Apache Stronghold: This Diamond has its Rough Spots

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

SAN CARLOS, AZ - Apache Stronghold Golf Club, one of four golf clubs on Native American tribal lands in Arizona, has been widely acclaimed in the three years since the course opened. Last spring, Golfweek named it the No. 1 public course in the state. Now Golf magazine has put the club on its 2002 list of the top 100 public courses in America - an honor sure to attract new customers.

We found several good reasons why those customers should pay a visit to this course about 100 miles east of Phoenix. But there is also one big problem - lots of large patches of dead turf on the fairways in summer and fall. The staff is dealing with the grass issue at Apache Stronghold, but it needs to be resolved before anyone stamps the club with more gold-plated endorsements.

It seems that during construction, consultants advised the San Carlos Apaches, who own the property and financed the course, that they ought to plant bluegrass instead of the Bermuda found at most Arizona courses, according to architect Tom Doak. That bluegrass has become something of a maintenance nightmare. The situation has become so difficult during summer, with so much of the grass dying off, that the course is now making a major change. Greens keepers will patch the course with a mixture of bluegrass and rye this fall and winter and then plant Bermuda grass in the spring, says Albert Murdock, the general manager of the course.

Some Bermuda has already been planted and has begun to fill in the bare spots. Anyone planning to play the course should check with the desk staff about the conditions of the fairways before booking a tee time. However, according to the course superintendent, Ron Mahaffey, "It was just gorgeous in the spring."

Mahaffey has been at the course less than a year and is working hard to fix the fairways. The problem, he says, is that the course is in a "transition zone," too hot and humid in late summer for cool season grasses like bluegrass and too cold in winter for warm season grasses.

To get to Apache Stronghold, you travel up Highway 60 past the Superstition Mountains into the lush high desert in the Tonto National Forest, past giant Phelps Dodge copper mines, past little towns like Superior and Globe almost untouched by the tourist and housing boom that has transformed Arizona in the past 10 years. After reaching Globe, it's another five miles east on Highway 70 to reach the course on the San Carlos Apache Nation. The scenery in itself is almost worth the two-hour trip, much of it on a two-lane highway. But you expect to find a special course once you get there, and many visitors probably decide to make the trip because of those ratings in the golf magazines.

On arrival, you'll find that Apache Stronghold, built in 1999, is on a magnificent site just in back of the tribe's motel and casino. All around, at 3,200 feet of elevation, are craggy peaks - the Superstition, the Chiricahua, the Aravaipa and the White mountains. There are no tract houses, no shopping malls, no buildings at all except for the golf clubhouse, the motel and casino. Instead of paved cart paths, gravel trails wind from tee box to tee box, adding to the Old West feeling of the course. On a nearby hill, a giant bronze statue of an Apache on a horse looks out over the course.

Tom Doak, an architect from Traverse City, MI, and an advocate of "minimalist" design, created this course. He also designed another acclaimed course, Pacific Dunes in Bandon, OR, that is now second on the Golf magazine list.

On his firm's website, Doak says about Apache Stronghold that one of the goals for the course was "to honor the land" in accord with the wishes of the San Carlos Apaches, who helped build the course and now make up the maintenance crew. "The topography of the site was superb for golf and with no trade-offs to make for the sake of development, golf holes could be placed where they fit the land minimizing disturbance of the surrounding desert," Doak also writes.

At Apache Stronghold, Doak says he wanted "to reinvent desert golf on friendlier terms" by offering golfers wider fairways so there would be fewer lost balls and penalties. He also used many desert washes as natural bunkers staked as hazards so that players can take a penalty drop instead of trying to play out of them. Clearly, very little soil was bulldozed here. The aim instead was to lay out the holes to fit the natural curves and bumps of the land, although sometimes this seems to have created a difficult maintenance situation - little gullies of grass that don't drain well and are hard to mow.

"Only 35,000 cubic yards of dirt were moved," says general manager Murdock. Compare that with some new courses in the Phoenix area where hundreds of thousands of yards are often shifted around and huge bulkheads are installed to create the ravines and washes that occur naturally at Apache Stronghold.

Although it's hard to put the conditions out of your mind while you play, Doak has created a very intriguing layout. This is a fairly long course (7,519 yards from the back tees, 5,535 yards from the forward) with many great holes, like the par 4 No. 4 where golfers make a blind shot off the tee to a sharp dogleg left. This hole (398 yards from the back tees, 284 yards from the forward) is called "Twin Peaks" because of the twin sand hills spotted with sage and brush that flank the green. If you shoot too far left, trying to cut the dogleg, you will have another blind shot to the green. Timid golfers are better off going to the right. Then you'll have a second shot that has to cross a small ravine in order to get to the putting surface. To play this hole and others, buying a yardage book before you start is essential.

Another hole that will test your brain as well as your clubs is No. 10, a long par 4 (472 yards from the back tees, 345 yards from the forward). This hole is one where Doak uses a long natural gully as a waste bunker running lengthwise down the turf, like a slithering snake splitting the fairway into two long strips. By the way there are quite a few warning signs here about rattlesnakes and Gila monsters.

There are four great par threes. One of the best is No. 14 (186 yards from the back tees, 114 yards from the forward). The golfer starts out at elevated tee boxes at the southern edge of the course on a ridge that offers 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains all around you. You play your ball downhill into a redan, a very shallow green that slopes from right to left. To make things more complicated, there's a deep bunker on the left side. The best advice is to fire at the right side of the green and allow your ball to feed down to the hole.

Another par three with lots of fans is No. 17 (230 yards from the back tees, 133 yards from the forward). You shoot from elevated tees across what is known as Gilson Wash, almost a canyon partly filled with trees and brush. Just reaching the turf in front of the green will seem like a huge relief. Avoid the trio of tricky bunkers to the right of the green.

But what about those magazine ratings? Does the course deserve them? "We've always been highly rated," says manager Murdock. "This is a great golf course. There's nothing in the Phoenix area that can touch this. The only thing we struggle with here is the bluegrass on the fairways."

Architect Tom Doak acknowledged that the grass has been a chronic difficulty. "I do find it strange that the course has become highly regarded considering its problems, but I do get a lot of e-mails telling me how much people have enjoyed the course despite the conditions."

The good news about the climate at Apache Stronghold, whatever it's doing to the grass, is that it's generally 10 degrees cooler than Phoenix, making it a great destination when it's too hot to tee off in the Valley of the Sun. But in the winter, that can make it too cold to play.

The Golf magazine list ranks Apache Stronghold as No. 75 on its list, a roster that is topped off with places like Pebble Beach, TPC at Sawgrass and Pinehurst No. 2. Don't expect this San Carlos club to have the well-manicured fairways you'd find at one of those courses. But then you won't be paying Pebble Beach prices either.

Where to stay

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 at the resort's Best Western hotel, the Apache Gold. This is a brand-new facility, but don't expect the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Go up to San Carlos late in the day and then play golf early the next morning. That will also give you a chance to swim in the pool or hit the casino in the evening; after all, one of the big reasons why the Apaches built the golf course is to pull in more players for the poker, bingo, keno and slots.

There are lots of bargain-priced packages involving golf. For example, from Oct. 1 through April, it costs $89 a night per person for a room, plus a buffet dinner, plus golf. The greens fee alone during that time runs $60 to $70 per person.

How to get there

Take Highway 60 east from the Phoenix area all the way to Globe. Take Highway 70 east for five miles. Apache Stronghold will be on the left hand side of the road.

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
  • Apache Stronghold

    David wrote on: May 29, 2005

    I live in Chicago and I must admit that the course reviews first brought me out to Apache Stronghold in Summer of 2002. The conditioning at that time was iffy, as was mentioned in the article. Since then, I've been back every summer - the conditioning has gotten markedly better each time. The layout is spectacular - it's everything you'd want if you like to be challenged.
    I'll be back out again in June 2005 and I'll report back on what I find at that time.