People often consider the phrases ‘desert golf’ and ‘natural golf’ to be mutually exclusive. Mention the former and they will think of PGA West with its 20-foot deep bunkers and island green. Mention the latter and they their minds flash to Sand Hills, where only the barest amount of land was disturbed.
Apache Stronghold, in San Carlos, Arizona, represents a marriage of these two themes. This latest creation by Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design firm is located on the reservation of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and must be classified as desert golf, replete with cacti, mesquite trees, rocks and rattlesnakes. But it also provides a fresh example of minimalism as an unusually small amount of ground was moved to build the course. Unlike so many other desert layouts, Apache Stronghold does not look as if it were imposed on the property. Similar to Sand Hills, it gives the impression that the main task was just to grow the grass.
Somewhat like Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw at Sand Hills, Doak and his team had a vast property on which to lay out the course. Such situations provide an architect the best opportunity to showcase his skill. If given a small piece of land, there are but so many variations of the routing from which to choose. A sprawling site, however, offers an almost endless number of permutations, requiring both imagination and discipline on the part of the architect.
At Apache Stronghold one design firm that interviewed for the job suggested stringing out several holes along the highway in hopes of attracting ‘walk-in’ customers. That idea never crossed Doak’s mind as he went in search of the best features of the property, found at the part of the course the farthest from the highway (holes 2-7 on Doak’s design). As this example illustrates, Apache Stronghold is emphatically not just a case of ‘Well, given such a nice piece of land, anyone could have designed a course of the same high quality.’ If that other architect had been awarded the job, the world might never hear of Apache Stronghold.
After Renaissance had taken pains with the routing, the course merely follows the wonderful site with not surprisingly the best parts of the property offering the best holes. Holes 1 – 7, which rival 1 – 7 at Lost Dunes, 10 – 15 at High Pointe and 10 – 15 at Riverfront for Renaissance’s best stretch of holes, were laid out over the most interesting terrain, working their way through the rocky valleys and over and around washes. Holes 13 – 15 are another inspired stretch.
Apache Stronghold offers further proof that minimalism does not produce dull courses – far from it. The courses just reflect the land – on more interesting land, such as here and at High Pointe, the golf will be dramatic, heroic and perhaps even ‘quirky’ in spots. Apache Stronghold is the first course that really struck the authors with the idea of applying minimalism to green complexes. The first green, for example, is bisected by a swale that splits the green into its higher sides. Originally Doak was going to build the green short and to the left of the current site, but the temptation to use this neat, natural feature was too much. The fifth green offers another example – the wild contours were already there, as can be verified by looking at the undulations coming from the hillside on the left.
Apache Stronghold also deserves praise for the ease with which it can be walked. True, it is not as walker-friendly as the two courses at Talking Stick, but those courses are dead-flat whereas Apache Stronghold is anything but. There are hefty hikes to the 14th and 18th tees, but the authors can see no way to have avoided that (it would have been a crime not to build the 14th).
Holes to Note:
Forth hole, 400 yards; The authors’ favorite hole, the fourth offers a fresh perspective from the tee: the farther you drive the ball, the more room you have. The bunker at the inside corner of this dog-leg left requires 235 yards to carry, but such a feat is most reasonable at this altitude. The approach is even more appealing, with its modest, sloping green nestled between two large hills and, for most approaches, the sky is the only backdrop. The effect is superb.