Inside the Ratings Game at Troubled Apache Stronghold

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

PHOENIX, AZ - On Labor Day weekend, Tucson and Phoenix members of the American Singles Golf Association played at the Apache Stronghold Golf Course, a three-year-old course on San Carlos Apache tribal lands, 100 miles east of Phoenix.

Dan Carpenter, president of the Tucson chapter of the singles, said, "Everyone I heard from said the course was in absolutely horrendous shape. The smell was almost intolerable; it appeared the maintenance people had severely over-watered the course.

Another golfer at Apache Stronghold in mid-August, Jeff Roby of Tucson, told, "We were only allowed to take carts on four holes, and to be honest, they shouldn't have been allowed on those holes. Not that they would have hurt the course, but the carts could have become stuck in the mud.

Roby added, "While the course layout was good, the fairways were in the worst condition of any course I've played in Arizona at any time of year.

Apache Stronghold could be an excellent golf course, if not for these overwhelming conditioning and maintenance problems. The struggle with these issues began with decisions made when the course was in its design and construction phases. Still, national golf magazines have showered the course with honors, seemingly oblivious to the actual condition of the course. Moreover, golfers are making the long trek to the Globe area, where Apache Stronghold is located, to play a course that they have been led to believe is actually one of the top public courses in the U..

Granted, there are times when the course looks better than it does in the late summer. Apache Stronghold's new superintendent Ron Mahaffey, who is conscientiously trying to repair the grass, notes the fairways were in beautiful shape last spring, but starting about July, the grass began to die out as it has done in previous years as wel.

"This is a great golf course," said Albert Murdock, manager of Apache Stronghold. "There's nothing in the Phoenix area that can touch this. The only thing we struggle with here is the bluegrass on the fairways.

William Belvado, one of the Apache tribe's board of councilmen, said that he had played the course himself recently, and "except for one or two areas, the new grass is coming in very well.

Who's Behind the Rankings?

Considering the grass and the course conditions, those magazine ratings seem amazing. Just as the singles were struggling along the fairways at Apache Stronghold, Golf Magazine came out with its biennial rankings of the top 100 public courses in the nation and listed the course as 75th on its list - ahead of places like Grayhawk's Raptor and Talon in Scottsdale. In March 2002, GolfWeek also named Apache Stronghold No.1 on its list of 10 best public courses in Arizona, ahead of the Troon North courses in Scottsdale, the Boulders South Course in Carefree and the Raven at Sabino Springs in Tucso.

How could a course with major conditioning problems end up with these gold-medal ratings? Bradley Klein, a GolfWeek editor who wrote the story about his publication's ratings, told us, "Twenty of our raters saw Apache Stronghold. That yields a statistically valid result, so I have confidence in their views. Never having played or seen Apache Stronghold, I cannot judge it myself. I do know they have serious water quality and maintenance issues that have compromised conditioning, but we tend to see through such transient issues and judge a layout on its structure.

At Golf Magazine, the editor involved with its ratings, Brian McCallen, noted that his panel of raters "is comprised of PGA section directors, golf association people, well-traveled golf writers and others." He said in a phone interview that the ratings were completed last spring and could be outdated in terms of conditions. After the Top 100 story came out, he said, "I did get a call from one reader who said it was a great layout, but that the course was in terrible shape.

We put the same question to Gary Panks, the architect for the Whirlwind Golf Club on the Gila River Reservation south of Phoenix. The Whirlwind courses are not on the two magazines' lists, but Panks did design the Talon at Grayhawk, listed among Golf Magazine's top 100 public courses. Panks has visited Apache Stronghold and said the grass has been failing for two or three year.

"It got hyped in the beginning and it wasn't justified," he said about the course. "There's a lot of politics involved with the ratings of some of those courses. Apache Stronghold is certainly not in the top 25 or top 10 courses in Arizona.

Rolling the Dice

How did this situation develop at Apache Stronghold? Essentially, the development of the course grew out of the boom in casino-resorts on Indian lands in Arizona and other states during the past 10 years. Certainly the 13,000-member San Carlos Apache tribe needs the 600 jobs that the casino and golf course have produced. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the median household income on this reservation is $16,894 a year, compared with an overall statewide median of $40,55.

After the San Carlos Apaches built their Apache Gold casino-motel complex in 1994, the golf course was added in 1999, partly to help draw new customers to the casino. Other tribes have done the same. But the three other golf clubs on Arizona tribal lands - Talking Stick, We-Ko-Pa and Whirlwind - lie very close to the Phoenix metropolitan area and Sky Harbor Airport. The problem with luring tourists to the San Carlos area is that it is a two-hour drive from Phoenix or Tucson on winding mountain road.

What the tribe's golf course has going for it, and what could ultimately be its biggest selling point, is its magnificent site, ringed by gorgeous craggy mountain ranges, with very few buildings near the fairways which lie at about 3,200 feet of elevation. It's just the kind of place that appeals to golfers who like to think that the scenery is part of what they get out of playing the gam.

Arizona Golf Association Connection

When the Apaches decided to build the course, they got advice from the Arizona Golf Association, the non-profit amateur organization that serves as the local arm of the U.S. Golf Association and runs the statewide handicap and course-rating systems. The executive director of the association, Ed Gowan, also serves on the Golf Magazine rating panel, Brian McCallen sai.

Although the Arizona Golf Association did not answer phone calls or an e-mail from about Apache Stronghold, several accounts written shortly after the course opened describing the work the association did, including an article in the USGA's Golf Journal in June 200.

"The AGA (Arizona Golf Association) is not in the course-building business, but it had the expertise to suggest architects, evaluate the proposals and present these evaluations to a committee organized to oversee the project," the article sai.

When the AGA's Gowan was interviewed by local golf writer Bill Huffman for his 1999 book "Arizona's Greatest Golf Courses," he said: "The Apaches asked us to be their advisers … and to make sure that no bad decisions were made. I guess our real purpose was to make them aware of all their options.

Tom Doak Speaks Out

To lay out their course, the Apaches chose Tom Doak, known for his minimalist style on golf courses that swoop like a mini-roller coaster track over bumps and knolls. On his website, Doak says, "Instead of reshaping a severe slope, we try to figure out how to use it to make a golf hole interesting. If it's too severe, we'll try a sequence of holes which avoids it entirely. The bulldozer is our third and last option.

Doak, of Traverse City, Mich., has impeccable credentials and has won much acclaim for his work. He has designed a number of courses on the GolfWeek and Golf Magazine lists, including one of his most recent designs, Pacific Dunes in Bandon, Ore. He also worked previously as a writer for Golf Magazine and helped set-up its Top 100 rating program. Although much of his design work has been on the East Coast and in the Midwest, he's now doing more courses in the Wes.

"I got the assignment at Apache Stronghold," Doak said in an exclusive phone interview with, "because I had a couple of friends at the Arizona Golf Association and they recommended me.

Building the course took several months, and many Apaches worked on it. A major difficulty arose when it came time to pick grass for the fairways. The traditional choice in the Arizona desert is Bermuda grass that stays green through spring, summer and fall and then is overseeded with rye for the winter when Bermuda would become yellow and dormant. Doak was inclined toward planting the Bermuda-rye combination.

But some "consultants" advised him dwarf bluegrass would be a better choice. The consultants, Doak said, "convinced the tribe that it would be great to have a fairway grass which didn't require overseeding (so they would attract golfers while courses in the Valley were going through that process) and also expressed concern that the Bermuda would thrive long term with such a short growing season in Globe.

Doak would not name the consultants but said that they were people familiar with desert courses. "After all, it was a collective decision," he sai.

The Grass isn't Always Greener

What happened after that is widely known among professionals, superintendents and other members of the golf community in Arizona: The bluegrass, normally used in cool-season areas of the country, did not thrive at Apache Stronghold and continues to die out. Globe does have a very unique climate for Arizona with temperatures that average in the 90s in summer (somewhat cooler than in Phoenix) and in the 50s in the winter with a fair amount of hard frost and occasional sno.

Now the course is struggling to replant. Workers are seeding with rye and bluegrass this fall, have put in some Bermuda in the past, and will further redo the fairways with Bermuda in the spring, according to Ron Mahaffey. The course will be closed for a few weeks during cold weather to allow the rye grass to come in. Tribe councilman Belvado said that part of the problem may be the mineral content in the mountainous soil of the course. Overall, he said, "The golf course has been great for us. Tom Doak has been very professional, and we believe in him.

Some questions remain to be answered about the course drainage. According to Panks, "The reason they hired the architect that they did was that he has a minimal approach. He's someone who takes what the site offers and does as little grading as possible, which they may have thought would be cheaper. Unfortunately, if you don't do enough grading for proper drainage, the turf doesn't take. When we do a course, we usually spend from $250,000 to $300,000 on drainage systems, and I doubt whether they put much of any drainage system in.

Meanwhile, Apache Stronghold keeps running regular Thursday ads in the Arizona Republic advising golfers that they are "GolfWeek's Top Pick - the 2002 top-rated public course in Arizona." The price of the greens fee is fair, considering what you get. You can play a round and get a room and meal at the Apache Golf Casino for $64 Mondays through Thursdays and $79 Fridays through Sundays. Manager Albert Murdock also says that when customers call, the clubhouse staff has been instructed to tell them that there's a problem with the gras.

But the situation also is a good reminder for golfers to be a bit wary of the national rating lists for courses. Many times these lists lump together vastly different courses from all over the country, requiring panelists to compare places that simply don't belong together. And how in the world could every panelist have seen every course? They don't; they're simply rating places that they have seen once or twice. Brian McCallen of Golf Magazine told us, "Certainly we'll take a much closer look at the 2004 ratings after finding out about this situation.

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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