Restoring Papago: Return to Greatness
By Bill Huffman
There was a time when Papago Golf Course was the finest facility open to the general public in Arizona. Built below the beautiful buttes of the same name— the site of a former national monument, no less—Papago was the desert diamond created by noted architectWilliam Francis “Billy’’ Bell.
Located on the borders of Phoenix, Tempe and Scottsdale, Papago opened its doors in 1963, and for the next 20 years it was on every golfer’s “must play’’ list. An amazing feat, really, considering Papago is a municipal facility. During those glory years, Papago hosted the 1971 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, and was the home to Arizona’s most wellknown professional, Johnny Bulla, whose 11-under-par 61 still stands as the course record both right- and left-handed!
Papago also was the neighborhood “muni’’ for some of the state’s most storied junior players, like Billy Mayfair and the Farr sisters—Heather and Missy. And all of Arizona’s top amateurs, from Ken Kellaney to Tina Huiskamp, played at Papago, where the men’s and women’s clubs flourished like few others in the entire Southwest.
But with the explosion of public golf courses in Arizona from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s—a build-out that more than quadrupled the state’s daily-fee courses—Papago fell into decline and, eventually, on hard times. Even worse, the City of Phoenix didn’t have the funding to fix up what once was the Valley’s most popular place to play.
Papago’s predicament could have been a tragic tale that ended like it has for some of the game’s one-time great layouts. But, fortunately, Papago had a friend in the Arizona Golf Association. Ed Gowan, the long-time director of the AGA, said Papago’s incredible past and classic design played a key role in his organization’s decision to spend between $6.5 and $12.5million“to restore what we truly believe is one of our crown jewels of Arizona golf.’’
“When the City announced the RFP [request for a proposal] on Papago, we felt right away that this might be a good fit for us,’’ Gowan explained. “The partnership they sought [in the bidding process] was a nonprofit relationship, which we are, and our vision of the project also was very similar.’’
The City wanted to keep Papago but entice some other entity into spending the money to fix it up. The payback from the City’s point of view would be that the new partner would get certain perks and privileges at Papago, although the course would still serve the public as part of its municipal system of courses.
“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,’’ Gowan pointed out. “We need access if we’re going to keep growing and adding traditional values like the Evans Scholarship-Caddy Program, which we’ve tried for years to start.
“So we answered in the RFP response, ‘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.’ Public golf is very important to [the USGA].’’
In retrospect, Rob Harman, the deputy director of the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department who oversees golf, said the AGA’s proposal was right down the middle of the fairway.
“Unlike the [other bidders] for the Papago project, who were basically management groups, the AGA had a non-profit—its Arizona Golf Foundation—that was capable of securing taxfree bonds,’’ Harman noted. “Additionally, our vision and their vision—to re-establish a quality golf experience for players of all levels—matched up quite nicely.
“We didn’t want a whole, new golf course, and they didn’t, either.’’
Instead, both groups aimed to keep the process as simple as possible, and that meant keeping Billy Bell’s routing and green settings as close to the originals as possible. Bell’s topography maps were long gone, but a master craftsman known for his traditional touch and gentle restoration methods was available in William“Billy’’ Fuller.
“The first time I saw Papago, my mouth kept falling open. I was that overcome,’’ admitted Fuller, the former superintendent at famed Augusta National, who worked with well-known architect Bob Cupp for years.
“My first thought was, ‘This is Phoenix!’ The rolls and the slopes of the land were so exceptional, and I realized immediately how Billy Bell had used them to perfection.’’
Fuller also saw the years of neglect and decay, which had been dealt out mostly from a 45-year-old irrigation system. The greens had shrunk by 30 to 40 percent and flattened out considerably, and the bunkering also had become worn out and a far cry from Bell’s original work.
“My goal is to try to turn back 50 years, and make my restoration as close as possible to the original plan, which was derived during the golden era of design,’’ Fuller noted. “It’s a huge challenge, because you have to put on the hat of a designer from the early 1960s, and try to figure out what he was attempting to do.
“Fortunately, I know the three things that Billy Bell was thinking—strategy, aesthetics and conditioning. So you solve the drainage problems, keep the plan ‘easy’ versus ‘difficult,’ and bring back those lovely greens and bunkers—and the views of those beautiful buttes!’’
According to the straight-talking Fuller, when the eightmonth project is completed in November, the greens will be larger and faster, the bunkers more visible and golfers will have several sets of tees that will play between 5,300 and 7,400 yards, or about 350 yards more than the original. And with the exception of holes 1, 9 and 11, which will be tweaked slightly for logical reasons, the new Papago will look much like the old Papago.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to be there, and I’m having fun,’’ Fuller reported.
The same could be said of Tom Bush, the project manager for Weitz Golf International, a Phoenix-based company that sits smack dab across the street from Papago and is spearheading the heavy-duty work.
“Billy Fuller has told us that he is attempting to bring it back to its original state, which means we are moving very little dirt (50,000 cubic yards),’’ said Bush, whose company has restored such Arizona properties as Troon North in Scottsdale, Alta Mesa in Mesa and La Paloma in Tucson, and is currently building the tournament course at Dove Mountain for the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, also in Tucson.
“I would say that less than 20 to 25 percent of the fairways will be re-contoured, and even that might be high.’’
The biggest deal, Bush noted, is that eight to 10 inches of the aging top soil at Papago is being chewed up, rejuvenated and laid back down with the aid of an asphalt pulverizer, which is the equivalent of a giant roto-tiller. Then the bulldozers go to work, Bush said.
“No material is being exported from the site, and no material is being imported,’’ Bush said. “The goal is real simple: To help Billy Fuller make Papago into what is used to be: the
crowned jewel of Arizona golf.’’
Bringing back the past and uniting it with the future was a big part of the driving force behind the project, said David Barnes, the president of the Arizona Golf Foundation.
“Most people in our organization understand we’re doing this strictly for the betterment of golf in Arizona,’’ Barnes said. “And the reason we’re doing it is simply because this is how we grow the game, as well as make it better for those who already play.’’
To that end, the AGA and AGF hope Papago will serve as an epicenter for all that is Arizona golf, said Lorraine Thies, the assistant executive director for the AGA.
“It’s one of the main reasons we got involved with the Papago project: To unite all these entities like the Arizona Women’s Golf Association, the Junior Golf Association of Arizona, the First Tee and other groups together in a very positive way,’’ said Thies, whose job will be to bring everybody together and launch new initiatives.
“Plus, we’ll now have a place to carry out our programs and clinics, and do new types of things like establish the Evans Scholarship for caddies.’’
Harman, for one, likes the way the “new Papago’’ is shaping up. And he is enjoying his new relationship with the AGA team, which includes all of the aforementioned as well as Marvin French, the founding partner and president of Oregon’s Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, who will oversee the restoration project and hire the managerial staff; Karl Olson, an agronomy expert from Desert Forest Golf Club in Carefree, who will serve as a consultant; and Sean Connors, whose companies will handle the sod (Horizon Turf) and new irrigation system (Rainbird).
“I call Billy Fuller,‘the Reverend Fuller,’ because he has converted me,’’Harman quipped.“It’s just amazing how he’s always right.
“Like one day we were out on the course, and he mentioned to me that he’d like to take out a few trees ‘to open up the Buttes.’ I said, ‘Ah, Billy, what do you want to do that for? Trees are a precious commodity around here.’ And then he showed me the light, how he’s opening up all of these beautiful corridors to the Papago Buttes that were actually once there, and well, I understand his plan. I get it!’’
That is a theme that grows stronger with each passing day, Harman added.
“The whole project is like nothing I’ve ever been involved with, a real roller-coaster since I came on the first day,’’ said Harman, who inherited the task from his predecessor, Bob Dionisio, on the very day that the AGA was announced as “the winner.’’
“But I will say this, and I reallymean it: Every day we work with the AGA team, themore we realize we selected the right group. It’s why I’mcertain that we’ll accomplish our goal of restoring Papago, and why the local players, and the out-of-town players, will want to come back and play this classicmunicipal course again.’’
As both Harman and Gowan agreed, the course is the most critical phase to the restoration, and then both groups will sit down and figure out if a new clubhouse and other facilities, like a new restaurant, are an upgrade or a complete replacement.
“It will be a work in progress, but we’re in it for the long term—not the short term—which means five, 10 and even 25 years from now we’ll be trying to make Papago and the facilities even better,’’ Gowan noted. “It all starts with the focus being to build a perfect public golf course, where there’s something for everybody, and to keep making things better, so we accurately convey the message to the general public that golf is a great citizen.’’
If those goals are accomplished, the golfers will come, Gowan predicted.
“Other golf associations have done this and it’s been a huge success,’’ he said. “Is it on the edge, and will it stretch us out a little [financially]? Oh, yeah. I’m sure it will.
“But it’s the right thing to do, and we are following models that have been successful, so we know it can be done.’’
Gowan said there are even plans for possibly landing a U.S. Golf Association event in the future, or perhaps hosting the Nationwide or LPGA tours. But if those dreams never happen, there will always be a barometer that reflects the project’s success.
“More than anything, I’d like to see it as a place where kids can hang out again on the weekends,’’ Gowan said. “Like Billy Mayfair and the Farr sisters, and many other kids used to do.
“If we can do that, in my opinion, we’ve hit a home run.’’