TEMPE, Ariz. — Rolling Hills Golf Course is getting a massive upgrade.
Everything from night-time golf lighting to new bars and restaurants are on the horizon in a multi-million-dollar makeover that project managers expect to be complete by fall 2024.
The city-owned course is situated along North Mill Avenue near Papago Park and the Phoenix Zoo. Arizona State’s campus is less than two miles to the south. The course been a Tempe staple for more than 60 years, having first opened as a nine-hole course in the 1960s before being expanded to 18 holes about two decades later. Tens of thousands of golfers play there each year.
That initial expansion in the 1980s was the last full-scale upgrade to the popular facility, however. The City of Tempe has only been able to maintain the course over the past few decades because of a tight budget, meaning there just wasn’t enough cash to tackle any big improvements.
But a private company called Grass Clippings is now slated to accomplish what the city couldn’t do on its own. The business, which started as a golf apparel company in 2018, agreed in March to take over the course’s operations and invest $15 million to give the “aging” facility an overdue revamp.
“All the infrastructure and the potential is there. It’s just kind of about putting money into it where money hasn’t been put into it (before),” said Connor Riley of Grass Clippings, which began its revitalization of Rolling Hills on July 1.
The project will go beyond golf-focused improvements, according to Riley, who said the goal is to transform the run-of-the-mill course into a “golf, entertainment and food destination” that can “bring people to the property for reasons more than just golf, which is what it currently is.”
And appealing to a broader audience is likely critical to the business’s success. Grass Clippings is hoping to bring in about 300,000 visitors to the course annually, five times the current patronage.
The company hopes to reach that ambitious goal with a slew of golf and entertainment-related upgrades. The five most significant improvements include:
Sports lighting that’s similar to what exists at baseball stadiums that will allow golfers to play on the course until midnight.
Re-grassing the existing tee boxes and adding “junior” tee boxes that are expected to make it easier for children to use the course by giving them an option to start shooting from a place closer to the hole.
A 12,000-square-foot “family activity lawn,” which Riley described as a “flexible space” that can be used for anything from small concerts and farmers’ markets to lawn games for kids and families who are at the course.
The construction of a new hilltop bar on the course, as well as the expansion and revamping of the existing patio bar.
Changing the course’s existing restaurant so that it serves what Riley described as “Baja Sonoran-inspired healthy, fresh Mexican food with cocktails and drinks.”
The restaurant is next to where the activity lawn will be located, and currently serves things like chicken tenders, according to the Grass Clippings representative.
“Night range and shade structure on the range increases operating hours and makes it more comfortable when its hot,” Riley told The Arizona Republic, adding that the night lighting is expected to increase the number of tee times by 40 percent. “The improved restaurant and patio will bring people to the property who aren’t there to golf. The event lawn with live music (and) farmers markets … will also bring more people to the property who don’t golf.”
Grass Clippings expects to complete the project in four different phases and have everything ready to go by September of 2024. Golfers will be able to play at Rolling Hills throughout construction, with the only disruption being on hole 9, which has to be moved to accommodate the new activity lawn.
How much will it cost to play?
Tempe officials also negotiated special golfing rates for residents as part of the deal with the company. Locals will pay $20 to golf in the summer and $35 during all other seasons, while non-residents will pay rates of $35 and $65. Veterans and children will also receive at least a 50 percent discount on those prices.
Under the agreement, the city will still own the course. Grass Clippings will pay Tempe about $10 million in rent over the next 30 years, which is how long the initial agreement will be in effect. The company will be entitled to all on-site revenues — such as user fees, golf cart rentals and food sales — that had previously gone to the city.
Tempe’s decision to trade golf revenue for a steady flow of rent payments and an upgraded course was well-timed, according to Tempe Community Services Director Craig Hayton. He said the fiscal success of the Rolling Hills has long ebbed and flowed as the city competed with courses in nearby communities like Scottsdale.
“I think that the timing from (a financial) perspective has been right for the city. We have had a successful few years with golf, but it really has been up and down … depending on the amount of local courses that are available or the interest in golf and the interest in outdoor activities,” he told The Arizona Republic.
Grass Clippings’ new course lighting might also give Rolling Hills a competitive edge that could drive more economic activity and tax revenue than is possible under the current conditions, according to Hayton who said “I don’t know that there’s any other lit golf courses … in the Valley. So, that’s a pretty unique opportunity.”