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NCAAs tighten Grayhawk, Phil Mickelson bond

Phil Mickelson has long been one of Grayhawk Golf Club's biggest supporters. The Scottsdale, Ariz., club was to have hosted the NCAA Championships — which Mickelson won three times — during this fortnight, but will have to wait until 2021

This late-May, early-June timeframe was intended to showcase Grayhawk Golf Club on a national platform. The Scottsdale, Ariz., course was scheduled to host the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Championships, May 22-June 3, and be televised on Golf Channel.

The best of plans, though, were delivered a knockdown punch by the coronavirus pandemic. But don’t weep too much for Grayhawk because the club’s one-of-a-kind vibe was compelling enough to make it the NCAA’s host site through the 2022 championships. That the NCAAs are scheduled for Grayhawk seems fitting. One of the club’s prominent supporters is Phil Mickelson, a three-time NCAA individual champion.

“Naturally, we’re disappointed that the NCAAs won’t take place,” said Joe Shershenovich, Grayhawk’s director of golf operations since day one in 1994. "But we’re excited for 2021 and 2022 and we’re hopeful that we’ll have it in 2023. We’re also fortunate that we’ve been pretty busy under the present circumstances. People still want to play Grayhawk.”

It’s easy to understand why.

The Valley of the Sun — Phoenix and its surrounds — is loaded with superb desert-target trophy courses and Grayhawk graces the upper rung with two courses.

Grayhawk Golf Club Raptor — Hole No. 8
The par-3 eighth hole at Grayhawk Golf Club's Raptor course is named "Eights and Aces" in honor of Wild Bill Hickok, who reportedly was holding two pairs — of aces and eights — when he was shot from behind during a poker match.

Talon is a low-slung, 1994 David Graham-Gary Panks design with fairways framed by dense desert flora. Most distinctive is “Swinging Bridge,” the 175-yard, par-3 11th, which starts with a walk over a swinging rope bridge to the back tee, then calls for a healthy canyon carry to a two-tiered green. The drivable 303-yard, par-4 13th flirts with a box canyon for its entire journey, while the par-3 17th tempts at just 126 yards, but miss the island green and it’s Splash City.

While Talon did host a PGA Tour Match-Play event, its younger sibling by a year, Raptor, more typically hosts big tournaments at Grayhawk, including the NCAAs. Tom Fazio carved out Raptor from the flat desert floor, but sculpted the earth to create complex contours, elevated greens and some of the deepest bunkers in town.

Each of the holes at Raptor follows the old Scottish tradition and 1990s trend of naming holes. Perhaps the best is the par-3 eighth hole, which is a hole infused with handsome scenery, western spirit and a hint of mystery. "Eights and Aces,” pays homage to Wild Bill Hickok, who, according to folklore, was clutching a pair of eights and aces when he was shot from behind in an 1876 poker game. Also unseen, thanks to a propped up bunker complex, is a grassy swale and the left side of the undulating green.

Newly lengthened for the NCAAs, Raptor measures 7,151 yards from the tips, and normally plays at par 72. For the big bashers, however, par is slashed to 70, with two par-5s, Nos. 7 and 18, converted to long par-4s. At either par, the 18th is a great hole. With a downhill, left-to-right sloping fairway, a lake that guards the right side landing area and green, and the McDowell Mountains looming beyond, it’s formidable and beautiful.

While there’s no argument that the golf at Grayhawk is of the highest quality, it’s nearly overshadowed by the innovations the club introduced to public golf. Grayhawk pioneered the use of classic rock piped into faux-rock speakers to accompany a trip to the practice range. It ushered in outside service staff using headsets. It gave the public course golfer the pro-for-a-day treatment with tees, ball markers, yardage guides and even apples at the first tee. Its two newest restaurants, Mojo’s at the clubhouse and Isabella’s across the street at the Talon course, are massively popular with locals as well as players who fill the tee sheets that day.

"From the start, the leaders at Grayhawk, Gregg Tryhus and Del Cochran, had a philosophy," said Shershenovich. "'Let's not re-create anything.' Instead, it was 'let's create.' I had come from some very established clubs. It was really fun to have the freedom to be so creative."

Yet, there’s something more that lingers at Grayhawk that ups the cool factor even on a July day — and that’s the Phil Mickelson connection. It’s deep. As currently stated on the Phil Mickelson website, “Grayhawk Golf Club has enjoyed a long friendship which started well before the opening of the club’s first golf course in 1994 and continues to this day. Phil, a personal friend of Grayhawk’s developer Gregg Tryhus and Grayhawk’s Captain of the Club Del Cochran, was one of the club’s original ‘ambassadors’ to the golf world, and was instrumental in helping Grayhawk establish its identity among serious players around the world.

“The grillroom at Grayhawk is named Phil’s Grill in his honor and features many items of memorabilia from Phil’s days at Arizona State University and highlights from his stellar PGA Tour career. Grayhawk maintains a plaque in Phil’s Grill which keeps track of his career victories. And to this day Phil carries the Grayhawk Golf Club logo on his bag. He is indeed a member of the Grayhawk family.”

While Mickelson isn’t around as much as when he lived in Scottsdale, the connection remains strong. Mickelson's coach of the past five years, Andrew Getson, teaches at the Grayhawk Learning Center, a facility founded by Peter Kostis and Gary McCord. And Phil’s Grill continues to qualify as one of golf’s greatest 19th holes, with its seamless indoor-outdoor environment, country club feel, goldfish bowl-size margaritas, prime rib sliders and Navajo corn chowder. That it still rocks the vibe after all these years is explained by Shershenovich: “He’s a one-and-only, and there’s only one Phil’s Grill.”

“Joe Shoe,” as friends call Shershenovich, remembers an occasion in the early days when the two were sitting together, and Mickelson decided he would get behind the pro shop counter. “He greeted customers, answered the phone — we had a blast.”

No doubt Lefty was thrilled when Grayhawk got the nod to host three straight NCAA Championships. The NCAAs won’t happen this year, but don’t weep for Grayhawk.

Go play it instead.

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