The Inter Tribal Golf Association purchased the Phoenix, Ariz., property in October and has begun making changes, clearing years of overgrowth from the golf course, reversing the front and back nines, and building a driving range. The golf course will be semi-private, while the recently renovated clubhouse will be available only to members.
Rick Breuninger, CEO of the Inter Tribal Golf Association, the group that now owns Club West Golf Course in Phoenix, Ariz., sees the property as not just a golf course, but a gift to Ahwatukee and a hope for his Native American people, the Tempe, Ariz., Ahwatukee Foothills News reported.
Breuninger also sees Club West Golf Course as a business. So far, the way he’s been running it has earned high marks from neighbors, the News reported.
“The community has been coming out, hugging me and crying,” said Breuninger. “There’s a retired Air Force colonel who said he and his wife hadn’t been able to see the fairway from their house for 15 years. After we cleared the area, they came out and gave me a big hug and handshake and said, ‘God bless you and thank you.’”
Breuninger has transformed a course that only a year ago this month seemed on life support. A small group of residents back then had launched an effort to buy it because former owner Wilson Gee was reducing irrigation, saying he could no longer afford costly potable water from the city. That effort ultimately failed and the course by midsummer had turned brown for a second consecutive year, sparking fears it would follow the defunct Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course into oblivion, the News reported.
But as the course was turning brown, Breuninger was planning green as he assembled investors, negotiated with Gee and planned Club West’s new life, the News reported.
That new life started with $100,000 worth of seed that has produced an emerald paradise for Club West residents and golfers. It also has included a renovation of the clubhouse, which will be open exclusively to members as he turns Club West into a semi-private course, the News reported.
The clubhouse restaurant, the only part of the clubhouse that will be open to the public, is now under new management by Biscuits. Owner Lloyd Melton said he plans to keep it open from sun-up to sundown with the same menu he offers at his other Biscuits eateries, the News reported.
Breuninger has also radically changed the golf course itself. He has cleared years of brush and other overgrowth, reversed the front-nine and back-nine holes and is building a long-drive range expected to open by the end of the month. He is also preparing for what he hopes will be the first of many regular tournaments that will find a home at Club West, the News reported.
“I have a great staff and a great team,” Breuninger said. “This should be the center of the community. Whatever the community wants to host, we want to give them whatever they dream up—an Oktoberfest, an Easter egg hunt, whatever. I want to have a farmers market here.
“I want this to be a venue for whatever the community wants it to be.”
Breuninger also wants it to be another part of the dream he has been trying to implemented almost from the time he was a university student—a step for Native Americans toward a better life through the business of golf, the News reported.
While in law school, Breuninger developed “a passion for justice” on tribal lands. He wrote his dissertation on Native Americans and golf—not as a pastime but as a business. “Golf was probably one of the worst investments a tribe could make,” he discovered. As he dug deeper into why, he found, “It was third-party management that crippled anything the tribes were doing.”
He realized then that the reason 92 percent of all tribal golf courses were operating in the red was because they had handed control of those courses over to non-Indian management companies that basically took the money and ran. “They don’t spend a dollar in the community,” he said.
Eventually, in 2012, Breuninger formed the Inter Tribal Golf Association, a network of 63 tribes nationwide that own a total of 110 golf courses. He developed the concept of “seasonal reciprocity,” so that a club member at one of those courses could play at another member course anywhere in the country, the News reported.
“So, when it’s crickets, coyotes and hot weather here, members can fly to Wisconsin and when it’s snow and cold there, they can come here and play,” he said.
His network also played a key role in helping him to acquire the Club West course after he began talking to Gee. “Having the legal knowledge and the course knowledge, I knew he was behind the 8 ball for opening this season,” Breuninger said. “I made some phone calls to people in the network and was able to get some support.”
Of Gee’s biggest problem with Club West—the cost of irrigating it with expensive potable water from Phoenix—Breuninger seems almost nonchalant. While not going into details, he indicated he is working on a plan to resolve that problem once and for all, the News reported.
While the course had a “soft opening” last month, he is planning a formal grand opening ceremony for the first weekend of January that will include dignitaries from “all the tribes that are important to us,” the News reported.
“There’s a whole host of folks interested in seeing what we’re going to do here,” he said. “It will be the first winter home for the Oneida tribe.”
Breuninger also wants to build a school on the course “so we can teach everyone how to run a golf course so they can go back to their tribes and run theirs. We always support people who need an educational springboard.”
Breuninger also hopes to figure out a way to spread his passion for the game among his people. “Less than two percent of the tribal members play golf at all,” he said. “The more we can do to reach out to them and grow the game, the better.”
Though he has high expectations for Club West’s course for both residents and Native Americans, Breuninger is undaunted. “I may have got a late start,” he said, “but I am going to do all I can.”