No one skipped a beat last month during the early part of Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course owner Wilson Gee’s testimony in his contempt of court hearing when he matter-of-factly disclosed that one of the parties interested in acquiring the site “told me that God told him to buy it.”
As unusual as that might sound to some, the man Gee referred to is deadly serious – not only about buying the course but the motivation driving his offer.
“Recently, God has put on my heart to restore an ugly patch of dirt that was once a nice little golf course called Ahwatukee Lakes,” Brad Butler told AFN weeks before Gee’s testimony.
The Chandler golf pro and his long-time friend Robin Wood have submitted $1 million offer to purchase the beleaguered 101-acre site from Gee.
“The course was appraised at $800,000, so I think our offer is very generous,” Butler said.
Moreover, what sets that offer apart from three other offers Gee testified to getting is that Butler doesn’t want – and says he doesn’t need – any other development to make a golf course work.
If history is any good indication, Butler not only is putting his money where his mouth and faith are. He has a track record in Ahwatukee of making good on his intentions as a cofounder 33 years ago of Mountain Park Church.
And the same deep faith that propelled him to that successful venture is powering his plan for a course that has sat in ruins for six years as Lakes homeowners and Gee have tangled in one court proceeding after another over the site’s future.
As Butler explained, he often drove past the site where he once played frequently.
Inspiration struck during one of those drive-bys.
“I’m a strong Christian and it just seemed one day when I drove by it that God put it on my heart: ‘Hey, you’ve got the skills. You’ve got the creativity. You’ve got the imagination to get this thing up and running again.
“So, I began walking it with notebook in hand and just started coming up with some amazingly cool ideas,” he said.
He’s not only found investors who like those ideas but who also share his faith.
“Fortunately, we have some Christian investors who are looking to do good works with the money God has blessed them with,” Butler explained. “It might be an orphanage in Haiti, a tsunami relief effort in India or 100 acres of dirt in the middle of Ahwatukee. This time they chose the dirt.”
Butler isn’t planning to restore the course to what it was before Gee shut it down in 2013, culminating what he called five years of struggle to make it profitable after buying it on the eve of the Great Recession.
Instead, Butler has reimagined it.
“Golf is in need of fresh ideas because the millennials just aren’t picking it up right and golf is dying,” Butler explained. “So, I said, ‘OK, let’s crank this up. Let’s make it more fun. Let’s make it shorter experience.’ People don’t want to be on the course for four hours anymore.
“So, I have that piece in place because it is a short course. It’s a 2 1/2 hour experience, which is good. Now, what do we need to do to make it more fun? Make it a little bit cheaper? Make it a one-of-a-kind experience in the whole country?”
“The Lakes was a beautiful and well-liked course in its hey-day but I’m hoping to take it to another level that will be a little more fun for the millennials and younger crowd,” he added. “After all, they are the future of golf.”
To that end, Butleris planning a 36-hole mini-golf course, a five-hole chip-and-putt course, an 18-hole championship putting course and a back nine that will be lighted at night so golfers can come out after work and still get a round in.
He envisions larger cups to minimize the frustration and maximize the fun.
“Other courses have tried putting in bigger cups, but it’s always been like ‘we’re going to do this once a year and we’re going to put in 12-inch diameter cups and just have a fun day,” Butler explained. “The standard cup now is four inches. And every course does this – Jack Nicklaus started it – and they all come back and say ‘that was the funnest day we’ve ever spent on the golf course.’ And to me, it’s like well then, why aren’t you doing it more than once a year?”
The new clubhouse will be designed by Steve Barduson, a world-renown architect and Ahwatukee resident who has designed numerous churches – including both the old Mountain Park Church that gave way to the South Mountain Freeway and the new edifice that sits majestically across from Pecos Park at the south end of 48th Street.
“A nice feature of it will be your ability to “Rent the Roof” for birthday parties, weddings or other special events,” Butler said of the clubhouse.
Butler also has lined up golf course architect Forrest Richardson to oversee the restoration and local contractor Dean Schifferer to build it.
“I have also hired Ralph Hawley as my GM,” Butler said. “In recent years Ralph has turned around both Rolling Hills and Ken McDonald into profitable operations. I know he can do the same for me.”
As he rolls out his vision, Butler’s enthusiasm is palpable.
“The people are absolutely going to flock to and say ‘This is what the future of needs to look like.’ I kind of want to wake up the bigwigs and say, ‘Hey, you know, you just can’t sit around and hope things are going to get better.’”
An engineer who has 17 other inventions to his credit, Butler is no stranger to the game.
He got the bug when he was 11 growing up in Casper Wyoming and moved to Arizona in 1982 in the hope of qualifying for the PGA Tour. After a couple years of that, he became the golf pro for 20 years at the Arizona Golf Resort in east Mesa.
And every time he goes out on a course, he said, he looks for ways to make the game more fun.
“I’m a tweaker,” Butler said. “Every game I play I find some little tiny way to make it better. My wife and my friends laugh at me because whenever we play a game, it’s like ‘Are we going to play real- rules or are we going to play Brad’s rules?’ And I just roll my eyes because Brad’s rules are more fun.”
All his ideas revolve around his overall approach to life.
“I love to do things that make people laugh and play and have fun and this is just going to be one more of them,” he said.
Butler said he estimates it will cost about $5 million to realize his vision – a cost that pretty much equals what other golf course experts have estimated during the homeowners’ lawsuit against Gee. At that cost, Butler estimates, it will take 20 years to get his and his partners’ investment back.
There are other obstacles in Butler’s path as well – particularly a $2.7 million back-taxes liability Gee owes because he closed the course.
Gee is hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will take his appeal from the Arizona state courts’ order that he must restore the course.
If that fails, he has testified, he might file for bankruptcy, where one outcome could be an auction of the property.
For now, Butler is content to wait, keep refining his plans – and leave it in God’s hands. As he explained:
“We are just going to be patient, be prayerful and see if the door opens up for us to get going.”