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Access to Torrey Pines Golf Course questioned

Some of golf's greatest are gracing Torrey Pines Golf Course for the Buick Invitation this week. The annual PGA Tournament has found its home at the municipal course overlooking the cliffs

Some of golf's greatest are gracing Torrey Pines Golf Course for the Buick Invitation this week. The annual PGA Tournament has found its home at the municipal course overlooking the cliffs of La Jolla. The prestige of that tournament, along with plans for a 2008 U.S. Open, is raising the stakes at an already highly sought-after site. Rebecca Tolin has the story.

There is incredible demand to play Torrey Pines, from out-of-towners and residents. But long-time locals believe the public is being excluded from the taxpayer-funded course. The Men's Golf Club says sometimes half of the tee times are reserved for special interests. And it seems all the players -- from resident golfers to pricey hotels --feel entitled to play the course.

Paul Yossem, Buick Invitational Volunteer: "This is one of my favorite places to play because its one of the most beautiful places in the world."

Golfing Torrey Pines is one of life's greatest pleasures for Paul Yossem. He loves playing where the pros play. The golf aficionado enthusiastically volunteers at the world renowned Buick Invitational.

Promotional announcement: " the Buick Invitational with Tiger Woods "

Yossem: "I got lucky enough to be with Tiger Woods. So on Pro Am day I spent four-and-a-half hours with Tiger Woods walking around Torrey Pines. It was a dream!"

But for Yossem, getting on the course on an average weekend is a nightmare. First there's the city phone bank. Players call in seven days in advance to reserve, or try to reserve, a tee time.

Yossem: "I dial in and I get a busy signal. I dial in and get a busy signal. Busy, busy. I hang up and get a busy signal and dial in and get a busy signal and that's usually the system. I'm just getting busy signals on both phones, so frustrating! It's just a futile attempt to try to play golf on a municipal facility."

When the phone fails, Yossem hits the course by foot.

Yossem: "Dawn Patrol is waking up at the crack of dawn and getting out and playing golf if you can get out, when you can get out."

Yossem cues up with dozens of other Torrey fans, some even spend the night. Many complain resident golfers are increasingly shut out of the publicly owned course.

Yossem: "It's 20 after 6 and I could be playing in 20 minute or I could be playing in 3 hours."

On an average winter day, there are about 274 rounds of golf at Torrey Pines. That's one person playing 18 holes. Currently, the city allots twenty rounds per day for the Torrey Pines Hilton and another 20 for the lodge at Torrey Pines. The Pro Shop gets 48 rounds on weekdays. The clubs say if you average out their tournament play, Men's Club members get about 18 rounds per day and 13 rounds for the Women's Club. So that leaves about 155 rounds, right? Not exactly. The city says so-called golf brokers book an average of 20 rounds daily. And various organizations reserve tournaments each month, taking another 18 rounds a day. In this scenario, that leaves residents duking it out for 117 rounds, less than half the slots available.

Dale Peterson, Torrey Pines Men's Golf Club: "This is a municipal park, first and foremost that's exactly what it is. This golf course should take into account the municipal citizen first and everything else as secondary after that. That's not what has occurred here over the last 10 years."

Dale Peterson is on the board of the Men's Golf Club. The 1200 member non-profit is suing the city for giving preferential tee times to nearby hotels. The lawsuit states the city is violating its 1983 settlement agreement, not to give special access to the then-Sheraton Hotel.

Peterson: "The spirit of the agreement was in fact that no corporate entity would have preferential tee times here at Torrey Pines. The city has violated that clearly. They maintain that the spirit of the agreement was not there. We vehemently disagree with that."

Mike Aguirre, San Diego City Attorney: "We're not bound by the spirit but we're certainly bound by the letter. And as to the letter we do have some problems we're going to have to address."

City Attorney Mike Aguirre says San Diego is likely not in compliance with its agreement, and may have to revisit tee time commitments to the Hilton. But Aguirre says the agreement doesn't apply to the newer lodge at Torrey Pines.

Bill Evans, Lodge at Torrey Pines Owner: "They've sued the city of San Diego. They've started a war."

Lodge owner Bill Evans says the men's club is waging a self-serving war over tee times.

Evans: "They are taking the times from the rest of the citizens of San Diego. There is no purpose to have a Men's Club at Torrey Pines. It does not serve the general public."

Peterson: "We're the citizens. We're not special interest stakeholders. We're in fact the citizens of San Diego. And to categorize Men's and Women's Clubs as anything different, that is absolutely disingenuous and it's flat wrong."

Dale Peterson says the Men's and Women's Clubs are the best - and sometimes the only way - for citizens to play the course. He points out the non-profit Men's Club has played Torrey Pines since 1959, before it was manicured and chic. Members now benefit by playing both a weekly and a monthly tournament. And they pay lower fees, as do all San Diego residents.

Evans: "The guests at this hotel pay 300 percent more than what some players at Torrey Pines, the locals, are playing. That's a big difference and that money goes to subsidize those players. So if the citizens of San Diego want to have a subsidized rate then they need the tourists to do that."

The city is trying to balance all the competing interests that want to play this course. It's targeting a less visible player: the golf broker. They reserve tee times through the phone banks and offer them to customers for a service fee.

Rick McDonald, San Diego Golf Reservations: "We give them information about 23 golf courses here in San Diego including Torrey Pines and we actually book their reservation."

Rick McDonald owns San Diego Golf Reservations in downtown La Jolla. He likens it to a travel agency for golfers. McDonald hires people to reserve coveted Torrey Pines tee times on the city's phone system. But he says they have no advantages over callers like Paul Yossem, just an ordinary phone and a lot of patience.

Mark Woodward, City of San Diego Golf Operations Manager: "They're actually re-selling city tee times and we think tee times should come through us and the golfers should be channeled through us and our marketing tools, like our website and our phone numbers, and should purchase the times through the City of San Diego so the city benefits from that money other than that entity."

Golf Operations Manager Mark Woodward wants to eliminate brokers to free up more public tee times. The draft of his five-year plan for the municipal courses says brokers book an average of 20 tee times per day. Woodward is working with City Attorney Mike Aguirre who is drafting an ordinance banning the re-booking of city tee times.

Aguirre: "Brokers who are tying up tee times and then selling them essentially or booking them directly and that really, in my judgment is inconsistent with a broad public use of the facility."

McDonald: "The special interest groups at Torrey Pines have come to use the word broker in a very disparaging way to support their own agendas, and to make us out as buying and selling tee times at Torrey Pines which in fact we don't do."

Yossem envisions a time when residents can play freely on the spectacular city land. When he can get through on the phone line

Yossem: "I got in!"

And get to the front of the line...

Yossem: "How are you doing Miguel? Do you have room for me today?"

And ultimately out on the green of his favorite course. Like so many, Yossem feels both entitled and privileged to play Torrey Pines.

Yossem: "'Cause it's Torrey, 'cause its a great place, 'cause we pay to own this golf course."

Mark Woodward: "There are so many people that want to come here day in and day out. This place has a reverence to it similar to a St. Andrews in Scotland, which is the birthplace of golf."

The Hilton Torrey Pines did not want to comment due to the pending litigation. It could affect the number of tee times the city is able to allocate the hotel. In the meantime, the city is proposing sweeping changes to Torrey Pines in the recently released draft of its five-year business plan.

The changes include:

  • Dramatically increasing fees, for both residents and out-of-towners, over the next five years;
  • Eliminating a less expensive rate for county residents;
  • Decreasing the number of tee times allotted to the Men's Club;
  • Decreasing tee times given to the pro shop;
  • Eliminating brokers; and
  • Creating a 90-day advance reservation system at the non-resident rate.

These are only recommendations, which will go back to the Golf Advisory Committee on February 16th for public comment. Then the City Council will have to approve the plan some time after that. The council has mandated that seventy percent of the tee times go to residents and 30 percent to non-residents.