It's links-style North vs. traditional, tree-lined South at Talking Stick Golf Club in Scottsdale
PHOENIX -- When Talking Stick Golf Club opened in 1997, it was unique in a lot of ways. After all, the courses at Talking Stick were the first big-name designer, big-ticket courses built on Native American land in Arizona.
Right from the start, the Talking Stick golf courses, owned by the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, won acclaim for their sleek layouts done by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore and their smoothly manicured fairways and greens. The club also had a location in the heart of mostly undeveloped desert, even though it was close to central Scottsdale.
Fairly quickly, other Indian courses have come along and stolen some of the buzz. We-Ko-Pa, the two Whirlwind courses at Wildhorse Pass, and Apache Stronghold have gotten a lot of press.
But Talking Stick remains a superb place to play with two courses that are very unusual for the Phoenix area.
"There's a lot more competition now," says Scott Heideman, the director of golf at Talking Stick. "Obviously, the market conditions have changed. But most of those other courses are so far away from us, they don't take much of our business. We have the best location. We've won honors from GolfWeek and Golf Magazine. And we have a significant following from our repeat customer base.
"Obviously, everyone's interested in the new kid on the block. But our rounds have not been affected."
Although the pace of new course building has slowed recently, opening of courses on reservations has continued, partly fueled by casino income. The reservations, after all, own lots of open land and also have water rights that other owners don't have in the Phoenix area. "Most courses built on non-reservation land make their money on selling the real estate surrounding them," Heideman says.
And that brings us to why golfers really love to play those reservation fairways. They're surrounded by awe-inspiring views of craggy peaks and desert landscape. No condos, no tract houses, no shopping centers, and not a lot of traffic. There are casinos, of course, and now they're building hotels. Talking Stick doesn't have a hotel nor does We-Ko-Pa in Fountain Hills. But We-Ko-Pa is talking about adding a hotel plus another golf course. "I expect in three to four years we might have a resort, too," says Heideman.
Talking Stick Golf Club's two very different courses
Maybe no hotel yet, but Talking Stick does have two courses --- the North and the South. The name for the golf club, by the way, comes from the traditional Salt River Pima calendar stick used to keep track of major events).
When commissioned to lay out Talking Stick, the designers were told to create two very different courses. They weren't working with the naturally rugged foothills and saguaro forests found on some reservations in Arizona. The site was originally wide and flat and it remains that way for the most part on both courses. But somehow Crenshaw and Coore managed to create something super without moving a lot of earth around.
Both courses have a minimalist style-not a lot of bulldozing done during construction.
"They told me that they don't move a lot of dirt around," says Heideman, referring to Coore and Crenshaw, "and that you don't need to move dirt to create a great golf hole. By not moving all that earth, the North and South look as if they've been there for years and years. They do not seem manufactured, contrived and created."
Talking Stick's North Course seems to have a links style due to its deep bunkers and the opportunities to bump and run your ball onto large greens. The North has a more treeless and waterless landscape but with more strategic options and more risk-reward holes. Many golf design aficionados prefer the North.
Just to be different, I played the South, often labeled "tree-lined and traditional," a deadly sounding characterization in Phoenix, which prides itself on being the world capital of desert-target golf with millions of death-defying gullies to carry. Some 4,500 cottonwoods, eucalyptus and sycamores were planted along the fairways at the South.
Despite that planting project, it turns out Talking Stick South, a par-71 that plays at 6,833 yards from the back, retained its minimalist feel. "The greens are smaller and more elevated than the North," says Heideman. "About the only thing you can do is flop the ball onto the greens. It's also a straightforward course. You have to hit your ball from point A to point B and then to the green."
Although its open fairways have that wide-open style, it has a tougher slope and rating than its sister course, the North.
One fun hole at the start is the par-4 No. 4 (327 yards from the back tees and 288 from the forward) that bears the name "Right Is Right." Obviously, you do want to head for the right side of the big, wide fairway here, but not too right where you could drift into the trees. The real trick is to avoid a big bunker smack-dab in the middle of the fairway.
The par-4 No. 5, nicknamed "Fortress" (471 yards from the back tees and 402 from the forward), is more daunting. Here going right is definitely wrong because of a string of bunkers to the right of the fairway. The "fortress" turns out to be the green surrounded by bunkers. This is a tough green to reach in two shots.
The strength of this course hits you late on the back nine. No. 14 is a par-5 (541 yards from the back and 489 from the forward) with a giant waste bunker like a writhing snake that turns the fairway into two parts lengthwise. No. 15 is a par-4 (443 yards from the back and 497 from the forward) that's tough uphill all the way while it keeps curling around tricky bunkers. "You feel like you're coming out of chute with all that bunkering," says Heideman.
No. 16, a par-5 (548 yards from the back and 497 from the forward) has water down the right side of the fairway but also has a creek to cross on your second shot. There's more water to face on the par-3 17th and the finishing hole.
Although Heideman says he loves the North the best, eight out of 10 of his staff members prefer the South. It's your choice.
February 2, 2004