SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Seven years ago I visited Camelback Golf Club with a colleague and played what was then known as the Indian Bend course. Given the club’s affiliation with the J.W. Marriott Camelback Inn Resort & Spa, a Four Diamond property that has one of the strongest reputations in resort-rich Scottsdale, the round on Indian Bend was a deflating experience. I don’t remember much about that course, other than this: It was flat, featureless and needed a serious tree-management program.
A couple of weeks ago I returned to Camelback GC for the first time since 2006. I was there to see the new Ambiente course, which sat on the land previously occupied by Indian Bend.
When Rob Bartley, Camelback’s director of golf, asked me about my memories of Indian Bend, I grasped for a measure of diplomacy. I told Bartley that the course had “underwhelmed me” and that I recalled it being “nondescript.”
That amused Bartley. It turns out he had a similar view of Indian Bend and had been pushing hard since his arrival at Camelback eight years ago to renovate the course.
“We had one really good golf course in Padre, and were woefully behind with Indian Bend,” Bartley said. “So from an experience standpoint, people had heard about Camelback and they would come over to Indian Bend and say, ‘This is inconsistent with Camelback Inn.’ ”
In November, Camelback opened Ambiente after a $10 million renovation. Actually, it’s more like an entirely new course, built within the confines of an out-and-back routing that placed severe constraints on architect Jason Straka.
“For a multitude of reason, it was probably the most difficult job I’ve ever worked on,” said Straka, of Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design. (The firm previously was known as Hurdzan/Fry.)
The course sits on a flood plain, so no dirt could be added or taken from the site. A civil engineer assigned to the project developed a model of a 100-year flood event, and Straka’s routing and grading plans had to be tested repeatedly to meet that standard. The course straddles the Indian Bend Wash, which Straka said was lowered from 2-8 feet, depending on the location, with the fill used to raise the fairways.
Hundreds of nonindigenous trees were removed, and Straka reduced the managed turf from 210 acres to 90 – a key point in Marriott’s positioning of its golf courses.
“Marriott, in general, wants to be known as environmentally responsible,” Straka said. “Well, having a 210-acre bermuda grass golf course maintained on well water is environmentally and socially irresponsible. And they knew that. That was the first goal.”
Bartley said Straka’s firm appealed to Marriott because of its emphasis on designing environmentally sound courses – Ambiente is the Spanish word for environment – and the fact that the firm “had never done a golf course in Arizona.”
“I didn’t think Arizona needed another Arizona golf course,” Bartley added. “From a marketing standpoint, that’s a big positive.”
So the idea of building a course that evoked the Sonoran Desert – a familiar style around Scottsdale – was quickly dismissed. Instead, Straka said he tried to bring a high-desert feel to Ambiente. The two courses at Pronghorn Golf Club in Bend, Ore., were an early source of inspiration for him. Ambiente’s native grasses and wildflowers should frame the holes with a tableau of colors that changes throughout the year. Some of those native areas border the fairways, and Bartley said he’ll consider trimming those back if they become magnets for errant shots.
The available fill was used to provide elevation and texture to Ambiente’s fairways and green complexes – a much-needed shift away from the flat and forgettable Indian Bend layout. Straka noted that there now is more elevation change just on the short, par-4 10th than there had been on Nos. 7-14 of the original layout.
“They needed something that was going to show well – flashy bunkering, a different mixture of textures and colors and heights,” Straka said. “They needed to have interesting green complexes and more strategy built into it.”
One of Bartley’s argument in support of the renovation was that strengthening the golf course would benefit Camelback Inn, located four miles from the golf club.
“I work for a hotel company, so my job is to put people in beds,” he said.
The sorry state of the old Indian Bend layout had not helped that effort. Bartley said there were indications that groups were taking their meetings and room business to other golf resorts. He found that golf packages accounted for less than 2 percent of Camelback’s rounds, lagging far behind other Marriott properties.
Now, Ambiente is Camelback Golf Club’s top attraction, and that’s reflected in the pricing. Ambiente’s peak rate is $195 – Indian Bend’s rate had been $99 before being closed – and Padre’s is $165.
“There was not a compelling reason to stay at the inn and play both golf courses,” Bartley said. “Now there is.”