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Dry Run

How the world’s first completely artificial turf course never got built

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Photo by: Kohjiro Kinno

I

At the beginning, Matt Rauh wasn’t looking to create a new thing. He was just trying to get home to his wife and kid when he made a short stop that would end up going long.

It was sometime in 2001 and Rauh had spent the previous few months in Phoenix, Arizona, as the apprentice to a friend who taught him how to install artificial turf. The apprenticeship had gone well; Rauh was now the owner of a new franchise that he believed would soon have him installing maintenance-free putting greens in the backyards of people with a lot of disposable income. 

He hadn’t started a single project of his own yet, but he now had the license to sell and install turf anywhere so long as someone was willing to buy. Halfway home, he found someone who wanted to buy a few million dollars’ worth.

Between Phoenix and Rauh’s home in Denver is the town of Mancos, Colorado, part of Montezuma County in the far southwestern corner of the state. It’s close to Mesa Verde National Park, the site of those preserved Pueblo mountain villages that look like America’s version of Pompeii, minus the lava, and not far from the 1,000 acres owned by the estate of novelist Louis L’Amour, who penned several Hopalong Cassidy novels as well as inventing myriad other characters who defined the fantasy life of the capital “W” West for millions of readers in the 1950s and ’60s.

Also in Mancos were Rauh’s aunt and uncle, Kathi and Dan Bjorkman, and the business that had become their life, the Echo Basin Dude Ranch.

Echo Basin was a combination RV park, wedding site, campground and concert venue that required every bit of Kathi and Dan’s attention, and then some. They and their two young daughters worked year-round hosting travelers from all over the country, soon-to-be-weds, families having reunions, and musical acts like Alabama, Styx and Kenny Chesney. 

Yet that wasn’t enough. Rauh knew that Kathi and Dan desired to do even more on their 610 acres of rolling hills and ponderosa pines. Rauh knew that because he had been part of an earlier plan that had gone nowhere.

Shortly after they bought the ranch in 1997, Dan got the itch to build a golf course. There was more work to be done than time to do it, but Dan didn’t let that bother him.

“He could move really fast if he liked something,” says Kathi of the man she referred to as “the big Swede.”

Rauh had a history in the game: He worked from childhood through college doing maintenance at golf courses. He had a degree in technical illustration, had helped design 18 holes in a gated community in northern Arizona and knew how to shape a course to the land that was already there. What he didn’t have was a way to get around Kathi and Dan’s biggest problem: water.

Mancos is in a river valley that still adheres to what Kathi calls the “code of cowboys and Indians and cows and hay.” It wasn’t that there was no water to be had—the river that runs nearby is a tributary of the San Jaun, which feeds into the Colorado, which once was powerful enough to carve its channels through the Grand Canyon and beyond.

That water, however, didn’t belong to the Bjorkmans. At least not enough of it. Eight out of every 10 gallons in Colorado goes to agriculture, and much of those eight gallons ends up in irrigation lines. So while the Bjorkmans had plenty to keep their thousands of yearly guests refreshed, they didn’t have what was needed to provide them with one more form of recreation. That didn’t sit right with Dan.

II

His customers were the sorts of people who were perfectly fine with spending weeks in the same place. 

Many of them traveled in a vehicle that doubled as their house. Mancos, however, couldn’t offer enough to keep them for more than a few days. Echo Basin had a pool and a basketball court, volleyball, horseshoes and horseback riding. The Pueblo village nearby was a UNESCO Heritage Site and there was no shortage of natural beauty surrounding them. But it wasn’t enough to keep paying customers for as long as Dan wanted them to stay.

After they realized it wasn’t feasible to build a whole golf course from scratch in the middle of a relatively arid landscape, Kathi and Dan shelved Rauh’s sketches and the idea was put on hold. Then their nephew showed up a few years later with a solution.

III

You might instinctively understand why ”not enough water” would be a problem for someone looking to build a golf course. 

But it takes on sharper relief in the parched Southwest.

Water has its own courts out here. Not in California—yet. (Give it time.) But Colorado has a water judge, appointed by the state Supreme Court, who in turn appoints the state’s water referee—no quote marks here, that’s someone’s real title—who presides over a water clerk.

Water matters are taken up by the water court only after the filing of an application by the water clerk. And if you think I’m doing that thing where you say a word enough times so that it starts to look weird—water, wa-ter, waaaaterrrr—you’re right. But, for those who don’t live out here, water is no joke.

Colorado is known as the mother of rivers. We—I’ve lived in Denver for seven years, so I’ve earned some right to the first-person plural—have the highest peaks in the continental United States, and as a result, we’re headwater country, the source for 18 states and much of Mexico. On account of nine separate agreements with our neighbors and a lifetime’s worth of judicial precedent, Colorado is now legally enabled to keep one quarter of the water created from the trickle-down effect that comes from our snowcaps. That leaves another three quarters for everyone else, of which much is under dispute.

Example: Arizona and California. They’ve been locked in battle for years over Colorado water. For a long time, Californians used far more than they were due, while Arizonans used much less. This scared the bejesus out of Arizonans, in part because Western water law is designed to benefit the paranoid and greedy.

In the earliest days of Western settlement, two men in what was not yet Colorado had a problem. They had agreed to dig an irrigation canal from a source called Bear Creek and share in what flowed to them. But then the man with the farm farther upstream kept all the water for himself. The other man sued, and what followed was a staggering bit of region-summarizing poetry from Chief Justice Moses Hallett of the Territorial Supreme Court.

 “In a dry and thirsty land,” he wrote in the 1872 opinion for Yunker v. Nichols, “it is necessary to divert the waters of the streams from the natural channels, in order to obtain the fruits of the soil, and this necessity is so universal and imperious that it claims recognition of the law.”

Translation: Unlike in the settled, verdant eastern half of the country, we’re gonna need to move this water from its source if anyone is going to grow anything worth eating, and therefore survive. You can’t just nestle up to a riverbank and claim everything that flows next to you. If you want water in the West, you’ve got to work for it, damn it.

Which brings us back to Arizona and California. It wasn’t just that Californians were using more of their share of the Colorado River than Arizonans. It was that Arizonans believed, with plenty of legal scholarship behind them, that their own lack of greed would cost them in the long run, since, if they so chose, Californians could one day point to Arizona’s lack of overuse of water as a sign that they didn’t really need it and Californians were therefore legally the rightful owners of the water that made every subdivision in Tempe so lush.

Four years later, the Colorado constitutional convention adopted Hallett’s ruling. The rest of the neighboring states quickly fell in line, and the western half of the country soon had a motto to sum up its own unique interpretation of water rights: Use it or lose it.

In the words of one water historian—again, a real job—California water officials were “diabolical schemers, dedicated to the robbery of Arizona’s birthright.” To combat that robbery, Arizona recently started its own water bank, and not long after that, the governor started using its existence in his stump speeches, because water isn’t just an issue here; it’s an issue that politicians think, with much evidence in their favor, will win them votes.

The point being, people in the West think about this stuff more than anyone anywhere else in the country, because they have to. An argument, I suppose, that could’ve also been made with one short suggestion: Go rewatch Chinatown.

IV

Back to Kathi, Dan and Matt. You can probably deduce what happened next.

Dry Run

Rauh was at Echo Basin with a head full of new information about golf-playable ground that didn’t need water. And Dan was a man in search of a solution that didn’t require any. Within a few days, the big Swede, a man who moved fast, had ordered 1.5 million square feet of turf from his young nephew—who hadn’t installed so much as a single patch of fringe in his new career—to build the world’s first completely synthetic 18-hole golf course.

Kathi and Dan had money to spend, though not an unlimited amount. They had come to Colorado from Minnesota, where the pair had begun to raise their family in a town they referred to as “plain Blaine.” Kathi was in real estate, and Dan was the successful owner of a software company he later sold.

Both hated Minnesota but stayed there because of family. Then, in very short order, both lost their fathers. “We thought, ‘If we don’t leave now, we’re never going to,’” says Kathi. So they packed up their girls and headed to a part of the country Dan already knew he loved. A place he had come to admire during hunting trips. A place with a ranch for sale that needed a lot of work—perfect for two people who never seemed to stop working.

I’m going to spoil something here: I didn’t talk to Dan for this story. It’s physically impossible to talk to Dan now. The only way to get a good sense for the kind of man he was is by talking to Kathi, their daughters, and Ruah, and from reading what Dan said and wrote back during the days when he was still trying to build his golf course. And the lasting impression you get from, say, reading the op-ed he wrote to the local newspaper at the time is that he was a man who did not entirely fit in with those he lived amongst.

“It is virtually unheard of for a town of 1,200 people to acquire a championship golf course,” Dan wrote on the second page of the Feb. 25, 2004, edition of the Mancos Times. “The odds of a tiny, suppressed, ultra-rural community, on the verge of negative growth, attracting any developers that would entertain the risky idea of investing in a golf resort is unheard of.”

You don’t need to read the rest of the op-ed to know that, at this point, things weren’t going well for Dan. He and Kathi had spent more than a million dollars prepping their land for the course—clearing brush, compacting soil, conducting expensive engineering tests, paying even-more-expensive lawyers just to get things ready for the turf. But still it wasn’t enough. Because Dan had two prominent detractors: his neighbors and his bank.

Those neighbors, the ones in the “tiny, suppressed, ultra-rural community,” were not grateful, as Dan might’ve hoped, for the prospect of more traffic on the dusty roads they, having moved out to the middle of nowhere for a reason, already considered too busy. They weren’t thrilled that Dan was working so hard and spending so much of his own money to “acquire a championship golf course” on their behalf because, again, these were people who had already made a choice to live in the sort of place that didn’t have championship golf courses.

Dan’s ambitions made him a great software salesman. Kathi says they made him a loving husband and father. And they mostly made him a good ranch owner, up until the point that those ambitions put him into direct conflict with people who had a vested interest in nickel-and-diming his dreams to death.

“Recently I have met enthusiastic golf professionals from all over the world,” Dan continued in his op-ed. “Echo Basin Ranch is one of the most sought after golf stories in the industry. We were rated by Golfweek Magazine as the third most important story in golf. We have had Newsweek, Denver Post, Sports Illustrated, and too many others to mention all cover this story. We can only be first once. Two weeks ago, we met with Palmer Designs in Florida and Ed Seay (Arnold’s partner of 35 years) said ‘your project will change the game of golf.’”

It was true. All of it.

People were writing about Echo Basin. Golfweek really did say that. Dan and Ruah really did fly down to Bay Hill to meet with Palmer and Seay, because Palmer had a large financial interest in the turf company, and he even committed to designing one of the holes. Echo Basin was really going to have the imprimatur of that iconic rainbow umbrella. It was going to be a Palmer-designed course. 

It was true. All of it. And it didn’t matter one bit.

Mostly because the new thing Dan was bringing into the world was being brought to a place that didn’t want it.

Angry neighbors and skeptical ranchers signed petitions against it. Their protests meant that the Bjorkmans were forced to pay for traffic studies and defend themselves against charges that they were going to steal water or were poisoning nearby property with sewage runoff. Neither claim was true, but for many Montezuma County residents, what was more important was that they seemed as if they might be. 

This back and forth went on for years before the real problems began—problems stemming from something that, to their neighbors, looked like clear-cut proof that Kathi and Dan had lied to them.

For as long as anyone had asked them, the Bjorkmans had always told residents that they had no intention to build homes next to the course. This was true, at least at first. Then they started to run low on money.

At that point, with Dan seeking a line of credit for about a million dollars, his bank asked for more. In case Dan’s dreams didn’t pan out, it wanted something other than just the world’s first artificial golf course to be able to claw back as collateral. So Kathi and Dan had to pivot: They introduced the idea of the Echo Basin Estates and turned previously skeptical neighbors into sworn enemies.

“Mr. Bjorkman brings out the lawyer in me more than I would like,” said one at a heated town meeting.

Dan still had a plan. Though the bank had asked him to build 92 homes, he and Kathi thought that once they got deposits for the first wave of 20 to 30 they could bankroll the whole project and keep the number of new neighbors to a minimum. But whereas his original dream of an artificial-turf golf course needed almost no water, actual people living in actual houses actually needed some.

And so it was that the conversation was brought back to the thing it always comes back to in this particular part of the country. Irony is an overused, mostly misused, word. But it’s appropriate here: A lack of water inspired Dan’s biggest dream to date, and a lack of water is what doomed it, too. 

Kathi and Dan spent even more money digging wells to prove their new homes wouldn’t use other people’s water, but it satisfied no one. Ranchers who’d lived their whole lives with the “use it or lose it” philosophy now saw the Bjorkmans as people who were going to use theirs instead. 

Angry town halls turned to court battles. At some point, Kathi and Dan lost too much money, and with it the strength to keep fighting.

“The golf course really financially devastated us,” says Kathi. “We got through it by the grace of God.”

They did. But not without more losses.

Kathi’s big Swede, whom she says had never been sick in all the days she’d known him, was shortly thereafter diagnosed with bladder cancer, in 2008. He died four years later.

Kathi was left with two adult daughters and a ranch far too big for one person to handle. It took another few years of hard work to get it into good enough shape to sell, but she did. Today she lives in Arizona, in a home with a turfed yard that she loves.

Echo Basin remains today much as it was then, still hosting weddings and reunions and bands just a shade over the hill they once stood upon. The only hint of the course that never was is a stunning artificial practice putting green and the incongruously turfed deck of one of the resort’s swimming pools.

Ruah still installs turf at the business he runs in Denver and he’s still optimistic about its place in the game going forward. “It’s gonna happen,” he says. “It’s creeping into courses more and more every year.” He’s right: There’s now a full nine-hole course in the Bahamas made entirely of the style of turf Ruah installs. 

He is also thankful, however, that his uncle’s plans never came to be. He’s clear about not bad-mouthing his family. He’s not. It’s just that, with the benefit of 15 years of hindsight and vast improvements in the product, he now believes that he, Dan and nearly everyone else involved with the project were far too optimistic about the capabilities of the material and his own capability to install it. 

“I really think at the time it would’ve been a disaster,” he says.

That’s the sort of word Kathi stayed far away from for a long time. For years after her husband’s death she answered calls from around the world asking her if the course was open. Never once did she explain the complicated reasons for why it never got built. 

“I never talked about it because I didn’t want to discourage anybody,” she says.

Echo Basin has remained the story of something that never was in part because Kathi was unwilling to tell it. And she’s not necessarily hoping that by telling the story now someone will do what she and Dan couldn’t. It’s likely she’s telling it simply because someone bothered to ask again.

But the climate crisis will continue to reshape how people in the golf industry value their available resources. And water fights will expand far beyond Colorado, California and Arizona. At that point, or hopefully before, we might look back at Kathi, Dan and Echo Basin as the beginning of the story of something that did happen, rather than something that did not.