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The Duke

The Duke at Rancho El Dorado's new course superintendent Mike deCrescenza (left) and new general manager Bryon Gribbons. Photo by Mason Callejas

As the summer months begin to roll in and the Phoenix Valley begins to mirror the sun, one of the industries hardest hit by the seasonal change is golf.

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Business begins to slow as courses lose a large part of their customer base when “snowbirds” fly back to cooler climates. Around this time, the courses also begin the sultry struggle to maintain their grounds in the harsh desert environment.

The Duke is no different than any golf course in the Valley. This past year, however, has come with quite a lot of change.

Bryon Gribbons, the new general manager at The Duke, moved over from one of its sister courses, Club West, seven months ago and has since begun the laborious task of improving a course fallen into minor disrepair in recent years.

“It’s an uphill battle,” Gribbons said. “There’s a lot of areas that were neglected for many years that we’re trying to catch up on.”

 

The difficult summer

To get caught up with improvements, Gribbons hired a new course superintendent in March, Mike deCrescenza, who has more than 15 years of experience in turf management and golf course maintenance in the Valley.

Aside from clearing overgrown brush and trees, deCrescenza said, preparing for summertime is one of the most difficult aspects to his job.

“It’s always a challenge when you get into the warmer months, in terms of transition,” deCrescenza said.

Photo by Mason Callejas

To deal with the seasonal changes, he said, two types of grass are planted side by side. Bermuda grass is used in the warmer months and is then “overseeded” in the cooler months by a rye grass.

Of course, he said, they use a little bit more water during the warmer months but it’s not as much as many people think.

 

The unique water hazard

Though desert golf courses absolutely depend on the resource, an abundance of water has proven in the past to be a curse for The Duke.

The Duke straddles the Santa Rosa wash, and, according to Gribbons, has dealt with issues of flooding during the rainy season. He said the issue is sometimes made worse by Global Water, which discharges excess drainage water when it’s unable to handle the volume.

“If they’re dumping water and we get a huge storm, then yes, we lose a few holes, typically we lose the front side,” Gribbons said. “[The holes] are not really damaged, but are unplayable because our bridges are flooded so the carts can’t go from tee to green.”

Gribbons said that hasn’t happened this year, since he’s been on board. However, it did happen the previous year, and they lost the entire front nine holes because of it.

The politics of finding a solution with Global Water are beyond his pay grade, Gribbons said. They are legally not allowed to construct a dam in the wash, so he said it’s a tricky situation, but he is confident it will be worked out.

 

Calling all millennials

For now, Gribbons is simply trying to get through the summer months, which in Arizona are the slowest for any golf course.

As a remedy, The Duke offers special purchasing packages in June and July. To further increase business, Gribbons said, he hopes to bring in more golfers from outside of Maricopa. He also wants to encourage more young people to learn the sport.

In recent years, he said, there has been a decline in young golfers, a fact he hopes to address by reaching out to the high schools and even hosting camps and workshops aimed at attracting younger golfers.

Preston Kessler, a member and weekly golfer at The Duke, is pleased with the progress being made by the new management and hopes improvements continue.

“We talk amongst ourselves, and the consensus is that things are improving,” Kessler said. “If you looked at the greens four or five months ago, it’s dramatically better.”

Honeycutt Coffee will host the first All-Maricopa Poetry Slam on Jan. 13. Photo by Anita McLeod

If you rhyme, if you rap, if you have strong opinions, if you have quiet insight, if you just have something to get off your chest, slam poetry might be for you.

After an introductory event hosted by slam master Bernard “The Klute” Schober and a tryout with a kids slam, the first All-Maricopa Poetry Slam is slated for Jan. 13 at Honeycutt Coffee.

That will lead to the Southwest Regional Slam, hosted by The Duke at Rancho El Dorado on Jan. 28.

“These are both first-ever events for Maricopa,” said Judith Zaimont, a Maricopa Arts Council director.

The All-Maricopa Slam is open to adults and high-school age poets. The slam will follow standard rules, with no props or costumes allowed. Judges will be chosen from the audience, and high and low scores will be thrown out. Content does not have to be G-rated.

Honeycutt Coffee will open at 5:30. Registration is at 6 p.m. Only the first 14 poets to sign up will perform. There will be three elimination rounds to get down to the top five poets. The top three will get slots in the Southwest Regional Slam while the other two “sorbet” poets will get to perform a poem at intermission.

The regional slam has cash prizes at stake. Participating poets must sign in at The Duke by 7 p.m. The regional slam, too, will be in three elimination rounds. Poets must register their intent to enter by Jan. 14 via the event Facebook page: Southwest Regional Slam (brought to you by “Got Arts? Maricopa). They must also send their intent notice to Schober at TheRealKlute@gmail.com. Names of competitors will be chosen Jan. 15 live on Facebook.

Zaimont said MAC sees the Southwest Regional Slam as an opportunity “for Maricopa to show its best face to the outside world.”

It will bring in poets from Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Tucson, Albuquerque and other areas.

The slams are part of MAC’s “Got Arts, Maricopa” ongoing expo.

If You Go
What:            All-Maricopa Poetry Slam                Southwest Regional Slam
When:           Jan. 13, 6:30 p.m.                               Jan. 28, 7 p.m.
Where:         Honeycutt Coffee                              The Duke at Rancho El Dorado
44400 W. Honeycutt Road, #109    42660 W. Rancho El Dorado Parkway
How much:   Free                                                     Free
Info:               MACmaricopa@gmail.com             TheRealKlute@gmail.com


This story appears in the January issue of InMaricopa.

The Duke Golf Course has an asking price of just under $5 million. Rancho El Dorado opened the course in 2003. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

A virtual “for sale” sign has been posted on the Duke Golf Course at Rancho El Dorado for four months.

The Duke is listed at $4.995 million. It includes the 7,011-yard course and 5,400-square-foot clubhouse. The veranda is another 3,000 square feet.

“It’s got a lot of things going for it,” broker Jon Knudson said. “It’s trending in the right direction.”

Designed by Dave Druzyski, the course was constructed in 2002 and opened by Rancho El Dorado Golf Course in 2003. The property is in three parcels. The 110 acres sold to Hiro Investment LLC in 2009 for $1.45 million.

Hiro Investment LLC has owned four golf courses in Arizona, Ahwatukee Country Club, Club West, Foothills Golf Club and The Duke. It listed three of them for sale.

“We’re seeing a bit of an exit strategy by these guys because they already listed another golf course with me, Club West,” said Knudson, a partner at InSight Golf Brokerage. “Ahwatukee was already listed.”

Knudson estimated the average time to sell a golf course in Arizona is six to nine months.

“The best thing I can see is that during the period between 2009 and 2015, they went from a considerable negative number in what the business was generating to a considerable positive number,” Knudson said. “So these guys have totally turned around the business. They made almost half a million dollars last year.”

The Duke is at the time of year when it has just gone through over-seeding and winter visitors have returned.

The Duke is 18 holes and plays 7,011 yards from the tips. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson
The Duke is 18 holes and plays 7,011 yards from the tips. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

“The course came in phenomenal after over-seed,” said head golf pro Stephen Reish, who is also serving as co-manager with Susan Miller, the food and beverage director. “Right now, with the improvements, if we keep the course in good shape like this, there’s not much we can improve on.”

He credits good customer service, from the course workers to the golf shop to the Silver Spur Grill, with spurring The Duke’s turnaround over the past few years.

“That’s what brings people back, and they bring their friends,” said Reish, who has been with the course four years. “We just know how people want to be treated, and it goes all the way around the whole course.

“I don’t see a lot changing if somebody does buy it,” Reish said. “They would be crazy to just change everything. Maybe wait until the end of the year and then start implementing their rules, whatever that might be.”

The interim situation Reish and Miller share for the course’s management is expected to last until The Duke has new ownership. It came about when General Manager Corey Parker was hired elsewhere.

The clubhouse containing the pro shop and restaurant is more than 5,400 square feet. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson
The clubhouse containing the pro shop and restaurant is more than 5,400 square feet. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

The course being for sale has left employees, even Reish, unclear what their future at the course is. He and Miller may continue to manage, or they may be placed back in their departments under a new general manager. Reish said The Duke sold fewer Gold Cards, its annual discount card, possibly because of the uncertainty.

Knudson called it a typical transition.

“Sometimes when a golf course gets sold, it’s concerning to employees, so you see some turnover,” he said. “The GM there was actually fantastic. We loved him, but he got another opportunity. There are a lot of people, when you build a good reputation in the industry, who will want to hire you. And he was really good.”

The Duke is consistently called “player-friendly,” with its wide greens and easy views in a laid-back ranch setting, to bring in casual golfers. “People leave the course feeling good instead of feeling like they got jumped by someone,” Knudson said.

But the lure for many is simply proximity.

Convenience is the main reason Julian Rachey golfs at The Duke. The Canadian writer winters in the Villages. This is his fifth year coming to Maricopa.

He said a little more water could go a long way, talking about both the course and the ball washing.

“The last three or four years, it’s been like they’ve been holding everything at a certain level to hold down expenses,” Rachey said.

“Now it’s crowded with Canadians, and the prices keep going up. And I’m Canadian.”

Tom Botterud, too, does not like the prices going up when winter visitors arrive. It’s something he would like to see change with new ownership. He said he did like the results of the over-seeding this year.

“It’s a nice course. They’re all nice courses. They have three or four them, but because I live here I come here most,” said Botterud, a Wisconsin native who has lived in the Villages six years.

“It’s going to happen where Maricopa is going to hit its stride again. And The Duke is in an excellent position to capitalize on it.”


The Duke’s closest competition geographically is Ak-Chin Southern Dunes. The 320-acre Southern Dunes is more known for its championship-level golf, recently landing an agreement to host the PING Southwest PGA Section Championship for the next five years. Golfweek ranks Southern Dunes ninth in the state and does not list The Duke in the top 30.

“Competition is always high anywhere in Arizona. But because Maricopa is more of a daily-fee type demographic, they’re not looking for real expensive golf,” Knudson said. “It differentiates itself from Southern Dunes because that’s a little bit higher end. I think that is one of the reasons The Duke [was] able to generate 54,000 rounds in 2014. That’s high.”

The Silver Spur Grill also has benefited from lack of competition in its category of a sit-down restaurant with a bar and good-quality food, Knudson said. “In the neighborhood, you don’t have 40 different places where you can go out to eat.”

Much of The Duke’s future success depends on Maricopa. The community had a population of about 1,000 when the golf course was under construction. Use of the course has grown with the city. But it has also echoed trends in the sport.

Even before the Great Recession, the golf industry started seeing a decline in rounds.

“When things get tight, this kind of spending is one of the first things to go. But over the last two, three years, we’ve kind of seen that stabilize again, with a slightly lower amount of participation across the country,” Knudson said. “There’s been about a 5-percent drop in the past five or six years, so that part is not great.

“It’s going to happen where Maricopa is going to hit its stride again. And The Duke is in an excellent position to capitalize on it.”

This story was published in the November issue of InMaricopa News.