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Golfers pay their last respects on Airco Golf Course's final day

CLEARWATER — It is 5:15 p.m. Sunday, and Larry Thomas interrupts a conversation to answer the phone in Airco Golf Course's near-empty pro shop. Thomas is the head professional at Airco and the only full-time staffer left in the building. The caller wants to know if it's too late to get in a quick nine holes.

"We're closed,'' Thomas said. "We're closed forever.''

Only two part-time employees are working on this day. They are busier than ever, taking down tee markers and flag sticks for the last time. As the carts come in from the final rounds, they are cleaned and taken to the cart barn. They will be gone 24 hours later.

Inside the clubhouse, the small counter is void of golf accessories. Computers and chairs are stacked in the corners. The sign on the front door says, "Sorry, We're Closed.''

Soon, a large fence will wall off the course. After 50 years, Airco will be just a memory.

"In my opinion, there is a lack of affordable public golf in this county (Pinellas),'' said Thomas, 55, whose last official day is June 3. "Airco offered that. But it's not up to me.''

Airco GC (1961-2011)

Airco Golf Course opened in 1961. It was basically a flat, treeless layout on 123 acres adjacent to the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport. Trees were added, but the basic layout was kept throughout its existence. Even the Bermuda greens were never changed.

The course was designed by Chick Adams, who also has the Tampa Bay area courses Seminole Lake Country Club, Diamond Hill in Dover and Top of the World Golf Course in Clearwater on his resume.

Airco was run by the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport. By 2008, with the economy suffering, Airco started losing money. Depending on whom you ask, Airco lost between $150,000 and $217,000 last year.

Rounds played were down to 28,800 in 2010; St. Petersburg's Mangrove Bay Golf Course, which is run by the city, had nearly 70,000 rounds played in 2010.

In March, the County Commission voted 6-1 to shut down Airco. It left a three-month window for finding a private investor, but no takers were found.

In the coming weeks, general maintenance will continue on the land, but grass and weeds will overtake the greens, fairways and sand traps. The land will eventually be used for something else, but nobody knows what, or when that will happen.

When it was built, Airco was on the outskirts of Pinellas County. About the only thing in that part of town was the old Showboat Dinner Theater.

The theater is long gone, and now Airco is gone, too.

Paying their respects

Golfers came and went throughout the day Sunday. The biggest group gathered for the Last (and first) Annual Airco Open. It was organized by Pinellas County Commission members Neil Brickfield and Norm Roche on the fly. They came up with the idea nine days before the closure.

There were five groups and 19 golfers overall. Most of them have lived in the area for a long time and played Airco regularly.

"It's like seeing an old friend on his death bed,'' said John Marron of New Port Richey, who had played Airco since 1977. "You hate to see him go.''

Roche, 49, not only played Airco often, he used to work there part time.

"I used to work here 30 years ago for extra cash,'' Roche said. "I would rake bunkers on Saturdays and Sundays. I'd jump on the old Kubota tractor and go. This place is special to me.''

L.J. Govoni and Dane Schaffer of Clearwater played Airco together just about every week since discovering it in May 2010. Now they'll find a new place to play.

Govoni lives in the nearby Feather Sound residential community, which has a golf club. He said he might look into joining there.

"But I liked Airco because it was wide open," he said. "Feather Sound looks like it has a lot of water. I'm going to lose a lot of golf balls.''

The last group

No one is sure who was in the first group to play at Airco, but let the record show that Doug Bevis, Derek Burgess, E.S. Schroeder and Jay Galvin made up the last. The group was part of the Airco Open, and it won the tournament with a best-ball score of 7 under.

The sun was almost gone when the group rolled into the cart barn. Its cart was crammed with memorabilia, including an Airco sign and a ball washer. The four other groups in the tournament were long done.

"It took us so long to play because we were busy getting all this stuff,'' Galvin said.

How did they get the ball washer?

"No comment,'' Bevis said, smiling.

As winner of the tournament, the group received a trophy. The trophy didn't have an inscription because Brickfield didn't have time to get one.

The group also won something else.

"You won the right to play Airco for life,'' Commissioner Brickfield said.

The award ceremony in the restaurant included trophies for second and third place, and a raffle to give away the tee sign from the 15th hole.

As the ceremony concluded, golfers mingled for a few seconds. Then the lights were turned off.

Golfers pay their last respects on Airco Golf Course's final day 05/18/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 19, 2011 12:41am]
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