Challenging course

Tuscan Ridge has come up with creative solutions for a business built on pleasure

Jay Berkowitz grew up on a golf course. Now he’s the general manager at Tuscan Ridge on the Skyway.

Jay Berkowitz grew up on a golf course. Now he’s the general manager at Tuscan Ridge on the Skyway.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Running a golf course in this day and age is no small feat. Luxuries like hitting the links are often the first things to go when an economy turns sour. Jay Berkowitz, general manager at Tuscan Ridge Golf Course on the Skyway, knows this all too well. But he isn’t worried.

“Golf is one of those forms of recreation that people do for relaxation,” he said. “People don’t want to give it up because they kind of need it. They may cut back, but they don’t get rid of it altogether.”

People love golf for a number of reasons. For one, it’s a sport that allows people to be outdoors, walking in nature. Second, the game itself is more introspective than most.

“There are so many layers of challenge,” Berkowitz said. “Sure, you can compete against other players, but you can also play by yourself. For me it’s more a battle between myself and the course. That’s appealing to a lot of people.”

Berkowitz acknowledged that membership sales have slowed, although as far as usage is concerned, about 60 percent is members, the other 40 percent being the general public.

To offset losses from business being slower than usual, Tuscan Ridge has gotten in on the event business: fundraisers, weddings and the like.

“We’ve done very well in the event business,” Berkowitz said. “We sort of fell into it. But there are so many fundraisers because there’s a need for them. It’s such a win-win business for us—we do well doing it, and we help raise money for good causes.”

He estimates the 18-hole course has raised upwards of $400,000 over the past few years for various organizations.

Berkowitz remembers clearly one afternoon two summers ago. He was driving from his home in the Paradise/Magalia area down to a meeting at the golf course, and the Skyway was thick with smoke.

“When we came out of the meeting, it was like the whole world had changed,” he said. The fire had jumped the canyon nearby, and ultimately the course ended up losing about 100 much-beloved trees. Luckily the course was spared.

“We became sort of a greenbelt for the fire, and we ended up being a staging ground for firefighters to rest.” Berkowitz said. “It hit so close to home for us that we held a fundraising event.”

Fundraising, as it turns out, has become almost the saving grace of Tuscan Ridge. Ever since, the event business has become hugely popular and offsets losses the course has had in terms of regular use.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Berkowitz grew up on a golf course. Literally. His grandfather owned a nine-hole course in Weaverville, and Berkowitz was swinging a club by age 5. As he got older, he played golf at UC Berkeley, first as part of the team and later as the coach. He was an instructor for 13 years, and to this day his employer lets him take time off during the summer to teach junior golf camp at Pebble Beach.

Needless to say, the guy’s a golf nut.

Five years ago, when local developer Mo West bought Tuscan Ridge Golf Course on the Skyway, Berkowitz came on as general manager. His wide smile as he talked about the business indicated that he enjoys his job immensely, despite the struggles.

There are a lot of golf courses in Butte County. There are public courses like Bidwell Park and Table Mountain, and there are private courses like Canyon Oaks. Tuscan Ridge is a mix of members and general public, and that’s one of its strengths, Berkowitz believes.

To make a top-notch golf course, you need three main elements, he explained. First and foremost is design. That’s what sets Tuscan apart from the public courses in the region, he says—varying difficulty in slopes, obstacles like sand traps, dramatic contours. Second is conditioning—the condition of the turf, detail work like flowers and trees. (Tuscan, unlike, say, Bidwell, is lacking in trees. But where it lacks in greenery it makes up for in scenery, Berkowitz said.) Third is price.

“Add the three together and you get value,” he summed up.

The costs of keeping a top-notch course running smoothly are high. For one, the greens must be manicured regularly, the equipment has to be up to par and the staff knowledgeable. Tuscan Ridge has added constraints, however, in that it’s completely off the grid.

“We have no PG&E, no phone lines, and we get our water from a well,” Berkowitz said. “So we’ve had to sort of skip phases of technology. We’re all on cell phones, we have wireless Internet—it’s been interesting.”

One thing that might change all that is West’s plans to expand the course to include a housing element, about 162 units in all, that would stand where the driving range currently resides. If you walk into the pro shop, you can see an artist’s rendering of the planned project, complete with condominiums and single-family homes. That project is waiting, however, on the completion of the Butte County general plan update. If given the green light, Berkowitz said, they’d begin building immediately. The added homes would make it feasible to get electricity and phone service to the course.

In the meantime, it’ll be business as usual.

“It’s been challenging,” Berkowitz said, “but the event side is growing rapidly. Golf just seems to lend itself well to raising money.”