Villa Monterey Battles Back from the Brink

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

Villa Monterey Golf CourseSCOTTSDALE, AZ - It sounded like a good idea at the time. Two years ago, the Arizona Golf Foundation, a non-profit arm of the Arizona Golf Association, received the donation of a deteriorating nine-hole course in Scottsdale and decided to turn it into a mecca for senior golfers and the very young who wanted to learn golf.

But as of a couple weeks ago, the course, named Villa Monterey, was still extremely difficult to play and was in need of major renovation. We found the bunkers had no sand in them, dozens of dying trees lined the fairways, the greens were bumpy and weedy and the ponds were choked with reeds and lily pads. Some holes also lay close to tee boxes on other holes - a bit hazardous for those teeing off as balls missed nearby greens. Perhaps 20 golfers, mostly adults, were playing on what was a mild spring Saturday morning.

Logo Arizona Golf AssociationBoth the Arizona Golf Association and the city of Scottsdale have put money into the course, but its future still has some issues to resolve. The director of golf at the course, Tony Chiarello, is very enthusiastic, as is the foundation, which still seeks donations for the project. "Fundraising efforts look rather promising at this point," said Chiarello. "We have scheduled much needed golf improvements. We are going to refurbish our bunkers that have been neglected over the years and we will fill them with sand. There is a lot of tree work and trimming that needs to be done. We have an extensive lake system on the property that is filled with weeds."

Ed Gowan, executive director of the Arizona Golf Association, insisted, "Villa Monterey's future is solid right now."

But the project does raise the question: Why subsidize a non-profit, nine-hole course when there are about a dozen nine-hole, for-profit courses in the Phoenix area - all competing for the same $15 green fee?

Gowan said that competition is an issue for Villa Monterey, but the association is determined to carry on because of its junior golf programs, which were the motivation for taking over the course in the first place.

The support of the Arizona Golf Association, led by Gowan, has lent some prestige to the plans for Villa Monterey. AGA is the non-profit amateur organization that serves as the local arm of the USGA and maintains the statewide handicap and course rating systems. If an Arizona resident wants an official handicap, he or she joins a golf club and then pays $25 to the AGA to use its computerized system. More than 375 golf clubs and 60,000 golfers belong to the association, according to the AGA Web site.

Villa Monterey at CamelbackOriginally, Villa Monterey, at Camelback and Hayden roads, was operated by a couple who also owned the Scottsdale Culinary Institute next door. For a couple of years, the AGA took over management of the course from the institute's owners; then the course was donated to the association.

According to Tom Beat, contracts administrator for Scottsdale, the city became involved because the course lies on the Indian Bend Wash, a federally managed desert area running through central Scottsdale. If the Arizona Golf Foundation had not taken over Villa Monterey, the course would have become part of the wash again. The foundation needed funds to "finish acquiring" the property, Beat said, and approached the city for the money. "It was not a lot of money, and otherwise the land would have become a drainage area again," Beat said.

Had Villa Monterey been abandoned, the city also may have had to take over its maintenance - in itself a costly proposition. "If the city doesn't find a new operator, it would have to assume maintenance costs," Bill Exham of the Community Services Department told the Scottsdale City Council in October 2000.

In fact, the course was in such bad shape in September 2000 that it actually shut down for a while. That was about when the Scottsdale City Council came to the rescue with three separate donations, totaling $83,000, that the Arizona Golf Foundation could use for overseeding and other maintenance. At the time, the foundation indicated that it had lost $150,000 while trying to keep the course open.

Since the time of the city donations, Beat said, the foundation has repaid the debt by providing in-kind services to the city: discounts on golf lessons and green fees for city residents and lots of junior golf clinics. As far as the city is concerned, the debt has been repaid, Beat said.

But currently, there are no discounts for city residents. Every adult pays $15 and every junior golfer, under 17, pays $7. These fees, incidentally, are now quite a bit more than they were when the city first got involved with Villa Monterey. Back then, they were $9 and $3.

One problem that the course has had is a lack of a permanent clubhouse. Currently, Villa Monterey operates out of a small trailer on site with limited parking nearby for cars and golf carts.

The Arizona Golf Association had asked the city to donate a slice of the nearby city-owned Chaparral Park for use as a clubhouse site and parking lot. But neighbors were distraught and objected to the plan. "The city shouldn't be giving citizens' private park land to a private organization," one local resident told the Arizona Republic at the time. So that idea was squashed.

Villa Monterey at CamelbackGowan said that the city has now agreed to allow the course to build a clubhouse on a site near the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. However, construction will not start until funds become available.

To try to get money to support Villa Monterey, the Arizona Golf Foundation held a fund-raising marathon in March in which 30 people participated. The golfers raised $100,000 for junior golf programs, according to a press release from the AGA. A similar marathon in 1999 at Kierland Golf Course in Scottsdale raised about $50,000, according to the association.

Would the city contribute more help in future? "No, we don't expect them to," Tony Chiarello said. "Although it's something that could be negotiated in the future. It's in the best interests of the city to keep this area thriving as a golf course. We received minimal help from the city before, but not anywhere what had originally been considered. But now with the shortfall in the state budget and the sales tax money down because of the drop in tourism, it seems unlikely."

The foundation had hoped to do a major course remodeling, perhaps pouring as much as $1 million into Villa Monterey. "We had high expectations for past fund-raising," Chiarello said, "that have fallen short."

But he remains committed to the course's purpose: "To provide reasonable quality golf in the area at affordable prices. Golfing has become prohibitively expensive in Scottsdale because of all the tourists drawn to the area."

Villa Monterey at CamelbackThe ones who suffer most from this situation, he said, are the kids. "This course is about junior golf development. Kids can come out here and pay $7 and play unlimited golf. So many courses have lessons and programs in junior golf, but they don't let the kids play. You can't learn about golf if you don't play."

It should be noted, however, that many 18-hole courses in and near Scottsdale offer discounts to young players. Scottsdale Silverado, an 18-hole course just a few blocks from Villa Monterey, has a $15 green fee (16 and under) after 1 p.m. Continental Golf Club in Scottsdale charges juniors $7 a round if they buy a $59 a year membership. Rancho Manana in Cave Creek has a $7 junior green fee after 4 p.m. Arizona State's Karsten Golf Course in Tempe charges $12 for 9 holes after 1 p.m. (17 and under); during the summer this junior fee is $6.

Villa Monterey does more for children than just offering lower fees. There are Sunday golf classes that cost only $5 each, and during the summer, the course puts on golf camps - two weeks of lessons for a couple of hours a day.

Is the course making a go of it from lesson and green fees? "At the cash register, we fall just short," Chiarello said. "We will make a go of it if we can prove to the community that we can provide a good place to golf."

Ed Gowan said that the course is not breaking even on its income, "but it's close. We continue to get a number of contributions from the industry. But on fees alone, no."

About the course: Villa Monterey Golf Course is a nine-hole, par-3 course located at 8100 E. Camelback Road, Scottsdale 85251. For tee times: 480-990-7100. For more information on the Arizona Golf Association, visit the group's Web site at www.azgolf.org.

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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