Papago municipal golf course in Phoenix is a masterpiece in terms of design

By Michael Hegarty, Contributor

PHOENIX -- In a season when $100 green fees seem like a bargain, Papago Golf Course's dirt-cheap winter rates of $20 for Maricopa County residents -- $35 for everyone else -- still offer golfers a lush, healthy golfing experience.

Papago Golf Course - Hole 9
Watch out for the water at Papago Golf Course.
Papago Golf Course - Hole 9
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Papago Golf Course

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Historic, city-owned Papago Golf Course is a local favorite that sees more than 100,000 rounds a year. In 2008, Papago underwent an extensive, $5.8 million renovation by William Fuller, who formerly worked under architect Bob Cupp.

18 Holes | Public/Municipal golf course | Par: 72 | 7333 yards | ... details »
 

Just ask Golf Digest, which rated Papago No. 51 in its list of Top 75 golf courses for value and difficulty, proving that it's not the hefty price tag that golfers want out of a golf course, but a pleasurable experience.

The locals have known about Papago long before it was nationally recognized. For decades, professionals have worked their way around the par-72 course in qualifiers for the Phoenix Open. Meanwhile, over the same time period, a large number of the more than 85,000 annual amateurs have been sleeping in their cars long before the sun rises to get one of the coveted tee times, which is the biggest problem at Papago.

Every other tee time on the course designed in 1962 by William Bell at the base of Papago Mountain (and just a 4-iron from the Phoenix Zoo) can be reserved over the phone two days in advance, with the others offered on a first-come first-serve basis. Neither approach is simple. But the prized tee time is worth losing a few winks of sleep over.

With a length of 7,068 yards from the back tees (6,590 from the men's), a thick array of trees surrounding the tight, rolling fairways before leaking off into the desert, a few well-placed lakes, numerous bunkers, and plenty of lengthy holes leading to large, yet undulating greens, it's a golfers' challenge everywhere except the wallet.

And, it stays in good shape.

Joe Huber, the head golf pro at Papago for the past 20 years, says the courses' popularity belongs to its origins. "It's a masterpiece in terms of design," he said. "It's perfect."

"All the holes have their own personality," he added. "There is lots of scenic views with the buttes being a nice backdrop. There's lots of nature and wildlife; and you don't have that feeling like you're playing in someone's backyard because there aren't any houses on the course."

The beauty of the course greets you on the back end of the driving range, where you can line up your practice shots against Papago Mountain. And the expensive scenery doesn't cost you anything extra.

"That's a $300,000 view if you want to buy a piece of land just to see those mountains," Huber said. "For the price of a bucket of balls, you can go to the driving range and look at them at the same time."

Once you make it to the first tee box, the length of the course is presented with the first of its four par-5s. From the back tees, No. 1 is 552 yards (500 from the men's), a slight dogleg right with a lake to the right of the green that doesn't really come into play -- but remember it because you'll play your tee shot on No. 13 over the majority of it.

This hole, like almost all the others -- including a couple par-3s -- allows you to fire away with your driver. The fairways aren't that wide, but there's a generous amount of not-to-tough rough to protect the slightly errant shots before the desert landscaping takes away the truly mis-hit tee shots.

No. 3 is the first of the course's long-par 4s, measuring 458 from the tips, (430 for the men). But it's straight away with just a hint of a downslope on your approach shot. Be careful, though, since the left side is one of the few OBs on the course.

Yet its length is quickly forgotten when the true test of distance is evident on the par-3s, beginning with No. 4 which weighs in at 215 from the back (and a more modest 167 from the men's).

The next couple of holes continue with the par-4 trend, with yardage ranging from 390-417 from the back, with clumps of the course's many mature trees, which come in handy for escaping from the sun, even in the winter months, but especially since a common complaint -- remember it is a municipal -is its pace of play: Slow. The trees do offer a shady place to watch the constant flow of planes in the nearby horizon bringing in more golfers to the Valley at Sky Harbor Airport.

On No. 6, watch out for the dry drainage ditch (this is Arizona after all) that bisects the fairway and snakes across several holes on the back side. The safe shot on this hole is a nice 3-wood right of the fairway bunker.

After another par-3, this one just under 200 yards from the back (198), you head back toward the clubhouse with the shortest of the par-5s, but one of the more challenging. A big drive just right splashes into a lake that starts halfway down the fairways and flows up to the green. The fairway breaks at the mid-point and the desert scrub and dirt borders the left side, not to mention a well-placed bunker.

After this one, you deserve a quick snack to restore your energy before heading to the back side where you're greeted with another par-5. This one mirrors the first hole more than the most recent. There's not much but desert to your left, but you can still really unload off the slightly raised tee box.

You'll need to be more precise with your tee shot on No. 11, the shortest par-3. Make sure to take enough club on the 184-yarder from the championship tees (157 from the men's markers) since most of the carry is a lake. A bunker lies in front of the green to catch those who want to really feel like you're at the beach. Yet this is one trap you don't mind hitting considering the shorter, watery consequences.

The next three holes are par-4s that hover just under 400 yards from the back, roughly 20 yards shorter for the men's tees, before you arrive at the longest hole on the course. Save your big tee shots for the four closing holes.

The final par-5 measures 555 yards all the way back (553 up one tee box) and you'll need all five strokes. This one is relatively straight and the slope that runs down to the drainage area gives you some extra roll on well-hit drives, but can create some awkward next shots as the fairways rises again to a green surrounded by sand traps.

No. 16 is a long par-4, so be mindful of the fairway bunker on the right side that will make the hole even longer than its 444-yards from the championship tees (418 from the men's).

If you think the last par-3 looks long on the scorecard -- 227 yards from the back; 213 from the men's -- wait until you get to the tee box. It's straight-away, even though it's a hidden, sunken green. Fire away and hope the pin is up front.

Papago finishes with, what else, but a long, uphill par-4 that is regarded as its signature hole. Playing 443 yards from the back (420 from the men's), it's all that, with a hilly fairway and lots of desert shrub guarding the left side of the fairway and a group of trees surrounding both sides of the green.

Regardless of how you score, one thing is certain, Huber says, "When you play golf at Papago, you'll remember it."

And at this rate, many people can afford to have those memories.

Michael Hegarty, Contributor


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