Courses and Travel

Papago Golf Course in Phoenix is worthy of a U.S. Open

Photo: Tony Roberts

No. 17 at Papago Golf Course.

PHOENIX — I don't suppose there's any chance the United States Open could ever come to the greater Phoenix area. Not with the average high temperature here in June hitting 103 degrees.

If not for the Arizona heat, however, the USGA could add Papago Golf Course to its list of municipal courses on the Open rota. The current Open munis are Torrey Pines, whose majesty was underscored by Tiger Woods and an unforgettable championship last summer; Bethpage Black, which will host its encore Open next summer; and Chambers Bay, a newcomer in Tacoma, Wash., already penciled in for the '15 Open.

It's a crazy idea, I know, but that's how much I liked playing the renovated (or should I say the new and improved?) Papago last week. The Course has long been a gem known to Phoenix area residents, but it was unknown to most of the rest of the country. I discovered it last week on the day it reopened after closing for improvements in April.

Maybe it's a stretch to think that Papago could host an Open, but it ranks with my favorite tracks in the golf-heavy Scottsdale area even though its greens need a little more time to fill in and smooth out.

The changes added 350 yards to the course, which now stretches more than 7,300 yards. That's probably not long enough for an Open once you factor in roll and the dry desert air. Growing Open-length rough would be a challenge, too, given the amount of precious water needed. Getting the greens up to Open speeds and keeping them alive in constant 100-degree heat probably isn't realistic, either.

Like I said, it's a crazy idea as long as the Open is married to its traditional mid-June date. I bring it up only as a way to emphasize my enthusiasm for Papago. Owned by the city of Phoenix, it's one of the country's great underrated public tracks.

What's so great about it? Well, for one thing, it doesn't feel like a desert golf course. It has grass. Acres of it. It has lots of big trees and tree-lined fairways. So it's green and shady (by desert standards) and smartly routed, and you have to work pretty hard to lose a ball here (although it can be done). If you miss a fairway at most desert courses, your ball is usually lost or unplayable, or both.

Picture the Torrey Pines South Course without the ocean or the dramatic cliffs. OK, you can't. But if you could, that's Papago. It's not a coincidence. Billy Bell, who designed Torrey Pines and other California courses, designed Papago, which opened in 1963. The course hosted a U.S. Public Links Championship in '71 and has held numerous Phoenix Open qualifiers.

It was always a strong layout, but it succumbed to a lack of attention, which happens to most municipal courses. Having just discovered it myself, I can't tell you how far it fell, but I can tell you that it's an eye-opening experience now.

For starters, it's less than 10 minutes from Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport. It couldn't be more convenient unless the clubhouse was at the rental car center. The renovators cleared out the underbrush and 40 years worth of debris, so I'm told, and that's why the course feels so airy and open. There are great views in every direction, a smorgasbord of mountains — the Superstitions, Camelback, South Mountain and the Four Peaks — and eerie, weather-worn red buttes worth gaping at. You don't expect that in the middle of town.

Some might think it a distraction, but I actually enjoyed watching the big jets lumbering in and out of Sky Harbor. The sky above Papago is very busy with planes and birds.

Mostly, though, I enjoyed the mildly rolling terrain, the curving fairways, the oversized bunkers and big greens. It really does have the feel of Torrey Pines, and from the back tees, it's a manly test.

It is still a work in progress. A double-wide trailer currently passes for the clubhouse, and plans for a new clubhouse are a ways off. The practice range wasn't quite finished and wasn't open for play. The chipping and putting greens were usable, but not as good as they'll be after another month or two of growth and maturing. And the new greens are firm, as new greens usually are.

I won't bore you with hole-by-hole description, but I will tell you that each nine begins with adjacent (almost identical) par-5 holes that dogleg to the right, a pair of excellent wake-up calls, and most holes are pleasantly tree-lined. Papago is a desert course that's not a desert course, and it's conveniently located. I don't why it took me so long to discover it, but I know one thing — I've got a new entry for my list of America's best public courses. I know something else, too. I'll be back.

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