Use it or lose it -- saving the China Lake Golf Course

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Use it or lose it -- saving the China Lake Golf CourseIn order to survive the austerity of a fiscal climate that brings furloughs, cuts and reductions, China Lake is under a mandate to use federal support to fund only mission-critical operations.

But in keeping with the pioneering spirit between Navy and community that helped shape China Lake decades ago, officials are looking for collaborative ways to maintain the facilities that add to the culture and quality of life in a remote, rural location.

One of the assets at the heart of that endeavor is the China Lake Golf Course, which is vulnerable to closure if it is not brought into a revenue-neutral (or positive) position. Three men championing that effort are Naval Air Weapons Station Commanding Officer Capt. Dennis Lazar, Command Master Chief Charles Grandin and China Lake Golf Pro Wes Gleason.

All three cite innumerable reasons to keep the course open — from health benefits to recreational opportunities to drawing power for recruitment and retention.

In order to achieve the numbers necessary to support the operational costs, the base is hoping to broaden membership — not only to military and DOD employees, but also to the citizens of the Indian Wells Valley.

The original golf course was built by China Lake employees shortly after the Navy took up residence in the 1940s. Those volunteers salvaged waste oil to mix a hard-baked surface that allowed a ball to roll 100 yards. Years later a commanding officer sanctioned grass for the present course. Over the years it has been expanded and upgraded to include a pro shop, a restaurant and a beautiful green that is now a popular meeting ground for all walks of life.

Gleason said that as recently as the 1990s the course was hosting more than 100 rounds of golf per day — more than enough to bring in revenue to cover the cost of operating the course without the need for (the no longer existent) federal subsidy.

But the number of golfers has declined over the years — from about 3,500 per month to about 1,700 per month, said Gleason.

“Those numbers had pretty much bottomed out by the time I got here, but I think we’ve already made some progress toward improving them.”

Lazar credits the recent hiring of Gleason for helping return the golf course to its former glory. To that end, Gleason has increased clinics and lessons, lowered fees wherever possible and amped up outreach outside the regular clientele to recruit new members. As a testament to his dedication, Gleason can be found on the course almost any hour or day of the week.

Gleason’s efforts to recruit local golfers reflects a national initiative by the Professional Golf Association to boost lagging participation in the sport. The resident golf pro takes on students as young as 6 and said that it’s a great activity for families to participate in together.

To prove that anyone could learn the sport, Gleason took on two professed newbies — Lazar and this reporter, though only the latter appeared to fit the actual description — and taught the fundamentals in a one-hour lesson. By the end, even the poorest student (read: this reporter) could almost accidentally hit a rabbit fleeting across the field with a golf ball.

Gleason attributes his passion for the mission to his love of the sport. Before coming to China Lake, he earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Notre Dame University and played on the professional circuit.

Gleason has family ties in the area, as his father, Mick Gleason — a previous commanding officering at NAWS — also fell in love Ridgecrest and made it his permanent home upon retirement.

Lazar’s dedication to finding a way to make the course self-sustaining comes from his overarching commitment to making the common areas of the base as accessible as possible to the citizens of Ridgecrest (see related article, this edition).

“I have what I call the four Rs,” said Lazar. He said that so long as visitors are from Ridgecrest and recommended, and the visits are recurrent and recreational, the base has made it easier than ever to get a community pass.

Gleason noted that Lazar’s efforts have had a positive impact on opening up the course to the community. “The process for getting a community badge is easier than ever. I carry applications around with me now. If I had my way, everyone in Ridgecrest would get one.”

And while it may take the whole village to keep the course open, Grandin’s perspective is a reminder of why having a golf course fits the effective, if not the technical, definition of a mission-critical resource.

“I started golfing 30 years ago, but it wasn’t until I came to China Lake that I started loving it,” said Grandin.

He called the golf course a “quality-of-life treasure” where active-duty military has a place to unwind in a beautiful outdoor setting.

“When I first came here a year and a half ago, I brought two things — my bowling ball and my golf clubs. I try to come out and golf every day. But I’ve only used my bowling ball once.

“I tell people all the time that this is a great place to learn to play — the course beautiful, it’s rarely crowded, we have about the lowest fees you can find and we have golf weather practically every day of the year,” said Grandin.

“It’s also a place where you can come to interact with not just the military, but our scientists and our retirees — some of whom stayed here because of this place.”

Gleason said that the course is not only a popular spot with golf enthusiasts, but as a venue for events from meetings to weddings. (And though the humble kitchen may not look five star, this reporter can attest to its reputation as a favorite place for China Lakers to dine.)

“Our membership is around 100 right now, but I think we could easily accommodate 200 people without feeling crowded,” said Gleason.

“We are in a place where we have to sink or swim on our own. Gone are the days when we get a pile of money from on high to divvy up to support our military. The nice thing is that we’ve got a great resource here, we just have to tell people about it to attract the customers to support it,” said Lazar.

“There are just so many ways it makes sense to have this here. We’ve talked about recruitment and quality of life and everything else, but the fact of the matter is that the costs of maintaining this are tiny compared to what they would be if we wanted to bring it back after letting it lie fallow.

“But I don’t think that’s going to happen. We have a great community who steps up to the plate, and a team of people motivated to save whatever we can in these tough times. We just have to tap into that spirit that made China Lake the special place it is.”

Story First Published: 2013-04-24