Spotlight on Scottsdale

Spotlight on Scottsdale
By KM

With over 200 courses and a population of 250,000, there are few cities with more golf per head than Scottsdale, Arizona. Toby Ingleton follows the pioneers west to find out more.

Golf has been played in the Sonoran Desert for almost 100 years. But its Wild West beginnings with dirt fairways and oiled-sand greens are a far cry from the lush courses that cropped up in the centre of Scottsdale fifty years later.

Golf was beginning to establish a foothold in the region by this time, kick-started by the Indian Bend Wash flood-control project of the 1960s. Repeated floods of the Wash area were bisecting the city and damaging properties, so federal taxes were assigned to convert the Wash into a large canal, and build bridges connecting the two sides of the city.

Rather than cement, the city voted in favour of the extra expense to use grass for the canal, in the form of a series of parks and golf courses. The grass canal is clearly visible from satellite maps – and among the parks and green belt areas are the golf courses at, from north to south, McCormick Ranch, Silverado, Continental, Coronado and finally Rio Sedona.

It’s an excellent example of golf playing a role in water management. The turf and soil act as natural filters, removing contaminants from runoff and allowing the excess to percolate through the soil to replenish groundwater. The turf also helps control erosion, by stabilising the dry desert soil and preventing it from washing downstream. Golf courses can also capture runoff and store it in retention ponds for irrigation use.

This was an ambitious project for a city that was relatively poor at the time, but it reaped rewards as the pleasant environment was one of a number of factors that saw Scottsdale becoming a desirable place to live, with rapid population – and golf course – growth ensuing.

At the time of the Wash project, golf designers were typically mimicking the parkland-style courses that were established elsewhere in the United States. But at Desert Forest, a private club just north of the town, ASGCA founding member Robert ‘Red’ Lawrence designed a layout that is thought by many to be the first example of a desert golf course.

This approach saw a greater retention of the native desert vegetation, with virtually no earth movement or shaping during construction. Tee boxes typically placed in desert areas which would need to be carried to reach narrow landing areas of turf that contrast strikingly with the natural environment.

Lawrence’s work at Desert Forest set a design template that would be followed by many, although not necessarily as an aesthetic choice. In the 1980s, the newly-formed Arizona Department of Water Resources introduced regulations for golf course water use that meant, from 1984, newly-built 18-hole golf courses were limited to approximately 90 acres of turf.

Arizona’s leadership in water use goes beyond limiting turf areas. Reclaimed, effluent water accounts for 40 per cent of that used by Scottsdale golf courses and most of the city’s courses use computerised irrigation systems and weather monitoring stations to maximise efficiency.

The great challenge in the face of such constraining factors is retaining playability. Turf can be sacrificed either in the form of demanding length (for example, with forced carries from the tee) or accuracy (narrow landing areas). Inevitably, a form of target golf emerges, and it is down to the architect’s skill to get the balance right in order to retain playability (see ‘Balancing act’ for an architect’s perspective).

Many developments have taken advantage very high propensity for golfers in the region to use carts in their routing, allowing fairly lengthy drives between green and tee presumably either in order to either find the best locations for golf holes, or perhaps more likely to maximise the land available for properties with fairway views. The resulting effect is courses with a fair amount of segregation between holes. For some who enjoy golf in solitude this is a desirable solution, but others may find themselves wanting more social interaction. In years gone by, shared fairways may have been the preferred solution – but modern safety requirements and the fear of litigation limit this option.

Interestingly, there is evidence that golfers in this region are showing a greater appetite towards walking. One of the highest profile public clubs in Scottsdale, Troon North, re-routed its two courses in 2007 to make this option possible. Brett Brooks, manager of marketing communications for operator Troon Golf, said: “Previously, there was a long cart drive between nines on the Pinnacle course. It had been built after the Monument course on the land that was available to us. But actually, the routing made a lot more sense and became walkable if you played either the two front nines, or the two back nines. So we reconfigured the courses accordingly, and made a few other changes to provide a more consistent experience.”

Another significant advantage of the redesign is that there is no longer a clearly stronger eighteen at Troon North, allowing the operator to share golfers more evenly among the two courses. We played the Pinnacle course and certainly didn’t come away disappointed. Like so many venues in Scottsdale, the holes on both eighteens are interspersed with properties, but the golf in between is very strong, with the natural elevation changes on the property used to great effect from the very first hole and severely undulating fairways adding interest and challenge.

Given that professional golfers aren’t given the option of a cart, it’s no surprise that PGA Tour venues TPC Scottsdale and Grayhawk are also easily walkable.

One might arrive at a TPC course expecting a course that’s all brawn and no brain – and from the 7,216 yard Tournament tees, TPC Scottsdale definitely needs a significant amount of brawn. But the 6,525 yard ‘Players’ tees are a very manageable option. The ‘stadium’ style of design, with large banks to accommodate crowds, can actually prove quite forgiving.

There’s a tendency for observers of golf design to be somewhat sneering of TPC course design, perhaps because of its focus on one rare type of golfer. But any misconceptions I had were well and truly shattered. The back nine was exhilirating, with a particularly memorable final four-hole stretch that comprised a par five to an island green, the famous stadium sixteenth that accommodates 23,000 spectators suring the Phoenix Open, a drivable par four seventeenth and a heroic final hole. Enjoyment is the key word here – there are birdie possibilities at each hole but it is equally possible to notch up large numbers.

Grayhawk provided a stern challenge – it defies belief that Troy Matterson could have recorded back-to-back 61s here in 2009. We played the Raptor course and memorable holes included the short par four fifteenth, where a small bunker front-centre of the green and another circling the right side make for an extremely tricky approach, and the eighth – the most picturesque of a very long set of par threes. Tom Fazio’s decision to align the holes two-by-two in many places is very effective, as it minimises the feeling of being flanked by housing, and gives the course a rare feeling of width.

Both TPC Scottsdale and Grayhawk felt uninhibited by their surrounding developments. But the strongest example of this is We-Ko-Pa, where the golf courses are built on the reservation of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and has no real estate to contend with the natural beauty of the surroundings. Scott Millar designed the Cholla course, and Coore and Crenshaw’s Saguaro course opened in late 2006 (see GCA issue 9 for more). Like their earlier creation at Talking Stick, the Saguaro course bucks the desert trend towards target golf with many greens open in front, promoting a ground game that may be unfamiliar to locals.

More typical of the golfing scene in Scottsdale is the resort-style course. We played two – The Boulders and The Phoenician. The former is an aesthetic delight, with the natural rock outcrops that give the resort its name featuring on many holes – most impressively on the South course – and the course is extremely well prepared and presented, like the entire resort.

The Phoenician has some strong holes, the par-five second hole on the Desert nine springs to mind with a large bunker cutting into the approach zone and adding risk to the rewards of attempting to reach the green in two. The routing is constrained by the desire to accommodate 27 holes on the property, but one of the solutions, carving tee boxes into the side of Camelback Mountain, provides for some excellent views across the city.

All of the above-mentioned courses put a reasonable amount of strain on the wallet, so it was interesting to see how a visit to the more affordable and publicly-accessible Longbow Golf Club would fare. The property itself is fairly devoid of natural interest and some might find the constant traffic from the neighbouring airport a distraction, but architect Ken Kavanaugh has excelled in making a strategic golf course with a distinctive look that blends the current vogue for ragged edged bunkers with the desert surrounds. The course is extremely thoughtful, with intelligent bunker placement requiring the golfer to plan, rather than blast, their way around the course.

Scottsdale’s golf offerings are complemented by a variety of other activities – particularly for outdoor enthusiasts – and a very strong offering of hotels, restaurants and nightlife. Add in year-round sunshine and ease of access and it’s no surprise that this is such a popular destination. That golf should reign so strong in an environment that presents so many obstacles should give hope and motivation to those in emerging markets who are considering whether the game will bring prosperity to their region.

This article was initially featured in the January 2010 issue of Golf Course Architecture.

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