Tate | Golf acquisition has ripple effect | Sports

Golf is a unique college sport in that millions of dollars are invested by supportive “fans” who seldom, if ever, see the athletes perform either in person or on TV.

“We are transient. Most teams have zero home matches,” acknowledges Mike Small, Illini men’s coach.

But concerns that UI athletic director Josh Whitman might be going overboard on golf — a newly-acquired course in southeast Urbana joining state-of-art indoor and outdoor golf facilities on campus — are quickly allayed by connections to dozens of caring donors, oversight by a trustee president (Don Edwards) who played golf here and is a seven-figure contributor, and a winning coach who keeps the UI name on a high pedestal.

So, yes, golf is different from other non-revenue sports, some like tennis and swimming newly endangered by pandemic cuts. Its roots burrow deep. The PGA Tour is back on TV while other pro sports quibble.

And yet, it must be noted that the acquisition of the Atkins Golf Club (formerly Stone Creek) arrives as a major initial expense while this athletic program, like so many others, enters the fall season with its primary revenue producer, football, waffling in a world of uncertainty.

Staggering numbersThis investment comes just as nearby Iowa calls for a $15 million budget reduction (Hawkeyes athletic director Gary Barta took a 30 percent salary cut), just as Syracuse will likely lose one of its September football foes in Colgate and just as Learfield and other broadcasting organizations face difficult football sales.

Cuts across the college landscape far outnumber new ventures.

Yet to be determined is how universities will respond if my Champaign neighbor, computer science professor Sheldon Jacobson, was correct when he cited statistics to CBS Sports projecting 3-7 deaths are likely among 13,000 FBS players between ages 18 and 22? Will football games proceed around a funeral?

Everyone is tightening down. Anyone who thinks the Illini will receive another $53 million from Big Ten broadcast rights this season is hallucinating.

Questions persistMeanwhile, Whitman is committed to costly upgrades at Stone Creek. Small’s fingerprints will be all over the renovation, even as a golf architect is hired to oversee an increase in yardage from roughly 7,000 to 7,500 yards, a quickening of the greens, reworked sand traps and a drastic tightening of those lush, expansive fairways.

This remains a public course, but how many million will be invested indoors and outdoors before the first green fees are received in the opening next spring? How many years will it take to reach Whitman’s ultimate goal: breaking even? How soon will Whitman take a hard look at the cheaper “competitor courses” in Savoy? Is the Blue Course on the long-term chopping block?

In any case, this is a majestic gift that (1) keeps open a Stone Creek course that was closing down in January, (2) eases the pain of residents who feared their home values would swoon and (3) solidifies the UI as the golf king of the Midwest.

Long-term viewSpencer Atkins and the Atkins Group deserve a standing “O,” their philanthropy dating back to the titan, Clint Atkins, who died at age 65 in 2011.

That said, it must be noted that there are benefits to the corporation.

Like other golf courses in the area, the 18 holes at Stone Creek have been a money drain for years.

Clint Atkins didn’t care. But times have changed.

Furthermore, the $15 million valuation allows the Atkins Group to apply a hefty tax deduction against the corporate profits. Then too, the newly acquired 100-plus residential lots would have been hard to sell without an operational golf course alongside (and with current residents complaining), a circumstance that changes with the university in charge.

So everyone is happy. The Atkins Group shows itself once again as generous, the men’s and women’s golf teams remain the envy of the Big Ten (recruits will be wowed), the nearby community has retained its home values and the city will benefit in various ways, not the least of which is taxes.

Then too, Whitman, the university and the Foundation have a centerpiece — their own special place — for meetings, banquets and special events.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com