The Arizona Grand Golf Club was originally called The Pointe Golf Club at South Mountain. For a brief period in the 1990s the club was known as Phantom Horse Golf Club. The course dates to 1984 when developer Bob Gosnell purchased an assemblage of acreage near South Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona. South Mountain Park is the largest city park in the U.S., covering more than 13,000 acres.
Gosnell’s purchase included odd land parcels and easements. Forrest Richardson went to work creating a routing plan that utilized these parcels, effectively forming an out-and-back course layout that covered interesting desert land, arroyos and craggy rock covered hills. In the design process, Gosnell recognized that it would benefit all parties if land were to be exchanged between his holdings and the City of Phoenix. The golf course would ultimately benefit from more gradual land, whereas the City would benefit from adding hillsides to its Mountain Preservation. The idea for a land swap was born and all seemed O.K.
Unfortunately, members of the citizenry viewed the swap of land as being one-sided toward Gosnell. This was unfounded, but it did not matter. Several public hearings — as many as 35 — turned to name-calling and passionate pleas from groups to undo the already approved land exchange. Gosnell found himself in the midst of a major battle. Even though the land exchange had been approved by the City, its legal advisory and a host of oversight bodies, a few members of the community vehemently opposed the deal. A legal battle ensured. It lasted more than four years. In the end, the matter went before the Arizona supreme Court, which decided unanimously in favor of Gosnell. All totaled, more than 60 public hearings had been heard — all favored Gosnell, yet the few members of the minority used (perhaps abused) their constitutional right to keep challenging the decisions of appointed and elected officials.
Richardson made it through the process. As a relatively young golf course architect (in 1985-86) he at one point was leading a group of television reporters and politicians on a tour of the proposed course. “It was the most terrifying thing I had ever done,” he says. “Here I was, not more than a few years into the business and I was holding court among the media, a host of city council members and lawyers.”
Richardson saw the project through to completion. It took more than five years to build the 18-hole course. The delays due to legal issues were costly in many ways. Eventually the course opened to great review and acclaim.
The Jailhouse Steps: A Signature Hole
The signature hole is, without question, the No. 13, a par-5 of just under 500-yards. Despite is relatively short length, the “Jailhouse Steps” is a formidable hole, especially to anyone who’s been captive to the ominous bunkers stacked short of the elevated green. Designed and built well before the distance revolution of the 1990s, the interesting lure of short length and strategy of this hole work as well today as they were envisioned back in the early 1980s. The hole embodies what may be among the best examples of a “Lay-up Option” hole. And, most interestingly, it exhibits an unusual mixture of strategic, heroic and even penal golf course design — all wrapped-up into one hole.
The choices of play are abundant. For the average player a drive of 200 to 230-yards will set up an important decision: try the long play to the green set 30 feet above the fairway, or play a shot short of the series of sand “steps” from wince the hole gets its name. Most interesting in this second shot dilemma — regardless of whether the play is for the upper level and green, or for the lay-up — is the range of lengths that may be executed. Typically, a par-5 second shot is either one of two: “bust-it” or lay-up. The latter being a rather defined and pigeonholed shot that simply has to stop short or positioned to either side. But here the player who opts to lay-up is faced with a perplexing decision of just how much may be enough — or perhaps too little. A lay-up played to far will create a very blind third shot and one of extreme difficulty to the long and narrow green. On the other hand, a lay-up well back of the trouble and allowing reasonable visibility now creates a longish third shot that may be uneasy to negotiate.
The longer hitter is faced with a narrowing neck in the fairway that can effectively take away the “easy” play for eagle from the fairway if a shot is lost into the natural desert wash which flanks the entire fairway. His tee shot must be masterful if any change is to be had for a shot of much less than 220 yards to the green. The natural earthen cliffs which border the entire left side of the fairway tend to blur the golfers perspective from the far tees. The hole is much more mysterious —- and illusive — from here than slightly forward. An interesting situation is the longer hitter who consciously hits conservative off the tee and now is faced with an array of options: hit well short (and just how much should that be?), try for the upper level (but perhaps not too bold as for the pin), or play for all the gold.
The shorter player, perhaps for one of the few times in their career, will find an opportunity every now and then to consider the challenge of reaching a par-5 green in two strokes. Playing from the near or precision tees, a drive of just 170-yards to the preferred left side of the fairway will set-up an executable second shot of near the same distance, 170-yards.
No. 13 has been called the “lucky” hole by many. And it has also been called many other names! With its very unusual setting, the element of penal golf architecture is brought upon by the personal decisions of the golfer. At 60 feet in depth from front to back, the series of sand pits are easily avoidable by simply placing the previous shot adequately for one’s own taste and ambition. Of course, the element of height plays an important psychological part in play. The elevated green appears so docile and tame set amongst the hillocks, yet it is so very guarded and closed off sitting on its pedestal above the sand. Not much is said about the pond at No. 12, as this feature is really no more than a soothing oasis. But, as many have found, the comforting ambiance of water below the tees can “guide” a tee shot ever so slightly left and this brings the cliffs into play right off the bat.
An important attribute of a golf hole is how it will look years after things are finished and any nearby development takes root. From an aesthetic standpoint the hole plays its way up a canyon, almost as if it’s running away from the civilization behind it. The golfer is transported into a world of pristine desert surroundings and shadows that play tricks with the eye.
“Our original thought was to route the 13th through 15th holes opposite from the final design,” notes Richardson. But, as often happens when a site is visited over and over, both in person and in the mind, an opportunity was realized that had not been considered at first. In fact, the 12th was built with very little earthmoving at the area of the stepped sand bunkers. They presented themselves on a naturally-occurring portion of the cliff which had eroded and was ripe for shaping. “By going up, instead of down, we have a more breathtaking backdrop, not to mention a more unusual challenge,” he adds. Indeed, routing the “Jailhouse Steps” uphill has created a very unusual hole with unique influences. For a modern hole there is a distinction which sets it apart from other par-5s and establishes two important design principles: (1) the unusual combination of choices at every shot from the fairway, and (2) a blend of strategic, heroic and penal schools brought about by the natural lay of the land and making good use of it.
Scope: Planning, Design, Approvals, Bidding, Construction Documents, Construction Observation Services
Budget: $5 million USD
Completion: Opened 1985
Address: 8000 S. Arizona Grand Parkway, Phoenix, Arizona 85044