Article by Gary Van Sickle 12-15-08 on

Papago Golf Course in Phoenix is worthy of a U.S. Open
By Gary Van Sickle
Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated
Published: December 15, 2008

PHOENIX — I don’t suppose there’s any chance the United States Open could ever come to the greater Phoenix area. Not with the average high temperature here in June hitting 103 degrees.
If not for the Arizona heat, however, the USGA could add Papago Golf Course to its list of municipal courses on the Open rota. The current Open munis are Torrey Pines, whose majesty was underscored by Tiger Woods and an unforgettable championship last summer; Bethpage Black, which will host its encore Open next summer; and Chambers Bay, a newcomer in Tacoma, Wash., already penciled in for the ’15 Open.
It’s a crazy idea, I know, but that’s how much I liked playing the renovated (or should I say the new and improved?) Papago last week. The Course has long been a gem known to Phoenix area residents, but it was unknown to most of the rest of the country. I discovered it last week on the day it reopened after closing for improvements in April.
Maybe it’s a stretch to think that Papago could host an Open, but it ranks with my favorite tracks in the golf-heavy Scottsdale area even though its greens need a little more time to fill in and smooth out.
The changes added 350 yards to the course, which now stretches more than 7,300 yards. That’s probably not long enough for an Open once you factor in roll and the dry desert air. Growing Open-length rough would be a challenge, too, given the amount of precious water needed. Getting the greens up to Open speeds and keeping them alive in constant 100-degree heat probably isn’t realistic, either.
Like I said, it’s a crazy idea as long as the Open is married to its traditional mid-June date. I bring it up only as a way to emphasize my enthusiasm for Papago. Owned by the city of Phoenix, it’s one of the country’s great underrated public tracks.
What’s so great about it? Well, for one thing, it doesn’t feel like a desert golf course. It has grass. Acres of it. It has lots of big trees and tree-lined fairways. So it’s green and shady (by desert standards) and smartly routed, and you have to work pretty hard to lose a ball here (although it can be done). If you miss a fairway at most desert courses, your ball is usually lost or unplayable, or both.
Picture the Torrey Pines South Course without the ocean or the dramatic cliffs. OK, you can’t. But if you could, that’s Papago. It’s not a coincidence. Billy Bell, who designed Torrey Pines and other California courses, designed Papago, which opened in 1963. The course hosted a U.S. Public Links Championship in ’71 and has held numerous Phoenix Open qualifiers.
It was always a strong layout, but it succumbed to a lack of attention, which happens to most municipal courses. Having just discovered it myself, I can’t tell you how far it fell, but I can tell you that it’s an eye-opening experience now.
For starters, it’s less than 10 minutes from Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport. It couldn’t be more convenient unless the clubhouse was at the rental car center. The renovators cleared out the underbrush and 40 years worth of debris, so I’m told, and that’s why the course feels so airy and open. There are great views in every direction, a smorgasbord of mountains — the Superstitions, Camelback, South Mountain and the Four Peaks — and eerie, weather-worn red buttes worth gaping at. You don’t expect that in the middle of town.
Some might think it a distraction, but I actually enjoyed watching the big jets lumbering in and out of Sky Harbor. The sky above Papago is very busy with planes and birds.
Mostly, though, I enjoyed the mildly rolling terrain, the curving fairways, the oversized bunkers and big greens. It really does have the feel of Torrey Pines, and from the back tees, it’s a manly test.
It is still a work in progress. A double-wide trailer currently passes for the clubhouse, and plans for a new clubhouse are a ways off. The practice range wasn’t quite finished and wasn’t open for play. The chipping and putting greens were usable, but not as good as they’ll be after another month or two of growth and maturing. And the new greens are firm, as new greens usually are.
I won’t bore you with hole-by-hole description, but I will tell you that each nine begins with adjacent (almost identical) par-5 holes that dogleg to the right, a pair of excellent wake-up calls, and most holes are pleasantly tree-lined. Papago is a desert course that’s not a desert course, and it’s conveniently located. I don’t why it took me so long to discover it, but I know one thing — I’ve got a new entry for my list of America’s best public courses. I know something else, too. I’ll be back.


Article by Mike Bailey on 12-15-08

Facelift brings back glory of old Papago Golf Course in Phoenix – but with modern flair
By Mike Bailey,
Senior Writer
(as it appeared on
PHOENIX – There was a time when Arizona golfers used to spend the night in their cars for a weekend tee time at Papago Golf Course in Phoenix. Those days have been gone for quite some time. The years, and 100,000 rounds a year, had not been kind to this 1963 William Bell classic. It was time for major reconstructive surgery.
This month, after a six-month operation and recovery, a more youthful Papago was unveiled. Now with modern greens, a 21st century irrigation system and a little more length, Papago has become a lot more than a shell of its former self; it’s reinvented.
Papago now has four sets of tees, and this par 72 provides a true championship test from tips at 7,333 yards, harkening memories of its past when it hosted the 1971 U.S. Amateur Pub Links and countless Phoenix Open qualifiers.
It remains to be seen if anyone will camp out for a tee time here with all the new golf courses that have been built in the area in the past two decades. But come spring, when Papago has a chance to fill in a little, demand for tee times will probably be high. Local residents can play the course for $44 in-season during the winter, while others will pay $115. Summer green fees are $20 and $40 respectively. Carts are $15.
Bell, by the way, is the same architect who designed Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, Calif. That one was renovated as well, most recently by Rees Jones, who prepared it for the 2008 U.S. Open.
For Papago, the task fell with Billy Fuller, a former superintendent at Augusta National Golf Club who formed his own design company, Billy Fuller Golf Design, in 2003. Not only did he bring back Bell’s classic bunkering and greens complexes, but he added a few agronomic touches, which should propel the course into the next few decades or so.
The $5.8 million restoration project is a result of a partnership between the City of Phoenix, the Arizona Golf Association, and the Arizona Golf Foundation, a non-profit arm of the AGA. The project is being managed by the Golf Guys, LLC, under the direction of Marvin French, one of the principals at the highly acclaimed Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in Oregon.
Fewer trees, for one
Trees can make or break a golf course, and in the case of Papago, the abundance of them was starting to do the latter. For one, their canopies can make it difficult to grow grass, especially on greens. And in the case of Papago, they were obstructing the views of the nearby Papago Buttes, which are now visible from nearly every hole after 400 trees were removed. The tree removal also helped with the views of Camelback Mountain, South Mountain and downtown Phoenix.
Speaking of the greens, they were rebuilt to USGA specifications. Fuller also restored them to their original sizes and shapes. Over the years, they had lost some 30 to 40 percent of their surface area.
The greens are also now Mini-Verde, an ultra dwarf that has gained popularity in the Southeast because of its hardiness, smoothness and cold-tolerance in the winter. The new greens will be overseeded next year when they are more mature and can handle the competition from winter grasses, according to General Manager Albert Murdock. But as late as December, when the course reopened, they still seemed to be actively growing – despite the cool nights – and were perfectly green. All but a handful were already in excellent shape.
Fuller also took great care to restore the bunkers to their original shape and contour. Most of them, especially many of the fairway bunkers, are truly penal now. Some of the fairway bunkers were also moved farther from the tee to accommodate the modern game, and 12 new ones were added.
The lakes on Nos. 9 and 11 were also restored, not only to be more aesthetic and strategic but to also feed the new irrigation system. The course also got a more expansive driving range.
Papago Golf Course: Favorite holes
New tee boxes on holes 1, 9 and 11 added nearly 350 yards to the course to accommodate today’s equipment and players, yet Papago Golf Course is very playable by all levels. Unlike most courses in the Phoenix area, this isn’t desert golf; it’s parkland golf. Miss a fairway and chances are you get to hit it again as it lies. There are legitimate recovery shots throughout the course, bringing all kinds of options into play.
With two medium length par 5s, a pair of par 4 holes longer than 450 yards and a 258-yard par 3, the front nine is actually longer at 3,721 yards, but the back nine may be harder.
Papago has a classic risk-reward short par 4 in the 322-yard 12th (yes, the desert can come into play here) to ready you for a pretty good finishing kick that truly starts with the 585-yard, par-5 15th. Not only is 15 long, but the green is well protected by three bunkers and ample slope between pin locations.
The 442-yard 16th has two fairway bunkers along the right side to force players to work the ball down the left of the fairway or lay up short of the bunkers for a tougher angle. Then there’s the 243-yard, par-4 17th. The new green here is no longer a blind shot from the tee, and there’s a new fore bunker that hides the front left green area and two new bunkers to frame the back of the green to enhance the target.
Finally, the uphill, 464-yard, par-4 18th is a terrific finishing hole. You need length as well as accuracy here on this uphill fairway that turns to the right.
Papago Golf Course: The verdict
The course isn’t perfect yet, but it’s much improved, and it still takes you back to the good old days. Play the right tees, and the course should be enjoyable for any player, and the tips are a pretty stiff test.
Papago Golf Course is also very scenic now, with the views of the buttes, surrounding mountains and city. Removing the trees really did open up the course.
Now all Papago needs is a clubhouse, which should come along in 18 months to two years, according to Murdock. In the meantime, a "modular" building will have to suffice.
December 15, 2008