2003: America's Best - Comeback trail

San Carlos, Ariz.

Here in the arid hills of central Arizona, a golf course is being brought back to life.

Apache Stronghold Golf Club, which is owned and operated by the San Carlos Apache Tribe as part of a 790-acre resort and gambling casino, is in the process of regrowing its once virtually dead fairways.

The story of this club’s rapid maintenance decline since its June 1999 opening reveals the difficulties confronted by newcomers to the golf industry when they compete on a national scale for attention and revenue. It also shows the price paid when corners are cut and experts ignored.

When guests at this daily-fee facility 90 miles northeast of Phoenix arrived last summer, they found shockingly bad conditions that were a far cry from what one might expect of a layout ranked No. 56 last year on Golfweek’s America’s Best Modern Courses list. Maintenance had deteriorated so badly that Golfweek suspended Apache Stronghold from our rankings list until the situation improves.

The strength of this par-72, Tom Doak design, with teeing grounds from 5,535 to 7,519 yards and drastically sloped greens averaging 7,500 square feet, was always its ground game options and lay-of-the land shaping.

But last summer it proved impossible to avail oneself of the fairway contours given the lack of turfgrass cover and the resulting cracks and crevices into which golf balls nestled. Tees and greens were fine, but in between was a nightmare. Al Murdock, Apache Stronghold’s golf professional and general manager, acknowledged that “it was emotionally and physically depressing to have such a good layout play like that.”

Now, things are starting to turn around. Superintendent Ron Mahaffey, brought on board in November 2001, has begun an aggressive regrassing campaign that will convert Apache Stronghold’s bluegrass and rye fairways to Bermudagrass. He also is reworking the irrigation system to provide more efficient head coverage. The facility will have to make due with high- mineral content effluent, but Mahaffey and others associated with the project are optimistic that the corner has been turned. Understandably, they prefer to focus on corrective action rather than recounting past miscues.

Big plans

Nothing comes easily in central Arizona’s high desert. The ground yields sparingly, and then only after much labor. If life were more fruitful, then old adjoining towns such as Miami and Globe might have stayed on longer as centers of copper mining. Today, they are hollow ghost towns, depressingly impoverished and decrepit compared with the sprawling boom towns of Mesa and Scottsdale, two hours west.

The San Carlos Apaches, population 11,000, launched plans in 1997 for a full-service casino and resort. With no experience in such a massive undertaking, the tribe’s governing council created three bodies to oversee development: a Corporate Board for the casino, a Management Board for the hotel and a Public Authority Board for the golf course.

The only experienced golfer on the Public Authority Board was Homer Stevens. A 6.8-index player who makes his living as a hunting and fishing guide, Stevens chaired the board until its dissolution in 2001. The first thing his committee did, he said, was turn to the Arizona Golf Association’s Special Services Group for paid consultancy. Much of that input was provided by AGA executive director Ed Gowan. Former association president Fred Hickle served as liaison with the tribe.

Stevens recalls that among other things, the consultants provided “a long list” of qualified architects to interview. Eventually, Doak was selected. According to Stevens, the board was impressed with Doak’s design credentials and “because he stood out as the only one who had no preconceptions about dealing with tribal councils.” Besides, added Stevens, “before the ground-breaking, we were thinking about moving a lot of dirt, but Doak said he liked what he saw and didn’t want to make much change to the terrain.”

Rather than contract out, the San Carlos Apaches relied on their own work force. Doak and his design associate/shaper Jim Urbina oversaw construction of the course. Neal Iverson was hired as project manager. All told, crews moved only 50,000 cubic yards, the bulk of it in excavating one lake and building up the eighth fairway. About half of the $7.8 million spent on development, construction and grow-in (including maintenance equipment and a greenkeeper’s facility) was expended in building the course and installing the irrigation.

Development of Apache Stronghold required complicated bureaucratic and political negotiations involving tribal factions, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Reclamation. The expectation all along was that course managers would draw water from an extensive aquifer that would supply freshwater for irrigation.

Tough choices

One major hurdle during course development was devising a proper grassing scheme. Doak’s team, including consulting agronomist Dave Wilber, suggested starting with Bermudagrass, getting it established and eventually overseeding with bentgrass.

A major concern was the need to take advantage of ideal spring and fall conditions for golf.

Indeed, Apache Stronghold would be in peak shape in the fall while the majority of desert courses were undergoing ryegrass transition. But that would leave the course in basic dormancy through the winter. The San Carlos Apaches made it clear, however, that they wanted to avoid the costs and difficulties of managing a winter ryegrass overseed.

“It was a very tough decision,” said Gary T. Grigg, consulting agronomist for the AGA on the project and 1995 president of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.

Grigg was convinced it was possible to avoid winter overseeding by selecting a viable cool-season turfgrass. He recommended dwarf bluegrasses.

Any cool-season grassing – indeed, any grassing plan in those conditions – would require ideal irrigation. Design of that system was entrusted to irrigation specialist Gaylon Coates.

During the process of installation, however, the irrigation system was altered. Among other changes, the outside row of throwback heads was reduced. It was at this point that Grigg and the AGA decided to withdraw their consulting role.

Ultimately, the fairways were grassed in dwarf bluegrass with a supplemental overseed of rye. Maintaining such fairways in a demanding setting like Apache Stronghold’s would have been dicey even had maintenance been ideal.

Instead, the maintenance commitment lagged. Budgets were cut. Local talent was limited. And council politics left decisionmaking in the hands of people who did not appreciate that merely having grass coverage didn’t necessarily mean fine, golf-quality turfgrass. Further complications ensued. Irrigation coverage proved uneven, with some areas getting too much water and others not enough. A frequent complaint of golfers was that the fairways were too wet. Matters weren’t helped when, in 2000, the EPA required Apache Stronghold to shift its water source from an underground aquifer to the recycled effluent produced on site by the casino and resort. The treated water had a high-salt content, further compromising turfgrass quality.

Mahaffey had no small job when he took over in November 2001. He had been at Ventana Canyon as a successor to Grigg, then spent five years as an independent turfgrass consultant before deciding to tackle Apache Stronghold.

“I thought maybe we could make rye/bluegrass work,” he said. His hiring coincided with a huge budgetary commitment, to the tune of $925,000 annually. He also began converting the irrigation system by shifting larger heads to smaller ones and providing a more uniform distribution pattern.

To deal with recurring complaints about overwatered fairways, Mahaffey was very sparse in his irrigation schedule. However, in early June 2002, the pump station went down for two days in temperatures of 105 to 110 degrees.

The fairways headed down quickly, with visible deterioration setting in through the summer and conditions bottoming out in mid-August. The course drew widespread criticism from golfers who made the long trek only to find the layout unplayable.

Making a comeback

Since then, Apache Stronghold has been on the rebound. Mahaffey has continued his irrigation refitting. He also has started an aggressive strategy of regrassing.

The club has yet to develop a policy toward winter overseeding. The primary concern is to establish stable Bermudagrass and worry about transition later.

As it turns out, winter play is less a factor here than elsewhere because of morning freezes and oft-delayed starting times. It is not uncommon in winter to hold back the first group until 10:30 a.m., which leaves all of a two-hour window for 18-hole rounds to start. With that kind of limited winter play, the primary consideration is to provide ideal playing conditions during the spring-fall season.

Murdock said he is optimistic that play will pick up from the 15,600 rounds last year – down from 21,000 two years earlier.

Green fees are not a deterrent to play. At $60 per round (including optional cart) and very favorable “stay-and-play” packages available for resort guests, golf at a nationally ranked course like Apache Stronghold is a bargain – but only if conditioning is commensurate with design quality.

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