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With Golf On The Upswing, Tempe Swaps Management
The city of Tempe parted ways this year with the golf operators credited with helping turn the city’s courses around.
Now RJ Hawley, the owner of Millenium Golf Management, is suing the city for allegedly interfering with its ability to run the golf courses successfully.
Tempe maintains two golf courses: Ken McDonald, south of the U.S. 60, and Rolling Hills, next to the Phoenix Zoo. A city enterprise fund pays for the courses’ expenses, which are meant to be covered by profits.
Millenium Golf Management had overseen the courses since 2011.
“I still have a passion for golf," said former Tempe golf manager RJ Hawley. "I just don’t have a passion for ... people that aren’t responsible for spending other people’s money.”A 2014 newspaper article quoted a Tempe staffer saying the golf fund was in the best shape in a decade after Millenium Golf took over.
Tempe ended Millenium’s contract early in January.
“There’s gonna be just a different vision based on personalities,” said Craig Hayton, Tempe’s Parks manager. “We had a great relationship with the previous golf partner, and there were some incredible strides made within Tempe golf.”
The lawsuit claims the city failed to provide a working sale system, prevented promotional pricing and didn’t compensate Millenium Golf for creating a website responsible for more than 150,000 bookings.
Tempe Parks Manager Craig Hayton and golf course manager Craig Johnston on the Rolling Hills green. The city's courses are a public private partnership with Tempe staff acting as greenskeepers and Johnston's staff managing the pro shop and restaurant
“They sat back and received all the benefit knowingly and knowing that it was at the detriment of MGM in terms of the time and expense they were putting into it,” Hawley’s attorney, JC Cox, said.
The case claims “the city of Tempe used threats and intimidation to usurp control over the golf operations.” The defendant estimates Tempe lost more than $247,000 in revenue from the city’s management practices.
“I still want to manage golf courses. I still have a passion for golf. I just don’t have a passion for irresponsible fiscal people that aren’t responsible for spending other people’s money," Hawley said.
Hawley previously offered to settle with the city for $99,500.
“I’m trying to recoup my losses,” Hawley said.
Tempe staff declined to discuss the lawsuit.
In its legal response, the city wrote the contractor had improved the courses' car fleet and driving ranges, and increased revenue. Tempe denies breaching the contract.
It also claims Hawley himself breached the contract by charging a booking fee and offering promotions like discounts for food.
Cox said the lawsuit is an example of government interfering with private business sensibility.
“They don’t have much of an incentive to do it well because at the end of the day, their paycheck doesn’t change, their vacation days don’t change, the hours they have to work generally don’t change," Cox said.
Now a company owned by the courses' former head golf professional, Craig Johnston, manages Rolling Hills and Ken McDonald under the name Ace Golf.
“We wanted to get the community bought back into it where we saw people kind of walking away from the situation,” Johnston said.
Johnston said the product at the pro shop and the course’s restaurants needed improvement, and so did the customer service.
Golf revenue has fallen from a peak of more than $2.7 million in 2014. Hayton said it’s in part because of closures for renovations, such as a retention pond built in 2016 at the Rolling Hills course.
“What we want to do is provide a country club atmosphere where we’ve got great conditions, but also do it at affordable prices,” Hayton said.
In the meantime, the golf course’s new operators are focusing on expanding golf’s appeal. They’re working with local high schools, even hosting weddings to broaden their reach.
“We really want people to utilize it as more of a, you know, a park and a play area as the hoity-toity golf vision that people see," Johnston said.
“It’s one of those courses where if your game’s on, you can do quite well, but it still has enough challenge that if you’re not playing great it can still kick your butt a little bit," said George Murphy of Rolling Hills.
One late fall afternoon at Tempe’s Rolling Hills Golf Course, George Murphy takes a puff of a cigar. He swings his club a few times and tees off. The ball soars before landing on the green.
“It’s got some roll,” his friend yells out.
“It went long and straight,” Murphy said, looking over the green. “The result was probably better than normal.”
Murphy is part of a veterans golf club that has played at Rolling Hills for years.
“It’s one of those courses where if your game’s on, you can do quite well, but it still has enough challenge that if you’re not playing great it can still kick your butt a little bit,” Murphy said.
He’s noticed changes over the last couple years and thinks the quality is on the upswing.
“There’s a lot of good courses in the Valley,” Murphy said. "This one is definitely one of the most reasonably priced."