Thunderbirds Golf Club sells at auction for $4.8 million

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

PHOENIX, Ariz. - The troubled Thunderbirds Golf Club in south Phoenix was sold at auction early last month for $4.8 million.

The winning bidders were influential Phoenix businessmen: Arturo Moreno, a Phoenix billboard entrepreneur; Ernie Garcia, owner of DriveTime of Phoenix, a used car sales and financing firm, formerly known as Ugly Duckling; and Del Cochran, an executive with Grayhawk Golf Club, according to their Phoenix attorney Steven P. Johnson. The three have formed MGC Properties LLC to run the course.

Pam Buckley, a legal assistant with the law firm that handled the auction, said that the sale has been completed and that the new company put up "all the money within a short period of time." They were the only bidders on the course that formerly belonged to a corporation headed by the Thunderbirds, the civic and charitable group that puts on the Phoenix Open every January.

But the Thunderbirds group and their fellow owner, Luther Alkaseh, who had originally owned the site of the course, had defaulted on a $6.5 million loan on the property, and the lender, Bank One, foreclosed in September 2002. One of the members of MGC, Del Cochran, has been a member of the Thunderbirds since 1988.

There had been a golf course on the property for 45 years, but it had fallen into disrepair before the Thunderbirds transformed it into a sparkling, up-to-date course that was supposed to funnel cash into the Thunderbirds' charities. But the course, which opened in late 2001, had almost immediate financial problems. Rounds played fell off drastically in July 2002 after about 80 people became sick from tainted water that they allegedly drank at the course.

Despite these issues, the $4.8 million auction price seems like a bargain in view of the going cost for building courses in the Phoenix area that some estimate can be as much as $1 million a hole. The Thunderbirds course is in an area of town that had been considered economically depressed for some time. But because land sells very cheaply in South Phoenix, a huge home-building boom near the course is raising the area's profile. The course has only a temporary clubhouse.

Already the new owners have ended Bank One's contract with IntraWest, which had managed the course since the foreclosure. But the new owners' attorney said they plan to maintain the property as a golf course.

Del Cochran may play a key role in that as his title with Grayhawk is "captain of the club"; he is the chief manager of the pricey Grayhawk Golf Club in north Scottsdale, home of two premier Arizona golf courses - the Raptor and the Talon. "It's going to continue to be a golf club," Cochran said about the Thunderbirds course, "and we're going to try to make more of an approach to local residents by running more special deals for them in terms of green fees."

Cochran is also the president of Sunningdale Management Group Ltd. of Scottsdale and was involved in the development of the Grayhawk community that surrounds that golf club. He served on the board of the directors of the Southwest Section PGA for four years.

Despite the past financial problems at the Thunderbirds Golf Club, he said, "The course is in very good shape. We're very pleased with the superintendent and with the whole staff for that matter."

Cochran said that the Thunderbirds non-profit group will continue to own and operate a 9-hole, par-3 course next to the golf course. First Tee Academy classes and programs are held on that mini-course for low-income youngsters.

Business picked up a lot at the 18-hole course as it did at many courses in the Phoenix area during January, partly due to cold weather in the Midwest, but also due to flocks of tourists arriving for the Phoenix Open. "We've had a great month," said Greg Leicht, director of golf at the Thunderbirds course.

Staff at the course said that there had been no word yet as to whether the name of the course would be changed.

One of the new owners, Arturo Moreno, previously owned part of Outdoor Systems, a billboard company in Phoenix that sold to Infinity Broadcast Corp. for $8.7 billion in stock in 1999. That stock was converted to Viacom stock because of a merger in 2000. In the most recent Forbes Magazine list of the 400 wealthiest people in America, Moreno was listed as No. 246. The magazine estimated his net worth as $940 million. A University of Arizona grad and Vietnam veteran, Moreno, 56, also owns part of the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks.

Want to play?

The Thunderbirds course, voted last year as one of the top 10 new public courses in the nation by Sports Illustrated, also has some of the most affordable high-season green fees in the Phoenix area. Currently, you can play Sunday through Wednesday for $39, Thursdays for $49 and Fridays for $59.

The Thunderbirds Golf Club is located at 701 E. Thunderbird Trail, Phoenix, AZ 85040. Phone: (602) 305-7755. Web site:

A little bit of a bargain at the TPC Stadium Course

How do you match up against Vijay Singh, the winner of the 2003 Phoenix Open? Maybe you'd like to find out by playing the TPC of Scottsdale Stadium Course, where the Open was just held.

Right now, the course is running a special discount on green fees from through March 31. The rate is $179 per person, about $193 with tax, for walk-ons (golfers without advance reservations), Monday through Thursday after 10 a.m. Although the fee still may seem pretty high, usually it's about $225 a round, including tax.

The TPC Stadium is located at 17020 N. Hayden Road, Scottsdale, AZ 85255, just north of Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard. For tee times, call 800-767-3574.

Aaron Baddeley a big hit with the convention and visitors' bureau

The first two days of the Phoenix Open, held in Scottsdale at the end of January, Aaron Baddeley, the 21-year-old from Australia, who had nearly won the Sony Open in Hawaii the week before, drew the biggest fan crowds.

Baddeley, who made waves in Hawaii with his plaid pants, had great outfits in Phoenix as well: tight white shirt and tight white pants on Thursday and tight khakis and a coral-colored golf shirt on Friday.

Unfortunately for the fans, he crashed and burned and failed to make the cut.

Also unfortunate for the Scottsdale convention and visitors' bureau because Baddeley, who lives part-time at Grayhawk in north Scottsdale, strongly promoted the Scottsdale lifestyle to the local press. Said Baddeley: "The weather is perfect. It's easy to get around. It's got a million golf courses. There are lots of gyms around, fantastic restaurants, fantastic sushi bars ... It's a young town."

Another highlight of the Open was Phil Mickelson explaining at a press conference why he may look pudgier on TV than say, Tiger Woods: "I've got subcutaneous fat, and most people who are ripped have visceral. There's nothing I can do about it. It just lies underneath the skin as opposed to underneath the muscle. And as long as I feel better and get stronger, then I can't really worry about, you know, body fat."

Smashing attendance at the Open

Although the Phoenix Open did not have as many people in attendance this year as last, it still drew a record-size crowd.

About 477,000 people attended the event over five days this year, the largest ever crowd in a week before the Super Bowl. The previous best attendance in a Super Bowl year was 467,600 in 1998.

Last year, 2002, the Open had more people - 529,210. But the Thunderbirds group that stage the golf tournament contend that that was because the Super Bowl ran a week later due to delays in the NFL calendar caused by the Sept. 11 crisis.

For those who were at the Open everyday this year, it was clear that attendance really did drop off on Super Bowl Sunday. Suddenly it was possible to get a much better seat next to the most popular hole No. 16.

Golfing on the outer limits Most of the new courses now being built in the Phoenix area are on the outer fringes of town. The latest is Sundance Golf Course at the Watson Road exit on I-10 in the town of Buckeye, about 31 miles west of downtown Phoenix.

Although Buckeye may seem to some Phoenix folk to be about halfway to Los Angeles, it's expected to be the hub of several huge new housing developments over the next few years. Among them will be Verrado with 14,080 units and three championship golf courses, including one by Tom Lehman and John Fought.

But the first to open in the area is Sundance, designed by renowned Arizona architect Greg Nash. This new course is the centerpiece of the Sundance active adult community being built by Hancock Homes, part of Meritage Corp. The layout has a desert-feeling to it and plays at 6,944 yards from the back tees. There are four sets of tees with the length from the forward tees playing at 5,272 yards. Green fees are $35 Monday through Thursday and $45 Friday through Sunday. For tee times, call 800-767-3574.

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

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