Field of dreams

Teed-off Lighthouse golfers come out swinging in West Sac

Lighthouse Golf Course pro Bob Halpenny contemplates a town without golf.

Lighthouse Golf Course pro Bob Halpenny contemplates a town without golf.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“West Sacramento is known for the River Cats, the Lighthouse and hookers,” said Bob Halpenny, the Lighthouse Golf Course’s head professional golfer.

Now, it looks like West Sacramento is losing one item in its recreational trifecta. The Lighthouse is threatened with closure, but the duffers have come back swinging, vowing to keep the course open.

Officials at the Grupe Co., a Stockton-based developer that bought the 200-acre property on October 1, have said that the 80-acre golf course will close on November 30. The golfers, on the other hand, are quoting the great Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

With Sacramento an oversaturated golf market (there are 59 golf courses within an hour’s drive of downtown), why bother trying to save one course? Lighthouse advocates say the closure of the course will affect everyone, including kids, seniors, state workers and participants in corporate tournaments. Plus, it will toss one cat named Izzo out into the cold.

The Lighthouse property is as storied as the rest of West Sacramento is. Back in the bad old days when prostitution and gambling were legal in West Sacramento, miners, politicians and other interlopers would cross the river looking for some fun.

Golfer David Macias remembers that “there were a few old hotels that had been bordellos for 100 years. I picked tomatoes on this property back in 1952 when it was the Todd Hunter Ranch.”

The golf course originally opened in the early 1960s under the name River Bend Golf Course. The River Bend apartments sprang up next to it, and the area became a mecca for retirees and golfers.

The golf course is open to the public, with greens fees ranging from $14 to $24 per round. Lighthouse logs more than 50,000 rounds of golf each year, and more than 40,000 people use the grass driving range and short-game practice area. The course is also a wildlife habitat for many varieties of birds as well as river otters and bass.

Veronica Roe Kersey has lived in her River Bend apartment overlooking the ninth hole for 31 years. The 85-year-old retired Caltrans worker remembers the glory days when the clubhouse restaurant was a draw. “Opera singers from San Francisco would come up here to eat and sing. They would be open until 2 in the morning,” said Kersey.

The course and surrounding lands were purchased in the late 1980s by Hazama USA. The company’s plan, approved by the city of West Sacramento, was to build 959 housing units around the golf course. It also planned to include a marina development, so Hazama renamed the course Lighthouse Golf Course.

The development was all ready to go, but when Japan’s economy took a long nose dive, Hazama had to sell the land to Grupe. That company plans to put up 900 housing units, an elementary school, a park and a public swimming pool.

“If they take it away, there’s nothing here in West Sacramento for anybody. Period,” said Macias.

But he said he isn’t thinking about himself; he can just drive to another golf course. He sees the impact on the community’s kids. “The sad part is that they have the West Sacramento Latino Junior Golf Association, and there are a lot of kids involved with that,” said Macias.

Former Lighthouse Golf Marshal Buck Hook said, “My apartment faces onto the practice green. During the summer, there must be hundreds of kids that come from the surrounding neighborhood to learn golf. If they close the course, those kids won’t go anywhere else.”

Hook said the course is also easier to get around than most. “The Lighthouse is different from other places because it is an easily walked course,” said Hook. “The way they design courses these days, it is a long way from the green to the next tee. In some cases, it is a third of a mile away.”

The current golf marshal, Jack Pherigo, sees the loss of 35 jobs and a big impact on government workers. “A lot of state workers cross the river to play a round of golf. We also have many tournaments held by corporations.”

The Lighthouse’s closure also will affect local teams, according to Rene Mondine, head golf coach of the men’s and women’s teams at California State University, Sacramento. “The closure will limit our practice because the players can get here in 15 minutes,” said Modine. “The next closest golf course that we work with is 30 minutes away.”

Ken Sawitzky, who manages the pro shop, points to the final victim of the closure. Sleeping on the counter is a cat called Izzo (named after a brand of golf bag). She’s the pro shop’s guard cat. She sleeps by day and hunts the course at night.

Eric Jones, a member of the Lighthouse Golf Club, works at the developer Woodside Partners, which develops communities with golf courses. There are rumors that Woodside has a “secret development plan” to save the Lighthouse but won’t go public with it yet.

Jones founded the Web site to rally the troops. According to the Web site, the group is seeking money to launch a full-scale assault: “The committee is composed of unpaid volunteers, but it will take funding to pay for experts who can provide compelling financial and environmental arguments to keep the golf course, and attorneys capable of defending the golf course from destruction.”

Sacramento is a saturated golf market. El Dorado Hills and Lawrence Links golf courses are on the ropes, and other courses are in a spiraling price war to attract discount hunters. According to Grupe, the Lighthouse has been losing money, but that is news to those who work there.

“We’ve always been in the black,” said Halpenny. “About four years ago, the representative from Hazama shook my hand and told me that, of their 60-70 courses worldwide, this is the only one that makes money.”

Grupe has been meeting with neighborhood groups, golfers, community leaders and the city to discuss the company’s plan. But one message is clear: “The golf course is closing in early December,” said Shane Hart, senior vice president for Grupe.

The company also wants to make it clear that it is not the enemy of golf. Grupe has built three master-plan communities with golf courses in the center, but when it comes to the Lighthouse, the math doesn’t work in the course’s favor.

“We’re not anti-golf,” said Hart. Rather than serving golfers who have many alternatives in the Sacramento region, Grupe is looking to create a new community that will revitalize West Sacramento.

The project will mean a lot of money to the city. “The total home sales are expected to be about $150 million over five years,” said Hart.

Trying to strike a conciliatory note, Hart added, “The course is going to close, but obviously, we still need to work with the neighbors and city to come up with a plan that everyone is happy with.”

Many feel West Sacramento needs some kind of redevelopment, and there appears to be a strong desire within the city council for the Grupe development plan to be approved. But city officials are, officially, neutral.

“The problem is that we’d very much like to have a golf course,” said Maureen Pascoe, redevelopment program manager for West Sacramento Redevelopment Agency. “But the course is a private enterprise, and a city cannot force a business to remain in operation.”

Meanwhile, Grupe is starting with the approved Hazama housing-development plan. Instead of fighting to have the whole property rezoned, Grupe can build on the Hazama lots and let the Lighthouse wither on the vine through months of closure.

Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, long an advocate of redevelopment, won’t consider making an official pronouncement on this issue until the city has a rezoning request before it. “The city manager and the city attorney reminded us that taking up [the issue] in advance of the application would jeopardize the due process that is guaranteed to the applicant,” he said.

Councilmember William Kristoff would welcome Grupe building on the Hazama plan. “They are building a quality home that the city of Sacramento is looking for. But the Lighthouse is the type of destination amenity that draws people to West Sacramento. Even if we take it down to a nine-hole, driving range and putting green, it would still be feasible as far as the city is concerned,” he said.

As the developers, the city council and the golfers argue about the future of West Sacramento and whether its recreational trifecta will survive, some things remain unchanged: At the last city council meeting, when a few Lighthouse golfers left City Hall, they were solicited in the parking lot by two prostitutes.