Golf architect Scott Miller wants you to conquer the desert

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Not long ago, a friend, who's probably been to half of Arizona's 300 golf courses, told us that he'd just played the best course ever in the state.

Golf architect Scott Miller
Scottsdale-based architect Scott Miller has a keen sense of what a desert golf course needs.
Golf architect Scott MillerEagle Mountain Golf Club - hole 14
If you go

The course? The Golf Club at Eagle Mountain in Fountain Hills, designed by Scottsdale architect Scott Miller, who also created the almost brand-new We-Ko-Pa near Scottsdale and the stunning Coeur d'Alene in northern Idaho.

Eagle Mountain combines the best of what desert-target golf can offer along with a chance for the average golfer to have a pleasant round without losing dozens of Titleists in the ravines and arroyos. It also represents the culmination of more than a decade of experience Miller had with Jack Nicklaus' design firm, just as the boom in desert golf took off in Arizona during the mid-1980s.

Everyone has a different definition for what a "desert" course is. But basically these courses have very limited fairway turf, largely because of restrictions on grass and irrigation set by water-thirsty Arizona. Often tee boxes force golfers to fire over arroyos, dry washes or ravines. Beyond a small strip of transitional rough, you'll find out-of-bounds desert -- and that means saguaros, mesquites, rocks and, on occasion, rattlers.

Miller's interest in golf design goes back to his childhood.

"I'm one of the lucky people who ended up doing what they always wanted to do," he says. "It all started at a nine-hole golf course in Augusta, Kansas, just east of Wichita, where I used to play with my friends back when I was in sixth and seventh grade. We'd play the course and then I'd go home and draw plans for golf courses. I don't think I even knew at the time that they had 18 holes on most golf courses.

"Then I got into high school golf, but I couldn't beat anyone, so designing courses became more interesting for me. I studied landscape architecture at Colorado State and my adviser let me focus on golf design. When the other students were designing irrigation plans for housing developments, I was designing irrigation plans for golf courses. After that I got a job working at Shoal Creek Golf Club in Birmingham, Alabama, and that's where I met Jack Nicklaus (designer of the course)."

Miller moved up through Nicklaus' organization, starting as a project coordinator and moving up to senior designer. His assignments included projects in Arizona and others in Mexico, Hawaii and Japan. Later, he opened his own firm, now in a small territorial style building in Scottsdale. When Miller started, Nicklaus had a staff of four; when Miller left, 65 people were working for the design firm.

So does Nicklaus really design the courses that bear his name? "You mean, can you give him a piece of paper and have him draw out the course, or can he go through the environmental permit process, for example? No he couldn't do that," says Miller. "But he definitely has his ideas about what a course should look like, and he'd articulate that and transmit it to us. He's very involved. Arnold Palmer, however, is more of a figurehead."

While working with Nicklaus, Miller helped with Desert Highlands Golf Club, a private course on the slopes of Pinnacle Peak in Scottsdale. The course designer was the renowned Jay Morrish; the developer of the property was homebuilder Lyle Anderson.

Miller shares the view of many golf experts that Desert Highlands, built in 1983, marked the big turning point in the development of desert golf. "Prior to Desert Highlands, water conservation and the coexistence of turf with native desert were not a high priority," he says. "No one worried about controlling irrigation on turf so that it didn't run rampant into the desert. Desert Highlands was at the forefront of target-style courses and the concept came off fairly well."

Miller developed a keen sense of what a desert course needs in order to maintain the sanity of golfers.

"We started out with 65 acres of turf, and that was just too small, too difficult," he says. "You have to have 90 acres along with thinned-out rough. For a playable course, you need from 90 to 110 acres."

Since the 1980s, Arizona has restricted new courses to 90 acres of irrigated turf and another 20 that can be a transition area of rough or of saving bunkers outside the fairways.

"The main thing I learned from Desert Highlands is something that the Scots learned at the beginning of the century at St. Andrews: You need to give people plenty of room to play. You can't go crazy with 10-foot deep bunkers, very undulating greens and very penal-style hazards. That's not fun to play."

Desert courses, Miller says, should still allow the traditional recovery shot. "When you're playing a traditional course out East and you get in trouble in the rough, you can either be a hero and hit through the trees or you can chip out to the fairway and take your penalty. But when you hit into the brittle bush in the desert, it's often just unplayable. That's why we give players saving bunkers. We give them the option of strategy. We all like to be challenged, but we want enough area to play."

That's some of the philosophy behind Eagle Mountain. "What is it that people love so much about that course?" he says. "It's that we give them enough room to play their tee shot. The course winds its way through canyons, but it plays wider than what it looks. The greens are more undulating, but there's not a big preponderance of forced-carry off the tees. You don't have to carry 100 yards of desert, and the first couple of forward tees are usually on the grass."

Another of Miller's favorite projects is We-Ko-Pa Golf Club.

"We knew it was good," he says. "But the reception it's gotten has surprised all of us. One of the best things about it is that there are no other land uses nearby."

There are no houses on the course; nor will there ever be any, according to the Yavapai tribe. So views of the surrounding mountain ranges are expansive -- including the Four Peaks, McDowell Mountains, Red Mountains and Superstitions. The name We-Ko-Pa means "four peaks."

We-Ko-Pa also has a Fountain Hills address but is located on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Indian Nation just east of Fountain Hills and Scottsdale. Sports Illustrated picked the course as one of the top 10 new public courses in the world shortly after it opened in December 2001. It was also the national winter of Golf Inc.'s 2002 Development of the Year in the stand-alone course category.

Miller is also proud of Coeur d'Alene, ranked No. 50 on the 2002 Golf magazine list of top 100 public courses. With its expansive green forests and water views from every hole, Coeur d'Alene is a very different kind of course from Miller's Arizona work. "It was the first course that I did on my own and it was a great opportunity. It has a great owner with real vision."

Coeur d'Alene in Northern Idaho is one of those small Western towns where mining and lumbering once ruled the economy. As those industries died away, the area became a vacation destination. Duane Hagadone, the owner of the property who first built a resort there in the mid-1980s, decided he wanted a golf course with a "floating" island green in the middle of Lake Coeur d'Alene -- an island that would remind visitors of the logs that floated in clusters on the lake during the big timber years. The floating hole that Miller designed -- No. 14 -- has helped put the course on the map. "Coeur d'Alene has won all kinds of awards," Miller says, "and one survey rated it more beautiful than Pebble Beach." After all, National Geographic rates Coeur d'Alene as one of the most pristine lakes in the world.

Golfers keep on coming back to the course, Miller says, even though the greens fee is $140 for those staying at the resort. One attraction is that visitors to the resort travel by water taxis to the course a mile and a half away.

The ultimate in water hazards, the floating hole, sits on a honeycomb of concrete cells filled with Styrofoam that weighs five million pounds. "They move it back and forth with cables everyday," Miller says. "It can range from 190 yards from shore to 120 to 130 yards. Mostly it's about 150 to 170 yards."

Press material from the resort says that almost any shot hitting the island will stay dry. Players get two tries at making a landing and then must go to the drop area on the island itself. "I actually had the thrill of being there the day that someone got a hole in one on the course," Miller says.

Golf-course development has slowed down a bit in Arizona. But Miller still has a number of projects going. One is a series of courses for a housing development called Saddleback Heights, on 2,500 acres near Lake Pleasant. The site is about a 45-minute drive from Phoenix.

He's also going back for a working vacation at Coeur d'Alene this fall to walk the course with the owner and see whether any renovation is needed somewhere.

"We'll go through it and assess whether it needs updating," he says. "After all, the game has changed in the 10 years since it was built."

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment