Faldo course brings a touch of Australia to Wildfire Golf Club in Phoenix

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

Wildfire Golf ClubPHOENIX, Ariz. - PGA Tour veteran Nick Faldo was flying back from a tournament appearance in Australia when he stumbled upon a piece in Golf Digest that captured his attention. The article pertained to golf the Aussie Sand Belt region, and Faldo liked what he saw: dramatic, flashed up bunkers, natural waste areas, and elevated tee boxes with snap shot views of the surrounding territory.

Thousands of miles away, in his Scottsdale office, golf course architect Brian Curley was plowing through golf magazines, searching for some design ideas to bring to the table for his afternoon meeting with Faldo at Sky Harbor Airport.

Faldo, Curley, and Curley's partner, Lee Schmidt, had been commissioned to design a new golf course at the Marriott's Shadow Ridge Resort in Palm Springs. But the triumvirate was under strict orders from the city to build a target style desert course in order to meet with local water preservation requirements.

The same Golf Digest article leaped off the page at Curley as he made his way through the magazines, and he ripped out a page and stuffed it in his briefcase as he rushed to the airport. It was a long shot, Curley figured, that the conservative Faldo would buy into the cutting edge concept of sticking an Australian style golf course in the middle of the California desert.

But another cookie cutter desert course in Palm Springs could ultimately struggle to separate itself from the pack.

"I am out the door, and I tell Lee that this look would be so cool for Shadow Ridge," Curley says. "Then I get to the airport to meet Nick. Before I could even pull out my ripped out page, Nick pulls the same page from his briefcase, so I knew right then it would be a short meeting."

Wildfire Golf ClubWhat Curley and Faldo didn't realize is that the ripped out page would go on to serve as the inspiration for the team's second U.S. based course design, the Faldo Course at Wildfire Golf Club in north Scottsdale. The Faldo course opened in late 2001, and is quickly making a name for itself among the Scottsdale golf scene alongside Wildfire's incumbent tenant, the Palmer Course.

In terms of design, think Royal Melbourne meets Prestwick. The course features 106 flared lip bunkers that flash up anywhere from five to 25 feet. From tee to green, the traps protect the 6,850-yard layout from long knockers, and hands down make the Faldo Course one of the Valley's best precision golf tracks.

"It is something you won't find anywhere in Arizona," says Wildfire pro shop manager Mike Rosalina. "Not just because of the design style, but because it is totally a position oriented golf course. For instance, the par four sixth hole is 350 yards, but you have to clear a wash to get to the green. For good players, it's 3-iron, 8-iron. For the average golfer, its more of a challenge because of the bunkering."

A cool and calculating course from a cool and calculating player. Throughout his incredibly successful professional golf career, Faldo has been viewed by fellow players and fans as an anti-social mercenary on the golf course, but congenial and approachable off of it.

Accurate or not, this characterization was hammered home during the 1996 Masters as Faldo stalked Norman on Sunday, and came from six strokes back to take the green jacket. In a recent interview with Golf Digest, Norman described Faldo as "very cold," and "very, very difficult to play with."

Difficult to play with, but not difficult to work with, according to Curley.

"My impression of Nick when I was younger, was that he was machine-like," Curley says. "He'd hit his greens and hit his fairways and go about his business. I will tell you right now he is the opposite of that. He is actually a kick, and a pleasure to work with, and he sees this design career as the next step in his life, not just something to dabble in."

Faldo's name adorns the course, and the tee box markers are engraved with a portrait of the pensive Brit studying his yardage book. But the degree to which Tour players are actually involved with the design of the courses that boast their names varies as much as putting styles.

Curley and Schmidt have worked with a number of Tour players, including Fred Couples and Tom Lehman, and Curley says that Faldo is as hands on as he can be.

"He is a quarterback, so to speak," Curley says. "He's not sitting there doing drawings, because that is what we are doing. He is not drawing up irrigation plans, because that type of work is for someone else. Nick has an idea of what he wants to see on each hole, and he leads the charge and provides big picture input."

If he was indeed the quarterback, Faldo's signal calling produced an interesting combination of short and long par fours, four dramatic par threes that optimize the properties view sheds, and three clever par fives that reward good placement over raw power. The longest hole on the course is the par five 15th, which plays to 607 yards from the tips and 594 yards from the blue tees, and 522 yards from the whites.

"The biggest difference between the Faldo Course and the Palmer Course, obviously, is the number of bunkers," Rosalina says. "But the Palmer Course greens are much larger than Faldo's. Faldo has some postage stamp sized greens that are really hard to hit unless you have a mid to high iron in your hand. In that sense, the emphasis at the Faldo Course is on the approach shot."

The 18th hole on the Faldo Course will quickly become the stuff of 19th hole legend, as it sports no less 10 bunkers, and, from an elevated tee box, provides a heart pounding view of Marriott's new Desert Ridge Resort Hotel. The 950-room hotel - the largest of its kind west of the Mississippi River and outside of Las Vegas - is scheduled to open in November.

"The Faldo Course is a great complement to the existing Palmer Course," says Wildfire's director of golf, Kevin Stockford. "Now, with 36 holes, we are ready to move forward with completing the hotel and offering guests a true stay and play alternative."

Wildfire Golf ClubAnd it would seem that Faldo is ready to move forward with a successful golf course design career, so maybe its time that Norman - also a successful course designer - check his rearview mirror for his old adversary.

"Nick's the real deal, and he plans to take it to the next level like Greg and start a design firm," Curley says. "Twenty years from now, Norman will have more courses, and Nick will be more picky. That is no knock on Greg, but his firm is geared towards production. Nick's will be geared towards unique opportunities."

Where to Eat

Wildfire Golf Club eat On the Border (480.473.3168 ) is a solid mix of traditional Mexican favorites and Nuevo Southwestern specialties served in a casual, and might we say, bright, atmosphere. Purple, yellow, and orange are the preferred hues of the house, and after a few giant margaritas and 20 ounce draft beers, the entire restaurant starts to look like one big plate of Mexican food. Located in the Desert Ridge Shopping Center.

Where to Stay

Resort Suites of Scottsdale offers golf packages with dozens of nearby courses, and features villa style suites grouped around quaint courtyards with crystal blue pools. Located just off Scottsdale Road next to the Princess Resort.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.


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