Scottsdale National Golf Club
Arizona, United States of America

For those who cherish variety, The Bad Little Nine and The Other Course at Scottsdale National combine to provide Arizona’s finest playing experience.

Few people build a golf course. Therefore, few go through the process of hiring an architect and yet, imagining what the primary considerations are is not difficult. Two obvious ones are knowing that money will be well spent and that people will appreciate the result. Vital to the outcome is the interaction and chemistry between the owner and the architect, so the all-important question becomes: Who do you hire, knowing that everything that follows is a direct consequence?

The answer was once simple. From 1980 through 2000, a handful of name design firms enjoyed such clout to where each touched two hundred plus courses world-wide. When it came to big money projects, they essentially got all the work. In part, financing a project became easier by hiring a name. Interestingly enough, history hasn’t been too kind to many of those endeavors. To be fair, the vast majority of such projects centered around selling homes and when the residences went up, the fun went down. Plus, turns out when you hire a ‘name’, you hire his team, or one of his teams. The ‘name’ is busy traveling and keeping all his projects simultaneously on the go. Also, once the course is complete, you are now the proud owner of a course that might resemble ones elsewhere. Not so appealing, eh?

In this century, boutique firms emerged that do more hands-on, artisan work. Their total footprint might be 30 to 50 projects over a career. We are now twenty years into that movement and with many talented one and two man firms from which to select, the hiring process is anything but straightforward. Not many owners have the intestinal fortitude to give a young firm a chance given that tens of millions of dollars are at stake. One who did was Mike Keiser, when he gave an unknown (David McLay Kidd) the opportunity to build the first course at Bandon Dunes. Its success gave another relative unknown (Tom Doak) the opportunity to build a second course. Twenty years later, Keiser’s approach had changed resort golf in North America.

Few others have the wisdom/courage to take such chances but Bob Parsons is like few men. Whether founding Go Daddy or PXG, he has done it his way. In 2014, Parsons bought the Golf Club of Scottsdale. Shortly thereafter, he received a congratulatory email from Jackson Kahn Golf Course Design, a five year old firm. Its two principals, Tim Jackson and David Kahn, wished him well and informed him that they were hungry, local architects that would be delighted to assist in any manner with his new acquisition. Jackson and Kahn along with their friend Scott Hoffman had all trained under Tom Fazio and worked on several of his most acclaimed designs including Gozzer Ranch in Idaho, Pronghorn in Oregon, and the renovation of Shadow Creek. Jackson and Kahn set up their own firm in 2009 and to date, their highest profile win had been a redesign within the existing routing of the Dunes Course for the Monterey Peninsula Country Club.

Their email garnered them a face-to-face meeting with Parsons and the conversation quickly turned to what could be done with holes 15-18, which charged up and onto the mountain and made the course un-walkable. The fifteenth green especially was an unloved three tier creation where putts from the wrong tier routinely ended up sixty yards down the fairway. As Jackson and Kahn studied the design, they found lots of unused space between holes. They ultimately suggested to Parsons that the four holes be brought off the mountain. Additionally, they had found enough space to create a nine hole short course.

Parsons was intrigued. Though Jackson Kahn’s in-the-field experience was mostly under someone else’s banner, they appeared qualified. By hiring them, Parsons knew who he would be getting and who would be at work everyday. Plus, he liked the idea that he would end up with something original that differed from the other 185 (!) courses in the greater Phoenix/Scottsdale area. He was also aware of something that they weren’t: he was in talks with Lyle Anderson to acquire 223 acres of adjacent land.

Needless to say, when he broached the subject of building a new eighteen hole course and a nine holer, the firm was over-the-moon delighted. However, in one of their many follow-on meetings, they had a disagreement regarding the returning nines for both eighteen hole courses that ultimately had him saying thanks, but no thanks. Parsons then made several calls, including to another local architect, Bill Coore. Coore looked at the site but the timing was awkward. When he asked Parsons who else he was considering, Parsons mentioned Jackson Kahn and Coore responded enthusiastically, noting that he knew Jackson and was a fan of his work. He also mentioned that Coore & Crenshaw were ever so grateful for their very first opportunity and that every talented group had to start somewhere. Within one week, the project was Jackson Kahn’s! This wasn’t the first time that Bill Coore, ever the gentleman and with a wonderful eye for identifying talent, had gone to bat for another firm. Rod Whitman and Gil Hanse will tell you what a difference Coore has made to their careers in what is a cut-throat business.

Parsons secured the land from Anderson and Jackson Kahn quickly settled into routing 27 holes. They had precious few natural features from which to base holes; a few rock outcroppings and formations and some federally protected dry washes was it as the land was mostly flat and featureless. As they developed tentative plans, Parsons kept acquiring 5 or 10 or 15 extra acres here and there along the perimeter as a buffer. What a luxury this proved to be and the scale of the course kept expanding.

Parsons was after fun and variety and he defined that as every hole being memorable and free of outside intrusions. The architects pledged to him that no par would repeat. Also, to set the course apart from other desert courses, they wanted it to be walkable and for the experience to be a ‘quiet’ one. As opposed to being crunch, crunch, crunch off every tee, the course would enjoy continuous short cut from the first tee through the eighteenth green. Additionally, they envisaged creating the golfing ideal with holes rising and falling at least twenty feet to add to the variety/memorability.

The tempting comparison is to that of Shadow Creek in that the charge was to build something charismatic from a flat site but there was one main difference: Shadow Creek was intended to be an oasis while Parsons wanted his course to be true to the Sonoran Desert. Though he grew up in Baltimore, Parsons had long lived in Scottsdale, loved the area and his course was to reflect that devotion. Only vegetation native to the Sonoran desert would be utilized with the varietals of cacti comprised of saguaros, barrel tiny, jumping (or teddy bear) cholla, and staghorn cholla. Trees included Mesquites, Ironwoods, and Palo Verdes and they were augmented by low lying darker green shrubs like Creosote.

Earthwork contractor Constant Safe Work oversaw the 400,000 cubic yards of drill and shoot. Six hundred thousand cubic yards of ripple material was cut and bulked on site to build the mass terrain. Cook & Solis created the 30 foot deep, 23,000,000 gallon storage lake and set 20,000 tons of boulders. Once the earth works was completed, 110,000 (!) indigenous plants were field spotted by Pinnacle Design and Native Resources International installed them one at a time. That’s 90,000 1/5/15 gallon shrubs, 4,000 boxed trees, and 14,000 cacti which included some 1,200 saguaros. As if that wasn’t enough, two people with backpack sprayers then hand stained with Permeon all 20,000 tons of placed rock to instantly weather and age the look of the ‘freshly’ shot rock.

The real story isn’t that every inch was touched. Rather, it is the tasteful manner in which everything was assembled to create a special environment in which to enjoy the game.

The construction of the course itself fell to Landscape Unlimited. Of utmost importance, all the playing surfaces were sand capped, to the tune of 73,000 tons. One hundred and fifty thousand tons/110,000 cubic yards of total material was hauled to the site by 6,800 trucks, including the bunker sand and green mix. Thirty-eight miles of irrigation pipe were laid and 4,000 irrigation heads installed and enough irrigation wire (665 miles) was used to reach to The Golden Gate Bridge. To say this was quite the undertaking is an understatement.

While the above is truly impressive, remember that there is no shortage of ways to consume funds during course construction and still end up with something of no lasting merit. Tim Jackson sums up the project well when he says, ‘Resources alone don’t allow for great golf to be realized. There are many high profile, high dollar projects that fall short of the type of golf I think we would all consider to be engaging. Certainly, resources help, but it takes a tremendous amount of creativity as well to forge aesthetic, thought provoking golf from essentially flat terrain – and then completely hide the fact that you did so.’ So true, and you don’t have to drive far from Scottsdale National to realize the validity of those words.

From this unpromising beginning ….

… Jackson Kahn and Hoffman envisaged the short 140 yard 11th. They created its own secluded valley and raised green, which at 4,042 square feet is the course’s smallest target.

Today, the 11th is as pretty as a postcard, helped considerably by the random rock placements and indigenous plantings.

Work commenced August 10th, 2015 and was open for play on October 29th, 2016. The net effect is that one assumes Parsons instructed Jackson Kahn to find the ideal golf site in the greater Scottsdale area versus the truth of transforming featureless land that bordered his eighteen hole course. The irony is that those involved will never get credit for their work because it looks like they were given a dream site with which to work!

Included in this transformation were 17 acres for The Bad Little Nine. Measuring 972 yards, this par 3 course is something altogether more than a warm-up or warm-down round. Indeed, the architects pitched to Parsons, an ex-marine, that the nine should be in spirit like a marine obstacle course – and he agreed. Given how the obstacles are in your face, at some point, adversity will befall the golfer and the mental toughness that the player demonstrates in such situations defines the experience.

Though similar in length to The Cradle in Pinehurst, its purpose was different. It wasn’t built to cater to all, from youngsters learning the game to the elderly; in fact, its hazards are among the most penal the author has seen as a set. Particular favorites include several trench-like bunkers whereby a good stance and free swing are anything but a given. They remind the author of hazards captured in pre-1900 paintings of links like Carnoustie and Prestwick. The notion of ‘fair’ mercifully didn’t exist back then and as such, these bunkers are a reminder of days long gone where hazards lived up to their name and were things to be avoided.

This view is across the 6th toward the 5th green. Given the close proximity of the holes on The Bad Little Nine, an appealing sense of camaraderie is created for golfers that is often absent on large scale courses.

Hole to Note on The Bad Little Nine

Second Hole, 126 yards, Waterboard; Not unlike what Raynor did at Monterey Peninsula, Jackson Kahn take the golfer higher with each of the first three holes, with most flowing downhill thereafter. The problem here is that the back quarter of the green actually falls away from the player. Anyone who has played Oakmont knows the consternation that can cause and it is no different here.

The green falls away toward the rear and will fray the nerves as much as the deep bunkers.

Fourth hole, 104 yards, Gitmo; The greens vary wildly in size. This one at over 10,000 square feet is the largest while the last hole is less than 1/10 the size! However, that is not meant to imply that the fourth is somehow a breather. Just the opposite as along the right of the green is one of those appealing trench-like bunkers that narrows to less than two feet in width. Today’s routinely pampered golfer assumes that it is a birthright to enjoy a straightforward recovery shot but that notion comes to a crashing halt here. A nine holer with bland hazards and flat greens would hardly inspire participation; the task for Jackson Kahn was to provide temptation by striking the right balance between risk and reward. This large target with a particularly nasty hazard creates the perfect amount of playing tension.

The soft roll of the putting surface adeptly sheds slightly under-hit balls into the trench right of the green.

The left side is no bargain either thanks to another imaginative hazard.

Fifth hole, 86 yards, Shotgun; Most conventional hazards sink into the ground but here, knobs rise two and three feet and pose a different set of problems. In particular, a clump of dirt was piled into the middle of the putting surface and grassed over. All the hole locations orbit around it and two things are apparent. One, the challenge of the hole clearly changes each day with the movement of the hole location. And two, the golfer is left wondering why this tactic can’t be applied on courses elsewhere?!

The clump in the middle works with the back right shelf to make this hole location a testy proposition.

Eighty-eighth hole, 88 yards, White Dog; With a short iron in hand, the golfer’s psyche tells him to attack! Maybe he bites off a corner of a dogleg on a two shot hole or perhaps he hits his second shot within 80 yards of a green on a three shotter. Regardless, he takes risks to be rewarded with a short iron to a green. That mindset can pay off when greens aren’t as well defended as they are here but don’t let the fact that you are playing a par 3 course provoke rash and unwise decisions. If anything, the golfer needs to be more tactical, not less, and make better decisions than he normally would on a regular length course. The need to be prudent is born out in the pictures below that show the far back left hole location on Challenge Day. Augmented by the view of Superstition Mountain in the distance, this hole is a favorite of many. Its sweeping green contours yield both the easiest location (front left and thoughts of a hole-in-one emerge) and hardest (back left and one might not finish) on the course. The golfer has taken ~30 minutes to reach this spot and clearly, he has needed to be focused from the get-go. Given the appealing pressure applied to his game and the compressed time between shots, he can be forgiven for wondering if there is a better use of his time in the state than these nine holes.

Challenge Day at Scottsdale National! If ever a picture captured the essence of each Friday afternoon’s Challenge Day, this is it. People prone to taking themselves and their precious game too seriously might self-combust.

The flexibility in course set-up is one of The Bad Little Nine’s great virtues. Move this hole location fifteen paces forward into the lower front bowl and the day’s average score falls by more than one full stroke.

Ninety-ninth hole, 99 yards, Grey Dog; At 900 square feet, this is the smallest green that the author has seen in North America on a quality course and it is made even smaller by its perched knob of a green pad. While the sixth green at the Isle of Harris in Scotland is similar in size, it is located in a semi-punchbowl where good news events can take place. Not here. In fact, this hole is so prickly that the first timer enjoys an advantage over the scarred member. There is no ‘safe’ way to play it, which makes it a fitting conclusion. Of course, too many such moments and the golfer with pride might shy away from The Bad Little Nine but here on the last hole, with everything at stake, the golfer yearns to execute. Hitting the minuscule target is tough for even wedge master Zach Johnson. What’s really tough though is your second bunker shot!

What a hole on which to conclude a match. Hope for an uphill lie in a bunker.

True, The Bad Little Nine can overwhelm a certain type of player but that is so by design. The owner wanted an obstacle course that would tax the player, even though the longest hole is a mere 153 yards. And that’s what he got, all without water. The ability to play the course frequently would sharpen not only one’s wedge play but also one’s ability to recover. Additionally, where to ‘miss’ the ball is crucial – long on the first, short on the second, right of the fifth, long left on eighth simply won’t do. Therefore, one’s ability to assess properly different situations including when/where to aim away from the flag is an underpinning of success. How many sub-1000 yard courses require such clear thought and crisp execution? Any?

When all is said and done, it is a par 3 course and you are free to ‘go for it.’ You can be handsomely rewarded by flirting with disaster or savagely punished and it highlights what a pity it is that so many courses – par 3 and otherwise – feature milquetoast hazards and greens that fail to inspire and capture the imagination. The key thing heading in is that you will either possess the ability to laugh at your shortfalls or you will learn to have the ability to laugh at your shortfalls by the end. After all, if you don’t have a sense of humor, for goodness sake, don’t play golf, which humbles even the very best.

The only notable design aspect lacking on The Bad Little Nine and its tightly defined targets is a lack of ground game options. Of course, given that each hole averages 108 yards, so what? Plus, that wasn’t the mandate. Nonetheless, walking the 100 yards from the ’99th’ green to the first tee of The Other Course, the first time player might wonder if more of the same is in store. The answer is ‘no’ and much to the credit of Jackson Kahn, the opposite holds true as they built something with wildly different playing characteristics while still remaining true to the Sonoran Desert.

In fact, The Other Course features shots tailored for the ground game. Even better, Parsons endorsed not over-seeding The Other Course. Therefore, when the Bermuda fairways go dormant heading into the playing season of early November, the fairways become ‘white lightening’ and ground game options flourish. This is how a club should be run and the golf structured. The original course (now called the Mineshaft) is over-seeded with rye and features the sort of target golf that made Arizona famous world-wide. The Bad Little Nine is its own, spuddy creation and The Other Course is altogether different again. The three distinct offerings cover whatever challenge a member is seeking that day.

Desert Forest, the Grand Dame of desert golf, made a name for itself by not over-seeding for the first four decades of its existence. Alas, it succumbed in recent times and started to present its course in the conventional manner with rye grass in the winter. According to several past members, the course (and club) lost a bit of its identity when that occurred. Parsons’ The Other Course stands out for offering dormant Bermuda fairways in the greater Scottsdale area. Dormant Bermuda is an ideal playing surface as it can be quite bouncy-bounce under dry conditions. Arizona provides that very thing and with limited play (and therefore limited carts), The Other Course is perfectly suited for that playing surface.

The author played here in mid-October, just before the Bermuda became dormant. Nonetheless, the fairways were fiery and all shots available to the player. Kudos to Green Keeper Rick Holanda and his crew for the job they do. Interestingly enough, Kahn and Hoffman recommended Holanda for the project. They first met him in 2007 at Shadow Creek and Holanda went on to oversee the Bermuda grow-in of a high profile Fazio course in Brazil. Hiring the architect is one thing but without the right Green Keeper, the pleasures from a design can be muted. Give Parsons credit for getting both hires right, as we see below.

Holes to Note – The Other Course

Second hole, 545 yards, Harris Hawk; The concept of strategy – of making each shot matter relative to the next – was at the forefront of this design. Without it, the course would fail to hold Parsons’ interest round after round and the project would be deemed a failure. Of course, making every hole require its own set of thought processes is no mean feat. At the second, a protected wash acts as a central hazard as it stretches across the fairway some 150 yards from the green. Carrying that in two is the goal but just finding the 70 yard wide fairway beyond isn’t enough. The golfer needs to pay heed to where the hole is located on the 9,000+ square foot green, as we see in the photographs below.

When the hole is left, the golfer needs to lay up long right and vice versa: when the hole is back right, the golfer needs to lay up short left. It’s the …

… classic X pattern with the day’s hole location determining which side of the fairway one should approach the green. Indeed, the proper layup spot can shift by ~50 yards from one day to the next and instilling the course with such playing angles was crucial to the project’s success.

The cantankerous back right hole locations are jealously guarded by the false front and are pricklier to get near than the front and central hole locations. Short grass and ground game options are already making their presence felt.

Third hole, 200 yards, Bobcat; This is the first of six one shotters, each nicely spaced in length from the others. From the 6,777 set of tees on which this profile is based, the six holes measure from shortest to longest the following yards: 134 – 145 – 158 – 171 – 200 – 215, ensuring a broad range of clubs will be used. As a side note, every course has shifting moods as the sun moves across the sky but that seems to hold particularly true at Scottsdale National. Landforms that are 3 and 5 and even 20 miles away become illuminated by the rising or setting sun. The eye can’t help but wander and soak in the different desert hues and colors. Such attractive long views afforded while playing The Other Course aren’t by chance. Jackson Kahn and Hoffman didn’t route the course from a computer; they were continuously on site, tweaking the playing corridors to showcase as many of the distant peaks and mountain ranges as possible.

As seen early morning, the eye rotates between the attractive golf scene in the foreground and the Mazatzal Mountains 12 miles in the distance.  A very special thank you to Gary Kellner of Dimpled Rock Photography for the liberal use of his striking photographs that populate this profile.

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