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MARTINEZ — There were a lot of warm grins and good vibes Sunday afternoon as golfers hoisted their bags and maneuvered their carts around the Pine Meadow Golf Course. The weather was perfect, and it was clear that many walking the fairways and lining up putts knew one another as they chatted and caught up on things going on in their lives.

Christine Coward Dean was welcoming many of these people with smiles, but many of her conversations ended with her starting to cry. Dean, whose father John Coward built the golf course and opened it Jan. 1, 1965, was bringing her father”s undertaking here to an end.

“This is just the most horrible day in the world,” said Dean, hosting a final day of golf on Sunday. The day was supposed to be a two-hour event for what a poster called the “True Friends of Pine Meadow.” But Dean said people started showing up midmorning, and the course was crowded well into the late afternoon. She estimated that 250 people made their way around Pine Meadow”s nine holes.

The course has been ground zero in a battle between the Coward family, who after running the course for 50 years want to sell their land to a homebuilder, and a pro-open space residents” group that succeeded in putting the future of this 26 acres in the hands of voters.

There was little talk Sunday of saving “open space” or new houses or the November 2016 election that will give voters the opportunity to reverse the Martinez City Council”s January decision to change the land”s zoning to allow for building houses there.

Regardless of this land”s future, the golf course”s day of reckoning has been on the horizon for a while now. The factors that helped drive Pine Meadow out of business have been playing out for over a decade around the United States.

Following a boom in the 1990s, participation in golf in general has dropped off; the Florida-based National Golf Foundation has reported that the number of Americans playing golf fell 16 percent from 2005 to 2012, from 30 million to 25.3 million. The crowds at Pine Meadow on this final day, Dean said, were atypical of recent years.

Pine Meadow had its own particular issues, too, notably a sewer system that dated back to when the property was a farm. New state water restrictions, Dean said, “were the final nail in the coffin.”

When golf courses fail as businesses, the land is often coveted (and bought) by developers. With the handwriting on the wall several years ago, the Coward family started working with the city and developer DeNova Homes on a project — most recently 99 houses — for the golf course land.

A group of local residents, Friends of Pine Meadow, led a referendum drive to reverse a January City Council move to rezone the golf course land from open space/recreation uses to residential use.

After a contentious campaign, the residents” group got enough signatures to either place the issue before voters or get the council to simply rescind its January zoning change. The council opted for an election — in November 2016, the next general election.

That”s a year and a half away, and Dean said her family faces substantial costs — perhaps $5,000 a month — just to maintain the property to preserve insurance coverage until then. But such thoughts had to be drawn out of Dean on Sunday, as there were so many golfers around, virtually all of them old friends, she was kept busy touching base with them all.

One was Tom Pruett, of Martinez, who has been playing Pine Meadow almost from day one. He figures he”s played here three or four days a week all that time, and that he and friend Harry Wilson have been part of “Hawaiian Club” tournaments that over 15 years have raised $30,000 for the Boys & Girls Club of the Diablo Valley and for Special Olympics.

“I used to have a $100 pass, and you could play for a year!” said Pruett, who like Wilson and several others Sunday said it is the camaraderie of his fellow golfers that made Pine Meadow so wonderful. They said the regulars there are like family.

“If we win the Lotto, we”ll buy the course and have Chris (Dean) manage it,” Pruett said, not necessarily joking.

So next, Dean said, comes working out the next step for this land her father — who died in 2004 — had built into a golf course even though he wasn”t a golfer at the time (he only later became one). The days of golf there, she said, are now over.

“It is what it is, and the time has come,” she said.

Contact Sam Richards at 925-943-8241. Follow him at Twitter.com/samrichardsWC.

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