As he looks out at the lush landscape at the heart of Club West, Richard Breuninger doesn’t see just a golf course.
The CEO of the new owner sees a gift to Ahwatukee – his home for more than 30 years – and a hope for his Native American people.
Breuninger also sees Club West Golf Course as a business. So far, the way he’s been running it has earned high marks from neighbors.
“The community has been coming out, hugging me and crying,” said Breuninger.
“There’s a retired Air Force colonel who said he and his wife hadn’t been able to see the fairway from their house for 15 years,” Breuninger recalled. “After we cleared the area, they came out and gave me a big hug and handshake and said, ‘God bless you and thank you.’”
Breuninger’s parents were Ahwatukee pioneers of sorts as one of the first families to live south of Warner Road in 1982. His mother is a longtime hair stylist in Ahwatukee, and his father, John L. Breuninger, is a member of the Oneida Nation, based in Wisconsin and mid-state New York.
A lawyer with degrees in fine arts and American Indian studies from Arizona State University, he has transformed a course that only a year ago this month seemed on life support.
A small group of residents back then had launched an effort to buy it because former owner Wilson Gee was reducing irrigation, saying he could no longer afford costly potable water from the city.
That effort ultimately failed and the course by midsummer had turned brown for a second consecutive year, sparking fears it would follow the defunct Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course into oblivion.
But as the course was turning brown, Breuninger was planning green as he assembled investors, negotiated with Gee and planned Club West’s new life.
That new life started with $100,000 worth of seed that has produced an emerald paradise for Club West residents and golfers.
It also has included a renovation of the clubhouse, which will be open exclusively to members as he turns Club West into a semi-private course.
The clubhouse restaurant – the only part of the clubhouse that will be open to the public – is now under new management by Biscuits. Owner Lloyd Melton said he plans to keep it open from sun-up to sundown with the same menu he offers at his other Biscuits eateries.
Breuninger has also radically changed the golf course itself. He has cleared years of brush and other overgrowth, reversed the front-nine and back-nine holes and is building a long-drive range expected to open by the end of the month.
He is also preparing for what he hopes will be the first of many regular tournaments that will find a home at Club West.
But his plans go well beyond all those changes.
A land of many dreams
“I have a great staff and a great team,” Breuninger said.
Making a sweeping motion with his arm across the course, he added, “This should be the center of the community. Whatever the community wants to host, we want to give them whatever they dream up – an Oktoberfest, an Easter egg hunt, whatever. I want to have a farmers market here.
“I want this to be a venue for whatever the community wants it to be.”
He also wants it to be another part of the dream he has been trying to implemented almost from the time he was a university student – a step for Native Americans toward a better life through the business of golf.
Golf came early to Breuninger’s life.
“My dad bought my first set of clubs at the Phoenix Swap Meet meet in 1974 and I started playing when I was 8,” he said. “Golf has always been a part of my life. My grandfather played the game and my father played it too.”
As a teenager, he worked at both the Ahwatukee Lakes and Ahwatukee Country Club golf courses.
Fast-forward to third year in law school when he was working on his treatise and developed “a passion for justice” on tribal lands.
He wrote his dissertation on Native Americans and golf – not as a pastime but as a business.
“Golf was probably one of the worst investments a tribe could make,” he discovered. As he dug deeper into why, he found, “It was third-party management that crippled anything the tribes were doing.”
He realized then that the reason 92 percent of all tribal golf courses were operating in the red was because they had handed control of those courses over to non-Indian management companies that basically took the money and ran. “They don’t spend a dollar in the community,” he said.
After getting his law degree, Breuninger made his chops in business.
His father had been in the Indian Health Service for more than 30 years and through him, Breuninger learned about Indian-preference contracting. He started three businesses – in office supplies, medical supplies and pharmaceuticals – that served Native American communities.
But he never forgot his dissertation.
And that’s when his lifelong love of golf merged with his business acumen.
Building a network
By happenstance, Breuninger got a rare opportunity to present the findings of his dissertation research to the National Indian Gaming Association: His father happened to be a neighbor of its chairman.
“You can’t buy your way there,” Breuninger explained.
Eventually, in 2012, he formed the Inter Tribal Golf Association, a network of 63 tribes nationwide that own a total of 110 golf courses.
He developed the concept of “seasonal reciprocity,” so that a club member at one of those courses could play at another member course anywhere in the country.
“So, when it’s crickets, coyotes and hot weather here, members can fly to Wisconsin and when it’s snow and cold there, they can come here and play,” he explained.
His network also played a key role in helping him to acquire the Club West course after he began talking to Gee.
“Having the legal knowledge and the course knowledge, I knew he was behind the 8 ball for opening this season,” Breuninger said. “I made some phone calls to people in the network and was able to get some support.”
Of Gee’s biggest problem with Club West – the cost of irrigating it with expensive potable water from Phoenix – Breuninger seems almost nonchalant.
While not going into details, he indicated he is working on a plan to resolve that problem once and for all.
He said he and Rande Leonard, owner of Pecos Storage on thesouth side of Pecos Road at 32nd Street, have discussed the water issue with Gee.
“Randy and I sat down at a meeting with Wilson Gee and we got all of the water issues that were the hot topic of the moment on the table,” he said. “They gave me some viable solutions and that’s what I continue to discuss with my friends.”
It is unclear if that plan could involve using water from the Gila River Indian Community, although Breuninger would still have to figure out how to get cheaper well water to Club West.
The Arizona Department of Transportation earlier this year agreed to install a sleeve beneath the South Mountain Freeway so that pipes can run from the reservation northward.
Meanwhile, Breuninger’s commitment to enhancing the economic fortunes of Native Americans are imbedded in his plans for Club West – both short and long-term.
While the course had a “soft opening” last month, he is planning a formal grand opening ceremony for the first weekend of January that will include dignitaries from “all the tribes that are important to us.”
“There’s a whole host of folks interested in seeing what we’re going to do here,” he said. “It will be the first winter home for the Oneida tribe.”
He also wants to build a school on the course “so we can teach everyone how to run a golf course so they can go back to their tribes and run theirs.
“We always support people who need an educational springboard.”
Breuninger also hopes to figure out a way to spread his passion for the game among his people.
“Less than two percent of the tribal members play golf at all,” he said. “The more we can do to reach out to them and grow the game, the better.”
Though he has high expectations for Club West’s course for both residents and Native Americans, Breuninger is undaunted.
“I may have got a late start,” he said, “but I am going to do all I can.”