Review for Apache Stronghold

Reviewer Score:


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.

Date: March 05, 2020

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