If the current minor vogue for 'classic' styles of golf design that has seen courses such as Pacific Dunes, Sebonack and Erin Hills grab attention among architectural buffs and golfers alike can be dated to one particular point in time, it must surely be the opening of Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska, USA, in 1995. At Sand Hills, architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw returned to the old ways of golf architecture – 'finding' holes in the landscape rather than building them by way of massive earthmoving, and accepting – even welcoming – the imperfections of grade that come with such a style.
Since Sand Hills opened, a number of courses have taken that same route, with, on average, a high degree of success. Not all have shared Sand Hills' greatest advantage – the thousands of acres of unspoilt sand dunes upon which it was built – but there has certainly been a small, yet significant shift back in favour of golf courses that look as though they are a natural part of the landscape, even if in fact they required a significant construction effort.
The Americans, oddly, have led this trend, by way of Coore & Crenshaw's own work, the parallel career of Tom Doak, and perhaps also the efforts of Kyle Phillips at Kingsbarns in Scotland. The rest of the world may now be starting to catch up, though, with golf designers in many locations studying the natural formation of sand dunes and other landforms in an attempt to replicate them even on sites that have previously been denatured.
Natural golf is a powerful message.
Many golfers believe the game has become overblown in a quest for 'fairness,' for ultimate perfection of condition and for exclusivity. But can natural golf succeed in an environment where golf, by its very nature, is unnatural? Desert golf has a long track record in the US: courses have been built in the Arizona and California deserts for many years. In the rest of the world, we have only recently – principally with the emergence of Dubai and the rest of the Middle East – come to realise that golf courses can be built in desert environments, and most of these courses are far from 'natural.' To make turfgrass grow in a desert environment is necessarily difficult; desert locations are typically rugged. So, until now, most desert courses have not embraced a natural look or feel in any meaningful way.
Coore & Crenshaw's new Saguaro course at the We-Ko-Pa resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, bucks the trend somewhat.
Where most desert courses offer islands of green in a sea of rocky brown, Saguaro presents itself with wide fairways and greens that are largely open in front. Where a typical desert course requires a golf cart to negotiate its severe topography, Saguaro is comfortably walkable, although, sadly, few players seem to take up this opportunity. And where most desert courses feature large numbers of houses lining fairways, Saguaro, because of its location on the reservation of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, is free of real estate, and free to show off the extreme beauty of its surroundings.
As one of my playing partners said on the eighteenth tee: "I don't know if this is a great golf course, but it sure is pretty." In some ways, that comment sums up my opinion of Saguaro. There are great holes to be sure, but are they great enough? One architect who played the course shortly after it opened expressed the view that the course lacked excitement, especially given the undeniably quality of the land and beauty of the environment.
Playing golf on foot, it seems, is rare in the Valley of the Sun. While in the hotter months, this is easy to understand, I felt it was a shame that more golfers would choose to ride. Resort staff told me that typically about ten people each day opt for the Sun Mountain electric trolleys provided for walkers as an alternative to the ubiquitous golf cart: I hope, with promotion, that We-Ko-Pa can increase this number. Perhaps it's not the easiest walk in the world, but with most tees set fairly close to the preceding green, and a network of paths through the desert areas specifically for walkers, it's hardly difficult either.
Saguaro is certainly open. There are no water hazards on the golf course, and fairway width is typically generous. True, if you hit a ball into the desert you will be lucky to see it again, but considering the limits on irrigated turf in Scottsdale, the architects have done a tremendous job in making such a playable course. Even the hacker can have a pleasurable round here, although he will need to have some confidence in his driver: the carries from tees are not intimidating, but they exist nonetheless.
While there are excellent holes on the front nine – the par four sixth, which features a terrific drive over a valley, and the short par four seventh, whose blind tee shot makes the blast for the green approach highly risky are good examples – the real excitement of the course lies on the homeward stretch. Number thirteen, a long par four at 470 yards from the back tee, offers an intriguing challenge from the tee. The fairway is set at an inviting diagonal, and a small bunker in the middle of the landing area further complicates the shot. A single bunker in front of the right side of the green suggests strongly to the golfer that he should go left off the tee – but life is not always so simple! The fourteenth is a split fairway par five. The island fairway to the right offers the bold player a chance to get home in two, but I suspect one would need two mighty blows to do so.
Perhaps for the stronger golfer this is a good strategic choice; most, though, should go the safe way without a second thought, even though to do so provides a much less advantageous line into the green. The reward for going right is high, but so is the risk: make your own mind up. The fifteenth hole, though, is perhaps the best example of the architects' skill on the entire golf course.
A hugely long par three at 255 yards from the back, it looks insanely intimidating when stood on the tee, even though it is significantly downhill. A large bunker bleeding into the desert acts as a visual magnet, fooling the golfer into believing a shot straight at the pin is the only hope. There is, in fact, masses of room to the right for a safer line of approach, and the green has been left open on that side to accept a running shot. Once one has come down from the tee, the expanse of open space is overwhelming, and the golfer who has attempted the glory shot (and probably failed) will realise that the architects have outwitted him. What is especially clever is that they did so with the shot entirely in view!