Whisper Rock: Camaraderie, modesty make unbeatable pairing

The 18th hole at Whisper Rock in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The 18th hole at Whisper Rock in Scottsdale, Ariz.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Its name is fitting, because as it sits amid a string of gems in an endless sea of golden sand, praise has come its way in respectful tones. Hushed, not loud. Unpretentious, not bodacious. Dignified, not flamboyant. Whispers.

That is the method in which word has spread of Whisper Rock Golf Club, which is many things, but mostly it is true to a genuine humility and the premise that it owes its existence to committed trailblazers. Where once there were miles of primitive desert, this area today is a dynamic golf destination, with many options for the millions who pack their clubs and head for warmth.

If Whisper Rock is worthy of all the plaudits since opening in 2001 – and surely it is – due reverence must be paid.

“We did not plant the seed. We fell from the tree,” said Gregg Tryhus, offering tribute to those whose visionary talents turned Scottsdale into a golf mecca and allowed for the existence of Whisper Rock.

There was the birth of Desert Forest in 1962, which remains arguably Arizona’s finest golf course. There was Jerry Nelson with Troon, Pinnacle Peak and Estancia. There was Lyle Anderson with Desert Highlands and Desert Mountain and his stroke of genius 30 years ago to bring the Skins Game to Thanksgiving TV and show the snow-shovel citizenry there was terrific golf in the Arizona desert. Michael Meldman joined the Estancia project and later with Discovery Land Co. created Mirabel. There was DMB Associates with Silverleaf and DC Ranch.

“They envisioned grass against the great Sonoran Desert and created the evolution of a marketplace,” said Tryhus, a North Dakotan who attended graduate school at Arizona State and fell in love with the area. He made it his home, and created Grayhawk Development, which brought Grayhawk Golf Club and Whisper Rock Golf Club to life.

The former is a 36-hole public facility that has hosted a PGA Tour event, a five-star junior tournament and everything in between, while the latter is . . . well, “The Rock,” where egos are checked at the door and passions for golf, camaraderie and personality are membership prerequisites.

“The greatest charm is that everyone’s the same; there is no difference,” said one of the earliest members, Doug Heltne. “You know coming in you’re not going to change the place; here, the members make the club.”

That it’s earned widespread acclaim as one of the nation’s elite private golf clubs in just a short time suggests there’s a magical formula at work, but that is not the case. True, there are two superb courses – the Lower, designed by Phil Mickelson and Gary Stephenson, opened in 2001 and is defined by brilliant green complexes; the Upper, by Tom Fazio, opened in 2005 and offers incredible desert vistas. And, yes, the quality practice facilities enable the club’s hundreds of single-digit handicappers and more than 30 who play professionally (Mickelson, plus Aaron Baddeley, Paul Casey, Martin Kaymer, Geoff Ogilvy, Chez Reavie and Kevin Streelman among them) to stay sharp. But what shines through at “The Rock” is the pure golf environment and a comfort level felt with every step, none of which are taken as if walking on eggshells.

“It starts with Gregg. He is so humble, and we all pick up on that,” said locker-room manager Mike Marranzino, who embraces a way of thinking that is contagious with the staff and all 560 members:

“We’re just trying to be ‘The Rock.’ ”

They accomplish that on so many levels, it’s uncanny. The slices of flavor that get to the heart of Whisper Rock’s mystique can be found in the locker room and the grill room. Wonder why the lockers are only 5 feet high? So you can see your fellow members walk by. “If lockers were bigger, you couldn’t say hi,” Tryhus said. And the tables? There are enough seats not only for your foursome but another foursome, because at “The Rock,” camaraderie is the final score, not what’s on your scorecard.

At Whisper Rock, they call it “The Hang,” and Heltne explained that “it is more important than the golf. The ability to ‘hang’ is the charm of this place.” A Masters flag in a grill-room case was signed by Mickelson, who paid tribute to “The Hang.” Trent Rathbun, the director of golf and general manager, said members love the annual member-member that is played in eightsomes because “it’s a great way to meet other guys.”

The approach proves intoxicating, because at Whisper Rock, there’s a distinct feeling that members share a kinship with whomever they meet that day – be it the guy at the bag drop, a member of the pro-shop staff, a caddie or a pro athlete who made (or still makes) his fame and fortune shooting pucks, dunking basketballs, playing baseball, or patrolling gridirons, but can come into this club and blend in seamlessly.

If you were to walk in and see Kaymer having lunch (he likely would recommend the ribs), or Ogilvy at the putting green, or even a Jeremy Roenick of NHL glory or Mark Grace of baseball fame getting set to play, you’d notice how they blended in with nary an ounce of fuss. It is the way things are at “The Rock,” where everyone pays the same ticket in and gets treated accordingly.

“Just a very unique club, and it’s the way the membership has set it up,” said Miller Barber, who counts among his 11 PGA Tour victories two Phoenix Opens. Tour titles or not, Barber said he probably would have become enamored with this area anyway.

“I just always loved the desert,” said the quiet and unassuming Barber, who hardly looks like a guy who hung with the legendary “Rat Pack.” Yet if you were to find him where he often is, at the back of the Whisper Rock range holding court, you might hear him regaling fellow members with stories of icons named Sinatra, Martin and Davis, of his friendship with Bob Hope, or perhaps recalling the days of the Tournament of Champions at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.

“Now that tournament,” said Barber, 81, “was the ice cream on the pie.”

An eyewitness to the dynamic growth of Scottsdale, Barber marvels at the golf courses within a short drive. “There are so many choices to play and practice,” he said. “It’s a wonderful area. They have built a great place for golf.”

But it is at Whisper Rock where you’ll frequently see Barber. The man’s spirit and his passion for golf make him a typical member; his close ties to bygone PGA Tour days keep him relevant – and hugely popular.

“I’ll go to the back of the range to chip and pitch and just listen to his stories,” Ogilvy said.

It is part of the Whisper Rock fabric, this desire to sit and talk, to spend time with fellow members – some of them famous, most not, all enamored with golf and the friendships that trickle from it. The club’s first general manager, Jimmy Saunders, was fond of saying, “the place has to have a personality, and personality begins with ‘person,’ ” said Tryhus, who adds: “We’re not confused by what we’re trying to do (at Whisper Rock). The essence of this club is relationships.”

Saunders was there in the formative years and so, too, was Bill Stines, now the head professional at Scioto Country Club in Ohio. Leon Crimmins followed as club manager, and it was Mickelson’s former teammate at Arizona State, Jim Strickland, who coordinated a membership drive that is the foundation of Whisper Rock – pick out the type of members you wanted, show them the concept and tell them to tell their friends. It has worked marvelously. Out of barren desert land, these men followed in the footsteps of the visionaries who turned Scottsdale into a golf mecca, and they joined to mold what is Whisper Rock.

“We grew from the inside out,” said Tryhus, who sees “The Rock” as a place for members to gather and to celebrate golf and friendships. “We just want to be the first Whisper Rock. We would never be so disrespectful as to suggest we might be the second anything else.”

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