, the Colorado market was flooded with bonds to finance construction of Denver International Airport. Then, in November of that year, Colorado voters approved the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendment, which sharply curtailed the type of financing proposed for the original plan. Two years later, Catto sold the property to East West Partners.
Eagle Ranch was the first totally public golf course built in Eagle County for decades. It was designed by golf legend Arnold Palmer’s company. The course featured a more modest clubhouse facility with more of a snack bar type food operations rather than a full-scale restaurant.
Early on, Eagle Ranch promoted men’s and women’s league play and a large junior golf program. Boyer was hired as director of golf and he has remained at the facility for all 10 seasons.
Eagle Ranch and Gypsum Creek are very different types of courses. Eagle Ranch is a municipal course, totally open for public play. Because the ground was formerly a ranch, the course doesn’t have heavy wooded areas. Instead, long native grasses provide a hazard. Water is present throughout the course, with ponds and little creeks prominently featured. Boyer said the ninth and eighteenth holes are classic Palmer designs, with the fairways bordering opposite sides of a larger pond.
“Gypsum Creek has more of a private feel,” said Ewing. Dye-designed courses are generally described as more difficult for average players and the course features several long fairways. The back nine holes rise up to a mesa above the front nine, with expansive views of the valley.
Both Eagle Ranch and Gypsum Creek are now open for the 2010 season. Both are competing for their share of the golf playing public and Gypsum Creek is marking its first year as a town-owned facility.
April 1 was the first day golfers played at the newly christened Gypsum Creek Golf Course after the town of Gypsum bought the course from PMC Commercial Trust for about $2.5 million. Town officials, including town manager Jeff Shroll, labored for months to work the deal, which finally closed Jan. 15.
Formerly the Cotton Ranch Golf Course, the facility had been financially troubled for some time. The former owners – Cotton Ranch Club Inc. and Cotton Ranch Company LLC, based in Gypsum – defaulted on their loan from PMC. That set off a series of court hearings and the course operation was placed in the hands of a receiver last spring.
Eventually PMC Commercial, the lender for the Cotton Ranch golf course, bought the course at an Eagle County Assessor sale in July for $1.7 million. The lender was the only bidder at the sale.
After the golf course went into foreclosure earlier in 2009, PMC Commercial contracted with Edge Golf Group to manage the course and other club facilities. Attorney Bob Holmes, who was representing PMC at the assessor’s sale, said his clients didn’t want to be in the golf course business and were interested in talking to anyone about a purchase and that the company just wanted to get the loan repaid.
Shroll said Gypsum officials had considered buying the course for seven years, “when prices were $5 million to $7 million higher.” As he contemplates Gypsum’s newest asset, Shroll said the former private operation simply charged too much for green fees.
“We don’t have the note that they had, so that helps with our overhead,” said Shroll. “If we’re not the lowest we’re close to the most affordable golf in western Colorado at $49 per round.”
The course sells a variety of passes, such as a punch pass, season pass and membership pass, that reduce the cost per visit, Shroll said.
“We’re already seeing the results of those kinds of fees,” he said. “When the sun is out there are lots of people out there.”
At Eagle Ranch, the 10th season of play finds Boyer promoting golf as a fun, family activity. He notes that when compared to other outings, such as a pro sports event or a day at an amusement park, golf is an affordable option.
“We are trying to get more people out playing golf and golf is a great family sport,” he said.
Peak season rates at Eagle Ranch are $85 for 18-holes for an Eagle County resident or $69 for an Eagle resident. Twilight play (after 4 p.m.) drops to $45 and $40 respectively. Additionally, there are shoulder season rates, punch card rates and membership deals.
Judging by real estate sales, the Eagle Ranch course has been successful. Eagle town staff said that the golf course portion of the development is 70 percent built out. At Gypsum Creek, Shroll estimated that 70 to 80 percent of the lower golf course lots are built out. He estimates the upper portion is approximately 50 percent built out. And of course, in this difficult economy, there are many for sale signs posted at both locations.
As he looks at both courses and their accompanying real estate developments, Ewing said Eagle and Gypsum remain attractive places to live. But he doesn’t expect the economy to roar back for a few years and that likely means lean times for golf course play and golf course real estate sales.
“We just have way too much golf here right now,” said Ewing.
For additional information about Eagle Ranch Golf Club visit http://www.eagleranchgolf.com.
For additional information about Gypsum Creek Golf Course visit http://www.gypsumcreekgolf.com.