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Real (read: cheap and insane) Tucsonans go play golf on broiling summer afternoons

It's 140 degrees with 300 percent humidity on the worst day of the year in Tucson, that being Aug. 1, as in "Arrrgghh, it's only Aug. 1!"

By mid-afternoon, most of the people who haven't moved to San Diego are indoors, moving around as little as possible while they think about moving to San Diego. Outside, God has turned Southern Arizona into a giant outdoor Bikram yoga studio. The thunderheads off to the southeast are doing more teasing than threatening.

There's only one place for real Tucsonans (who don't have real jobs) to be at a time like that—on the golf course.

In the dead of winter, people in Minnesota have something called the Festival on Ice. Being outdoors during the deadliest days of summer is Tucson's counterpart; call it Sweat-a-Palooza. Being on a municipal golf course under a blazing summer sun is a way to commune with nature (see scorpions up close); get in a workout (climbing in and out of the golf cart); catch up on all that water you've been meaning to drink (even if it means lying on the ground and sucking it out of the sprinkler head); and work on your golf game (dropping yet another ball after you hit the previous two onto the street) without having to worry about the impatient foursome behind you. Because there's almost never a foursome—or a twosome, or anybody—behind you.

One time, I did look back, and there was a tall guy in a black robe with a scythe. My son and I just let him play through. Another time (this really happened), I managed to hit a drive onto the fairway, and when I got to it, a coyote was standing over the ball. I wondered if the guy with the scythe had shape-shifted.

Summer golf on a muni course is by far the greatest bargain of the year in all of Tucson. While winter golfers pay hundreds of dollars to play one round of golf in January at one of the snazzier courses in the area, Tucsonans can play unlimited golf at one of five city-owned courses for about what you would pay for a large popcorn and two sodas at the local cineplex. Of course, the popcorn comes with air conditioning, and the sodas with ice, but, hey, you have to give something to get something.

The knock on golf courses has always been that they take up a lot of space, use up a lot of water, and really aren't taken advantage of by a whole lot of people. (Except for the water part, the same thing could be said about ethics courses in business schools.) Another, more-recent concern is that after a building boom in the 1980s, the '90s and the early part of this century, there are simply too many golf courses, considering the dwindling demand. The thought was that, as baby boomers aged, they would take up the game in droves, but that simply hasn't happened. The bad economy nudged the casual golfer off the course and back in front of the TV. And golf has never been particularly cool for younger people, so there is now a glut of courses, not just in Tucson, but across the country.

The city of Tucson operates five muni courses—Silverbell and El Rio on the westside; Randolph North and Dell Urich (formerly Randolph South) in midtown; and Fred Enke on the eastside. They all do good-to-brisk business when the snowbirds are in town. However, the courses begin thinning out when the temperature creeps above 80 degrees, and by the time it's above 90 on a regular basis, they all begin to resemble the Lost Colony of Roanoke. In other parts of the country, golf courses go unused during the winter; here, they go largely unused during the summer.

In strict terms, Tucson has been losing money on its golf operation since 2003. However, there is more to the story. Part of the problem stems from the fact that Tucson city golf inherited a debt of nearly $3 million when it took over the courses and pro shops at the turn of the century. It then spent $4 million to fix up the El Rio and Silverbell courses. And, because of the economy and societal trends, the number of rounds played at the five courses dropped by a third, from around 300,000 per year to just less than 200,000.

Nevertheless, Silverbell, Randolph North and Dell Urich (which is the most heavily played municipal course in all of Southern Arizona) make money; Fred Enke and El Rio do not. But just about everybody agrees that the city should not be losing money on something like golf. Suggestions on how to deal with the situation range from closing a couple of courses permanently and selling the land, to leasing the courses to a private party.

So far, the City Council has been unwilling to take either drastic measure. Instead, it is going to raise greens fees a modest $3 per round on average and is asking the city manager to develop a five-year plan to pay off the debt and balance the books.

But all that's just business; we're talking golf. Even during the summer, there can be a steady stream of golfers in the early-morning hours. Some will tee off just after sunrise and will get in 18 holes before the temperature hits triple-digits. By midmorning, the courses are mostly empty. And after noon, they look like a convention of ninjas who all showed up disguised as desert vegetation.

While the final prices for this summer haven't been set yet, last year, you could show up at Silverbell after 2 p.m. on weekdays, get a cart and play an unlimited number of holes for about $20. That's almost scandalous. And remember, as Roy "Tin Cup" McAvoy said (I'm paraphrasing), "Golf is like sex. You don't have to be good at it to enjoy it."

Indeed, you can shoot an abysmal 140 over 18 holes, but all you need is that one good shot. When asked how your day went, you simply reply, "It was all right, but, man, you should have seen that shot I had on 13!"

And, since you were playing in Tucson on a summer afternoon, it doesn't matter if it was a good shot or not. Nobody else was on the course. The only other witness was the coyote, and he's not talking.

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