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.
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