Monday, December 17, 2012

Mulligan Stew on Course for Dallas

Do you golf?

Apparently, fewer of us do.  Despite the Tiger Woods phenomenon of the past decade, the golf industry has found it harder and harder to compete against other demands for our time and money.  There's even an organization called the "Golf Preservation Foundation" exploring ways of making the game more popular and accessible to more Americans.

One of the Golf Preservation Foundation's claims is that modern golfing has become too complex, with courses that are too big and demand too much time from modern schedules.  Golfing's prime was during the 1960's, they say, when fans of the sport golfed at smaller, less glitzy facilities, where people could more easily fit nine casual rounds into their day and not feel like they'd played hooky from the back nine.  Smaller courses also cost less, which means the sport was more affordable for more people.  Sure, there were exclusive clubs back then, but plenty of room existed in the sport for municipal and mom-and-pop courses.

It wasn't until developers started master-planning golfing communities, and hiring celebrity golfers to design dazzling courses, that golf's demands on players' time and wallets started weeding out the people who just wanted a little fun and exercise.

This probably won't surprise you, but I've never golfed.  I can appreciate the aesthetic beauty of manicured lawns, and imagine spending an afternoon enjoying a golf course's scenery - without having to worry about mowing all that grass - could be fun.  But the reason I've never been lured onto a course is because golf has always struck me as a contrived pastime.

As contrived as all that customized landscaping.

Sure, there's admirable skill involved in being able to hit a little white ball into a little hole you can't really even see.  And when it's a nice day, being outside, and walking around amidst landscaping you can only dream about for your own house, it might get a bit boring if you didn't have something else to stress about... like hitting little white balls into little holes.

And plenty of golfers stress about their game, don't they?  Maybe it's a good stress, but I doubt it.  Some people thrive on competition, but seeing who's best at hitting little balls into little holes you can barely see only trivializes competition, doesn't it?

Trying to hit little white balls into obscure little holes doesn't come cheap, either.  All that wonderful landscaping doesn't manicure itself, after all.  And not everybody can walk around an entire 18 holes without some sort of mechanized transport.  The apparatus used to hit those little white balls can be costly, and there isn't just one style of those stick-like clubs, but a plethora.  Throw in the requisite plaid pants, spiked shoes, and those hats with the pom-poms on them, and you're talking some serious cash.

Indeed, for a variety of reasons, most of them financial, golf is a sport for the affluent.  Or at least, those who are rich enough to not worry about anybody laughing at their peculiar wardrobe.

Talk About a Downhill Lie

Which brings us to the peculiar news out of Dallas, Texas, recently that AT&T wants to build a championship-caliber golf course on a scrubby patch of urban forest in a crime-saturated part of the city.  AT&T currently has its corporate headquarters in Dallas, but is rumored to be quietly planning a new corporate campus in suburban Irving.  If and when the corporation leaves Big D, as a parting gift, AT&T wants to give the city the prestigious Byron Nelson Championship golf tournament that's been hosted by Irving for the past 30 years.

It would make for an odd swap, but then again, the Byron Nelson is not chump change, being worth $40 million annually to Irving's economy.  But AT&T is positioning itself as the tournament's new corporate sponsor in 2015, and they say the event's current venue, at Irving's grand Four Seasons resort, no less, isn't posh enough.

However, driving around the Byron Nelson's possible new home doesn't exactly impress anybody, either.  If at five diamonds on AAA's rating scale, the Four Seasons is too dowdy for AT&T, what makes the communications giant think marshland in a floodplain boarded by Section 8 apartment complexes, auto impound lots, and a rail yard will be any improvement?  There are reasons the city has ever been able to convince a rational developer to parlay a respectable enterprise on this nondescript 500 acres of city-owned land.  Its as if AT&T isn't aware of the neighborhood's deeply-rooted problems.

Or that golf probably isn't the best way to address those problems.

I spoke with a manager at one of those auto impound lots last week, a well-spoken, fit young man who had heard rumors of the proposed golf course but thought it was all a big joke.  This savvy business manager said he doesn't even walk outside the perimeter of his security fence around his sprawling lot for fear of his own safety.

"You'd be stupid to go play golf in this neighborhood," he scoffed, noting that the city already has a municipal course nearby, but everybody's too scared to play it.

"How you gonna keep the prostitutes and drug pushers off the greens?"

With a straight face, however, AT&T executives made a splash at their news conference with Dallas' mayor, members of the city council who overwhelmingly support the plan, and enthusiastic civic leaders from the city's southern black and Hispanic neighborhoods, all of whom heralded the proposed golf course as an economic savior for this often-overlooked part of Dallas.

Talk about your contrivances!  It all reeks of political grandstanding, back-room deals, and hopelessly ludicrous urban renewal hype.

We're not sure who's going to pay the purported $150,000 membership fee at this new facility, since even though the city of Dallas is going to pay $9 million to help clean up an existing landfill on this public land, it will not be a municipal course.  AT&T has magnanimously offered to cough up $2.5 million for a hike-and-bike trail near the course, but don't we all know that's going to be used by AT&T's private security force they'll inevitably have to hire?  After all, somebody's gonna have to hunt down all of the criminals plying their various illicit trades all over the property.  Dallas' police resources are already stretched thin across the city.

This Birdie Ain't Singin' No Sweet Song

About the only people who really score in this deal, aside from AT&T executives who harbor mysterious animosity towards the Four Seasons, are golfing students from none other than Southern Methodist University in Highland Park, a few miles and worlds away from Dallas' southern sector.  SMU is an official party school, where drug and alcohol abuse is common, as is - according to a friend who used to date an SMU student - rape and suicide.  You won't find statistics on the Internet to back any of this up, because the school fights mightily to protect its image.  Suffice it to say that locating the school's official golf course in one of Dallas' highest-resource 'hoods for prostitutes, drugs, and alcohol is like putting a chicken coop in a wolves' den.

Back in 2010, after Jerry Jones opened his splashy new football palace here in Arlington, Texas, AT&T was thought to be interested in purchasing naming rights to the widely-acclaimed venue.  But Randall Stephenson, AT&T's CEO, said in an interview with the Dallas Morning News that they decided not to put their corporate logo on the stadium because they didn't think it was a prudent marketing move.

"From my chair, it's all about return on investment," explained Stephenson, saying that purchasing the naming rights for the Cowboy's NFL home wasn't "the highest, best use of capital" for AT&T.

Yet apparently, this folly of a golf course is?  Even though no official decision on the new course's name has been made, it's pretty clear that AT&T wants its name someplace in it.  It's not like the company is joining with other local corporations in pushing for this new golf course. 

AT&T doesn't even expect it to be a profitable venture, which flies in the face of what its CEO said about naming rights.  “No one gets to make a profit out of this. That’s been our intent from the beginning in the way we thought about putting it all together,” claimed AT&T executive Ron Spears. “This is a not-for-profit in every way.”

A sixty-some-odd-million not-for-profit as a sensible driver for urban renewal in south Dallas?  Will caddy pay and dishwashing in the new club's kitchens help get people off of public assistance?

Maybe there are few alternative uses for this geographically-challenged patch of land, but if I owned shares of AT&T stock, I'd be a bit worried about the logic being displayed by the company's leadership.

Golfing may be on the decline across America, but one of the country's largest communications companies wants to build its own contrived estate where a privileged few can practice hitting little white balls into little holes.

Don't golfers yell "Fore!" when they've hit an errant ball?

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