PHOENIX, Ariz. — Hitting balls on the practice tee at Papago Golf Course, difficult is trying to focus on the task at hand. That’s because the rust-colored, sandstone Papago Buttes rise more than 1,200 feet into the air a few hundred yards off the back of the range.
The hills are a striking sight while trying to figure out which way the golf ball is going on this particular day. And if the buttes weren’t enough to distract you, majestic, 2,700-foot Camelback Mountain is in full view, about five miles to the north of Papago, which is located just east of the heart of Phoenix.
Sooner or later, you have to get out from under the hypnotic trance of the ancient rock formations and play golf. And since you’re at Papago, you can enjoy 18 holes and not lose your view of the sights.
Papago Golf Course is owned by the city of Phoenix and is thought by many to be the best muni in Arizona. The USGA held the U.S. Amateur Public Links at Papago in 1971 and the LPGA stopped at Papago for one year in 2009, not long after the course had been renovated. “It’s always had a championship feel,” said Papago general manager Daryl Crawford.
Papago opened in 1963 and was designed by William P. “Billy” Bell, a prolific designer in Arizona and California and whose signature designs are the North and South courses at Torrey Pines, near San Diego.
“My brother and I played a lot at Papago,” said Crawford, whose twin brother, Derek, manages the Karsten Course in Phoenix. “As we got to be better players, we gravitated to Papago because that’s where all the good players in town wanted to hang out.”
But after years of budgets not big enough to maintain the condition that Papago deserved, the city of Phoenix went looking for a partner to renovate the course and bring it back to championship shape. After sending out a request for a proposal, Ed Gowan, the executive director of the Arizona Golf Association wanted to get involved and the result was a partnership among the AGA foundation arm, the Arizona Golf Community Foundation, the city of Phoenix and Arizona State University.
The course was renovated in 2008, a new clubhouse and restaurant were built and ASU built a state-of-the-art practice facility as part of making Papago its new home.
About 400 trees were removed from the golf course during the renovation. Crawford said that over time, whenever trees were donated to the city, they wound up being planted at Papago. As a result, the course had become completely tree-lined. Now, views are opened up and the trees that remain are strategic.
The green complexes were redone and a new irrigation system was installed. As a result, when ASU hosts the Pac-12 Golf Championship, Crawford hopes it will be at Papago, which hosted the 1979 conference championship. And Crawford also hopes the USGA will take another look at coming back to Papago.
The new clubhouse and restaurant were opened in September and Lou’s Bar & Grill offers more than just golf course food.
“Lou’s just adds to the atmosphere at Papago,” Crawford said. “It’s a great restaurant that happens to be at a golf course. It’s not just a golf course restaurant. The idea is for it to be a community restaurant.”
Crawford says it’s about a 50-50 split between local play and visitors, who can play for $30-$40 in the heat of the summer and from $90-$105 in high season. The views alone are worth it, which makes a day at Papago Golf Course a bargain.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C.