2012 marks the 25th anniversary of the Desert Mountain Club, the one-of-a-kind golf community in Scottsdale, Arizona. Jack Nicklaus continues to say that, “there’s no other place like it in the world.”
I know this personally because it lured me from the San Francisco Bay Area 13½ years ago when I was working to Monday qualify my way onto the Champions Tour. You could play golf all year long in the Bay Area, but when the Pacific fronts would come parading through, you sometimes couldn’t play for a couple of weeks at a time. And when you could, you were in your rain suit with a knit ski hat on and couldn’t feel your hands or your face.
It was immediately obvious what the climate differences were between the two, but there were more subtle indicators that punctuated it. For example, in the Bay Area, you had your winter golf shoes, older pairs that you were willing to sacrifice to the muddier days. For a couple of years at Desert Mountain, as I wore out a pair of golf shoes, I would put them aside for the muddy days. But the courses at Desert Mountain are so well built and drain so well, I never wore those shoes again. If it rains hard one day, you’re playing on a slightly wet, but firm surface the next.
So it was with some anticipation when the members found out that Jack Nicklaus, the designer of all six courses at Desert Mountain, was going to join us for the 25th Anniversary bash up at the flagship Cochise/Geronimo clubhouse.
The last time he was here was a year ago when the Club announced that it had engaged him to continue to evaluate each of the courses to ensure their playability and design integrity. He is famous for fiddling with his home course in Ohio, Muirfield Village, in the same way that Arnold Palmer continues to tinker with his, Bay Hill in Orlando. Jack’s going to be doing the same thing for the Desert Mountain courses.
Speaking to the throngs of members gathered on the oversized practice putting green, Jack held forth for 30 to 40 minutes about his early involvement with the Club’s developer, Lyle Anderson. Lyle was the visionary who saw 5,000 acres of desert ranch land that gently sloped up to the base of the mountains and said, “This is the place.”
But back then, you “couldn’t get there from here.” Jack said that he and Lyle actually helicoptered up to the site — it was so remote at the time — and thus began a relationship that would eventually produce this Disneyland of golf.
The first course they did was Renegade at the bottom of the property. The concept was all Lyle’s. Golf Magazine dubbed it “the most versatile course in the world.” Why? Because each hole has four or five sets of tees, but most uniquely two different pin positions on very large greens, the easy (white) or the more challenging (gold). On five holes, they are actually on separate greens.
Nicklaus came for the Grand Opening of Renegade in 1987, the year after his memorable win at the 1986 Masters. “I played Gold to Gold, missed one fairway and shot 83,” he joked. “But for members who play White to White, it’s a pretty playable golf course. That’s the way it should be.”
The next course he did was Cochise, home of the Champions Tour’s, The Tradition, for a dozen years or so. He described it as the sporty course; you can get around it and have fun doing it. In this year’s Schwab Cup Championship, the guys who were on their games had their way with it and the guys who weren’t didn’t think it was so sporty. Good solid golf course.
Then came its sister course, Geronimo, which he described as the strong course. It’s a course you can really sink your teeth into if it doesn’t bite you first. It has a number of stunning elevation changes that Jack took full advantage of with dramatic, top-of-the-world tee shots and carries across deep ravines. I’m a sucker for elevated tee shots even when they’re more subtle than others.
The next course Lyle and Jack did was Apache in 1996. It’s a course that “moves over the land” in a way that gives you a sense that the land was built for the course rather than the other way around. In some ways, that makes it more mundane because it’s a gentle, walkable piece of land. And for that reason, it’s the course I least look forward to playing. But every time I walk off the 18th green (once again a hole with two greens), I say to myself, “Damn, that’s a good golf course.” When I was working with the late Jim Flick, he said, “Mr. Bill, I want you playing Apache as much as possible because it’s more like the courses you’re going to see out on Tour. Learn to play that well and you can play anywhere.”
The fifth course was Chiricahua in 1999, their masterpiece up against the base of the mountains. It has such dramatic views and because the back nine moves through boulder-strewn ravines never intended for a golf course, it’s a minor miracle that the two of them could see one there. When members have guests coming to town, it’s the course they always want them to play.
And finally, they built the Outlaw course in 2003. It is a Scottish links style course that requires a complete skill set playing the ball up in the air, low to the ground in the wind and a good short game to clean up messy approach shots. Almost all of the greens are elevated above the fairways, so the short game shots need to be confident and crisp. Do that and you feel like a complete player. And for that reason, Outlaw has hosted a number of Arizona and mini-tour tournaments and championships.
One of the great things about Desert Mountain is its scale. Once you’ve played the courses a couple of times and know the lay of the land, you can stand on one part of a course and marvel that its routing will eventually take you to that distant mountain and back. Or from way up here to way down there. Or from way over here to way over there.
How Jack and Lyle’s vision produced that is as much a product of the routing necessary to navigate the natural topography. But as in all things masterful, it’s also true that those astonishing vistas they created together were strokes of mastery, the kinds of astonishing by-products that the intense human creative process produces. The kinds of things that others later look upon and call genius.