Arizona golf: A 'little slice of heaven'

The 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale.

The 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale.

PHOENIX -- Bill Johnston chuckles when he tells about the time he was the 36-hole leader of the 1958 Tucson Open. He was standing on the first tee when Stan Leonard made a practice swing and whacked Johnston’s left elbow. It swelled, Johnston shot 75 and eventually tied for 11th. The next week, Johnston won his lone PGA Tour title, the Texas Open

Invitational. He beams with pride when recounting his victory. Yet his fondest memories? They belong to the Phoenix Open.

“I always made sure I got to that one,” he said. “When I got a chance to move to Phoenix, I was never disappointed.”

What’s not to like? Perpetual sunshine gives way to the warm backdrop of a Technicolor Sonoran sunset. Pointy triangles rise abruptly from the flat desert like the pyramids forming a jagged skyline. These towering Arizona landmarks are known by distinctive names such as Camelback Mountain, which is, well, shaped like a camel’s back.

Johnston, 87, fell hard for the desert while playing in the Phoenix Open. He competed there 11 times before making the Valley of the Sun his home. He remembers his first qualifier

at Arizona Country Club as if it were yesterday.

“My goodness, that was the longest drive, from downtown to 56th Street,” he said. “It’s nothing now. At the time, it was a little two-lane road.”

New highways and a population explosion are just a few of the changes Johnston has witnessed in his half-century here. From desert grit to resort glitz, Phoenix and neighboring Scottsdale have blossomed into a golf mecca, with a lifestyle that’s hard to beat.

“When I first came here, there were four courses in the area,” he said. “That’s so long ago the Wigwam only had 18 holes at the time.”

An Arizona treasure since 1929, the Wigwam, located 25 miles west of downtown Phoenix, opened as a winter retreat for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. executives who visited from Ohio to oversee production of long-staple cotton, which was used in tire treads. Jacques Phillip, a Scottish gardener, is credited with constructing nine holes, featuring oil-soaked sand greens, with a single tractor before the second season. Soon golf became a popular pastime among guests. Today Wigwam’s three classic, parkland-style courses, two designed in the 1960s by Robert Trent Jones Sr., still provide a meaty test.

Yet, the Wigwam isn’t even Arizona’s oldest-destination course. San Marcos Golf Resort in Chandler had nine holes under construction in 1912, the year the Grand Canyon state entered the Union. Indeed, cowboys and carpetbaggers were playing here before Arizona obtained statehood. In Naco, Turquoise Valley Golf Course, which dates to 1908 as a nine-holer, lays claim to being the oldest continuously operating course in the state.

Johnston put down Phoenix roots in 1961 as head professional at Arizona Country Club. He continued to compete in the Phoenix Open, where he once finished fourth. The tournament dates to the 1930s when Bob Goldwater, younger brother of Barry, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, and a group of civic boosters called the Thunderbirds, started the tournament to attract tourism. Goldwater, who was the event’s chairman from 1934 to 1951, is considered the father of what is now the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

“Bob Goldwater looked after golf like nobody else in Arizona,” said John Solheim, chairman and CEO of Ping.

Phoenix was a city of roughly 60,000 when Byron Nelson was tournament champion in 1939. By the 1980s, the population had jumped to nearly 800,000 and the tournament had outgrown Phoenix Country Club. PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman sent Gary McCord to scout some land in remote north Scottsdale.

“He said, ‘I think we’re going to build a TPC there,’ ” McCord recalled. “I said, ‘Are you nuts? There’s nothing out there except some stagecoaches and tumbleweeds.’ That’s all I saw.

I said, ‘We’ve got 20,000 spectators a day at Phoenix Country Club. No one will ever show up.’ ”

Since 1987, golf fans have congregated at TPC Scottsdale in growing numbers. Last year, more than 500,000 – the largest crowds at any Tour event – attended what is affectionately called “The Greatest Show on Grass.”

“So much for me being a visionary,” McCord said.

That word often has been associated with real estate tycoon Lyle Anderson. Perhaps no one did more to make Arizona into the golf hotbed it is today than Anderson. In the late 1970s, he was a member at tony Paradise Valley Country Club. With its waitinglist stretching six years, Anderson recognized an untapped market.

“I felt the time was right,” Anderson said. “Phoenix didn’t have a modern golf course.”

Anderson’s land, along the south slope of Pinnacle Peak, was well beyond the city limits. There were skeptics.

No matter. Starting with a cold call to architect Jack Nicklaus, they transformed a forest of saguaros into a prestigious golf-and-living destination in the East Valley of metropolitan Phoenix. Desert Highlands became Scottsdale’s first private residential community built around the nucleus of a high-end country club.

It didn’t hurt that Anderson also was a master at generating publicity.

In 1983, as host to the first Skins Game – featuring Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Tom Watson – Desert Highlands introduced the world to desert golf. The transition – that buffer zone of sand or dirt separating the manicured green oases from the untamed native desert – became part of the golf vernacular.

Anderson’s next big hit was Desert Mountain, home to six Nicklaus courses in the high Sonoran Desert of north Scottsdale. It hosted the Tradition, a Champions Tour major from 1989 to 2001. Other golf course developments and high-end public facilities soon sprouted, attracting many of the best course architects. Nicklaus, Tom Fazio, Tom Weiskopf, Jay Moorish and Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw have worked in the Valley. So has Johnston, who built The Links at Arizona Biltmore Country Club, Pointe Hilton Golf Club on Lookout Mountain in Phoenix and Rancho Mañana Golf Club in Cave Creek.

Scottsdale alone has 51 golf courses within the city limits and 200-plus in the surrounding area. Arizona’s 338 courses pump $3.4 billion into the state’s economy annually and employ nearly 20,000.

But the news isn’t all rosy. In 1981, Phoenix City Council set up “Phoenix Golf” to operate its six municipal courses as a revenue-sustained enterprise without support from the city’s general fund. That worked during the go-go ’80s and the golf-crazy ’90s. But since 1999, Phoenix has had to cover the courses’ operating and maintenance costs with money from the city’s general fund, The Arizona Republic reported in September.

As Johnston retraced the years, it’s clear he still can’t get enough of the game. He plays a couple of times a week with old friend Butch Baird and LPGA veterans in the area such as Shelley Hamlin, Betsy King and Sherri Turner.

“I had no idea golf in Arizona would get this big,” Johnston said. “But can you blame all these people for coming here? It’s my little slice of heaven.”

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