Back on Course: The Yampa Valley Golf Course’s employees and members work toward a brighter future
When Scott Ballif first pulled up to the Yampa Valley Golf Course he could barely believe his eyes. The first putting practice green he saw would have been more properly called a “putting yellow.” There were patterns of fungus damage throughout the front of the clubhouse yard and there were fertilizer burns in some of the fairways.
“I almost turned around and got back in my car,” he said, recalling his visit for an interview in 2019 for the position of Golf Professional. “During my interview we played a round and the ball was bouncing around the course like bumper pool.”
For those not familiar with golf, a ball bouncing around like “bumper pool” is not a good thing. It is saying that the ground is hard and the grass is not healthy.
Despite the rough (pun intended) first impression, Ballif stuck around after being offered the position of head professional in the middle of the summer in 2019. His mission that summer was to mitigate the damage he came into and then get a fresh start for the 2020 season.
Ballif was not the only one thinking about a fresh start. Since the challenging summer of 2019 the Yampa Valley Golf Association members and board has put in hours of work to rebound from one of the course’s low points.
“I think that summer was a wake-up call for us,” said YVGA Board President Bud Bower. “Leading up to that we were playing firefighter,” he said. “We were pretty good at putting out fires when they started, but we realized we needed to be better at preventing fires.”
Leading up to the summer of yellow greens in 2019, the course was not exempt from challenges. The course pro was turning over almost every other year. The clubhouse restaurant had changed hands several times. Numbers were going down for the two primary tournaments – The Cottonwood Classic, for men, and the Silver Bullet, for women. There was also turnover on the maintenance side of the course.
“We had a lot of turnover and it’s hard to find consistency when new people are having to be trained or start over,” Bower said. “There were people trying to make it happen, but just not enough.”
One of Bower’s examples of “putting out fires” was how sprinklers were being maintained. He said that there were times when a sprinkler head was broken that the replacement was simply what was in the supplies, regardless of if it had the same spray pattern as the previous one. Sometimes there were heads spraying a full circle when all that was needed was to cover half of that area.
Ballif said he understands how the reactive approach was taken instead of a pro-active one.
“Membership, players and revenue were going down and so it was hard to think about the big picture,” he said. “The course was breaking even, which there are courses that lose money, so that was good news. The bad news is that they couldn’t think ahead very well.”
It was almost a perfect storm of struggle too because interest in golf has decreased globally the last 10 years. A YVGC pro shop employee since 2006, Willy Barclay has witnessed the decline.
“It’s across the board,” he said. “The young adult generation just isn’t as interested in golf. Add that into the declining population of our county and it makes things harder.”
Barclay has seen the decline of members at YVGC from the mid 300s to now around 150.
“We had good things with a lot of members,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to make financial decisions when you have options and extra money. When you have less money, you have to decide between one thing and another and that’s hard.”
Working toward fire prevention
The Yampa Valley Golf Course is set up as a not-for-profit association. To be a member of the association one pays a one-time fee which gives them voting rights to select a board as well as the opportunity for reduced green fees for life. After the 2019 golf season, which saw the course’s revenues drop significantly, a call went out to the association members.
“We heard that the course had a really bad year and I wondered if we were going to lose the course,” said Ann Irvin, an association member since 1984. “So we started to look for ways to save the course.”
One of the first actions was to set up a fundraising dinner and auction for the course. Irvin and Jeanne Maneotis spearheaded the effort with help from multiple association and board members. The event was held in February and raised $28,000 for the course.
“I’m extremely grateful for the people who helped put on that dinner,” Bower said. “It was a big shot in the arm.”
The keynote speaker at the dinner was former course pro Chuck Cobb, who worked at the course for 40 years and whose father, Jim, was on the original board of directors. Cobb delivered a message that rallied the crowd and is still talked about today. He went through the history of golf courses in Craig and pointed out that there have been tough times before. He called on the people at the dinner to take on more responsibility and support like others had before.
“The community has to take ownership for a small-town course like ours to make it,” he said. “It has to be a combination of the local government, local industry and the individual sector.”
At the beginning of may YVGC board members presented a grant proposal to the Moffat County Local Marketing District, which, according to its Web site provides grants to “help promote Moffat County as a premier recreation/ tourism destination as well as a desirable, business friendly location for those that enjoy a varied outdoor lifestyle with a western atmosphere.”
Bower, Ballif and others told MCLMD board members they believed that the course has been and still can be a major draw for people outside of the community. They requested funds to help with maintenance projects as well as promotion and marketing. Although the proposal was not approved, it gave the board members direction and they plan to return to the LMD in the future.
“Obviously funding from LMD would help us to move from reactive to proactive,” Ballif said. “We are re-working our proposal to fit their requirements more specifically.”
It would not be the first time the course has received a boost from a government entity. Cobb said that in the 90s they received state funding through a partnership with the county.
Getting in the green
Everybody involved admits it will not be a quick fix to get back to the glory days of pre-recession, Tiger-Woods-lovin golf. In fact, this year has had its mixes of ups and downs.
The ups have been that despite all of the closures and quarantines from Covid-19 the YVGC was able to open in April. Ballif and the maintenance crew applied a fungicide that protected the greens during the winter and to most accounts the course looks more like the “Gem of Yampa Valley” is supposed to look.
“Last year isn’t a benchmark we necessarily want to look at too much,” Ballif said. “But we were the first course open in this area and our early numbers were definitely ahead of 2019.”
Irvin said she hopes that the effort of members to put differences aside and get the dinner together will be a sign of more positive times to come.
“There was a lot of negativity and he-said, she-said going on among members,” she said. “I feel like there is much less of that now that we realize that we have to work together to keep the course going.”
Unfortunately, for the ones paying the bills, there have been some setbacks this season. Two of the pumps that control water for the back nine holes have gone down in May, resulting in at least $30,000 in repairs.
“That irrigation system has been there since 1984 as that part of the course was opening,” Cobb said. “It’s one of those, ‘could-we-have-saw-it-coming-sooner’ things but they don’t have the capitol funds and reserves to think that way.”
Despite the setback, Ballif is upbeat about the future of the YVGC.
“We are working with motels for the first time in a long time to offer packages to out-of-town golfers,” he said. “It seems like the members have a desire to put in some of their own work. And we are building a team out here that can work toward sustainability.”
Barclay recognized that it will be an uphill battle.
“We had a rough 2019 and golf courses are a little bit like restaurants because if you get a bad review or have a bad experience it’s hard to get people back,” he said. “But with some consistency and hard work I think we can make it.”
Sustainability and consistency are attributes that Bower said he hoped will remain after his tenure as board president.
“We’ve sustained some black eyes and it hasn’t been easy,” he said. “But my goal remains that there will be a course here for my grandkids.”
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