As inappropriate as it may be to quote Charles Dickens with regard to golf—much less private and emblematic Colorado Golf Club—there are no other quotes that get the job done. So…it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Indeed, it was the spring of hope—the four-year-old club in Parker hosted some of golf’s most legendary players in May, 2010 at the 71st Senior PGA Championship, with the course garnering praise from the field and acclaim from breathless commentators and writers. And it was the winter of despair—following the championship, long-simmering financial difficulties finally reached the boiling point, leading to an acrimonious rift in the membership; rumors roiled of bankruptcy, receivership and other miseries. A sense of impending doom settled over the club.
And yet spring has somehow come again. Golfers are once more launching drives and muttering at the devilish greens on the Coore & Crenshaw layout. The hum of mowers and maintenance makes sweet music. And, best of all, the sound of hammers pounding nails at new homes and at the clubhouse—a symbol of the club’s promise and its struggles—cuts through the air.
After two years of anxiety and uncertainty, the members of Colorado Golf Club are no longer looking for a solution. Instead, they have become it. In April the membership closed on the club facilities—the championship course, the nine-hole short course, the practice areas, clubhouse and maintenance facility—forming a new equity club, committing the funds to complete the clubhouse, and daring to steer the club forward. In addition, a new player—Arendale Holdings—has emerged on the real estate side with a long view and a good-neighbor policy. Much work remains, but Colorado Golf Club, once a swashbuckling newcomer—not just on the local, but on the national golf scene—has entered its new era with a newfound sense of community and a new attitude.
“It’s been a tough road,” says Head Professional Graham Cliff. “But we’ve always believed that the thing that really set us apart was our membership. We know that for real now. Everyone associated with the club really cares about it, even if that passion made it tough to find agreement sometimes. But we’ve never had a better new season than this. We appreciate what we get to do out here. We appreciate the members and their patience and support. We appreciate the guys who stepped up and made this all possible. We’re on our way now.”
Colorado Golf Club has traveled a long road in a short time. And from the outset, the idea was big. As soon as work began in 2005, the club began racking up membership and homesite sales. Noted golf instructor and longtime Colorado golf personality Mike McGetrick served as the face of the project, mobilizing a network of friends and associates. Developers David Hutchinson and Dwight Bainbridge set things onto a fast track, and by opening day in 2007 membership was near capacity, and most of the 170 homesites making up the low-density community had been sold. The club earned haughty honors in the press, including Best New Private Course awards from GOLF Magazine and Sports Illustrated. In 2008 the PGA of America announced that the 71st Senior PGA Championship would take place at CGC over Memorial Day weekend, 2010. In 2009, the LPGA followed suit, awarding the 2013 Solheim Cup to Colorado Golf Club.
But storm clouds were gathering. Financial markets were spinning out of control and some of the world’s largest institutions—industry towers filled with enthusiastic golfers and, more important, backers of golf projects—creaked under their own weight. Traditional golf industry lenders vanished overnight.
Members faced their own difficulties and began looking resell their memberships and homesites. Looming above it all was the club’s partially completed 44,000-square foot clubhouse.
During the final months of 2009, rumors swirl through the club and the Colorado golf community. Chief among them was that the PGA was going to move the championship to another local club. Others had the club filing for bankruptcy protection. In February, 2010 a group of members provided financial support that assured that the Senior PGA Championship would go on as scheduled. It was a hopeful moment in a year that would offer few of them.
THE HIGH POINT
Championship week blew in, fittingly enough, with a gale. Wide-eyed PGA staffers worked in the media tent, firing wary glances at the rippling in the tent ceiling. Sand swirled around the “stand up” area designated for interviews outside the clubhouse. A few players grumbled to each other about the facilities, though the club had worked to gain a temporary occupancy permit and made use of the locker room for competitors. A fence encircled the edifice, hiding it from the view of most spectators. The PGA held its breath and swung open the gates.
“You can say what you want about everything that was happening around the championship,” Cliff says. “But once the event got underway, it was successful on just about every level. For one week, we didn’t have a struggling club. We had a major championship club.”
The media covering the event marveled at the physical beauty and strategic qualities of the golf course, with announcers spinning poetic yarns from the towers. The course did its part, yielding birdies, eagles, bogeys and doubles, each in flocks. On championship Sunday, Fred Couples helped engineer what many golf fans and observers called the most exciting homestretch of 2010 when he sprang up the leaderboard with back-to-back eagles on the 15th and 16th holes. While Couples missed a short birdie putt for the outright win on the home hole, Tom Lehman made a gritty up-and-down for par to tie Couples and David Frost.
Lehman won on the first hole of sudden death, and like so many of his fellow competitors, he raved about the golf course.
“I fell in love with the course the minute I saw it,” said Lehman said in his victory press conference. “You have to think out there. You have to be creative. It’s a course that easily stands up to this level of competition.”
Members gathered around the 18th green for the awards ceremony, proudly wearing caps that identified their standing. They had become members of one of golf’s most exclusive fraternities – members of host clubs of major championships.
“That was the high point for us,” one member said afterward. “It felt like we had welcomed the entire world into our home, and they had all come in and loved it. We never wanted it to end.”
But end it did. The post-championship “bounce” that some had hoped for never materialized. Instead, the rumors and dire predictions grew louder. Ownership chased various financial leads down various rabbit holes that all led nowhere. The season worked toward an end without any good prospects in view, but also without a bankruptcy filing or interruption in play. Members gathered under chilly skies, debating their options. Some sought to steer the club toward bankruptcy, feeling that a clean start would be best.
“That was a brutal time,” Cliff confesses. “You build a lot of friendships in a club, and the hardest thing of all was to see so many of those friendships being strained and knowing that so many people you cared about were unhappy.”
One group of members split off and initiated legal action against the club’s ownership for failing to deliver on planned amenities. Some stopped paying dues or membership installments, and were said to be formulating a plan that would force the club into bankruptcy. As the long nights of November descended over the club, few expected that spring would bring a new golf season at all, at least at Colorado Golf Club.
On the surface, the prospects for Colorado Golf Club had gone bare and dormant. Behind the scenes, however, a final hope flickered. A small team of members known as The Bridge Group had been exploring an idea to acquire the club’s assets in hopes of facilitating a turnover of the club to the membership.
“We just felt that it was too good a golf club to let it go down without trying to do something,” said member Michael Burgamy, who helped initiate the Bridge Group’s planning.
Simultaneously, the project’s embattled owners had begun meeting with Arendale Holdings, a well-capitalized land development company with experience in club communities and the wherewithal to see beyond the short term.
Arendale announced on November 17th that it had purchased from receivership the dormant Betts Lake neighborhood, an enclave of 35 homesites once owned by John Laing Homes and intended to provide a low-maintenance, smaller footprint home opportunity than the larger custom lots and homes within the development. It was the first sign of light at Colorado Golf Club in months. Arendale brought something to the table—a sense of future—that no one associated with the club had been able to achieve in months.
“You only have to step on the property once to know how special it is,” said John Kunkel, Chief Operating Officer at Arendale. “It’s hard to imagine that such a beautiful site could be located so close to a major metropolitan area. “
It didn’t take long for members of The Bridge Group and Kunkel to start talking, and once they did, some seemingly impossible tasks required to separate the club assets from the real estate side of the project began to appear more possible.
On January 22nd, the Bridge Group held a member meeting to discuss their plan. John Kunkel came to support the effort, and nearly 130 members gathered in the cold of the unfurnished banquet room in the unfinished clubhouse to hear the pitch. Solheim Cup officials viewed the proceedings with a watchful eye, hopeful that a plan could come together.
The idea was simple but far from easy:
• Raise capital from members under a program dubbed “Legacy” in order to provide funds to finish the clubhouse and satisfy the obligations remaining on the club side.
• Generate momentum and provide funds to repay Legacy by offering a limited number of Special Golf Memberships at $50,000 (the lowest price in the club’s history. Since opening in 2007, memberships had ranged from $75,000 – $95,000).
• Attract an initial investment from Arendale to establish a working relationship between the club and real estate sides of the project, which would be separated under the plan.
Though far from unanimous, the plan won widespread support. A number of members stepped forward and bought new memberships for resale in order to get the sales drive started. The club announced a series of Wednesday night discussion groups and invited key members to discuss and explain the program.
A second member meeting on March 2 featured a marked difference in tone. Already, 30 members had signed up under the Legacy program and committed the capital to move the plan forward, with an opening of the clubhouse scheduled for September of this year. Other members purchased Special Golf Memberships for resale and brought prospects to Saturday Open House events. Passions ran high as members weighed and debated the plan. Where 2010 had ended with stagnation and gloom, 2011 had begun with movement and a heightened sense of possibility. The club’s staff began making tentative plans to open as scheduled for the 2011 golf season, and cars filled the club’s parking lot as meetings filled the schedules. The race to closing was on.
“This is without question the most complex deal I have ever been associated with,” said one member involved in the negotiations. “Just to get your head around all of the documents and definitions and players was a challenge, and to try to do it with transparency, in time to allow the season to get started on schedule, it was a lot of work.”
On Friday, April 15, the golf course opened as representatives of the soon-to-be previous ownership and those of the membership at Colorado Golf Club began the process of closing the transaction, a process that finalized in the early-morning hours of April 16.
When the sun rose that day, it marked the dawn of a new era at Colorado Golf Club. Members congregated on the range, shaking hands and launching balls at the distant point of Pikes Peak. For the first time in months, conversation turned toward new equipment, fresh swing thoughts, green speeds, what members might do to return the support of the Solheim Cup.
Head professional Graham Cliff surveyed the scene, interrupted time and again by members stopping by to offer a word of congratulations and support. “In the end,” he says. “This really is a golf club, not a project. It’s a place for friends and families to get together and enjoy the game. That’s what we’re here for, and that’s what makes this club work. It hasn’t been easy, but golf never is. It’s time to look forward.”
Jon Rizzi is the editor of Colorado AvidGolfer.