The Grand Canyon University Golf Course, which is home to the Antelopes men’s and women’s golf teams, already has a rich and storied history under a different name: Maryvale Municipal Golf Course. Maryvale Municipal was designed and built in 1961 by William F. “Billy” Bell, who most famously designed both courses at Torrey Pines in San Diego. Bell’s fingerprints can be found on courses throughout the West and Southwest.
Bell did the design, but Maryvale Muni was really the vision of John F. Long, who devoted much of his life to developing the Maryvale community on western Phoenix farmland in the 1950s. Today, that same neighborhood is a dangerous eyesore. There’s no other way to say it.
To this day, it’s the only course I’ve ever played where armed public safety officers patrol the course perimeter either by cart or on foot. You can’t miss ’em.
In October of 2014, Grand Canyon University (GCU), which is located just three miles east of the course down Indian School Road, signed a 30-year operating agreement with the City of Phoenix to revitalize the city-owned golf course as part of the “university’s ongoing initiative to help reinvigorate the economy and quality of life in West Phoenix.”
Under the terms of the agreement, the school would be responsible not only for managing the course but paying all of its operating expenses. Profits wouldn’t be split between GCU and the city until after the school had recouped its initial investment. It’s the second time Phoenix has had to turn over management of one of its struggling golf courses to a university entity. Three months earlier, Arizona State University began operating the Papago Golf Course.
Once assuming control of the facility on January 1, 2015, GCU’s first order of business was to close the course and immediately begin working on a $10 million renovation entirely funded by the university. If Maryvale was to become a golf destination, the parkland-style course would need a major facelift: new tee boxes and green complexes, extended fairways to accommodate today’s longer hitters, enhanced bunkers, an updated practice facility for the school’s golf teams and the public, and a new clubhouse.
To oversee the project, GCU hired Scottsdale-based golf course architect John Fought. His redesign of Phoenix Country Club in conjunction with Tom Lehman in 2002 impressed not only the City of Phoenix but the University as well. According to Golf Course Architecture, Fought’s “philosophy of class design strategies and his attention to detail have made his work standout in the renovation business.”
When it reopened as Grand Canyon University Golf Course in January of this year, it was barely recognizable. Other than the obvious addition of a 10,000-square-foot clubhouse complete with a restaurant and bar, the most noticeable of Fought’s upgrades were the elevated greens, the more undulating fairways, and what can only be described as dramatic bunkering.
The bunkers are the first thing you’ll notice. Many of the course’s 80 bunkers were rebuilt if not completely relocated. They’re huge and high-lipped, but the new sand is a nice mix of firm yet fluffy.
The new course looks great in person, but it also really “pops” in high-definition. It’s green and lush. I first saw the following commercial while watching weekend coverage of the PGA Tour, and the drone flyovers really sucked me in. A few of my classmates saw it too, and eventually, we simply couldn’t take it anymore! This was our breaking point. We had to get out and play it before we graduated from the Golf Academy.
The course is not short. It plays 7,269 yards from the Purple Tees (GCU’s school colors are purple and white) to a Par of 71, a course rating of 74.4, and a slope of 135. Here are some of the highlights of the round:
Holes Worth Writing Home About
When we first started our round, we were directed to the 10th tee and told it was actually No. 1 on the score card. GCU is currently in the process of switching the nines. What’s No. 10 will soon be No. 1. In Golf Course Design, we learned that, as a general rule, the 1st and 10th holes should be more forgiving to allow golfers to get off to a good start. Well, someone missed that memo! From the tips, the opening hole plays 503 yards slightly left to an elevated green. The first hole is not only memorable, it’s one heck of a Par 4. Par is a great score.
I also think switching the nines is probably a good call. The 550-yard Par 5 18th is a much better finishing hole than the 460-yard Par 4 9th. Not only does the last hole build a little drama if you elect to go for the green in two, there’s a much nicer view of the new clubhouse from the 18th fairway.
The best hole on the front nine is the 642-yard Par 5 3rd. Even though most of the holes play long from the tips, the fairways are firm, which allows the shorter hitter to compete with the bomber because the ball will roll-out. The bermudagrass greens are firm and undulating. They have a sand base, which hardly produces a ball mark.
While you might think about playing one less club into the greens to allow for the ball to release, if you come up short the aprons are soft enough that the ball will stick. All of the greens are hand-trucked, so you know they’re good, and it’s probably the best way to mow to ensure that the banks and contours along the sides of the complexes will continue to feed the ball back down to the putting surface.
My favorite hole on the back is the Par 4 15th. At 372 yards, it may seem like your average, run-of-mill four shot hole, but it’s anything but. There’s a large cross bunker, which if you can carry, will really shorten the hole. For the right-handed player, a high cut shot works best, but if you can’t bring yourself to challenge the bunker, you can always hit your tee shot out to the left shot for a longer approach. Visually, it’s a stunning hole, one of the best uses of bunkering, in my opinion, on the entire course.
There are two unique design features I want to mention. The Par 4 6th hole shares a greenside bunker with the short, Par 4 4th hole, which I have never seen before. The bunker is positioned long and left on both holes, and it’ll be interesting to see if any safety issues develop as time goes by. When you’re hitting your approach shot into six green, you can’t see if there’s anyone playing out of the bunker on four, which presents a potential problem.
The other feature I like is the short game area to the left of the 7th tee box. When we were there, there were three different hole locations. What a great place to go out and practice your putting, chipping, pitching, and scoring wedges after a long day at the office. It’s a trek to get to from the clubhouse, and you’re probably not going to be hopping any fences with those armed public safety officers roaming about.
Now, you’re going to think I’m being picky here, but the other thing I noticed was that the cup liners were only about 1/2″ below the surface of the green. Someone is going to think they’ve rolled-in a putt only to be crushed when it hits the plastic liner and pops back out. C’mon guys! The Rules of Golf state that, “If a lining is used, it must be sunk at least 1 inch (25.4 mm) below the putting green surface.” I didn’t have my ruler with me, but I can tell you that it wasn’t an inch below.
Even though the fairways are more undulating now than they used to be, the parkland-style course is still fairly flat and very walkable. Even though it’s tree-lined, it’s not so thick that you can’t escape if you find yourself in trouble. The course reminds me of the Randolph courses down in Tucson, another Bell family design, and features a classic, two-toned score card, which I love.
One of the best stories left over from the days of Maryvale Municipal is that of Mike Swartz. Swartz qualified for the PGA Tour in the mid-90s and appeared in four Phoenix Opens. He also held the course record by shooting a 60 while playing in tennis shoes.
When you’re entering the parking lot to the Grand Canyon University Golf Course, you have to enter off of 59th Avenue, not Indian School. The gate off Indian School is locked, and you’ll be forced to turn around. The course is not listed on GolfNow, and in order to get the best rate, you have to either call or book through the course web site.
When we were there, the driving range was mats only, which was fine. They’re not the ugly square mats you’re used to seeing at a lot of golf courses. They were good, probably because they’re still so new. A small bag of balls is more than enough for two people to share when warming-up prior to your round. Don’t be suckered into buying an extra bag just because you hear the word “small.”
The best shot of the day came off the club of one of my classmates. From a terrible spot in the trees off to the right of the 224-yard Par 3 11th, Tito Valenciano hit a 58-degree wedge that landed on the green and rolled some 40 feet right into the cup! It didn’t even hit the pin. It didn’t have to. The ball carried perfect speed up and over a ridge before finding its way to the bottom.
If I hadn’t witnessed the shot myself, I wouldn’t have believed it. What a shot!
While We’re Young
We teed off as a threesome at 7:53 and were back in the parking lot by 11:45. The pace of play was fantastic, and even though we were playing behind a foursome of walkers, we never had to wait to hit a shot. I love and even miss walking when I play nowadays. It’s nice to see a course that not only allows but even encourages walkers… especially when they don’t clog up the course with slow play!
Next On the Tee
One of my former classmates and I are playing in a two-person scramble this Sunday at Wickenburg Ranch Golf & Social Club. The tournament is part of the Wasted Away in Bunkerville tournament series organized by Bunker to Bunker THE Golf Show and benefits the Folds of Honor Foundation. Apparently, it’s a sell-out. I’m really looking forward to it because Wickenburg Ranch, with its bentgrass greens, is widely considered to be one of the best courses in the state.