'Dozers Ready on the First Tee: Arizona's Fairways Get a Facelift

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

PHOENIX, AZ - Have you driven past your favorite golf course lately and seen bulldozers standing where the golf carts used to be?

That may be because there's a nationwide boom in golf course renovation going on. It seems as if almost as many old golf courses have been plowed up, redesigned and reworked in the past year in the Phoenix area as there are new courses opening for the first time. Much of it is probably aimed at getting travelers to come back and try again at the courses that they played last year.

Course renovation has gotten so popular that a couple of years ago the American Society of Golf Course Architects developed a series of seminars called Remodeling University. The group holds programs around the country explaining the ABCs of doing club fixer-uppers to golf course owners, superintendents, managers and club pros.

In some cases the word "renovation" for golf courses probably could be compared to giving a house a fresh coat of paint and new wallpaper in the kitchen. In other cases it's more like a teardown - the old place is scraped off down to the foundations and then rebuilt.

Course architect Scott Miller of Scottsdale has his own definitions. "Sometimes you see small renovations, like tee and green remodels," says Miller, well known for his designs of the Golf Club at Eagle Mountain in Fountain Hills, AZ, and DC Ranch in Scottsdale, AZ. "Then there are the classic courses that have, over the years, deteriorated in certain ways due to maintenance problems or floods or whatever, and need some work. Those we call restorations, where you actually go back and look at the old photos and architects' plans and try to restore the course to what was originally intended."

Miller worked with Jack Nicklaus 15 years ago in doing that kind of restoration at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia on No. 3, 6, 11 and 12. "The greens were not doing well and we brought them up to USGA standards," he says.

This year, Augusta National has done a major remodel that adds extensive changes to the course in time for the Masters Golf Tournament to be held in April.

"Remodeling" is another kind of change, according to Miller. "It's when someone plays on a Scott Miller course somewhere, for example, and comes to us and asks us to put our footprint on their course somewhere else," he says.

One company that has done some refurbishing of older courses is, In Celebration of Golf of Scottsdale, owned by Roger Maxwell, former vice president of golf for Marriott Hotels and Resorts.

Two moderately priced courses he manages - the Scottsdale Silverado and Starfire at the Scottsdale Country Club - are good examples.

Maxwell really doesn't like to use the word "renovation" for those courses. Starfire, he contends, was not really renovated, but improvements were made there, including adding a new short-game practice area.

What was once just called the Scottsdale Country Club was made up of three nine-hole courses. Those three remain, but they have been renumbered. Now holes that once were in one course may have been swapped with some in another. During this switching last summer, the course remained open to golfers, who sometimes had a hard time finding No. 10 after they got through with No. 9, for example.

"There's a greener look to the fairways in winter at this club", Maxwell says. "We now do wall-to-wall overseeding while previously the owners only overseeded the tees and greens."

The old clubhouse at this course, now torn down, was something out of "Tin Cup"; the new one will have more of a tony, Santa Barbara style. For those who yearn for the old-fashioned, 1950s ambiance of the demolished clubhouse, Maxwell says, "Old-fashioned also means that it was dying. Old-fashioned doesn't work anymore."

Expect the golf shop in this new clubhouse to offer a jazzy array of clothing and accessories. Maxwell has become widely known for his expertise in golf retail shops. He also operates a huge store, In Celebration of Golf, in the Scottsdale Seville shopping center that sells everything from giant living room area rugs with golfballs printed on them to antique mashies and niblicks and rainbow-colored golf shoes.

Another Maxwell project, Scottsdale Silverado, wasn't the old-time icon that the Scottsdale Country Club was. In reality, Silverado was a fairly new golf course, previously called the Links of Scottsdale, that never really got going after being built. "It's been enhanced through landscaping, drainage improvements, turf development, a new clubhouse and better service levels. They never really had a clubhouse before; it was a trailer before," Maxwell says.

One feature of the old course that was probably popular with golfers but proved impractical was a driving range where golfers fired balls into a lagoon onto island targets with flagsticks. "It would have been a good idea," Maxwell says, "if golf balls could float."

Another course, Thunderbirds Golf Club, in the south part of Phoenix also made changes this year that fall into the category of tearing down and starting over again. Originally, there was a 1950s-era resort and 18-hole course on the property, which by coincidence was named the Thunderbird Resort, but "what we have now is an entirely new course," says Brad Kirkman, the director of golf and general manager for the course.

This high-end course, redesigned with the help of Phoenix-area PGA stars Tom Lehman, Billy Mayfair and Howard Twitty, is now a magnificent place to play on the flanks of South Mountain, where previously there wasn't much of a course at all. The course is designed to raise funds for the Thunderbirds, a Phoenix area charitable group.

Generally, when renovation or remodeling takes place, holes become more challenging. On the American Society of Golf Course Architect Web site, there is a series of before and after photos from renovated courses around the country. The "before" fairways are always straighter and flatter; the "after" fairways often look like doglegs with new mounds and knolls to stop your ball from rolling and a bunker or two thrown in for good measure.

But one Phoenix area course was recently remodeled to make it easier to play. The new course is called Mirabel, designed by famed architect Tom Fazio, at a cost of $15 million in the Cave Creek area. It replaces Stonehaven, designed by player Greg Norman, which also cost many millions to build. Stonehaven, a target-style desert course with only 42 acres of turf, was supposed to be a high-end public facility, but it never opened.

Instead, it was bought by developers who decided to turn it into a private club surrounded by homes. It now has 90 acres of turf and was made more playable. "The old course was extremely difficult for a daily-fee course," general manager Steve Adelson told the Arizona Republic. "There was very little room to miss a shot."

Another course just south of Phoenix in the town of Laveen still seems to be in transition in its renovation. This course, originally built in 1993, has gone through several new faces the past few years. Now named Bougainvillea, it previously was named Cottonfields, and before that Mountain View and before that Pohlcat, after its original designer, Dan Pohl.

Until last year, there were actually two courses at the site in the middle of vast farms used to grow cotton and alfalfa. "We took out 18 of the best holes from the original 36," says Kurt Greve, director of golf. "They're the holes that flowed well together, including some holes from each course."

Two contractors, Engle and Hacienda Homes, now plan to build 450 houses on the 18 plowed-up holes. While the bulldozers were at work, the course was closed for five months. It reopened Nov. 1, 2001. "Things are growing, changing and evolving," Greve says.

The old clubhouse was redecorated and bougainvilleas were planted out front - hence the new name. Bougainvilleas will also be planted heavily around the housing tracts. The old Cottonfields was known for its bargain prices and Bougainvillea offers the same low green fees. But some former patrons are a little distraught that 18 holes were eliminated at the club.

Why are all these changes taking place at courses? The need to compete and the need to make more money probably have a lot to do with it. But there's also a bit of envy involved. "You see a lot of changes in areas where new courses are being built but where there are a lot of existing courses," says architect Scott Miller. "It's often the result of club members who want to see their course become as challenging as the place where their friends are now playing."

Want to play?

Thunderbirds Golf Club (at right) is located at 701 E. Thunderbird Trail, Phoenix, AZ 85040; phone, 602-305-7755. Website: www.thunderbirdsgolfclub.com. This par 71 course is 7,013 yards from the back tees with a rating/slope of 72.5/126. The traditional women's tees (there is also a set of junior tees) measure 5,435 yards with a rating slope of 71.4/123.

• Scottsdale Silverado Golf Club is located at 7605 Indian Bend Road, Scottsdale, AZ 85250; phone, 480-778-0100. Website: www.scottsdalesilverado.com. This is a par 70 course, 6,313 yards from the back tees with a rating/slope of 73.7/119. The forward tees measure 4,896 yards with a rating/slope of 65.9/105.

• Starfire at Scottsdale Country Club is located at 7702 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale, AZ 85260; phone, 480-948-6000. Website: www.starfiregolfclub.com. This is a 27-hole course with three nine-hole courses, where golfers put together two of the courses to make a full round. If you play the East and the South courses, for example, it's 6,093 yards from the back tees (rating/slope 68.9/123) and 4,467 yards from the forward tees (64.8/107). Par is 68 or 70 depending on the combination you play.

• Bougainvillea (at right) is located at 5740 W. Baseline Road, Laveen, AZ 85339; phone, 602-237-4567. Website: www.bougainvilleagolf.com. This is a par 71 course, 6,740 yards from the back tees with a rating/slope of 70.9/118. The forward tees measure 5,793 yards with a rating/slope of 71.9/114.

• Mirabel is a new private club located on Lone Mountain Road, just off Cave Creek Road, in Cave Creek, AZ 85262; phone, 480-595-2545. The club's website is under construction. The course plays to a par 71 at 7,127 from the back tees. Initiation fees are $85,000, by invitation only.

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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