Reviving A Local Gem

Arizona Golf Association reaches out and helps transform a municipal course because 'it was the right thing to do'

March 6, 2009

By Bill Huffman

No. 17 at Papago Golf Course was one of six holes that underwent change. (Courtesy Tony Roberts Photography)
Phoenix - In the Land of Golf Plenty, where opulent, high-dollar public courses rival elite private clubs four to one - and green fees can reach the stratosphere in peak season - there was a dream about doing things differently.

It emanated from the Arizona Golf Association, which through its Arizona Golf Foundation launched a $5.8 million renovation project at one of Phoenix's most-storied municipal layouts: Papago Golf Course.

According to Ed Gowan, the executive director of the AGA, his organization took on this tall task in the Sonoran Desert in conjunction with the City of Phoenix because "we felt it was the right thing to do.

"One of the biggest problems we have at the AGA is promoting public golf for residents, as well as courses where we can run our programs or host our clinics," said Gowan, who has served the AGA for 26 years and works a number of USGA championships as a rules official. "We need access if we're going to keep growing and adding traditional values to the game. . . .

"We felt right away that this was a good fit for us. So we told the city: 'If you want to go this direction, we'll spend the money and fix it up if you'll give us the access - we're definitely interested, and the USGA will also support the effort, because public golf is very important to the USGA.' "

To achieve the AGA's goal of restoring William Bell's original routing and greens on a property so beautiful it was declared a national park in 1914, the AGA hired noted architect/agronomist William Fuller. Others also played key roles in the reconstruction process, like City of Phoenix liaison Rob Harman, golf consultant Marvin French, general manager Al Murdoch, superintendant Tom Wolff and Weitz Golf, which did most of the construction work.

Ten months after completion, Papago might not yet be a $99 golf experience (going rate for non-Arizona residents), but considering the locals pay $44 during the peak season, it might be the best deal going in an area where $200-plus green fees can be the norm at some of the elite resorts.

And the course earned further distinction by being selected as the host site for the Phoenix area's annual LPGA Tour stop (March 26-29), replacing Superstition Mountain.

The word in golf circles throughout Arizona is that Papago Golf Course is back; bigger and bolder and more beautiful than ever. Like Harding Park in San Francisco and Breckenridge Park in San Antonio, a pair of pristine municipals that also recently underwent hugely successful renovations, Papago has recovered its luster and "the love" without wasting more precious natural resources.

Oh, sure, the clubhouse has yet to be built, and the junior programs have yet to be installed, but those free-flowing fairways, incredible corridors, artistic bunkering, tricky-yet-traditional greens, and endless views of the wild West are right back from where they started. Indeed, Fuller and the AGA have laid the foundation for something special.

Return To Glory

Billy Mayfair, the PGA Tour veteran who grew up on Papago, said restoring the venerable tract makes him feel like a kid again.

"It's such a great golf course. Even when it was in lousy shape, you could still see the beauty in it," said Mayfair, a former USA Walker Cupper who won the 1986 U.S. Amateur Public Links and 1987 U.S. Amateur, becoming the first player to win both titles. "I haven't got a chance to play it yet - I really don't play too much golf when I'm home - but I love the course, I love what they're doing there, and I'm sure they were careful and did it right."

The "new Papago" sits prominently on the borders of Phoenix, Tempe and Scottsdale. Fuller and Co. removed the debris and rust that had built up over the past 45 years. More important, they enhanced the course's future without destroying its past, which dates back to 1963 and was the host site for the 1971 APL.

Murdoch, a long-standing Arizona pro who has been in charge of such challenging projects as Apache Stronghold in Globe and the Links at Las Palomas in Mexico, said the new surroundings are like a breath of fresh air.

"This is such a beautiful piece of land, and such a great golf course," said Murdoch, pointing to the nearby red-hued buttes that rise majestically on the course's eastern border, and to Camelback Mountain and the Four Peaks in the distance.

"I know that it looks a lot bigger, but all Billy [Fuller] did was bring back everything [architect] Billy Bell originally did back in the '60s."

The reason the fairways look so much larger, according to Murdoch, is because the clutter of yesteryear is gone. And the reason the greens appear huge, at an average of 7,000 square feet, he added, is because they have been restored to their original specs after years of shrinkage.

No. 9, which abuts a pond, is considered one of the course's signature holes. (Courtesy Tony Roberts Photography)
Most holes on the par-72 layout look much the same, but there is clarity. The ones that did undergo some change - Nos. 1, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 17 - have been enhanced for the better. And its signature holes like Nos. 2, 5, 8, 9, 13 and 18 have never looked better. The redesign also vaulted Papago into the 21st Century, with a championship yardage of 7,333 yards, compared with the previous number of 7,068.

Gowan initially took some flak from detractors for suggesting the restoration idea. He said he simply got out of the way and let Fuller and Co. do their thing. The project began last February and culminated in early December with the reopening of the course to the public.

"We still need more trees, and we need to get the facilities like the clubhouse, restaurant, bathrooms and learning center up and running. But I'm 90 to 95 percent satisfied with what I see so far," said Gowan. "It's a thousand percent better, and in three to five years I think we'll end up with the jewel it once was."

A Championship Comes Calling

Papago's original moment of glory came in 1971 when the course was chosen to host the U.S. Amateur Public Links. At the time, the course was such a "brute" that winner Fred Haney of Portland, Ore., bested the field of 150 competitors with a 72-hole total (the APL was a stroke-play-only event from 1967-74) of 2-over-par 290, which was five shots better than runner-up Robert Blomberg of Alameda, Calif.

"[Papago] could hold its own," said Bill Meyers, an outstanding amateur from Phoenix who also played in the 1971 championship. "It was a heck of a great golf course back then. I remember I opened with an 80, never broke par (74-73-73) and still finished in a tie for 10th against a pretty darned good field."

All the best players in the Phoenix metropolitan area - Johnny Bulla, Ken Kellaney, Tina Huiskamp, Mayfair and two-time USGA champions Heather and Missy Farr - all played at Papago in its heyday. Bulla, who traveled on the PGA Tour with his "best friends" Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, always referred to Papago "as my little home course."

Adding to the lore, Bulla, who died five years ago at age 90, still holds the course record with a 61 (11 birdies, seven pars), shot on July 29, 1964. As the story goes, the ambidextrous Bulla did it both right- and left-handed, even though the right-handed version was the only one recorded for posterity.

Indeed, Papago had a grand past, and now the potential seems to be there to reignite that history again, especially if civic leaders lure the Valley's annual LPGA Tour event to Papago on a permanent basis. It's a distinct possibility, as Papago has the logistics to the accommodate galleries, parking in neighboring lots associated with the park, and the strategic location to attract fans from the corners of the Valley of the Sun. And, at least at the moment, the LPGA Tour doesn't have a course secured for its scheduled event this March after playing at Superstition Mountain the last few years.

Future plans also call for the unification of Arizona's ruling bodies - the AGA, Arizona Women's Golf Association, Junior Golf Association of Arizona, and The First Tee of Phoenix - to eventually all be housed at Papago in an epicenter. Plans also are being worked out to introduce new initiatives like the Evans Scholarship-Caddie Program.

It's a lot to bite off, but the AGA seems content to build the new Papago one brick at a time, and not push the project along too quickly. Reviving the course and restoring some of the luster was a vital first step.

Bill Huffman, a freelance writer based in Phoenix, is one of the most authoritative and knowledgeable golf figures in the state of Arizona. He has written for the Arizona Republic and East Valley Tribune, and in 1999 he wrote the book "Arizona's Greatest Golf Courses." He also hosts a local radio show on XTRA Sports 910 in Phoenix.


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