Golf turned out to be a good walk spoiled on a recent Tuesday morning for about three dozen senior league members at the city of Kent’s Riverbend par 3 course.
A walk became spoiled because golfers were playing the course for one of the last times. City officials will close the par 3 course at the end of the year. A developer will remove it next year to make room for a 500-unit apartment complex.
”It’s sad to see it go,” said John Lewellen, of Burien, a 10-year league veteran. “It’s part of the history of Kent. It’s a greenbelt. A lot of young people learned to play here and a lot of older people get to play here. It’s kind of tragic that it’s going to be developed. It’s kind of sad.”
Auburn-based FNW, Inc./Landmark Development Group plans to start construction next spring on the Marquee on Meeker mixed-use project. The Kent City Council voted 5-2 in May to sell the property for $10.5 million to FNW. Council members Dennis Higgins and Dana Ralph voted against the sale.
“A lot of people want to know: is it true they sold the golf course?” said Tom McDowell, of Des Moines, who has played in the league for three years and works as a starter at the par 3 course on weekends. “All I know, there is a lot of disappointed people.”
The council approved trying to sell the par 3 property in 2014 to help eliminate the city’s enterprise golf fund debt of nearly $4 million and allow for about $6 million in capital improvements to the rest of the Riverbend Golf Complex, which includes an 18-hole course across the street from the par 3, a driving range and a pro shop.
City leaders hope the improvements will draw more players to boost revenue. Riverbend loses about $300,000 per year.
“It breaks my heart,” said Ed James, of Renton, a Riverbend par 3 regular for about 20 years. “I have a group of friends down here I’ve been playing with for five years. We’re like family. It’s a shame to see it go away.”
Riverbend’s 18-hole course opened in 1989 and ranks as one of the busiest courses in the state over the past 10 years. The city’s Parks Department took over operation of the course in 2000 from a private operator.
Lewellen remembers coming decades ago to the par 3 course that sits along the Green River with spectacular views of Mount Rainier.
“About 50 years ago I played a short par 3 here with my dad,” he said. “I learned how to play here and have fond memories. That’s before the big course was built.”
Despite losing their regular place to play, many of the senior golfers lament the loss of the course because it takes away an opportunity for young golfers.
“In this population base for youngsters to learn the game, it’s about the only place,” Lewellen said. “I’m a retired educator so I like to see young people start and grow the game. What happens in the future, I don’t know.”
City officials plan to move tee boxes closer to the holes on the 18-hole course to help create a shorter course experience for young golfers as well as senior golfers.
“You see a lot of kids out here,” said Scott Bowsher, of Issaquah, an eight-year regular in the senior league. “What are they going to do? Go to the 18-hole course with all of the good golfers and the kids are hacking it all over the place?”
Bowsher doubts whether most senior golfers will want to move to the 18-hole course.
“Most guys need carts rather than walking 18 holes,” he said. “Probably a lot of guys don’t come because of that. I’m still young, so I will come as long as my knees hold up.”
McDowell agreed the bigger course presents challenges for older players. The league of 36 players has one golfer who is 92 years old.
“Even if they move the tee boxes up, my neighbor said he won’t do it because it’s too much walking,” McDowell said. “A lot of guys in this league don’t have the ability to walk a lot.”
Lewellen pointed out Riverbend’s fine mix of options.
“This complex works,” he said. “The par 3 for growing the game, the driving range and the big course all integrate together to grow the game and play the game. It’s a special place.”
The tradition of grandfathers bringing their grandchildren and fathers bringing their sons and daughters to the course will come to an end, James said.
”I was an elementary school principal in the Seattle School District for 27 years and I met a lot of my students down here and then their kids,” James said. “It’s a wonderful place. It’s much more than a golf course.”
Many friendships were developed playing the Riverbend par 3.
“If we can’t find a place for the senior league, a lot of the people I socialize with on Tuesdays I won’t have any contact with anymore,” McDowell said. “This is our social group. I retired from Boeing three years ago and met another guy who just retired and we see each other more than we saw our families during the summer. And it’s good exercise.”
Bowsher, 63, isn’t even retired yet. But his father-in-law introduced him to Riverbend and he worked the early-morning weekly league into his truck-driving schedule.
“It’s kind of sad coming down to the last hole,” he said. “I’m going to miss it.”
James knows what he will miss the most.
“The people,” he said. “Hopefully, we will stay in touch. But when it’s gone, it’s gone.”