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Water woes chart the life and death of a golf course

Barely three years ago, readers of the Rio Rancho Observer saw an editorial, extending “congratulations to the new owners of the now Club Rio Rancho on the closing of their deal to acquire the Chamisa Hills Country Club from Harry Apodaca.”

This is how the logo looks today, the once green grass now yellow and brown.

Those words of praise came after majority owner Jhett Browne inked documents to finalize the purchase, for an undisclosed price. Back in May 2014, Browne and minority owner Bob Gallagher said they anticipate the city’s approval of a development agreement to irrigate the course from a well on the property, most likely under a lease agreement with the city for necessary water rights until the pair can buy their own.

Well, you know what happens to grass without water: It’s no longer grass, and so what were once lush fairways and greens at Panorama Country Club, Rio Rancho Country Club, Chamisa Hills Country Club and, finally, Club Rio Rancho, are no longer lush … or green. Just yellow and brown stretches of open land, where thousands of golfers enjoyed “a good walk spoiled” as prolific sports writer John Feinstein wrote, over a span of 40-plus years.

This is how the practice putting green looks today at Club Rio Rancho, where the last round of golf was played in December. (Gary Herron/Rio Rancho Observer)

The “final putt” at Club Rio Rancho was made sometime in late December, the sad end of one of the city’s jewels – and quality-of-life asset – barring a major miracle.

No longer are duffers pursuing birdies and eagles – residents on the course say there are coyotes, though, prowling the greens and fairways, hoping to find a cat left outside by an owner.

There had been a time when the country club was the place to be in Rio Rancho, the place AMREP always brought its potential buyers for dinner during a tour of to-be-developed Rio Rancho Estates back in the early 1970s.

The course was designed in 1969 by renowned golf course architect Desmond Muirhead, who designed the West Nine, and legendary professional golfer Gene Sarazen, who designed the East Nine.

Andy Williams signed autographs at the 1972 Charley Pride tournament at the Rio Rancho Country Club.

Six-time major champion Lee “Tex Mex” Trevino had a hand in the design of the North Nine. CHCC’s clubhouse was remodeled and expanded in 2005 at a cost of more than $1 million.

Through the years, it’s been the host for a number of prestigious golf tournaments – and an impressive list of celebrities and athletes who came here to play.

What celebrities have played here? You’ll get a shorter list of celebrities who haven’t played here.

It’s a place where 13-time LPGA Tour winner Rosie Jones grew up and honed her game, as did eGolf tour pro Tim Madigan, and the venue for business and civic meetings, countless weddings, parties and other mass celebrations.

At one point in time, folks were skeptical about a golf course in Rio Rancho.

Now, some of those same people – maybe even their offspring – are skeptical about its resurrection.

The late Irv Roth, a longtime Rio Rancho resident and former AMREP executive, told the Observer in 2005 that AMREP officials back in New York were at first skeptical about the potential success of a country club in what was then called Rio Rancho Estates.

“It was very difficult to get New York to believe there were enough people in this area to support a country club,” Roth said back in the 1960s as a sales manager for AMREP. “I worked out of New York. I started looking around this community and said, ‘Hell, what we need is a golf course.’ They said if you give me a good reason; I said I’ll give you a lot of reasons.”

Roth said he discovered more people were playing golf in the Albuquerque area than rounds being played in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island, “where there were more than 2 million people.

“They verified it and it was true,” Roth said. “We had it under way to be designed and built in four months – to get a country club started is a heck of a job in a small community. We went first class; the design and everything else were done with perfection.”

Roth said he found the best manager to run the country club and got Luke Thompson to be the first golf pro.

Soon, it was the site for numerous celebrity-type tournaments and fundraisers.

The first of countless celebrity tournaments occurred back in June 1972; it was the Jimmy Durante-Dale Robertson Celebrity Classic. Durante even sang some songs in the clubhouse during an evening’s festivities; a photo in the 1973 program shows him standing near the piano.

The first Charley Pride Golf Fiesta was held in 1975. Among those appearing in that first of eight such tournaments were Terry Bradshaw (he still had hair then), Texas football coach Darrell Royal, Walt Garrison, Craig Morton and Pettis Norman from the world of football, baseball’s Mickey Mantle and Ron Perranoski, plus Greg Morris from “Mission Impossible.”

The years came and went, and Pride kept bringing in some of sports’ best, like Kyle Rote, Don Maynard, Charlie Waters, Tony Dorsett, George Blanda and Joe Garagiola. From the world of entertainment, Pride enticed Johnny Rodriguez, Fred McMurray, Lee Majors, Buck Owens, Ernest Borgnine, Scatman Crothers, Leslie Nielsen and Andy Williams.

And Pride also brought in Apollo 17 (last lunar landing) astronauts Harrison “Jack” Schmitt and Capt. Ron Evans.

In June of 1988, Trevino, who, with William Graves, designed the $1.5 million nine-hole North course, attracted a crowd of about 200 as he was the first to play what was later called the Trevino 9. Trevino carded a 35, one under par for the course.

In 1995, NFL players were here for a charity tournament; the field included Hall of Famers. Former Lobos and Steelers standout Robin Cole held several celebrity tournaments in the 2000s. The PGA Tour, Ben Hogan Tour, numerous U.S. Open qualifiers, plus big state tournaments like the New Mexico Open had been held on the Rio Rancho links through the years.

In 1997, AMREP Southwest sold the property to Golf Co. of Nevada, which invested $1.5 million in improvements. Soon, the “Trevino 9” was open to the public on a daily basis; the club had a reported 1,000 members.

But in 2002, with members fearing the worst and property owners worried about plummeting home values if the country club continued on its road to ruin, Diversified Partners bought the property and within the next 15 months made about $2.5 million worth of improvements.

Diversified Partners later sold the club to Harry Apodaca, who eventually sold it to Browne in 2014. Gallagher said close to $2 million in improvements were made, but Club Rio Rancho couldn’t make a go of it, running up hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of city water bills along the way.

He announced near the end of December the facility would close Dec. 31. Water was no longer pumped to the sprinklers, and the greens and fairways began to die.

So, too, did the fun for area golfers and future golfers.

Ten-time club pro Kathy Colley anguishes about the loss, and not just the loss of golf.

“On a Friday night, (the dining room) was packed,” she said. “People forget, too, it had a big tennis group.” Plus a swimming pool.

Colley is still puzzled about, “When I was a city councilor, people would ask me why the city didn’t have a golf course.”

Today, of course, that question is valid.

“There’s no sense of community out here,” Colley lamented. “Harry tried very hard. It’s disheartening so much money was put into that clubhouse.”

“That clubhouse” was the scene of countless business deals, athletic team parties, weddings, chamber of commerce functions and much more.

“That clubhouse was packed – name a bar in Rio Rancho that’s packed on Friday night? It doesn’t happen – it happened up there.”

And, like the once pristine, 27 holes for golf, the clubhouse and other amenities are only a memory.

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