Why one of the country’s best munis is shutting down forever
Butterfield Trail’s history was bookended by bad timing.
The proud Tom Fazio design came into this world on the eve the Great Recession. Now it’s slated to depart for good with the world once again in financial turmoil as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, one of the best municipal golf courses in the United States has seen its last round of golf, as next month the El Paso gem will close its doors for good, another victim of these unfortunate times.
El Paso’s airport made the announcement last week.
“El Paso International Airport (EPIA) will close Butterfield Trail Golf Club (BTGC) by May 31, 2020 in order to reduce expenses and focus on essential airport operations,” the press release read. “EPIA, in response to the health and economic crisis, has made and continues to make major cuts to operating expenses.”
If you’re wondering what the airport could have to do with a golf course, well, fair question. The course was built by the airport — a city agency — to attract commerce and development to the land in northwest El Paso. Located just under six miles from the airport, golfers often dealt with buzzing planes overhead (calling to mind a certain Caddyshack line about Amelia Earhart), but it was a small price to pay for access to one of the best public tracks in the state.
And their grand plan was making headway before the extended coronavirus shutdown. Last year Great Wolf Resorts struck a $150 million deal with the city to build a hotel and water park near the course that “was touted as a step toward magnifying the region as a destination for tourism,” according to the El Paso Times. But that deal was terminated last week because of the economic strain caused by shutdowns.
For its part, Butterfield received significant acclaim from across the golf world. Several years ago, GOLF ranked it among the best public courses in Texas. Golfweek frequently ranked it among its top five municipal courses in the country. But awards don’t pay the bills, and on its own, the finances never quite worked out for Butterfield. In recent years, the course operated at an annual loss of around $1 million, which was absorbed into the airport budget without much fuss. But there’s plenty of fuss around the airport’s budget now — around every budget, really. Their COO called the closure a “fiscally-responsible decision.” It sounds cold, but that doesn’t make it untrue.
Golf courses in El Paso closed on April 1 with the expansion of the city’s stay-at-home order. Little did they know that this would mark Butterfield closing its doors for good. A representative from KemperSports (the company that runs Butterfield) indicated that although the course does not close until late May, there will be no more rounds played on the scenic desert track.
“I am saddened by the closure of Butterfield Trail Golf Club,” said Val D’Souza, a KemperSports Regional Operations Executive, and former general manager of Butterfield Trail. “We will reflect fondly on the memories we have of working with the El Paso golf community and the staff who made it such a wonderful place to play since 2007.”
The closing of any golf course is a sad fate, but Butterfield holds a distinct place in my personal narrative. During my final two seasons of high school golf, Butterfield hosted the Matt Hicks Paso Del Norte Tournament — the “El Paso Tournament” as it was known in the world of Texas high school golf.
Qualifying for any tournament was an accomplishment, but the El Paso tournament was arguably the best of all. Instead of cramming into a van for the trip from Lubbock, the school district rented a charter bus for all three area high schools to shuttle us six hours from the plains of west Texas across New Mexico and into the Chihuahuan Desert.
In a time when there are daily reappraisals of what’s important and focusing on enjoying the little things, I can’t help but get nostalgic about those bus rides. At 17 years old, there are few things more fun than a lengthy bus ride full of shenanigans with your buds. These were my teammates, my competitors. Some became lifelong friends.
And at the end of the bus ride, Butterfield awaited; an expanse of greenery outlined by the dunes of the desert set against a background of the Franklin Mountains, rising from the earth. Lubbock has the topography of a kitchen table, so this was a special treat.
I played some of my best golf at Butterfield. One of my teammates (and lifelong best friends), Manning Pope, liked it there too. Our senior year, he held a substantial lead heading into the final three holes of the tournament. He finished triple bogey-bogey-bogey. Needless to say he didn’t win. When I heard the news of Butterfield’s fate, I texted him.
“Can’t they just shut down holes 16-18?” he texted back. If we don’t laugh, we’ll cry.
I always planned on making the drive to Butterfield again. To see the dunes rise up in the foreground, the mountains beyond. There was something special about the course and the airport, paired together like that. Both good places to dream.
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