Golf architect Jay Morrish rarely ventured outside his native USA on commissions, creating a couple of courses in Canada, a handful in Japan and, of course (along with Tom Weiskopf) he was responsible for the design of Loch Lomond in Scotland, his only European venture.
Within America, though, Morrish was involved in designing more than 60 courses, with more than a dozen of those located in Arizona. More specifically, he has laid out several of the Copper State’s top residential courses, such as The Rim at Payson, Forest Highlands in Flagstaff and here at Stone Canyon, Oro Valley.
This spectacular desert course is situated between Catalina State Park and Tortolita Mountain Park to the north of Tucson, and its elevated tees, lush fairways and testing greens extend to a tight 70 acres, routed around stone outcrops and canyons flanked by towering saguaro cactus plants.
Hole 10 is a favourite of many members, almost a double dogleg with a wide landing area that funnels to a tighter approach around a lake to the green. The best hole is kept until last, though, with the long par four 18th played from a tee high above a split fairway, resulting in a very satisfying long hang time for a well struck drive en route to the 18th green.
The 1,400-acre Stone Canyon property was purchased in 2014 by Phil Mickelson and is now one of five layouts (including The Rim) in the Mickelson Private Golf collection. Since the acquisition, a new clubhouse has been constructed and there are future plans to re-lay the greens.
Stone Canyon is easily the gem of the greater Tucson area. It is also one of the finest golf courses in Arizona. Designed by Jay Moorish, it offers a nice blend of holes on higher ground with more land movement in the fairways while the holes on lower ground are a bit flatter. Most of the holes are compelling, with a few that are weaker which limits the course from being included in the conversation of best course in Arizona. However, I could see an argument for it being in the top three in the state (I have yet to play Forest Highlands Canyon). It is an obvious top ten course for the state.
The course has a combination of “target golf” greens as well as greens where one has various options as to how to approach it or recover. The fairways are wider on the more difficult holes, and a bit narrower on the easier/shorter holes, but they are never overly wide where one feels as though they can hit it anywhere off the tee. There are definite holes where one will be required to make a decision whether one is a longer or shorter hitter.
The green complexes are very good here and make one think about where they want to land their ball as some pin locations should not be attacked. There is a good combination of raised greens, fall-offs, well-placed bunkers of all shapes, sizes, and depth, as well as greens that vary significantly in size and shape. On the green there is a good use of tiers and inner swales along with definite tilts. These greens rival any in the state, save perhaps for The Other Course at Scottsdale National.
The course is 7317 yards from the Copper tees, par 72 rated 73.8/143. The Black tees are 6772 yards rated 71.4/137. The Blue tees are 6333 yards rated 70.0/126. There are three sets of lesser tees as well as three combinations that are rated. On February 22, 2021 we played a Black/Blue combination at approximately 6500 yards which is rated 70/7/131.
1. Par 4 – 426/390. Probably the weakest hole on the course and a bit weaker than many other starting holes. It is a dogleg left with five outer corner bunkers. The fairway is generously wide and it is typically only the longer hitters that might struggle off the tee due to too much length or if they try to cut the inner corner as there is a well-placed grouping of trees on the left. The green is narrower at the rear with two bunkers on the left making a back left pin location the least accessible. The green is sloped back to front with a couple of minor shelves.
2. Par 5 – 559/533/499. This fairway is bisected by a wash at about 320 yards off the tee from the back tee so longer hitters need to be careful from the forward tee. The fairway is very wide before the wash with a left center bunker placed before the wash. Higher ground is on the left side of this hole which has a tilt to the right. While the left side is preferred off the tee, one could have a potentially semi-blind shot if trying for the green in two. For average length hitters, the right side of the fairway has a fall-off to the right which can lead to a blind approach shot. The green is well defended and slightly thin for the length of the hole. There are two bunkers front left and one ten yards short on the right front along with flanking side bunkers. The left front side of the green is mounded and the green has interior swales and shelves. This is a visually attractive hole.
3. Par 4 – 386/378/328. This double dogleg off to the right then back to the left offers longer hitters a chance to cut the dogleg. There is a bunker on the right side that is deep that longer hitters can find off the tee. The green has a front left bunker and flanking side bunkers. The left side of the green features a small back left bunker as well. The green is very narrow at its front and does not get width until 60% through. There are fall-offs near this green starting with a substantial false front. It is a clever green complex. This hole is rated the second hardest on the outer nine despite its shorter length due both to the double dogleg as well as the green.
4. Par 4 – 425/374. From the tee this is an intimidating tee shot. While it offers a wide fairway, the hole turns to the right with the fairway both squeezed by less width and two bunkers on the inner corner and a large one on the left corner. The green is angled left to right consistent with the shape of the hole so being able to come in from the left is preferred due to a front right bunker. The green also a left side bunker and a small bunker at the rear that offers a very constrained stance if in it. The hole goes slightly uphill from the tee and was one of my favorites on the front.
5. Par 4 – 425/374. This is a clever par 4 as the fairway bends to the right There are no bunkers for most players to consider off the tee although there is one on the left outer corner. The green is angled right to left with the flanking bunkers becoming a front and rear bunker. The green has a smaller rear section making for a difficult pin location. From this point you are playing on slightly higher ground until your second shot on the tenth.
6. Par 3 – 145/131. The definition of target golf as you go uphill and face a tee shot that is all-or-nothing as the green sits behind a substantial fall-off as one plays over a valley where a ball hit short can end up 30 yards short of the green in a bunker. There are rocks surrounding the left and right sides of the hole with the left side also having a waterfall. There is a large bunker at the back of the green which saves a ball from cascading into rocks and another fall-off. Balls hit from the tee must land at the very front of the green in order to remain on the green. A front pin location is nearly inaccessible. The tee box offers a long view of the surrounding mountains and housing. It is a visually beautiful golf hole.
7. Par 5 – 554/513. After a long cart ride, this straight par 5 has all of its action at the green although the fairway is fairly thin with one left side bunker that is difficult to advance a ball for much length. Biggers hitters trying for this green have a small landing zone as there are four bunkers on the right with the first one beginning 20 yards from the green and a bunker on the left front. For shorter hitters there is a large bunker on the left about 65 yards short of the green. The green is small for the length of the hole. It is a nice par 5.
8. Par 4 – 403/353/319. The number one index on the front nine has another wide fairway with a single bunker on the right. Bigger hitters will want to avoid a large “w” shaped bunker on the left as the ground is sloped towards it with the right side offering more of a shelf. Mr. Morrish added a similar green shape in reverse as the first hole with a narrow front widening to the rear. The right side of the green has two bunkers with the back having a large “u” shaped bunker. The left side of the green has a fall-off. Similar to the third, this is not a long hole but the green complex is so good it makes the hole a challenge for all levels of players.
9. Par 3 – 229/184/177. This hole tilts downhill a bit and offers a difficult access to the green with two large bunkers to a green angled to the left. There is a third bunker set 15 yards short off the right that reduces the amount of grass available for a bail-out area.
10. Par 5 – 622/568/540. One might think with this yardage it would be the longest hole on the course but the fifteenth is longer. This hole is a bit controversial and actually shares a back tee with the eighteenth hole. The Copper tee is one of the smallest I have ever see, perched high in the sky with a lengthy rocky fall-off to either side. This hole is a double dogleg unless one has the length to reach it in two as cutting both corners likely shortens the hole by 75 yards. The hole plays strongly downhill from the tee offering a wide fairway but longer hitters may try to cut the dogleg on the left a bit which requires carrying it over trees and brush. There is a sizeable pond if one hits it too far although four bunkers scattered across the fairway before the pond could stop a ball. Most players will play out to the right side of the fairway and lay up to a narrow strip on land off to the left side of the pond. At the end of a sharp turn in the fairway are two bunkers. For shorter hitters their second shot is likely going to land in the narrowest part of the fairway with water on the left and trees on the right. These trees are on higher ground and balls landing near it will kick strongly left and could make it all the way to the water. I felt the trees were unfair due to the slope they create. The green is long with a large, deep irregular bunker on the right and one on the back left. There is a thin, long peninsula fronting the green as well as perhaps 40 yards of grass before the green for those trying to carry their ball over the longer parts of the water. I was told this peninsula used to have a tree on it. The green has different levels and hollows in it. I liked the hole other than for those trees on the left for the second shot and the thinness of the fairway as one got closer to the green. On the other hand, it deserves credit for being a very memorable hole from the tee shot to the putt, despite its handicap index of 12.
11. Par 4 – 435/425/391. Another mid-handicap hole but one that is interesting due to the thumbprint on the green. The hole offers a very wide fairway with a lower section of ground down the left side and a single bunker placed well to the right along some trees. The fairway stays wide with a long bunker short right of the green and a four-leaf clover shaped bunker on the front left. The green bulges on the left middle. The back right bunker offers another difficult recovery shot as the green works away from you.
12. Par 4 – 458/432/418. My favorite par 4 on the course that plays essentially straight with the green set off slightly to the left. There are two bunkers right off the tee with the left side having lower ground but also a speed slot. A wash interrupts the fairway for about 20 yards. The large green has opposing bunkers on the sides and is angled to the left. This hole simply fitted my eye as it felt exactly like a good, strong par 4 should feel from tee to green. The green has a lot of subtle inner movement.
13. Par 4 – 432/403/363. Another strong 4 offers a strong dogleg right with a large inner corner bunker and a small one set inside the left side. There are two bunkers on the right placed short of the green by 30 yards with a small pot-like bunker front left, a left side bunker and a large bunker on the right. I liked how the fairway narrowed after the turn ending in a wide green with a lengthy slight false front on all sides, a front right swale yet offering a good chance of recovery.
14. Par 3 – 193/185. From a slightly elevated tee, this is a strong par 3 due to two central bunkers placed short of the green, a large one on the left side and two bunkers on the right, one of them a smaller one that is deep. One can hit a slight fade into this green.
15. Par 5 – 632/591/578. The longest par 5 on the course seemingly goes forever as it winds its way back and forth like an older river, first right, then left then right to a green placed well off to the left. This is an excellent par 5 beginning with a fairway bunker on the left side forcing one to take a line down the right where another bunker awaits as well as a blind shot as the fairway pinches in leaving a second shot over cacti. For the shorter player, the second shot needs to avoid a small waste area/cacti set inside the left side of the fairway. One should be able to hit beyond this but it is followed by a similar slightly larger waste area/cacti placed about 20 yards before the fairway ends by a wash. The land moves up and down from the first waste area to the end of the fairway with the right side offering a much better view of the green. The green complex is excellent offering four large bunkers on all sides set on higher ground. The green moves in all directions with an appropriate description being: “it has everything.”
16. Par 3 – 237/198/180. After the longest par 5 comes the longest par 3 on the course to a green with flanking bunkers and a rise at the front. It is a hole where par is a good score.
17. Par 4 – 306/283. Tom Weiskopf liked to have at least one short par 4 on a golf course and Mr. Moorish would have borrowed this concept from his long-term partnership. This hole is defended with four bunkers at the green including one at the rear as well as a green that is angled to the left with the front bunker eating into it. For a shorter hitter this hole represents as good a chance for birdie despite the levels in the green.
18. Par 4 – 503/469/415. This is a visually pretty hole especially as one nears the clubhouse which sits well below the tee. As mentioned, the very tiny back tee is shared with the tenth hole. It is an amazing view particularly if one is not scared of heights. The hole offers a speed slot down the left side as the fairway bulges to the right where a bunker awaits and the fairway shifts back to the left. A large bunker with three finger is waiting down the left side. Placed early in the fairway, mainly for looks, is a rough area of stone, dirt and trees. The land continues to fall down to the green which is back-dropped by a charming clubhouse. The ground is higher on the left side so any shot pulled left could go into thorny bushes or find the single large bunker defending the green. The green tilts to the right. It also has about 30 yards of grass behind it if one goes a bit too long. It is a very strong finishing hole and very attractive visually.
Stone Canyon has many memorable holes such as the third, sixth, tenth, twelfth, fifteenth and eighteenth. There are a couple of weaker holes such as the first and the land overall does not have as much movement as one finds at Estancia, both of which make it fall slightly short in the conversation of the best golf course in Arizona. I certainly found it to be worthy of a discussion of being in the top five in the state. One will enjoy the views, enjoy the decisions they have to make to work their way around the course, and especially appreciate the green surfaces. For the members or guests, this course is a delight and is better than nearly everything near Scottsdale.
Much of the attention given to Jay Morrish rests with his partnership with Tom Weiskopf when the talented duo created a range of quality courses. But, one must also carefully examine the work Morrish did after that relationship ended.
Stone Canyon is arguably the finest course Morrish ever designed. The desert terrain is striking -- the verdant grass shimmering against the stark terrain. Ancient granite boulders and saguaro cacti make for an indelible visual panorama.
The holes are a quality mixture -- with the inward side easily being among the elite back nines of any course in the Grand Canyon State.
The routing has the desert play an integral role -- often having players deciding how much of a risk they wish to take in hitting shots over barrancas from the tees but being more flexible with the approach shot.
One of the great strengths of the course is the constant requirement to work the ball -- whether off the tee or into the greens. The greensites are also a wondrous mix -- some long and narrow -- others short and wide. Bunkers are also angled -- teasing players to go for the bold play when caution may be the wiser choice when pondering execution.
The finishing stretch is tour de force golf. The long par-5 15th is far from an ordinary par-5 with fangs ready to plunge into any hapless golfer over its sturdy 632 yards. The 16th is a muscular par-3 of 237 yards that mandates dexterity with the longest approach clubs. The devilish par-4 17th is under 310 yards but the slightly uphill hole is confounding as any NY Times crossword puzzle. You come to the tee thinking surefire birdie -- but leave scratching one's head with the possibility of a silly bogey or worse being recorded.
The ending hole is the consummate closing hole. A tee pad rests high on a massive rise as the fairway plunges below. One feels like Daniel staring into the abyss. The rocky hillside desert encroaches close to the left side and it is that side where one's optimum tee shot needs to go. Those blocking a shot to the right will face an inordinately demanding approach. At 503 yards the fairway area tapers down considerably - those who are big hitters must truly marry together laser-like accuracy with length. The approach comes to a green that widens out from front to back. Walking off the green with a par is without question meritorious.
Stone Canyon mandates a thorough understanding of one's game and what one's limitations are as a player. Ne honest about your ability level or you feel the might of a course that doesn't suffer fools gladly. Such clarity bespeaks of superior architecture and clearly Morrish delivered via a site that was prime for such an effort.
Do not attempt shots which are nothing more than dreams floating in one's head. The net result will be a real life nightmare for one's scorecard. Stone Canyon is the real deal.
M. James Ward