William Francis “Billy” Bell was a very busy man back in the late 1950s and early 60s. After having a hand in designing what would become America’s two most popular public golf facilities, San Diego’s Torrey Pines in 1957 and Tucson’s Randolph Golf Complex in 1961, Bell ventured up to Phoenix and started working on Papago Golf Course.
If you’ve read any of my course reviews over the past several months, you know I’ve played a lot of William F. Bell designs. The man was prolific along the West Coast and throughout the desert Southwest, specifically in Tucson, where he mapped out Tucson Country Club, Randolph South (now Dell Urich), and Forty Niner Country Club. He also drafted Maryvale Municipal (now Grand Canyon University Golf Course) in Phoenix and Wickenburg Country Club in Wickenburg.
Says the Magnuson Hotel Papago Inn of Bell’s Papago design, “Bell used Papago’s natural topography to accentuate the gently rolling terrain found throughout the golf course. The routing showcases the stunning views of the Papago Buttes, Camelback Mountain, South Mountain, and the downtown Phoenix skyline.” I would agree that the views are stunning. The driving range looks out onto those Buttes, and the view from there as well as on several of the holes can best be described as Martian.
It didn’t take long for Papago to get noticed after opening for play in 1963. In 1971, it played host to the USGA’s U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship won by Fred Haney, and for years, it’s been a regular qualifying course for the Phoenix Open. Papago also hosted the 2009 J Golf Phoenix LPGA International won by Australia’s Karrie Webb and has been named a Top 100 Public Course in the United States for decades.
In its heyday, Papago was so popular, golfers would park overnight in their cars in order to try and secure tee times, much the same way golfers do in hopes of teeing it up at New York’s Bethpage Black today. At its height, Papago hosted more than 100,000 rounds annually, but eventually the City of Phoenix course fell on hard times.
I attended nearby Arizona State University in the late 90s and early 2000s, and despite taking up golf during my sophomore year, never set foot on Papago soil because I had heard stories about its dilapidated condition.
Whether or not those stories were true, it wasn’t until 2008 that golfers really started to get excited about Papago again. In April of that year, the course closed in order to undergo a $5.8 million renovation by Billy Fuller, who formerly worked under golf course architect Bob Cupp.
When it re-opened in December, it was more than 400 yards longer, all of the bunkers had been refurbished, and a few of the them had even been repositioned. Despite today’s technological advances and yardage gains, holes’ original sightlines would once again play how Bell had intended them back in 1963.
In Papago Park – The Golf Course and Its History, author William Godfrey writes, “Those who played the course in the past will be pleasantly surprised at the changes they’ll find. Some trees have been removed and others thinned. Those that remain ensure the original design strategies that made Papago one of Arizona’s most challenging courses are retained.”
Papago Golf Course now plays 7,333 yards (previously 6,900) from the Black Tees to a Par of 72, a course rating of 74.8, and slope of 129. Here are some of the highlights of the round:
Holes Worth Writing Home About
The best hole on the front nine is the uphill, 383-yard Par 4 5th. The hole is a slight dogleg left with eucalyptus and palm trees running all along the right side of the fairway. To the left is desert, but the brush isn’t too thick. If you find yourself left of left, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll still be able to get a club on the ball.
The fairway slopes down and to the left to a large and fairly deep bunker, so you’ll want to favor the right side of the if you can. From there, you’re looking at an approach shot to a narrow, elevated green guarded by two big bunkers.
The sand in the bunkers is crusty on the top but thick and soft underneath. It’s a great hole because you’re likely to come into the green from the right side of the fairway, and you’re forced to carry those bunkers.
This hole is also representative of the elevation changes and undulations you’re going to find in the fairways of what feels like a fairly flat piece of property at Papago. It’s not! Those elevation changes are what really reminded me of Torrey Pines, probably the most famous Bell design, when I played the South Course back in March.
My favorite hole on the back nine is the short Par 4 12th. I love a drivable, risk/reward Par 4. At just 322 yards you can either try to be a hero or play for position off the tee. There are fairway bunkers on either side, so if you miss your landing area, the penalty can be quite severe. I piped a 3-wood into the narrow neck of a fairway between the two bunkers and had a wedge in, which I knocked stiff for birdie. I just didn’t realize how narrow the landing area was until I got up to my ball. If I’d known, I might have hit 3-hybrid instead.
There’s definitely more than one way to play this hole, but if you try to fly the shorter fairway bunker on the right, you’ll be bringing the right greenside bunker into play on your approach. It’s a good, strategic design, and it comes at a cool spot in the overall course layout. Holes 6, 11, 12, and 15 converge around a small halfway house, which has an ice and water machine, restaurants, and a snack bar.
All of the tee boxes at Papago are flat and square, which is a visual I’ve always liked, and there are very few cart paths on the course itself. The cart paths that are there are usually from tee boxes into fairways and from fairways up to green complexes. In some places, however, the cart paths just stop abruptly and the transition areas from path to fairway or fairway up to green are either bumpy or barren.
When you pull into the parking lot, one of the first things you’ll notice is the absence of a clubhouse. Papago used to have a clubhouse, but the gentleman working in the pro shop told me that when they did the renovation in 2008, the clubhouse was so bad that they decided it would be cheaper just to level it than to remodel it.
Construction of a new clubhouse is expected to begin “any day now,” and the plans and permits are currently being approved by the City. For the time being, both the restaurant and the golf shop are housed in portable buildings, and they’re getting run down.
Papago is currently managed by OB Sports in Scottsdale, a company that has a track record of getting golf courses from the red back into the black. The other thing that the course has going for it is that it’s been chosen as the future home of the Arizona State University Men’s and Women’s Golf Teams.
When I asked him about the teams’ move over from ASU Karsten, the same guy who told me clubhouse construction was expected to begin “any day now” told me not to expect ASU to have a presence at Papago “anytime soon.”
If you’ve never been there, finding the Papago Golf Course parking lot isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Once you turn onto East Moreland Street from North 52nd Street, you have to make your last possible right-hand turn. If you stay straight, you’ll find yourself at a dead end adjacent to Arizona Army National Guard Recruiting. The sign directing you toward the golf course is a little tough to spot. Just know that if you see Army helicopters taking off and landing where you are, you’ve gone too far.
For the first time ever, I birdied all four Par 5s during my round: the 561-yard 1st hole, the 542-yard 9th hole, the 525-yard 10th hole, and the 585-yard 15th. I didn’t hit any of the greens in two either. Water comes into play on holes one and nine, and I decided to lay-up for position instead of being overly aggressive since I’d never played the course. That meant my wedge game had to be on, and it was!
I also took advantage of the fact that the Bermudagrass greens, having been recently aerated, were still covered by a shallow layer of topdressing sand. That made it easier to stick my wedge shots right next to the pins. Three of my four birdie putts were stress-free tap-ins.
While We’re Young
We teed off a little after 1:00p, and with temperatures already well into the hundreds by mid-June, which is a little early even for Phoenix believe it or not, there was nothing but clean air ahead of us until we made the turn.
Then the unbearably slow play that you would expect to find at a public golf facility hit us like a summer monsoon. Even with all the delays on the back nine, we were still back in the parking lot by ten til four. Playing by myself (my wife was driving the cart), the front nine took about an hour.