Elephants stand guard at the gates of Elephant Rocks Golf Course in Williams

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

WILLIAMS, Ariz. -- Elephant Rocks Golf Course is going to give you glimpses into the history of golf in Arizona.

Elephant Rocks G.C.
Elephant Rocks Golf Course's first nine holes were built by railroad workers in 1922.
Elephant Rocks G.C.Elephant Rocks Golf Course
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The first nine holes on this out-of-the-way municipal course in Williams (current pop. 2,900) was built by railroad workers in 1922 when Warren Harding was president, several years before Augusta National was built.

And believe it or not, they were putting out on sand on those nine holes as late as 1988 -- that's the year George Bush the First got elected. "At the time there was no irrigation on the course and there were only sand greens," says Scottsdale architect Gary Panks, who was brought in to redesign Elephant Rocks. "You'd use a roller to smooth them out before you putted."

In 1990, after renovation by Panks, a Scottsdale architect whose credits include the Talon Course at Grayhawk Golf Club, Elephant Rocks reopened with real grass greens on a redesigned nine. Then Panks came back in 1999 to add another nine holes to the course.

What you find today is not a course you'd mix up with the championship layouts in Phoenix/Scottsdale, 150-plus miles away. But if you're in this resort area and looking for a course, you can play a relaxing game here with the Bill Williams Mountain and San Francisco Peaks in the background. The fragrance of pine needles is heavy in the air here.

And at the gateway to the golf course you'll probably want to take a photo of those huge lava rocks that allegedly resemble "elephants" and were dropped there or in the vicinity by a volcano that erupted who knows when.

This is North Arizona high desert -- almost 7,000 feet in elevation -- in an area where temperatures are about 20 degrees lower in summer than you'll find in Phoenix to the south. It's a bit of a trip to get here from the south. First you have to travel from Phoenix to Flagstaff on Interstate 17; then take I-40 west for about 30 miles; then meander up a country road for two or three miles.

"I like every golf course Gary Panks has designed and this is no exception," says head golf professional John McCahan. "This course is a little easier than a lot of his courses, but that's because the original nine was a bit short."

The course, playing at 6,695 yards from the tips, starts out among the hills and pines surrounding the clubhouse on holes that were part of the original nine. No. 1 is a downhill par-4 with a slight dogleg left and a lake to avoid on the right. This is a great setting with lots of trees and sunlight glinting off that lake that dominates the scenery on the first three holes. By No. 6 you're out into the newer area on a marshy meadow where some houses have been built along the fairways as part of a subdivision called Highland Meadows. Panks made great use of the water possibilities here, including building a peninsula green on the par-3 No. 12 that measures 157 yards from the back tees and 101 from the forward. The distance isn't that great, but if you slice or hook, you're going to find the water. There's also an intimidating bunker right in front of the green.

No. 15 takes you back into the woods again to face some of those renovated older holes. When you're playing among the trees, you can feel as if you're the only person around for miles.

Most golfers pick the two last holes as their favorites. No. 17, once upon a time the eighth hole, is a par-5 that rolls up and down for a 100-yard uphill finish.

Then it's on to the rollicking No. 18, a 194-yard par-3 that seems as if it goes straight downhill. It's 212 yards from the back tees and 161 from the forward. "Golfers generally don't like to have a par-3 as the finishing hole, but if you can get a par here, you've done well," says McCahan. "It's difficult to decide what club to pick here because when the wind blows, it can be a completely different hole from what you expect."

Stop off after you finish to take a good look at the antique rugged stone clubhouse, also built in the '20s by railroad workers.

About 20,000 rounds are played at Elephant Rocks from March to November, McCahan says. The course can be covered with snow in winter, but recent winters have been exceptionally mild due to the drought in Arizona. "We even opened up nine holes in January this year; but we did that because we were hoping it would snow," McCahan says.

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.


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