Gary Panks and Devil's Claw in Phoenix, Arizon
PHOENIX, Ariz. - Gary Panks looked on with trepidation as the Buy.com Tour's finest bombed one 300-yard drive after another over the copper-mine deep bunkers on the Devil's Claw course at Whirlwind Golf Club.
The Scottsdale-based course architect designed the highly regarded resort track with the average golfer in mind. The flatbellies and big hitters of professional golf's most competitive farm system - in town for the $425,000 purse of the Gila River Classic - had no intentions of being average.
David Branshaw, 33, took home his first tour victory and the $76,000 winner's check by finishing 22-under par. Nerves kept him from going any lower, as he posted a 1-over-par 72 on Sunday. Had he been a little more accustomed to playing in the final group on payday, Branshaw might have flirted with a ridiculously low four-day total.
A par-71, Devil's Claw had played to a cumulative stroke average of 68.8 for the first 54 holes. But Sunday's winds and thoughts of some much-needed prize money pushed the fourth round average to 70.97. As a good stick and someone who plays frequently with professional golfers, Panks was able to pinpoint the cause of the low stroke average.
"The way Devil's Claw sets up, the fairways slope uphill to the landing area and then downhill towards the green," says Panks. "These guys could blow the ball past the landing areas, and their tee shots caught the downhill part of the fairway. Then they had a lot of wedge shots to hole cuts that weren't that difficult for players of their caliber."
Panks may have the last laugh, however, in next year's event. In 2003, the tournament will switch to Whirlwind's newest venue, the Cattail Course, where Panks has designed a layout with the both the professional and recreational golfer in mind.
"Cattail was originally slated to host the event," says Whirlwind sales director Joe Palomarez. "It is longer, tighter off the tee and should hold up better against par. But from the middle and forward tees, it plays to about the same length as Devil's Claw so high handicappers can enjoy it, too."
So confident are Panks and Palomarez that Cattail will hold its own against the David Branshaws of the world that they are vying to host the 2005 Nationwide Insurance Buy.com Tour Championship.
"We are gunning for it, so I hope they don't go out and shoot 30-under next year," laughs Palomarez.
Possible, but not likely.
Cattail plays to nearly 7,200 yards from the back tees, 300 yards longer than Devil's Claw. A number of holes, through the use of auxiliary tee boxes, can be stretched even farther if needed. While the course lacks the deep, penal bunkering of Devil's Claw, Panks has employed more subtle tactics to challenge the better players.
"Obviously, the course is much tighter off the tee, and you have to shape some shots," Panks says. "The greens are also designed so that they can be cupped in a lot more areas near the edge of the greens so it brings the hazards into play."
The majority of those hazards come in the form of water. While Devil's Claw features one irrigation lake that comes into play on only two holes, Cattail is a tribute to the once riparian landscape of the Gila River. Man made lakes and streams meander through the layout, most of which have been stocked with cattails and other aquatic vegetation.
"At Devil's Claw we moved a lot of earth and there was a lot of fill," says Panks. "Cattail is built closer to the grade of the natural terrain. We worked long and hard with the (Gila) tribal cultural committee to stay true to the land's heritage."
Cattail also stays true to the land's latest developments. The course showcases the new $125 million Sheraton resort hotel and its 2.5-mile-long Gila River replica that enables guests to float to the casino and points in between. The par-4 16th hole plays along the back of the resort, offering views of the spa, pool, and river. The par-3 15th - perhaps the best hole on the course - also offers jaw-dropping views of the resort and surrounding mountain ranges.
Cattail is a desert course, in the sense that it is a course located in the desert. But you won't find many blind shots, forced carries over daunting desert arroyos, or heart-stopping elevation changes. The course is routed through the pancake flat terrain south of Phoenix and is dotted with native Palo Verde's and mesquite trees.
Panks has designed courses throughout Arizona, from the red rocks of Sedona to the tumultuous Sonoran desert terrain of the Valley of the Sun. Without hesitation, he says that crafting a memorable golf course on Cattail's relatively mundane site was one of his greatest design feats.
"The toughest design problem is actually having a clean slate to work with," he says. "You have to be much more creative when you have a flat piece of land. It is easier to design a course where you have some changing terrain. But if you are creative it gives you the chance to do some great things."
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December 1, 2002