Mixed feelings as final rounds near for Boulder County's Haystack Mountain Golf Course

·9 min read

Jun. 5—Julia Pirnack was barely tall enough to see over the counter when she began handing out buckets of golf balls to customers at Haystack Mountain Golf Course.

Pirnack and her five siblings grew up helping their parents run the business at 5877 Niwot Road. They cleared rocks from the fairway and took customer payments.

The business enjoyed a rural setting, next to a flowing creek. Customers who golfed there hailed it as affordable and laid back. People who've teed off at the nine-hole course, since it opened July 1966, said they came not just to play golf, but to teach their kids the sport and take in the sights of Haystack Mountain and the surrounding nature bordering the green grass.

But days on Haystack's course languishing in the sun with a golf club in hand are numbered.

Pirnack, Longmont's mayor from 2001 to 2007, became a trustee to the business in 2016, following the death of her mom Lois Ebel, the owner. While Pirnack said she fought to keep the business afloat, it's faced too many obstacles, making it "infeasible to continue."

Developer Michael Markel, who owns Markel Homes Inc., bought the property in April for about $6 million, with plans to divide the roughly 100 acres into three parcels, the Times Call reported in May. On one parcel, he will build a home for him and his family. The other two parcels will remain vacant until they are sold. Pirnack said it will be up the developer to decide Haystack Mountain Golf Course's final day, but that she expects it to close later this year, possibly at the end of September. Markel didn't respond to request for comment by publication deadline Friday.

Pirnack said seeing her family's legacy end is sad, but that she's taking time to celebrate the many years and memories the course created for its Boulder County community members.

"We're really proud of what we were able to accomplish," she said. "We had a five-star, cross the board, rating from all of our events in the last few years."

While long-time customers who heard the news expressed grief, as they shared memories of playing at the course, some nearby neighbors said they were relieved to hear the business was closing.

A course beloved by many

Sam Grothe, 53, of Longmont, was among those who was heartbroken when he heard the news.

"It's terrible," Grothe said. "Haystack Golf Course is a legendary institution in these parts — every bit as much as say the Boulder Bandshell, The Naropa Institute, Sunset Golf Course, or the Flagstaff House."

Grothe's father, Allen Grothe, first took him golfing there when Grothe was 10 or 11 years old. As an adult, he golfs there at least once a week.

"It's very informal. It's kind of a lot like 'Caddyshack' — a lot of goofing around, a great place to drink some beer before and after golf," Grothe said. "It really had a unique and sort magical aspect to it. Basically, there's so much wildlife out there. I've seen foxes. I've seen elk. I've seen deer, like a doe and fawns in the middle of the fairway."

Alex Patterson, 31, of San Diego, Calif. grew up in Gunbarrel. When he was in middle school, Patterson and his friend Taylor Bartlett, who lived just down the street from Haystack, would often spend their afternoons golfing.

"That was our home course. When we were kids, we liked going there and spending a couple hours and playing those nine holes," Patterson said. "It never got old. It was always fun."

The friends also hosted two charity golf tournaments, one in 2002 for a firefighters fund and in 2003 for a YMCA scholarship fund in Boulder Valley, raising about $1,000 at each event.

"Haystack Mountain was great in facilitating all of that stuff — from the registration and administration side of things to putting on an excellent experience. It was always a wonderful time there, especially during those two tournaments," Patterson said.

This week, Patterson learned that the long-time business was closing.

"It's sad, but at the same time it's part of every developing community's journey," Patterson said. "Haystack Mountain is an incredible area. It's very sad to hear that it's closing, but I'll definitely remember those good times from the golf tournament to lazy summer afternoons."

As a public course that didn't require memberships, people could drop in during business hours to play on a first-come, first-serve basis. It was the kind of place, Pirnack said, where parents could teach their kids how to play the sport.

"I think there was a philosophy of being more relaxed and being friendlier about golf, not quite so pretentious," Pirnack said. "My parents were big believers in golf as very healthy, being outdoors, exercising. We didn't allow riding carts. It's out in the country, beautiful, pristine. Even if you didn't aspire to be a great golfer, you could just get outside and walk around and admire the Front Range and the wildlife."

Matt Moore, 51, of Boulder, said he is teaching his son, Bennett, a second grader, how to golf at Haystack.

"That's my home course," Moore wrote in an email. "My favorite thing (besides having Insane Rush on tap in the clubhouse) is the old school screened-in porch, complete with a screen door that slaps shut. Love that view after a round."

Moore added: "It's sad of course, but understandable; so many small businesses struggled to stay viable in the past year."

Challenges to business add up

Pirnack said the 2013 flood damaged the course and the business had to take out "hefty" loans for repairs. While they've since been paid back in the last five years, it was one in a number of challenges to Haystack Mountain Golf Course. The coronavirus pandemic also temporarily prevented the business from hosting weddings and other events, putting a crimp in the business' revenue stream. These issues, coupled with the burden of an "enormous" estate tax and increasing property taxes, which Pirnack said went up 78% last year, were obstacles to the business.

The family sold the business and 112 acres in April, but, for the time being, still owns the 105 acres that comprise Haystack Mountain.

Some neighbors whose homes border the golf course said they were relieved the property would be changing hands.

Martin Magill has lived in his home roughly 50 feet from the course for the past 12 years.

"It's a historical family business and part of the community and the 9-hole golf course provided a lot of fun for the community over the years as it operated under the leadership of Lois Ebel," Magill said.

After Ebel's death, though, he said the property became commercialized. He said the golfing didn't bother him, but the events did.

"Unfortunately that had a really negative impact on neighbors that surround the property, primarily crowds, noise, disruption to the peace and quiet," Magill said. "We live in a very beautiful area and we've invested a lot of money in these properties. There could be three or four events going on in our backyard every single week."

Pirnack said that the business has been hosting events at the property since the '70s, but that in 2016 it "rebranded." She said attendance at events and weddings averaged around 100 to 150 people.

From 2018 to 2019, the Boulder County Sheriff's Office received eight calls for noise complaints. The records department noted that the "majority of calls came from the same complainant."

Neighbors in 2019 picketed at the entrance of the golf course during opening night of the business' beer garden. The Times-Call reported that they held signs reading "No bars in our backyard!" and "we don't need more traffic and alcohol."

That same year, Boulder County Land Use Department issued two violations against the business after neighbors complained. The Times-Call reported that Haystack was given 30 days to fix two issues: the use of a residence on the property to host events and as a rental through Airbnb.

Pirnack said the use of the residence as an Airbnb was discontinued immediately. But, she said, the use of the building for events "was unfounded and based on neighbor complaints, rather than fact."

Jesse Rounds, planning manager for code compliance and public information for Boulder County Land Use Department, said a zoning violation on the property is still open and pertains to "unpermitted work that occurred within a structure the use of which, does not conform with current zoning regulations."

"The owners were required to get building permits or process the work through a planning process and building permits," Rounds said. "We reached out to the new owners upon learning of their purchase, to inform them of the situation and are still waiting on their proposed actions."

Pirnack said the issues pertain to repairs made to the clubhouse basement immediately after the flood and renovations on the kitchen more than a decade ago.

"We began the process last fall by mailing the required information and permit applications for the clubhouse," she said. "The county said they received, but would not process, the application by mail. We then submitted online, which the county apparently did not receive or process, but only notified us of that fact two weeks ago (after the sale)."

'Nothing lasts forever'

Magill said he believes the community is losing a business with a family legacy, but neighbors in the area will be gaining some peace and quiet.

"I think on the positive side, we're relieved," he said. "It's a beautiful property. The understanding that Mike Markel has purchased three of the lots and plans to build (his private home) is fantastic."

Next door to Magill, Dean Ioppolo, who's lived in the neighborhood for seven years, said that while there were a few weddings that were "kind of loud" he's overall going to miss the business.

"For me, I'm kind of a little bummed," Ioppolo said. "We would hit balls and go to grill night. But, I guess nothing lasts forever. Things change."

Pirnack said Haystack "tried really hard to be a good neighbor."

"When I became trustee, we had a neighborhood party and said 'We're going to have events and continue events,'" Pirnack said. "We wrote a letter every year (at the beginning of the season in April/June) to let them know when events were."

She said event managers do a decibel-level check at the property line every half hour to assure they're in compliance with sound regulations.

Since the news got out about the closure, Pirnack said they've been busier than ever.

As she reflected on her family's time living and working on the property, Pirnack said what she felt was a mixture of sadness and pride.

"There's really nothing like (Haystack)," she said. "We have some really great golf courses around here, but Haystack is just a little bit different than most golf courses in lots of different ways."