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News » Bill Huffman Speaks Out
October 11, 2011 by Bill Huffman

Mickelson debuts Arizona-based M Club

Phil Mickelson always has had close ties to Arizona. The connection began as an All-American at Arizona State who won the 1991 Northern Telecom Open in Tucson his junior year, followed by two wins at the Phoenix Open as a pro, and now as a golf course owner and founder of the new “M Club.’’ 

That’s right, “M’’ as in Mickelson.
 
Lefty and his long-time agent and former coach with the Sun Devils, Steve Loy, announced Tuesday that they have launched a new brand in Arizona golf at the grand opening of their fourth golf course, the McDowell Mountain Club (formerly The Sanctuary).  Mickelson and Loy also own Palm Valley Golf Club in Litchfield Park, as well as Chaparral Pines Golf Club and The Rim Club in Payson.
 
According to Mickelson and Loy, the idea, which allows golfers and their families to buy one membership and have playing status at all four clubs, has been a year in the making. Loy says Mickelson is the brain behind the operation, while Mickelson countered by saying Loy is its heart and soul.

“We have four clubs that are done (purchased), and two more that are almost done,’’ said Mickelson, conceding that one of those on the sale block is Blackstone Country Club in Peoria.

“We’re creating partnership clubs, where our M Club members have access to one or two tee times on the hour at all those clubs. All are great properties and we’ll probably stop (purchasing courses) when we get to 10.’’

According to Mickelson, every one of the M Clubs will be in Arizona, mostly “Valley-based.’’ And while Lefty didn’t say so, the sixth club in negotiations at the moment is believed to be Quintero Golf Club near Lake Pleasant.
 
The grand opening of McDowell Mountain Golf Club, which included a press conference with Mickelson, Loy, Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane and architect Randy Heckenkemper, who made significant changes to the course he originally created as The Sanctuary, drew a large turnout of about 250 people. That followed a softer opening Monday night, in which nearly 1,000 members of the neighboring community were invited in to discover the revamped and renamed property.

“Selfishly, I want to see the game grow and kids get involved, and clubs like McDowell Mountain, where you have 4,000 families living in this neighborhood, is the perfect place to start,’’ said Mickelson, who cut the ribbon that spanned the new first tee with the mayor before hitting the ceremonial drive down the fairway.

The M Club will combine public and private clubs into a “private experience that offers lots of value,’’ Mickelson said. He added that it will be under a central concierge service overseen by his former teammate at ASU, Rob Mangini, and will be electronically driven through a computer-based tee sheet.

“It will take a lot of people and a lot of work to get it all done,’’ Mickelson pointed out. “But it’s going to give families a place to play golf on a multitude of golf courses.’’

Mickelson said that the initiation fee is going to be $5,000 with a monthly fee of approximately $600. That still seems like a lot for most families to devote to the game, but Loy said the M Club was “a work in progress’’ that they hope to have finalized and up and running by early November.

“Let’s just say the M Club is coming and leave it at that,’’ said Loy, who always has been a little protective by nature. “But I give all the credit to that guy (Mickelson) for coming up with the idea.’’

Loy said Mickelson came to him a year ago, noting that the private club experience was dying in a depressed economy, and that there was a lot of opportunity to buy some Arizona golf courses at all-time lows. For instance, none of the four courses Mickelson and Loy bought cost more than $3.5 million (Chaparral Pines) while Palm Valley and The Sanctuary were in the $1.5 million ballpark each.
By comparison, all those courses cost three to four times those figures when they were built.

Asked why he and Mickelson were getting into the golf course business, Loy laughed.
 
“I don’t know if it’s the stupidity talking or the money walking,’’ quipped Loy, noting that the M Club operation will be headquartered in his Gaylord Sports offices initially before branching out into their golf properties.
      
“But we’re very proud of the product we’re putting together,’’ Loy added. “The whole emphasis is having fun and making golf affordable, especially for families.’’
 
How the M Club takes off is anybody’s guess. Certainly the private club experience, at least in Scottsdale, had gotten out of control with initiation fees in the $200,000-and-more category and monthly dues often exceeding $1,000 a month or more.

One thing is certain: McDowell Mountain looks like a more player-friendly club, with wider fairways and cleared out waste areas, as well as walls and mounding that funnel the ball back towards the fairway. That’s a huge jump from the original tight tract that Heckenkemper created.

“This is really the first time that we’ve ever had owners who emphasized the playability factors,’’ said Heckenkemper, who built the original 18 holes back in 1999 before coming in recently to do the remake in a little over 100 days.

As Heckenkemper pointed out, The Sanctuary was originally confined to 72 acres of turf, whereas the McDowell Mountain Club now it has about 80 acres of turf as well as turf that has been taken from areas that weren’t really in play and put into areas that are in play. The renovation also filled in numerous bunkers that came into the sight line of high handicappers; reduced forced carries off the tee; and cleared out a lot of overgrowth that was replaced with decomposed granite areas that, according to Heckenkmper, “make it easy to find your ball.’’

“When you add in the 10 acres or so of waste bunkers, that makes for about 90 to 92 acres where you can now hit your ball and find it and play it,’’ explained Heckenkemper, who three years ago did a remake on the TPC Champions Course just a few miles down the Scottsdale Canal.

“And we still managed to maintain the courses (environmentally) sensitive areas, which were a big source of pride when we originally earned that Audubon (Society) status.’’
 
The bottom line, explained Heckenkemper, is a course that will be “a lot easier to play and definitely a lot more fun.’’

“I told Coach (Loy), I think the average round of golf will improve by at least 30 minutes,’’ said Heckenkemper, noting that Loy was “the real architect of this project.’’

Mickelson also gave Loy a lot of the credit, saying his coach and agent for the past 22 years had spent almost every day on the project for the past three months, and that the M Club, while his idea, was Loy’s passion.
 
“Randy has done a great job of making the golf course a challenge for every level,’’ Mickelson said. “And to me – enjoyable vs. not enjoyable – is how you can grow the game.’’

On the factual side of the face-lift, Scottsdale-based OB Sports will manage the property as well as other M Club properties, and Chris Johnson remains the general manager, having held a similar position with The Sanctuary. Asked the difference in the before-and-after, Johnson just smiled.

“Night and day,’’ he said. “We couldn’t ask for a better situation here at the club after going through some tough times, and I really like what Phil and his people have done for us, because golf is hard enough.’’

Of course, M Club members won’t worry about green fees. For those who don’t belong to it, the green fee will range from $69 to $135 depending on the season. There also is the McDowell Mountain Player’s Club for $119, which cuts the green fee essentially in half.

Chances are you won’t see McDowell Mountain’s famous owner out there any time soon, as he still lives in San Diego with his family. But large, almost life-size photographs of Phil winning his three Masters and PGA are everywhere in the clubhouse, and, of course, his club manufacturer, Callaway, has a strong presence, too.

Those who join the M Club get a hat with an elongated golfer as the logo. Even though it’s a shadow-like figure, that’s Mickelson air-borne after he won his first Masters in 2004, one of 39 titles he’s won in 20 seasons on the PGA Tour.

As I stated earlier, how the buzz on the M Club and McDowell Mountain all plays out remains to be seen. But Mickelson sure looks like he’s right at home, where he once lived for eight years. And a lot of his pals like caddie Jim "Bones'' Mackay, CBS golf announcer Gary McCord, Diamondbacks pitcher Josh Collmenter, and former Devils Mangini Chez Reavie and Kendall Critchfield, as well as a large contingent from the Arizona golf community all turned out for the special occasion.
 
“Yeah, this is cool,’’ said Mickelson, who donned a pair of white shorts rather than long pants for his day in the sun, making him look a little more like the rest of us who live here in the desert.

“You know, I’ve always loved Arizona.’’
 
Which makes Lefty’s latest venture into golf course ownership and entrepreneurship in the Grand Canyon State just that more intriguing.