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A true champion: Architect Gary Panks

By BILL HUFFMAN 
       Gary Panks is modest, mild-mannered and anything but mighty at 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds. But don’t be fooled by one of Arizona’s most well-respected golf course architects – he can play!
        Back in his college days, Panks played golf for Michigan State and also lettered on the Spartans’ hockey team. True, he wasn’t big as puck-chasers go, but he had passion and he had heart, two attributes he would rely on throughout his career.
       “I walked on in both sports, and ended up being the captain of the golf team in 1963, back in the days when (Jack) Nicklaus and (Tom) Weiskopf were at Ohio State and dominating the Big 10 (conference),’’ Panks recalled. “I think my senior year we finished fourth or fifth (in the conference tournament).
      “As far as the hockey team, well, I wasn’t bad but I wasn’t a starter, either.’’
       When Panks arrived in Arizona in the late 1960s as a landscaper hired to design and build parks for Maricopa County and the City of Phoenix, he still knew how to golf his ball. A plus-1 handicap, he won the Don Sanderson Mustang Classic, which was the pre-runner to the Arizona State Stroke Play Championship.
      Some 20 years later, Panks and his wife, Judy, captured the Arizona State Mixed Team Championship (for couples) at Silver Creek Golf Club near Show Low. The irony there was he had built Silver Creek a few years earlier, one of 20 courses he has created over the years in Arizona.
    Such a legacy – he also has built 20 other courses worldwide, some with former partner David Graham – is why Panks was honored last week at the Champions Dinner that precedes the Arizona State Stroke Play Championship. And while the majority of that honor is for the great golf courses he has bestowed upon this state, let’s not forget that Gary Panks was a player, too.
    Plus, Panks has an attitude found in all true champions.
    “I just love the game,’’ he said of the sport he has played since he was 12 as a boy growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., better known as “Sault Ste. Siberia’’ where the town’s most identifiable landmark has always been a snow shovel.
    “I’m 67 now, and I just missed shooting my age the last two years by one shot up at Pinetop Country Club. But one of these years, I’m going to do it, especially if I keep playing at Pinetop Country Club.’’
    That’s another course that holds a special fondness for Panks, as his mentor, Milt Coggins Sr., built the original layout and Panks redesigned it.
   “I started working with Milt back in the mid-70s and I learned a lot,’’ Panks said of one of the early pioneers of Arizona golf. “In 1980, Doug MacDonald was at Ahwatukee Country Club, and it was Doug who gave me the chance to build my first golf course – Ahwatukee Lakes.’’
   In the last 30 years, Panks has just kept designing and building them in every style and shape. For instance, he created some very high-end properties with Graham like Chaparral Pines near Payson, Grayhawk Talon in Scottsdale, and the Raven at South Mountain in Phoenix. He also built several resort courses on his own in Phoenix like The Legacy and two courses at Whirlwind to go with great municipals like Antelope Hills South near Prescott, Elephant Rocks near Williams, and Aguila in Phoenix.
   Along the way Panks also created picturesque tracks like Sedona Golf Resort and the Trilogy at Vistancia in Peoria, the only course in Arizona that was ever honored with five stars from Golf Digest. And, of course, some very solid private clubs like Seville Country Club in Gilbert, as well as two completely different courses at Tonto Verde Country Club near Rio Verde.
     “Which one is my favorite? That’s like asking which of your children is your favorite,’’ Panks said with a laugh. “I like them all for various reasons, but I guess if you really pressed me I’d have to say it’s hard not to point to the natural beauty of Chaparral Pines or a championship course like Twin Warriors over in New Mexico, where they hold the PGA qualifier.’’
     One of Panks’ close friends and former associates, Tom Colceri, said that Panks made his name by following “a very friendly philosophy of golf course design.’’
     “The thing about Gary’s golf courses have always been that they worked out well for the golfers who have played them and for the developers who were behind them (financially),’’ Colceri explained. “Gary always built courses that were golfer-friendly and fun to play, and unlike some (golf course architects) he never built a bad one, chiefly because he never let his ego get in the way.’’
     Colceri also makes an interesting point about how Panks’ reputation has been solidified mostly by creating golf courses on average pieces of land while some of his peers have had the luxury of building courses along ocean cliffs and mountain tops.
      "That’s what has really separated Gary from everybody else in the business. He’s just so creative,” Colceri noted. "He can take a piece of land with no redeeming qualities and turn it into a beautiful golf course.
       "Look at the Raven at South Mountain or the Legacy, or Trilogy at Vistancia or Seville; all were either cotton fields or orange groves. . . . It’s hard to screw up a golf course where the setting is spectacular, but you really have to work hard to make an average piece of land great.”
     Panks said he always has stuck to a simple design theme “that has a sound strategy and doesn’t favor any particular style of play.’’
     “I want my courses to be enjoyed by players of all levels, from the pros right on down to the beginners,’’ he said. “So we build appealing golf holes that will test a golfer’s game – most are shot-makers’ courses — and still allow the bogey golfer to play without having to challenge the hazards.’’
     Proof of Panks’ popularity and consistency came six years ago when he closed his office in Scottsdale and planned to scale back on his operation, thinking that MAYBE he would do a course a year on his own from his office in his home. It didn’t work.
    “Almost immediately I was inundated with five or six projects, and so I had to go back out there and hire some help,’’ he said, shaking his head at his brief encounter with semi-retirement. “I guess I’ll probably never retire even if I did end up keeping my office at home.’’
     Today, Panks is nearing completion of his 41st course called Conestoga Golf Club near Mesquite, Nev. The project, which had its construction interrupted for about 18 months while it was under the Anthem banner for Del Webb, comes in a time when golf course design in general has been impacted by a sagging worldwide economy.
     “Obviously, there has been a big downturn in course construction, and being that we’re overbuilt (with golf courses) in Arizona doesn’t help,’’ Panks noted. “Plus, they have become so expensive to maintain, and the costs of clubhouses have just sky-rocketed.
      “When I first started you could be a pretty good course for $3 million, and then back in the boom era (1985-2000) they got up to about $10 million to $15 million.
      “Today, we’re building Conestoga for around $20 million, and it’s hard to make it back (money on the investment) on anything but lot sales. So things have really slowed down.’’
     Reluctantly, Panks said those good ol’ days in Arizona of “if you build them they will come’’ are history.
.     “Oh, yes, I remember when we were building 10 to 12 courses a year. It was an exciting time, you might even call it the days of euphoria,’’ Panks recalled. “But we got ahead of ourselves, thinking the party would never end.
     “Today, I feel sorry for a lot of the developers out there who are stuck. It’s been tough on them lately, that’s for sure. But for the most part, Arizona is done (building courses) in the metro Phoenix-Scottsdale area, although we may still see some courses being built in the future in outlying areas.’’
      As for his legacy, Gary Panks’ small ego and big heart remain firmly in place.
     “My only thought is that I hope the people who play my courses in the future will always enjoy them,’’ he said. “I know that some people will still remember who built them in the years to come, but most people won’t.    
     “I don’t have a name like Nicklaus or Weiskopf, and I’m not a former (PGA Tour) player. So for me it’s always been all about the golf course.’’
     Once again, spoken like a true champion.