Hovering above the Pacific, the setting sun coats the manicured landscape in gold leaf as Mike Davis steps up to the tee and drives a ball into the distance. Many are no doubt envious. Storied for its seaside, cliff-top setting, duffers far and wide recognize Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course as one of the finest public courses in the nation. But things here are not as splendid as they appear on this beautiful Friday afternoon.
Old and new controversies are brewing at the city-owned golf course and that odor floating down the fairway isn't that of new fertilizer, but rather the unmistakable smell of a heap of trouble, primed to hit the fan.
But from the first green, Davis can only smell roses. Playing alone as a walk-on, he's lucky and knows it. Today he didn't have to wait. Others have waited for hours to tee off, sometimes never getting the chance.
Seeking to make these vaunted bluff-top greens a little more accessible to Davis and other golfing San Diegans, City Councilmember Michael Zucchet plans to voice a number of concerns before the City Council's Natural Resources and Culture Committee. Topping his list are the city's current contracts with companies authorized to sell tee times as well as planned renovations of the north course.
Maintaining a balance between profitability and public access is not a new challenge at Torrey Pines, but Zucchet says current deals weigh heavily in favor of private interests.
"I don't think that the public has been made aware of exactly how many tee times go out the door to private parties and the public never has a chance at them," he says. "I think that balance has been pushed a little too far away from the taxpayers, and I'm just trying to push it back a little bit that way."
The city of San Diego sells tee times directly to residents and non-residents, but Zucchet estimates that two hotels, the Lodge at Torrey Pines and the Torrey Pines Hilton, and the pro-shop operated by the private Torrey Pines Club Corporation (TPCC), receive nearly 11,000 tee times a year and, in turn, sell them at increased rates. Customers pay those rates in order to make reservations months in advance rather than fight to reserve tee times released by the city just weeks beforehand.
"On a municipal golf course, that is a golf course owned by the city, owned by the citizens, owned by the taxpayers, it's just not clear that's the appropriate thing to do," Zucchet says of selling tee times to private interests. "I'll be asking for a report back basically on what we can do to stop that practice."
While the number of tee times sold to private parties is an issue, Zucchet also wants to make sure that the city gets its fair share of the revenue generated from those sales.
According to its current contracts, the city sells tee times to the hotels at the same rate it charges non-resident golfers, plus an additional surcharge of up to $30 per player.
The pro-shop receives approximately 3,650 tee times per year, but it gets a very different deal. The city sells 60 percent of those tee times to the TPCC at the lower rate it charges city residents and the remaining 40 percent at the non-resident rate. None of those tee times are subject to a surcharge, and the pro-shop sells them to patrons at non-resident rates as part of even more expensive tee time packages that include a three-hole lesson, golf cart and greens fees.
Zucchet says he thinks that by selling resident tee times at the non-resident rate, TPCC is making between $500,000 and $1 million a year that should be going to the city. He notes that while the lease with TPCC, which also operates the driving range and golf-cart concession, is a long-term deal, the amendment that established the current tee-time agreement is cancelable by either party with 90 days notice.
"If there is something that I'm missing and we need to renegotiate something, then that's fine," he says. "But we should be more transparent about giving money away, I think, if that is what the goal is."
Giveaway or not, Zucchet may have a tough time nailing down all of the details. The 2000 agreement with TPCC owner Robert Mckee was negotiated by Jim Allen, then golf operations manager for the city's Department of Park and Recreation. But Allen, reportedly placed on administrative leave this April, resigned a month later, just before a city audit was released citing mismanagement at city courses. (The Union-Tribune reported that Allen was placed on administrative leave; park and recreation director Ellen Openheim declined to confirm or deny that for CityBeat, citing it as a personnel matter.)
Allen could not be reached for comment, and Mckee, contacted at his Phoenix home last week, said he was unaware of Zucchet's challenge before referring all other questions to pro-shop staff who, in turn, pointed CityBeat to the city Park and Recreation Department for answers.
However, CityBeat did obtain an Aug. 5 letter written by Mckee to Zucchet and other city officials defending the current agreement. In it he lists numerous services that TPCC provides the city free of charge, including tournament support services and a junior golf program, and details the impact that reconsideration of the current agreement could have.
"If we did not have the playing packages under the existing arrangement, we would not be able to continue the employment of the personnel necessary to support all of the levels of service to the public at Torrey Pines Golf Course and City lease revenue would decrease," Mckee writes. Under its contract with the city, part of TPCC's monthly rent is based on a percentage of its revenue.
With Allen's position still vacant, Openheim said she is aware of Zucchet's concerns and plans to address them. "The pro-shop agreement dates back at least to the early 1990s and, honestly, I wasn't here at the time, so I don't know what the thinking was when they put that one together," she says.
Further complicating Zucchet's efforts, the city's Real Estate Assets office is refusing to share the results of a 2002 audit of TPCC finances with the City Council. Members of Real Estate Assets staff claim the audit contains proprietary information that could be valuable to TPCC's competitors.
In addition to the tee-time issues, Zucchet plans to take a second look at scheduled renovations of Torrey Pines, which a recent city manager's report indicates will include a multi-million-dollar makeover of the north course in 2005, a new clubhouse slated for 2006 that would house an expanded pro-shop and a separate facility with private locker rooms and offices for the Century Club, a nonprofit group that hosts the Buick Invitational and donates money to local children's charities. Zucchet said he's not convinced the renovations are necessary or worthwhile.
The report states that funding options for the clubhouse and Century Club facility are still being explored. However, Deputy City Manager Bruce Herring says the north course makeover would be financed through the city's golf enterprise fund, which, he explains, does not comprise taxpayer dollars.
"All of the revenue comes from golf-course operations and all of the money that is spent from that goes back to golf-course operations," he says. "They are golf course-user dollars."
Approximately $1 million from the golf enterprise fund and an additional $3 million in private donations were used to finance the recent renovation of the south course in preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open. But like many other local golfers, Zucchet says recent south course renovations have been disastrous.
"The greens have not been in playable condition for almost three years now," he says. "In addition, it has become a course literally built for the USGA and for the pros.... They took a course that had a lot of history, was very uniquely Torrey Pines Golf Course, and turned it into sort of... a generic course that I don't think is befitting of its incredible location right on the bluff."
Zucchet says he hopes to protect the north course from a similar fate.
"If you want to get away from the golf nuts-and-bolts, to me the broader issue is this is a municipal golf course owned by the taxpayers. At the same time, we have an opportunity to bring the U.S. Open here, that's good for the city.... In terms of direct dollars spent, it will rival any major sporting event we have ever had in San Diego, including the Super Bowl," he says. "And these are good things, of course, but to me the question is... how far do we move in the direction of having a public park become a marketing tool for major events, sporting events and tourism events versus its core purpose as being a golf course for taxpayers of San Diego to play."Zucchet had planned to explore these and other issues related to Torrey Pines at an August meeting of the Natural Resources and Culture Committee that was canceled. Although he expected the issue to be raised at the Sept. 22 meeting, he will have to wait a few more weeks. A spokesperson for City Councilmember Jim Madaffer, who chairs the committee, said Torrey Pines won't make the committee's agenda until November.