Talking Stick (North)

The lefthand fairway bunker that must be carried from the 3rd tee.

The lefthand fairway bunker that must be carried from the 3rd tee.

If the authors were asked to show a course that illustrates the principles of minimalism, they would book airline tickets for Phoenix, Arizona. The North course at the daily-fee Talking Stick Golf Club in Scottsdale not only shows what minimalism is, but it also demonstrates that an architect who knows his trade can build a first-rate, interesting course on a flat piece of land.

Talking Stick occupies a dead flat piece of land with no real natural features on an Indian reservation. The only natural attribute is the beautiful mountains that form the backdrop to this desert course. However, they are just scenery. Many architects would therefore feel compelled to move heaps of earth to ‘create’ some character, but Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore know better. They moved essentially nothing. The land is flat, so the course is flat, and that’s all there is to it. So many architects talk of ‘working with nature’ only to proceed to mold the course to suit their needs, but not Crenshaw and Coore. The greens are generally just extensions of the fairway, being raised and crowned only slightly.

In fact, the course has such a low profile that the authors wonder where the dirt from excavating the bunkers went. From both the artistic and the strategic perspective, Talking Stick has one of the handful of sets of best bunkering of any course in the U.S. Rarely have the authors been so tempted so often to stop and take a close-up picture of just a bunker. These bunkers are real pits, as they had to be. If no earth was to be moved, there were no elevations in which to ‘dig’ the bunkers, so the architects had no choice but to go downwards. The bunkers are relatively small, with jagged edges that are a result of the shaping and not tall grass. Often a player’s first step into such a bunker is down 18 inches. Here players will face a rare shot in the U.S., where the key is to get up in the first few yards to clear the lip.

The bunkering also illustrates somewhat of a dilemma to the modern architect. Bunkers such as the ones at Talking Stick are so attractive and well maintained that a player actually enjoys playing out of them – not exactly how hazards should be regarded. One cannot help but wonder if some architect (and his developer) should have the nerve to construct another Royal Ashdown Forest, with no bunkers at all. The higher-handicapped player would enjoy the round more while the better player would be frustrated by the more difficult recovery shots. However, the flat desert is not the place for such a bold design.

The land the North course at Talking Stick occupies is no different than thousands of square miles of land in the southwestern U.S. – flat and dotted by the occasional bush or cactus. One cannot help but think how one has driven hundreds of miles thorough identical terrain. Why, then, are there not dozens more courses like this? There is certainly enough land for it. The only answer is the fear that such courses would not be appreciated (or that the developer does not have the nerve to try it). Many architects would love the opportunity, but, sadly, few are given the chance.

Another distinctive aspect of the course that sets it apart from most courses in Arizona and many courses built in the last twenty years is that it is imminently walkable. Aside from being flat (and therefore easy to walk), there is rarely more than 50 yards from the putting green to the next tee. One of the authors was grouped with three players in carts for a round there, and several times he actually had to wait on the next tee for those players to roar up in their carts. Happily, they played their round in 3:40, another rarity for a daily fee course. All this contributes to what is a wonderful golf experience.

Holes to Note

2nd hole, 510 yards: In the yardage book this looks an ungainly hole – a monstrously wide fairway leading to a green that appears off-center to the left. However, this width creates indecision on the part of the player as there is out of bounds tight down the left side all the way up past the green. The two greenside bunkers are to the right, meaning that if the player wishes to reach this green in two (a realistic goal) he must favor the left side. All of a sudden, nothing is quite so wide.

The 3rd green.

The 3rd green.

3rd hole, 415 yards: The most attractive hole on the course, as this is at a corner of the property with just the desert and mountains beyond. With two bunkers guarding the right side of the green, the preferred approach is from the left side, and the architects create an illusion with a bunker down the left side that must be carried from the tee to afford the player such an approach. Although it requires less than 200 yards to make the carry, the player will often steer away from it at the last minute, thereby bringing the real trouble off the tee – the bunkers right of the fairway – into play.

5th hole, 355 yards: The key to this hole lies in its name – ‘Left is Right.’ This short par four bends slightly to the right and features a bunker smack in the middle of the fairway. As the hole does go to the right, the player might instinctively think that the preferred line is down the right, but he would be wrong as the green is angled to accept an approach from the left. As proof that the architects have a sense of humor, the 4th hole on the South course is named ‘Right is Right,’ and with good reason.

7th hole, 430 yards: Again, the hole’s name, ‘The Ditch Hole,’ gives away the key – to avoid the dry ditch to the right. Such a task is easier said than done. The bunker to the left of the green encourages the player to go right, only that is where there is a slope that will carry the ball to the ditch. One of the authors had his six-iron approach shot land on the right side of the green, only to roll down the closely-mown area and into the ditch.

10th hole, 390 yards: The lesson here is simple – when you are fortunate enough to have something like a mountain peak in the distance, use it. This hole plays directly toward Pinnacle Peak. Such a ploy forces even the most crude player to appreciate his surroundings.

11th hole, 215- 265 yards: A throwback hole to the days when bunkers well short of the green served a practical purpose. In this case, the large, Thomas-style bunker some 30 yards short of the green (1) deceives the player in judging the distance, (2) serves as an heroic carry, with the potential of great satisfaction, for the higher handicapped player (who has the option of playing to the fairway left of the bunker) and (3) seizes the better player’s attention into the wind. The rolls around the green, particularly off the back-left corner, ensure that the player who plays ‘safely’ to the left will have to work hard to save par.

The wash on the 12th hole.

The wash on the 12th hole.

12th hole, 360 yards: An excellent match play hole, with a dry wash splitting the fairway. By going down the narrow left side, between the wash and the boundary, the player can knock it within 20 yards of the green. However, such a play would be unlikely in stroke play, as the slightest draw can land in the fairway and roll effortlessly out of bounds. Finding the wash is not death as being in it is usually no worse than having a marginal lie in a bunker.

As with Coore and Crenshaw’s Plantation Course at Kapalua, the superb conditioning ensures that the course is played the way the architects intended. The wide fairways and closely mown areas surrounding each green allow the player to adopt a ground game. This opportunity to play many different type shots can often befuddle the player as there is still doubt in his mind when he pulls the trigger as to whether he has made the proper decision (e.g., high or low). Yet, this effect leaves the course within the grasp of all players, a most desirable trait in a daily-fee course.

The End