Reviving A Local Gem
Arizona Golf Association reaches out and helps transform
a municipal course because 'it was the right thing to
March 6, 2009
By Bill Huffman
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.
|No. 17 at Papago Golf Course was one
of six holes that underwent change. (Courtesy Tony
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
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
"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.
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.
|No. 9, which abuts a pond, is
considered one of the course's signature holes.
(Courtesy Tony Roberts Photography)|
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
"[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
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
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
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.