Jeff Jardine

Ceres golf course owner Phipps loses different kind of fight

Michael and Kimberly Phipps, owners of River Oaks Golf Course and Driving Range in Ceres, look over their plan in 2014 to build 56 homes on their front nine, citing the inability to turn a profit for the past decade. Michael Phipps died Sunday from a rare kidney disease.
Michael and Kimberly Phipps, owners of River Oaks Golf Course and Driving Range in Ceres, look over their plan in 2014 to build 56 homes on their front nine, citing the inability to turn a profit for the past decade. Michael Phipps died Sunday from a rare kidney disease. Modesto Bee file

About a year ago, Michael Phipps thought his battle would be with his neighbors.

Like his father before him, Phipps wanted to subdivide some of his property and use the proceeds to improve River Oaks Golf Course and Driving Range in Ceres. The operation has been losing money for years.

His dad, Jim Phipps, developed a nine-hole course along the Tuolumne River and opened it in 1979. He added what became the front nine, fronted on higher ground by Hatch Road, after floods hindered play four times from 1981 to 1997.

A couple of years ago, Michael Phipps decided to develop the front nine holes into lots ranging in size from 8,000 to 24,000 square feet, where 56 homes would be built.

Instead, the neighbors who live on property previously owned by Jim Phipps protested vehemently and publicly against Michael Phipps’ plan for additional development. He and wife Kimberly ultimately chose not to formally apply with the city for the project.

Turns out Michael Phipps had a much greater opponent: a rare kidney disease that ravaged his body and took him to hospital emergency wards more times than he could have imagined over the past year.

“They knew us by name in the ERs at Stanford, Memorial (Modesto) and Doctors Medical Center,” Kimberly Phipps said.

Indeed, he went to Stanford five times, Memorial seven or eight, and Doctors at least five more times. Since Dec. 27, he had gone to Doctors, Vintage Faire Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, back to Doctors, then to Central Valley Specialty Hospital before returning to Doctors.

He died there Sunday. It caught many, including his wife, by surprise.

“They’d always patched him up and he’d come home,” she said. “I didn’t expect this at all. I was preparing the house for a handicapped person, and I planned to take care of him. That was it. It was a pretty big shock to me. To others, I don’t know. Sometimes when you’re so close to it, you don’t see the changes.

“I thought they’d patch him up and we’d live a happy life,” she added. “He was only 58.”

Instead of planning for his next homecoming, she’s making arrangements for his memorial service, which will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Richland Faith Assembly of God in Ceres. Michael Phipps requested that his ashes be scattered over the site in Alaska where his brother Billy died in a plane crash in 1995.

In fact, Billy’s death became the first in a series of family tragedies, followed by the loss of brother Doug to cancer in 2000. A heart attack claimed another brother, Ceres Vice Mayor Rob Phipps, in 2007. The next year, mom Carol Phipps died, and in 2009, dad Jim Phipps died a year later to the day. A daughter, Janis, still lives in the area.

After it became apparent the neighbors would succeed in halting Michael Phipps’ plans for development, he quietly began looking to sell the land. Now, that, too, becomes Kimberly’s duty as executor of his estate.

“Mike wanted to keep golf affordable for families and especially for kids,” she said. “To make a nice day or afternoon of golf.”

At $20 for an all-day pass for adults, and $1 specials for children, it certainly is affordable. But keeping the course in good shape is not. His son, Jared, lives in Cabo San Lucas and his daugher, Kristen Colwell and her family live in Hughson. Kimberly’s four grown children all moved away. Kimberly runs the golf course. It is for sale, though Kimberly, a real estate agent by trade, hasn’t formally listed it.

“All of it (the profit) is going to go to pay off his medical bills,” she said. “Hopefully, it will go to someone who will keep it as a place families can go.”

More than likely, any potential buyers will be more interested in developing the property for something other than a golf course. And if they try, legal fees no doubt will replace greens fees. They’ll have a fight on their hands with the neighbors.

But it won’t be anything like the fight Mike Phipps just lost.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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