Thunderbirds Golf Club: Where Every Hole Offers a Surprise

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

PHOENIX, AZ - Anyone who's ever attended the Phoenix Open at the TPC in Scottsdale has noticed all the supervisor-types wearing Navajo-style velvet shirts with silver and turquoise belts. They're members of the Thunderbirds, the Phoenix charitable group that produces the Open.

Now the Thunderbirds have opened a golf course that bears their name - the Thunderbirds Golf Club - in partnership with a local family, the Alkasehs, who donated some land for the facility bordering South Mountain Park in Phoenix. The Thunderbirds' portion of proceeds from the course will support charities for young people.

There was a 1950s-era resort and 18-hole course on the property originally, which by coincidence was named the Thunderbird Resort, but "what we have now is an entirely new course," says Brad Kirkman, Director of Golf and General Manager for the course.

The course also helps revitalize an older area of Phoenix where some housing and businesses have fallen into disrepair.

Opened in late November 2001, the course was quickly named No. 5 among the top 10 new public courses by Sports Illustrated, and it's easy to see why. The course meanders around 147 acres on the purple flanks of South Mountain itself. The landscaping is strictly desert-style, with bunch grasses, brittlebush and sages. There are acres and acres of ponds, rocky creeks and picturesque waterfalls - probably more water features than you'll see on any other course in the Valley of the Sun. "We're very proud of our waterfalls," says Kirkman. "A rock sculptor who worked on the course told us how beautiful they are."

Almost every hole offers a surprise: When you make the turn, you tee up so that you're aiming just to the right of Bank One Ballpark; the 9th and 18th holes share a green with a waterfall trickling away in the middle; another hole is near a hiking trail on the side of the mountain.

The design was done by PGA Tour Design Services Inc. with advice from Phoenix-area professionals Tom Lehman, Billy Mayfair and Howard Twitty. What they created is largely a links-style course with lots of lumps and knolls, many very narrow fairways and more than 80 sand traps. In fact, Kirkman advises players, "Make sure your bunker play is up to par before you start." If not, it's very likely you'll be getting a lot of sand in your shoes.

Although this is a 7,013-yard experience from the championship tees, there are five sets of tees in all. The forward tees measure just 4,727 yards. "It's easy for almost anyone to find a tee they're comfortable with," Kirkman says.

It's not just that the forward tees cut down distance, they also allow players to sidestep some hazards that more experienced players have to carry with their shots.

One important tip: Despite the distances on this course, don't spend a lot of time warming up your woods on the range before you play. Far better to practice with your irons, particularly aiming at targets. Otherwise, if you've been spending a lot of hours lately on wide-open traditional courses with miles of grass, you may flub your way through two or three holes before you grasp what the Thunderbirds course is all about.

From the elevated first tee, you look out on a rambling, rolling ribbon of grass dotted with bunkers and bordered by a dry golden fringe of very closely cropped dormant Bermuda rough, a nightmare for those with even a slight slice or hook. In the distance are the skyscrapers of downtown Phoenix. Starter Joel Armstrong advises players to aim at Squaw Peak, a landmark on the panorama ahead, in order to avoid a faraway bunker on the left.

That was the tip as well on the very up-to-date global positioning system on the golf carts. On your first try at Thunderbirds, it would be a struggle to play without it or without a yardage book because of the twisting and turning fairways and the bunkers that almost pop up out of nowhere.

The four par 3s are one of the treats at Thunderbirds. Their length varies and each offers a new view of scenery and landscape. They all try different tricks on unsuspecting golfers. On the first par 3, hole No. 4, the length ranges from 218 yards from the championship tees to 133 yards from the forward tees; the tee area itself is almost 93 yards long. You need lots of club in order to hit the green no matter where you stand, because you're shooting uphill to an elevated green and over a desert wash. But hit straight; go too far left or right and you can end up in a bunker or in the desert.

Another par 3, No. 6 (191 yards from the back tees and 97 from the forward tees) points toward Camelback Mountain, many miles away. Several humps and bumps on this hole form a silhouette of the shape of the mountain. The green itself is heart-shaped and has three very deep bunkers on the left and one on the right. You'll find that the sand in the bunkers is in excellent, powdery shape, by the way. The very fast green on this hole seems way too small for a human golfer to handle.

Brad Kirkman's favorite par 3 is No. 12 (167 yards from the back tees, 91 from the front). This hole has a peninsula green almost surrounded by lake. The water wraps to the right across the front two-thirds of the green and all around the back. You'll want to approach from the left. The green slopes left to right toward the water.

Our personal favorite among the par 3s was No. 17 (144 yards from the back tees, 73 from the front), a hole in a box canyon at the base of South Mountain. There are actually seven island-style tee boxes here so the course staff can switch tees around to confuse regular players. It's allegedly the easiest hole on the course, but you have to shoot across a wide desert area to get to the green, and many balls fall short in the brush. Some days, the pin is placed right behind a sizeable tree, and of course, there's a huge front bunker to catch balls as well.

The second toughest hole on the course, No. 15 (430 yards, 256 yards), is also the most scenic. The elevated tee boxes on this par 4 are tucked into the natural rocky side of South Mountain. A first shot from the tips forces the golfer to carry 200 yards of desert. It's also a dogleg right, but if you go ever so slightly too far right, you'll end up in one of three fairway bunkers on that side.

The finishing hole is one of the three par 5s on this course. You can see all 18 holes and a view of Phoenix from the tee boxes on No. 18 (537 yards, 404 yards). This dogleg left also has one of the widest fairways on the entire course. You might think it's safe to hit that driver now as hard as you can. But don't forget that bunker that splits the fairway about 90 yards from the green. And what about that lake on the right hand side?

An extra attraction: This course is also the site of a very-short, par 3 First Tee course, part of a national program aimed at teaching golf to underprivileged children. But adults can play the course. Fees range from $8 to $18, depending on the season. It's a great way to polish up skills with your short irons.

Director of Golf: Brad Kirkman
Head Golf Professional: Greg Leicht
Designer: PGA Tour Design Services in consultation with Tom Lehman, Billy Mayfair and Howard Twitty
Year Built: 2001
Turf and greens: Tif dwarf and Bermuda with dormant Bermuda rough
Ratings/slope: 72.5/126, 70.6/121, 68.3/118, 71.4/123, 67.3/114
Yardage: 7,013, 6,625, 6,119, 5,435, 4,717

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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