Happy ending? Apache Stronghold is turning things around

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

GLOBE, Ariz. - Last fall, we visited Apache Stronghold in eastern Arizona because a national magazine had named the course one of the top 100 public courses in America.

We were astonished to find a course on the brink of tragedy after losing at least five fairways due to the failure of the bluegrass planted during construction. In some spots, golfers were hitting their balls into mucky holes that were breeding grounds for gnats. It turned out that Apache Stronghold had been struggling almost since the beginning with a grass disaster. Staff had just been changed in an effort to cope with the crisis.

But when we went back to play a few days ago, we found that the course has turned around dramatically. Even though desk clerk Matt Ortega warns golfers that the grass is not in perfect shape before they make tee times, the fairways are now playable and some are downright beautiful.

Suddenly, you can enjoy the rugged peaks and valleys that surround this course on the San Carlos Apache Reservation and concentrate on the intriguing layout by one of America's golf architect-stars Tom Doak of Traverse City, Mich. You're not hunting for patches of green stuff any more - little islands where you could replant your ball so that you could strike it without wrecking your fairway woods.

How did the course reverse its fortunes? "The staff did it; it wasn't me," says Albert Murdock, general manager of Apache Stronghold.

And of course, the bluegrass is now going, going, gone. It just couldn't stand the summertime heat in the Globe-San Carlos area, which runs five to seven degrees cooler than it does in Phoenix, 95 miles to the west. "We've gone to all-Bermuda now," says Murdock. "We just put down $80,000 worth of Bermuda grass seed."

Bermuda is commonly used in Phoenix because it can handle super-hot days. On the downside, it goes brown and dormant in winter; so most Phoenix-area courses usually overseed with rye in fall and shut down for a few weeks while the rye takes root.

"We're not doing any overseeding though," Murdock says. "We're just going to let the grass go dormant in mid-November."

Golfers still can play from November through February after which the Bermuda starts turning green again, but they'll be hitting on what looks like a brown thatch. It's not all that unusual. Some courses in Phoenix - including the TPC Desert Course - practice the same policy, but re-seed on tee boxes and greens.

The Bermuda project is only part of the fix for the grass, says course superintendent Ron Mahaffey. "The Bermuda is being used right now to get the color back and break up the soil because we have a lot of soil issues here. In the fall of 2004 we're planning to go to bentgrass because we think this is a good climate for bent," he says. "There's still a lot to do. It's as if we're going down the road on a 100-mile trip, and right now we're at mile 10."

What's amazing about all this is that for a couple of years, national golf magazines have been showering the course with honors, with editors seemingly oblivious to Apache Stronghold's actual conditions. So, many golfers made the two-hour-plus drive to the reservation to play a course that they had been led to believe was one of the top public courses in America. After what we wrote about the course, at least one golfing publication pulled its high rating for the course.

But since then, much, much more than the fairways have improved at Apache Stronghold. Tee boxes are well-groomed and not rock hard. Weeds are under control; the rustic all-dirt cart paths are neatly raked; markers and signs point the way from hole to hole. In the past it was easy to feel lost on this rambling course that wanders around an area where rattlesnakes and Gila monsters greatly outnumber people with balls and sticks.

The starter now gives explicit instructions, and you're equipped with a map of the course. There are marshals and people to clean your clubs when you roll up to the clubhouse. Sounds like the basics, but they weren't there before.

The design of the course now shines through out here in San Carlos. Doak is one of the leader architects of America's minimalist movement in golf design - a throwback some say to the good old days when the land - not the architect - determined what the tricks on the course would be. And this piece of property really gives him the chance to show off his theories.

Lots of blind shots on this 7,500-yard, par-72 course because of the lay of the land - something that minimalists enjoy doing to golfers. For example the par-5 No. 1 (661 yards from the back, 503 from the forward) moves uphill and has a green that is hidden from view by a mound on the right side of the fairway.

Although the back nine on this course is from 400 to 500 yards shorter than the front, depending on your tee, the back can be trickier.

Two unusual holes make use of gullies that require you to think your strategy through very carefully. One is No. 10, a par-4 dogleg left (472 yards from the back tees and 345 from the forward). On this hole a long snakelike and sandy waste bunker splits the fairway lengthwise into two long strips. But from most tee boxes, that waste bunker lies parallel to the tee; the green is way off to your left. You have to decide whether to hit left up that left fairway - which gets more and more narrow and bumpy as it goes along - or to hit over the bunker onto the other fairway which is more generous but requires a much longer shot off the tee.

Another interesting split fairway situation comes up on the par-5 No. 16 (510 from the back tees and 375 from the forward). You hit off the tee to a generous landing area, but you need to move your ball as far as possible to the left to the edge of Gilson Wash, a 50- to 60-yard arroyo. Then you must hit a fairly long second shot over the wash and onto the other fairway. If you go to the right off the tee, you're in for a long, frustrating trip to the green.

No. 17, a par-3 that is 230 yards from the back and 133 from the forward, doesn't seem all that long on paper. But your tee shot really feels about 30 yards longer because you're hitting uphill, going over Gilson Wash again.

Needless to say, all the rough spots haven't been smoothed away at Apache Stronghold. There are still many brown patches to repair. Typical is No. 6, a roller-coaster of a par-4 with dips and bumps that created a nightmare last year. All the low spots were filled with thick muddy grass and water requiring golfers to move their balls on every other shot. Now the gullies are fine, but the little hills are on the brown side. This is one of those holes that Doak is famous for with a fairway that doesn't flatten out the ups and downs. Time will tell if the grass will ever grow smoothly here.

How did Apache Stronghold get into its predicament in the first place? After the 13,000-member San Carlos tribe built its Apache Gold casino-motel complex in 1994, the golf course was added in 1999, partly to help draw new customers to the casino. Other tribes have done the same.

During construction, controversy arose when it came time to pick grass for the fairways. A consultant advised Doak that dwarf bluegrass would be the best choice for the course because it wouldn't require overseeding and because Bermuda wouldn't thrive in Globe, which is at about 3,200 feet of elevation. The seed was sown, and soon after opening, the course started reaping problems.

But the grass is much greener at Apache Stronghold now, and in time, if the Bermuda-bentgrass plan succeeds, this imaginative course may well rank among the top places to play in Arizona.

Where to stay or eat

If you're not interested in making the trip up and back to the course in a day, you may want to book a room and dine at the resort's Best Western hotel, the Apache Gold. That will also give you a chance to swim in the pool or hit the casino in the evening.

There are lots of packages involving golf. From Oct. 1 through April, it costs $89 a night per person for a room, plus buffet dinner, plus golf. Green fees alone during that time run $60 to $70 per person. Green fees from May through September are $45. Call 800-APACHE8.

Other sights to see

Stop off along Highway 60 in Globe or Superior to see the historic old town areas. This was an area of Arizona were copper was king and still plays a role in the economy. These towns also have loads of motels and restaurants.

Fast fact

Perhaps Tom Doak's most famous course is Pacific Dunes in Bandon, Ore., ranked by Golf Magazine as one of the top 100 courses in America.

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Current condition.

    Ted wrote on: Apr 13, 2013

    THis is a very old article. I played today in a tournament 4/13/13. $30.00 is the normal rate. I live in a town without a course. I would love to live near here. I thought the course was closed. I was pleasantly surprised. The course has had some hard times over the last 4-5 years. You can see where they are making improvements. The fairways, tee boxes, and greens were mowed. There are a few greens that have some bare spots. These didn’t cause any problems. We were allowed to move the ball sideways if we needed to putt through one of these. I moved the ball once about 12 inches. The fairways will need to mature a little. There are many bare spots. However if you move your ball you can hit from grass. I didn’t move my ball at all. I only had 2 bare ground shots. I loved the course. No houses, no cars, no noise…I take that back lots of birds. I saw a few jack rabbits. Fun day. I’ll be back. They have a new superintendent. I wish him the best.


  • apache Stronghold

    Clyde Henning wrote on: Jun 29, 2012

    Played this course just after it had opened and it was playable with great potential. but upon returning a couple of years later found the course as bare as you talked about and this was in the cool weather season in Jan. Glad to hear things may be improving as it would definitely be worth a drive again from the Phoenix/Mesa area when there on vacation.