Tom Doak has never had issue with taking his talents to obscure locations, far from the eye of casual golfers, and that approach remains true with his rare attempt at desert golf. Apache Stronghold Golf Club is attached to the Apache Gold Casino, two hours east into the desert from Phoenix.
Those who bring their big-kid sticks all the way out from the city will find a layout capable of challenging the best, topping out at more than 7,500 yards. Although not quite the minimalist affair that Dismal River ended up being, Doak played to his better instincts and used the lay of the land to dictate the flow of the course, including vista-set teeboxes (that take some edge off of that long yardage total), and a series of natural washes provide cross hazards to vex those wayward from the tee.
Those who really find the two-hour trip from Phoenix to be unbearable can consider booking a private flight to San Carlos Apache Airport...it’s right across the street from the golf club.
I read Mark's comments and I have made it a point to visit and play Apache Stronghold on no less than three occasions over the last decade. In my first visit -- roughly two years after the course opened I was quite amazed about the overall routing and diversity of holes. But, the conditioning was clearly deficient -- even then but tolerable. As a point of reference I am not one of those people who grew up on pristine courses where greens rolled at 9 or better on the Stimpmeter. My genesis with golf started in playing golf at places where grass grew by accident -- not by design.
My return visits to Apace Stronghold came after hearing from select others that matters had "significantly" improved on the preparation side. In both follow-up visits the overall turf quality to be completely charitable -- was no better. On my 3rd and final visit -- I knew that the situation was likely never to change unless a management company would get involved.
Part of the charm in going to Apache Stronghold is that is away from the metro area of Phoenix / Scottsdale. The course is situated on an eye-catching piece of terrain and Doak did a masterful job in weaving the holes into the mixture.
It's important to point out the original routing was in reverse to what Mark outlined with the now par-5 10th serving as the opening hole. It's not really special -- more of a yardage eater than anything else.
The actual character of Apache Stronghold commences with the former 2nd hole now played as the 11th. Just a tour de force hole -- of which there are several in raw form which Doak created.
I actually believe the original routing of holes is a better sequence -- in alignment with Tom Doak's original vision. I also concur with Mark that the better side is the original back nine -- now the outward half.
I have opined previously that conditioning need only be sufficient enough to bring to the forefront the design elements the architect provided. That does not happen at Apache Stronghold. Observant eyes can quickly ascertain the architect's intent but when you have greens requiring a full shoulder turn from no more than 5 feet away you have issues. Ditto bunkers with either no sand or what is called sand having the feel of compacted dirt or clay.
Having no housing provides for a real connection to the location -- a major flaw for the mega-expensive layouts in the greater Phoenix / Scottsdale area. But the ownership is clearly clueless on the product that's being brought to the table. Mark mentioned he only saw two other cars in the parking lot. Likely it was the people working there.
Architects can only do so much once their work is done. Interestingly, early on Jack Nicklaus in his design career would insist as a part of his contract that he have unilateral authority in selecting the superintendent for a period of time.
Apace Stronghold is in tough location regarding climate and it impacted grass growth during the earliest days. But the overall maintenance practices over different times I have been there have been horrific -- no doubt players can attempt to place the ball when in the fairways but you can't move one's ball endlessly on the greens when little or no grass exists.
No question Doak devotees have literally downplayed the woeful turf conditions because of Tom's record as an architect. If there was ever a course that could really shine it's Apache Stronghold. In my mind, it reminds me when playing Bethpage Black approximately 40 years ago -- long before all the hype that would come later. The Black then was similar -- needing a hammer to get a tee in the ground -- where hitting into the rough was desirable given the plentitude of grass there when compared to the fairway. The Black made a magnificent resurgence, but only when a number of key players came together to make that happen.
Can Apache Stronghold do likewise?
Let me put it this way - I won't be going for a fourth visit until I see photos with sworn affidavits from key people telling some sort of miraculous intervention has happened. Mark was quite forgiving with his overall course assessment. Mine, as you likely can discern -- is far less tolerant.
M. James Ward
Yes, I knew the routing had been changed. Did you spot that back tee that is basically on the putting green for #10?
I agree with your comments. I tried to put the conditioning out of my mind and paid attention to the excellence of the routing and incorporation of the natural terrain, the contouring of the greens. I tried hard to look at it simply from an architectural point of view.
I think I put in my review that I wanted to cry when I left the course due to the conditions. I know how good it could be if taken care of but one would have to get extremely lucky to make it financially successful. I do fear it will close. I hope it doesn't as I think it is one of Tom Doak's better designs.
When I pulled into the Apache Stronghold Casino Hotel and Resort about two hours east of the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport at 4PM I was surprised to see only one car. But I rationalized it by saying that it must be because it is Monday in early March and people visiting the Phoenix area would likely be following Major League Baseball spring training. I walked inside and asked if I could play as a single in a cart, promising I would finish before dusk at 6:35. I was told that I could not as the last tee time was 3PM and the carts had been taken in for the evening. I asked if I could walk and I was told that it was not allowed. I confirmed my tee time for the following morning at 8AM as a single and checked into the hotel.
I came back the next morning as the only car again in the parking lot and paid $29 for the round including cart. It was an additional $4 (I think) for a large bucket of balls. I drove to the range on a chilly morning and proceeded to hit into a large unkempt field with a dog joining me to chase down the balls I hit.
I went to the putting green which had pockmarks and had not been swept yet for the dew. At 7:50 I was told I could go at any time so off I went to play a public course that upon opening was rated in the top 100 public courses in the USA. There was still no other car in the parking lot.
I wanted to play Apache Stronghold because the course was designed by Tom Doak and I had heard whispers/rumours of its closing. There were already five courses in the USA designed by Mr. Doak that had already closed and I did not want to miss out on this one. As Sheep Ranch is being changed from a Doak design to a Coore/Crenshaw design, one could say there are six courses Mr. Doak designed that are closed.
Mr. Doak’s designs are a favorite of mine. After playing Tara Iti and the two private clubs where I am a member in 2019, I went to visit Riverfront in Virginia and Legends in South Carolina and was unimpressed by both. Despite these two courses, I consider Mr. Doak to be a modern-day equivalent to the great golf course architects of all time with Pacific Dunes, Cape Kidnappers, Tara Iti, Ballyneal, The Renaissance Club, Lost Dunes, Dismal River White, Stonewall Old, Streamsong Blue among his more recognized designs. In my opinion, after writing “The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses,” Mr. Doak is the architect that began the return to minimalism/naturalism as a design trait that was overdue.
After playing the front nine at Apache Stronghold I wanted to cry. It reminded me of Cape Wickham in that I felt Mr. Doak had laid out a perfect routing. The fairways are wide which is usual for Mr. Doak, yet every interesting land feature became an integral part of the path from tee to green. As this is a course in the desert, there are washes (dried out river beds), ravines, hills, crevices, and the natural plant life to consider. The greens are varied in size, shape, tilt; requiring one to determine the correct angle to play into them. The dramatic land features are placed near the greens or blocking the safer route to the green.
However, the condition of the course is abysmal. One green has a 3 x 5 feet mud hole that went down at least 6 inches. Other greens were patchy. There is no sand in the bunkers, basically only rocks and small pebbles.
I felt as if I was playing a course already closed and forgotten and I was discovering the gem that was once there.
The back nine routing is not as strong as the front which actually cheered me a bit. Had the back nine been as strong as the front nine I would have walked away completely depressed. Part of the reason for this is that the land on the back nine is not quite as dramatic as the front nine in terms of heights of some of the teeing areas and not as many ravines/washes to consider. There also seems to be a bit more land movement in the fairways and on the greens on the front nine as opposed to the back nine. Still, the back nine has many good holes.
The back tees are listed at 7519 and I decided to play the next tees up at 7007 to allow myself to see more of the golf course. Whenever there was a substantial difference in the two tees I drove to the back tee and got out to have a look. The views are incredible from those longer back tees with sometimes very lengthy carries dropping 50-60 feet below.
The front nine tees are measured at 3544/3313 yards while the back nine are measured at 3975/3964 yards on the scorecard although the scorecard has a typo in that the back nine is actually 3694 yards. Among the longest holes are a the sixth at 614 yards and the tenth at 661 yards. However, I failed to spot the back tee for the tenth hole so perhaps it has been abandoned with the back tee being placed closer to the “Warrior” tee of 562 yards. Or perhaps there is another typo on the scorecard. Perhaps the tee is still there but I was not about to go back 100 yards to find it.
The back nine actually felt shorter than the front nine but that is because three of the par 3’s are on front and only one par 3 is on the back nine.
The first hole is a par 4 dogleg left of 472/462/392 that plays to a wide fairway with a single bunker on the left to navigate. The scorecard shows a long continuous bunker at the turn going all the way to the left side of the green. Instead, I found a ravine after the single bunker going hard against the left side. It has a large green that is undulating. This is the green where I found the large hole in it due to poor maintenance. One could see the bones of the green, however, expertly shaped and nuanced. I had my first thought of, “what a pity.”
The second is a par 3 of 176/144, the shortest par 3 on the course with a long waste area to carry that becomes a ravine on the left side of a green that is meant to have two bunkers fronting the green, one left and one behind. I only saw the remains of bunkers. The green has a bowl near the front and has a spine in it. It is another wonderfully shaped green.
The third is a par 4 of 418/408 to a wide fairway with the remains of one bunker on the right. Immediately in front of the green is a fairly wide wash area about 4 feet deep and 20 feet wide. On the other side nearer the green is a bunker to a green that is reverse kidney-shaped. Getting to the right side of the green is a challenge. The green is also beautifully undulated although not overly so. It is the third very good green surround in a row and that ravine requires one carry their tee shot all the way to the green.
The fourth is one of the best holes on the golf course at 480/452. Blocking the right side of the fairway is a large mound about 15 feet high and 30 yards deep with scrub and trees on it. The longer hitters can easily carry this but for average length players it must be avoided to the left. However, hitting down the left lengthens the hole as it is a double dogleg and the green is hidden from view as the left side of the fairway comes in to block the line. The green is skinny and undulated. It is a very difficult hole but one expertly routed to incorporate that mound and the rise of the land on the left side.
The fifth is a par 3 of 186/172 with the green once again angled away from you with a deep and large bunker/waste area on the left side. The green has another hard slope to the left and is two-tiered and deep. You can miss to the right of the green and your ball is likely to release down the slope onto the green. It is another visually attractive hole with long views across the desert, albeit perhaps the easiest on the front nine.
Next comes another brilliant hole, a long 614/551 par 5 that plays to a sharp dogleg right from a very elevated tee approximately 40-50 feet high with outstanding views. You have to get your tee shot beyond the corner to have a view of the appropriate second shot or you are guessing and have to carry over the brush and trees. Down the left side are some trees and sand while the right side has a series of bunkers about sixty yards out and ending at the green. The green is once again wonderfully shaped with mounds and hollows in it. I loved the hole.
The next par 5 is the shortest on the course at 510/467 which I mistook for a par 4. It is a sharp dogleg left with a 60 yards road/waste area to cross. I did not know it but the bigger hitters can ignore hitting it straight out and instead drive over the wash. Either way the bigger hitters can easily reach the green in two shots. There is a large bunker in the middle of the fairway for average players to consider. The green has a large and deep fronting bunker more on the right side to a green that is narrow and two-tiered in the middle with other slopes evident. The hole is artfully laid out with another great green complex.
The eight is the second longest par 3 on the course at 230/212 requiring a shot of 175 yards to clear the waste area to a green fronted by a mound. It is meant to have two bunkers to the left to the long green that is sloped back to front but I could not find any real evidence of bunkers as it looks more like a waste area now.
The ninth finishes from another elevated tee. I drove up the hill about another eighty yards to get to the back tee which has a commanding view of the casino and beyond. The hole drops down about 60 feet to a dogleg right. There is meant to be a bunker short of the green on the left and one hard against the green on the right and left but they do not really exist anymore. The fairway has a lot of ripples to it and the green is tilted back to front. It is a visually stunning hole from that tee. There is a nice look around the green as the ground behind and to the sides rises around it.
There is a lengthy cart drive to the tenth tee where you go through a wash area and to the left of the driving range. The par 5 of 661/562 must have that back tee on the other side of the wash area but I thought I spied the “Stronghold” markers right next to the “Warrior” markers. This hole is flat and straight. It is meant to have a large bunker down the left side for the tee shot and the second shot. On the right side near the green is another bunker as well as a short hill. While this is a boring hole to get to the green, this is one of the better greens on the golf course with multiple swales and turns.
The eleventh is one of my favorite holes as a 427/395 yard with another wash/ravine running diagonally right to left across the fairway. There is a lot of plant life encroaching on the right side as you near the green. That ravine continues all the way down the left side of the green. It is a really well routed hole but did have the least interesting green on the golf course.
The last and longest par 3 comes next at 239/211 from an elevated tee to a green in a bowl sloped back to front and right to left. Behind the green is a rock hill. Guarding the front left side is a bunker and small mound. It is a very pretty hole and another terrific green.
Thirteen is a shorter par 4 of 398/334 that doglegs to the left with the green up the hill requiring one to two more clubs. The green is steeply banked back to front and right to left with higher ground on both sides of the green. It is a wonderful hole as it is fun to consider what club to hit into the green and where to land the ball.
Fourteen returns to the long par 4’s at 470/463. This long hole requires you to carry a wash crossing the fairway and then hit into a very raised green fronted by two bunkers on the right. The green is the best on the golf course with its many undulations and tiers due to its size. I loved the hole despite the challenge.
Fifteen goes back to a short par 4 playing flat 325/311 hitting to a wide fairway. The green is tilted but easy to read and there is no real defense on the hole. This is easily the weakest hole on the golf course as it needed more defense.
After playing such an easy hole, you return to a difficult one with the sixteenth being 456/435 playing flat to a dogleg right to a green fronted by bunkers on the left side continuing down the left to a green running away from you with all sorts of humps and a fall-off at the back. While not a visually interesting hole, it is a strong hole.
Seventeen is the last par 5 at 552/542 playing flat again with the remnants of a large bunker on the right side of the fairway (this one had a bit of sand in it) to a green hidden to the left. This green is large with a tilt but somewhat easy to read. I felt the hole to be too forgiving.
The final hole returns you to the clubhouse and is a straight par 4 of 447/441 with a large bunker on the right. The approach shot has to carry a wash that should not be in play to a raised green fronted by a deep and large bunker. The green looks narrow but is not but has a vertical spine in it as well as tilts. It is another wonderful green.
This is very much a “If-only” course. If this course was located 50 miles closer to greater Phoenix it would be heavily played with a lot of notoriety. It would likely be the best public course in the area ahead of the courses at Troon or We-ko-pa or TPC Scottsdale. If it were kept in better condition it would likely be able to charge a bit more with additional guests. Later that day I played at Silverleaf which is one of the best manicured private clubs in Scottsdale. In talking with the caddie, originally from Ireland, he had played Apache Stronghold about eight years before and agreed with me it was the best routing of any golf course in Arizona. I have played a lot of the better courses in Arizona and other than Estancia, I think it is the best routing. Tom Doak built what could have been a masterpiece here, but I fear its days are numbered. I am very glad I played it despite the conditioning. If it fails, Mr. Doak can still be very proud of what he built here. If “lost” I do not think I would put it in the category of the mythical “Lido” course of Long Island, but it will be a loss to golf.
As I pulled away, there were two cars in the parking lot.
It's nearly impossible to put conditioning out of one's mind during the three different visits I made to the property over the years. When a course assessment is done -- far too many people play down the conditioning connection and focus on a layout argument that divorces itself from what's needed to really enjoy the architecture provided. I grew up on courses when course grew by accident -- not design.
I have a good tolerance in playing courses -- and reviewing them highly -- provided a modicum of conditioning is present. Stroking putts with a full shoulder turn from six feet is not acceptable -- so is using a hammer to get a tee into the ground.
Apache Stronghold has the potential to be so enjoyable a golf experience. The variety of holes and routing is very good.
Alas, the design details can't flourish because the care and attention needed is not there. As I said, I won't be going back till I hear from some knowledgeable folks who can swear the layout truly has made a comeback with conditioning clearly improved on all fronts.
I agree with your comments.
There is a possibility that Apache Stronghold might never re-open again and that the ownership is going to use Covid-19 as the reason. I would be skeptical that they would sell it to an outside party. Unless it received proper maintenance, there is no reason to make the drive to play it.
Combined with the situation at Aetna Springs and Quail Crossing also not receiving proper maintenance, that could be as many as nine courses built by Tom Doak that might be closed.