HARLINGEN — It starts with the greens.
Anyone who plays golf knows you drive for show and putt for the dough.
So, when greens are brown and bumpy, that can affect a golfer’s enjoyment of the game.
That’s what is happening at Tony Butler.
For years, some golfers have complained about the conditions of the greens at the municipal course.
“You have a lot of dry spots — bare spots where there’s no grass,” Art Gonzalez, a member of the Pan American Golf Association, said this week.
When golfers are putting, the condition of the greens can make a big difference.
“It affects the game,” Gonzalez, a retired Harlingen firefighter, said. “For me, it might mean one or two strokes.”
At Tony Butler, balding greens can drive a ball haywire, Gonzalez, who has played the course for 20 years, said.
“When you putt, the ball jumps all over the place,” he said. “ A lot of people don’t play here because of the greens.”
Now, Tim Elliott, a member of the city’s new golf committee, has a plan to improve the golf course — specifically the greens.
For years, Tony Butler remained the Rio Grande Valley’s only self-sustaining municipal golf course.
Since about 2013, the course has lost money.
With annual expenditures of about $1.2 million, falling revenues have left deficits ranging from $48,324 to $302,587.
Like Gonzalez, Elliott is starting with the greens.
“It’s a problem most courses have with consistency of the greens — not just in the Valley,” Elliott, owner of Elliott’s Custom Golf, said. “If they’re consistent, people will play.”
So, as a member of the new committee charged with helping to improve the golf course, Elliott said he will recommend the city contract with a consultant specializing in improving greens.
“There are people who know how to fix that,” he said. “The key is to make them consistent.”
Elliott also said he will recommend the city train the golf course’s new greens keeper.
That’s Don Cole, the course’s new superintendent.
In April, the golf course hired Cole, who holds a degree in agronomy and has worked at courses from Houston to Cancun during his 40-year career.
“Maintaining the fairways is very important to us,” Assistant City Manager Carlos Sanchez stated. “(Cole has) more than 40 years of experience in maintaining golf courses (and) ensures that the grass is mowed according to industry standards.”
Across 230 acres, the 27-hole golf course’s maintenance is challenging.
“We’ve got more grass than most courses in the Valley,” Elliott said. “They’ve just got to be maintained.”
Sanchez said Cole is working to remove Johnson grass spawned by recent rains.
“The process to get rid of it, however, it must be done in a gradual manner so as not to kill the grass that is underneath,” Sanchez said.
In the Valley, Winter Texans are critical to golf course success, Elliott said.
And for years, their numbers have been dropping off.
At Tony Butler, golf pro Eddie Medlin cites a drop in Winter Texan players as a factor behind its dip in revenues.
“Without Winter Texans, the golf course really suffers,” Elliott said.
The Treasure Hills golf course has offered deals which have driven away some Winter Texan players from Tony Butler.
“This is a competitive market,” he said. “Golfers are fickle. You’re not the only store here.”
So Elliott said he is also recommending the city launch a marketing campaign aimed at drawing Winter Texans to the golf course.
“We’re at the edge of the Winter Texan season,” Elliott said. “We make money when they’re here — and we just survive the rest of the year.”
As part of the campaign, Elliott suggested targeting the Valley’s RV parks.
He is recommending the city market the golf course’s rich history as a former stop on the PGA tour.
“It’s a great tourist attraction,” he said.
New golf carts
Meanwhile, the city has taken a big step to keep players teeing off at golf course.
Last week, city commissioners approved the $240,257 purchase of 65-gas powered golf carts to replace its fleet of 75 electric carts.
“The golf carts were a great move,” Elliott said. “The worse thing that can happen is you’re out on the course and the cart dies.”
As part of the deal, the city is trading off its electric fleet of 2014, 2015 and 2016 carts for $82,500
Gas-powered carts are more cost-efficient than electric carts, which require new $700 batteries about every three years, Sanchez said.
Sanchez said the electric fleet required about $50,000 worth of new batteries.
At the golf course, cart rentals are part of the daily operations.
Last year, rentals generated $126,210 in revenue, Sanchez said.