Thunderbirds, Phoenix Area Courses Clean Up Water after Virus Outbreak

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

PHOENIX, AZ - Golf courses throughout the Phoenix area have changed how they supply water and ice to golfers after 84 people contracted an intestinal virus reportedly caused by drinking from water containers at a course in South Phoenix.

One teen-ager who became sick following a junior golf tournament at the course later died. But prolonged testing has still not pinpointed whether he had the virus as well, said Doug Hough, public information officer for the Department of Public Health in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa and other cities.

County officials held a press conference Wednesday afternoon to announce that the guilty organism in the case is the Norwalk virus that causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and headaches within 24 to 48 hours after exposure.

"It's a garden-variety virus that we believe was transmitted through the water at the course," Hough said. "Although the virus was not found in the water containers at the course, the course had previously used a reverse-osmosis system on their tap water, and as soon as they switched to bottled water, no one got sick any more."

Samples from those who became ill were sent to the Centers for Disease Control for analysis. CDC personnel are continuing to analyze results from the teen-ager and may have an answer to his death in another 45 to 50 days.

So far, county inspectors have visited 148 of the 157 Phoenix area golf courses and required 96 to make changes in their water and ice supplies. Among some changes required by the Environmental Services Department were:

• Requiring that all water containers be filled in snack bar kitchens rather than from other sources at a course.

• Making courses empty and sanitize water containers at least once every 24 hours.

• Ensuring that water containers on courses have locks on top to prevent anyone from filling a bottle or cup by dipping it into a container.

• Cleaning up procedures involved with ice machines.

Many courses reportedly switched to bottled water following the virus outbreak.

"I can assure you that nothing like this has every happened before at a golf course in Phoenix," Hough said. "But it's been a very hot summer and there are a lot of other variables that could be involved."

The crisis began early on July 19 when 15-year-old Nils Beeman (at left) of Ahwatukee Hills died at home during the middle of the night after suffering vomiting and flu like symptoms that according to Hough resembled those suffered by others infected by the virus. Beeman had played in a golf tournament July 16 and 17 at the Thunderbirds Golf Club, just off Baseline Road in South Phoenix. He then played golf again on July 18 at the Raven at South Mountain. At first, it was believed he had died of heat exhaustion. But after his death, players and spectators at the seven-day tournament at the Thunderbirds had more complaints of illness. Ultimately, all county officials could determine was that Beeman had been asphyxiated after aspirating or breathing in his vomit.

After interviewing those who were ill and sampling water, ice, food, grass cuttings and ventilation systems, county officials began to focus on the water system at the Thunderbirds course.

"They believe it was the Norwalk virus and that it was passed on through jugs of water on the course," said Scott Henderson, the Big Chief of the Thunderbirds, the charitable organization that runs the course and also sponsors the Phoenix Open. "But they didn't find the virus in the jugs and the staff tested negative for the virus. The good news is that this was an isolated incident and that 65 percent of the courses are going to change their procedures because of this. The tragedy is the death of this young man."

There are still a number of mysteries in the case, Henderson said, including the role that might have been played by the reverse-osmosis water purification system. Many businesses in Phoenix use such systems to remove minerals from water and improve its taste, but they also reduce the amount of chlorine, which helps kill contaminants in water.

The illnesses and death were a serious blow to the Thunderbirds course, a practically brand-new facility built by the Thunderbirds group with contributions from numerous suppliers and advice from Phoenix area professionals Billy Mayfair and Tom Lehman.

The top-ranked course has helped revitalize an older area of Phoenix where some housing and businesses have fallen into disrepair. Opened in late November 2001, the course was quickly named No. 5 among the top 10 new public courses by Sports Illustrated. It meanders around 147 acres on the flanks of South Mountain. The golf club is also the site of a par 3 First Tee course, part of a national program that teaches golf to inner-city children.

Henderson acknowledged that the questions about the illnesses have had a negative effect on rounds played, although it's hard to know how much business has dropped because the course was not open last summer. Now the course has shut down on Mondays through the rest of the summer.

"It's always tough in August," Henderson said, "but we've had a fair number of cancellations. But this could have happened anywhere, and people are beginning to realize that. There's actually been a bit of a backlash lately. A lot of people are coming out and saying, 'This is really unfortunate, this is a great course and we want to play.'"

The Thunderbirds have also been struggling the past few months with trying to find a new sponsor for the Phoenix Open. On top of that, there are rumors that the course is for sale.

"The course is not for sale," Henderson said. "But we've been having discussions with our partner, the Alkaseh family, about restructuring things. An arrangement like this where we manage the course is difficult for a non-profit group like the Thunderbirds."

Thunderbirds Golf Club Struggling to Bounce Back

PHOENIX, AZ - Business has been very slow this month at the Thunderbirds Golf Club, where contaminated water reportedly caused illness for more than 80 people who visited the course in South Phoenix.

The course never had to close down while the Maricopa County Health Department was investigating the situation, according to Brad Kirkman, the director of golf and general manager at the course. "A few groups canceled tournaments because they weren't comfortable with the situation," Kirkman said. "But now we're starting to get some phone calls from people who want to play. The phone is ringing again."

County officials have announced that a common stomach virus that may have been present in the drums of water on the course had caused the illnesses. A 15-year-old, Nils Beeman of Ahwatukee Hills, who became sick following a junior golf tournament at the course in mid-July, later died. However, tissue tests at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta have not yet indicated that he had the virus.

In response to county inspectors, Kirkman said, the course stopped using its water drums and now gives each golfer two sealed bottles of water plus ice purchased from an outside vendor. In the past, ice was made in a machine at the course.

The course is now closed on Mondays through August, traditionally a slow time at Phoenix courses.

The course has done very little so far to present its case to the public or try to reverse the slide in rounds played. Rob Myers of Communications Links in Scottsdale, the public relations firm for the Thunderbirds, a charitable group that runs the club, said it wouldn't have been appropriate to advertise or seek new players while the investigation was going on, but that later "we may start trying to get more players. The Thunderbirds have been cooperating with the health department and feel very badly for the family."

As a result of the crisis at the Thunderbirds, the county has been inspecting all courses in Phoenix, Scottsdale and several other cities to ensure that they provide safe water and ice. In particular, they're trying to end the practice of topping off - a situation in which workers add water and ice to half-full drums everyday.

At the Arizona Biltmore resort courses, for example, drums are now removed from the courses every night, bleached out and then refilled in the restaurant kitchen, said Dick Bates, general manager of the courses. Other courses with water fountains, like McCormick Ranch in Scottsdale, passed inspection with the county.

Many golfers are calling courses to inquire about how water is supplied, according to the desk staff at the TPC Scottsdale and Dove Valley Ranch in Cave Creek, where a number of changes have also been made.

Meanwhile, the Thunderbirds are still searching for a title sponsor for the Phoenix Open, held each January at the Tournament Players Club of Scottsdale. The open, managed by the Thunderbirds, is one of the most popular events in the Phoenix area and last year drew 500,000 in total audience. "We expect to hear back from some potential sponsors after Labor Day," Myers said.

If the Thunderbirds cannot find one sponsor for the whole tournament contract, there are a couple of other smaller "presenting" sponsors who are waiting in the wings, he said, who would split up the contract. (RL)

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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