Desert golf is no mirage


Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

John Fought

The Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona is home to some of the most unique plant varieties on earth. Trees, which rarely grow larger than 20 feet tall, including Palo Verde, Ironwood and Mesquite, bloom in hues of bright yellow and lavender during the springtime. Yet, the trademark plant of this area is its multiple cacti varieties, which come in all shapes and sizes from the tiny pincushion to the majestic saguaro that can often stand for several hundred years if left untouched.

With only a few inches of rainfall per year it would seem to be a non-starter for golf. Boasting more than eight months of warm, sunny weather, however, it has become a haven for Northern 'snowbirds,' as well as some from Europe, to escape gloomy winter weather.

While golf in Arizona is flourishing primarily because of the pleasant weather, it features characteristics unlike any other part of the world. By law, the state has a restriction on water storage and use resulting in a maximum of 90 irrigated acres and little more than two surface area of water storage (lakes).

Hence, the task for golf course architects is to design and build layouts that present an interesting challenge without looking like all the previous courses designed with turf-area restriction. It is therefore incumbent on designers not only to use their allotted turf area wisely but also to carefully formulate a strategic design that interests the player while taking advantage the unique aesthetics the desert presents.

This is not to say, however, that golf course design in the desert can't have a traditional flavour. Obviously there is no restriction on the architect's ability to build an interesting strategy akin to the best courses in Europe or the United States. To illustrate this thought, one has only to travel to The Gallery Golf Club in Marana, Arizona, just outside of Tucson, and play the picturesque South Course, where the native vegetation is arguably the nicest of any course in the state. The inspiration for this links was Donald Ross's masterpiece at Pinehurst #2.

As with the great classic courses, it is important to route desert golf so that walking between greens and tees is minimised and incorporating natural features is maximised. The designer must carefully learn the property by frequently walking the proposed golf holes. Simply routing on paper will never yield the best results. In Arizona, many golf sites have rough rock outcroppings, interesting vegetation and, in some cases, archeological sites filled with ancient Indian petroglyphs that can be integrated into routing plan. At The Gallery, we found all of these elements plus spectacular long views that could not be seen on a map. Learning the land on desert courses is as important as it was when Harry Colt was climbing through the dunes in Northern Ireland to build Royal Portrush.

At The Gallery the most important design element of the South Course, as it is at Ross's famed #2, is the putting surfaces, which were constructed on a raised fill pad incorporating subtle contours that bleed away into the surrounds. Often referred to as 'turtleback greens,' these surfaces require precise iron play and a delicate touch to putt.

Strategically placed greenside bunkers and tightly mown surroundings provide plenty of challenge for players of all abilities.

With its interesting flora and sandy washes, and when creatively interspersed into the routing of the golf holes, the desert can provide wonderful strategic obstacles. At The Gallery, for example, these sandy washes are used on no fewer than 13 holes as natural bunkers in a similar fashion to the sandy waste areas at Pine Valley. Not formal bunkers, these natural areas add not only strategic definition to the golf holes but also serve as a stunning contrast to the emeraldgreen turfgrass and natural desert vegetation.

While the deserts of Arizona are not a natural setting for growing turfgrass, they certainly possess all of the desirable elements, including natural features, which will excite even the most die-hard traditionalist. It is an environment like no other and has a worldwide draw to anyone who loves sunshine, warmth and tactical golf at its very best.

Given his admiration for the work of Donald Ross, it is perhaps fitting that John Fought won the 1977 US Amateur on a Ross course, Aronimink near Philadelphia. These days, however, Fought is more likely to be found restoring a classic Ross course, just as he did in 2004 to critical acclaim with Pine Needles GC in Southern Pines, NC. The course, originally designed by Ross in 1928, will play host to the 2007 US Women's Open. Fought's South Course at The Gallery will be the site for next year's World Golf Championship Accenture Match Play event.

This article first appeared in issue 4 of Golf Course Architecture, published in April 2006.