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Acrimony Par For This Course

Golf: Proposal to raise rates at San Clemente has some players crying foul.


San Clemente's municipal golf course is considered one of the nicest public courses in Southern California, mixing well-maintained fairways and greens, a panoramic ocean view and some of the lowest greens fees around.

Golfers who live in the city of San Clemente pay only $11 to play the course during the week and $16 on weekends. Senior citizens pay a weekday rate of $10. The price range for nonresidents is $25 to $30.

But golfers balked earlier this year when the city proposed a $2 per-round price hike--the second such proposed hike in three years--to fund a $4.6-million renovation project. The outcry caused the city to drop--for now--the fee increase and plans to replace the course's 1960s-era clubhouse with a $3-million building.

The flap has revived a long-standing controversy about the city's use of the golf course to raise general funds to cover municipal budget shortfalls.

Critics are still irate over the city's 1997 decision to increase green fees $2 a round to raise $425,000 annually for the city's department of parks and recreation.

If half of that money was returned to the course, the clubhouse could be built without an additional fee increase, course manager and superintendent Gus Nelson said.

Dan O'Keefe, an organizer from a group opposed to the changes, contends the city shouldn't be taxing golfers to pay for services not related to the course.

"This is a publicly owned facility," O'Keefe said, "and it should not be used as a taxing implement to boost the general fund."

A revised $1.6-million proposal calls for upgrading the course's 30-year-old bunkers, adding cart paths to seven holes, doubling the size of the driving range and adding spaces in the parking lot. The city's golf committee, which voted unanimously for the improvements last week, postponed clubhouse plans after complaints about the proposed price hikes.

In the wake of the controversy, the golf committee plans to ask the city council to return some funds, said Dick Veale, the chairman of the committee. Veale, however, wasn't optimistic about that happening.

"Although I would like to have a new clubhouse like everybody else, I think this might not be the right time for it," he said. "I think we should probably fix it up as best we can and live with what we have."

The city council, which appoints the seven-member golf committee, has the ultimate authority over the course. Nelson, the course superintendent, said he plans to present the council with the committee's recommendation in June.

Brian Ruff, another leader of the opposition group and the three-time defending men's club senior champion, agrees that the course needs upgrading. Over the years, the lips of the bunkers have grown so high that they have become unreasonable hazards.

"There are some shots that honest to God, if you get a bad lie," Ruff said, "there's no way to get out of the trap."

But Ruff contends that the proposed renovation is too expensive and that the necessary improvements could be done by the course's existing maintenance crew instead of by an outside contractor.

Ruff said the golf committee erred when it passed the fee increase in March, even though it reconsidered and rescinded the fee last week.

"Had they said we are going to enhance the golf course and it isn't going to cost you anything," Ruff said, "I don't think there would have been any problem."

Instead there is acrimony. A committee meeting last week drew about 50 people and it wasn't friendly. "Everyone just dreads going to the meetings because they are so contentious," Veale said.

But Nelson believes the process will ultimately produce a better golf course.

"I think most people will be very pleased with what happens," Nelson said. "I think we're getting a lot more sophisticated now than in the past. Now there are new and nicer golf courses springing up in Orange County and people have had an opportunity to play them and they see what a quality course really looks like and they are ready for it."

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