Talking Stick Golf Club (O’odham Course)
Arizona, United States of America

Beautiful construction makes the courses at Talking Stick standout in a very crowded market.

If the authors were asked to show a course that illustrates the principles of minimalism, they would book airline tickets for Phoenix, Arizona. The O’odham (formerly 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 flat piece of land with no real natural features on the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community. 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’ character, but Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore knew better, even early in their partnership. Built in 1997, the two courses at Talking Stick preceded some of the duo’s most famous designs including Friar’s Head, Old Sandwich, and Cabot Cliffs. Nonetheless, it came one year after Sand Hills, and much of the talent that brought you Sand Hills (XXX, YYY) was present on this project too.

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 & Coore. The greens on the O’odham are generally extensions of the fairway, raised and crowned only slightly. Ground game options profilerate on approach shots, which is the predominate reason that the GolfClubAtlas.com crowd prefers the O’odham to the next door Piipaash Course.

Flat, flatter, flattest – the 2nd fairway at Talking Stick symbolizes building a grade.

In fact, the O’odham Course has such a low profile that one is left to 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.

Talking Stick occupies land that is no different than thousands of square miles of land in the southwestern U.S. – flat and dotted with local varieties of XXX and cacti. 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

(Please note: The Black tees stretch the course over 7,100 yards but as is a general policy of this web site, the distances below are from the Gold tees, which measure an ample 6,510 yards especially when considering that par is a tight 70.)

Second hole, 510 yards, Pinnacle Peak, Kuvijk Do’ag; In the yardage book, the hole looks ungainly – a monstrously wide fairway leading to a green off-center to the left. However, this width creates indecision on the part of the player as there is out of bounds tight left extends the length of the hole. Two right greenside bunkers mean that if the player wishes to reach this green in two (a realistic goal) he must favor the left side. All of a sudden, the fairway is not quite so wide. The manner in which the architects prey on the golfer’s greed became a design hallmark for Coore & Crenshaw. Even after two decades of additional construction beyond Talking Stick, the authors haven’t seen it done better than this hole. No doubt Tom Simpson, who adored the use of out of bounds, would have been a huge fan of both this and the next hole.

The hard line of the out of bounds left and …

… the greenside bunkers right lend the 2nd hole its dynamic playing strategy.

Third hole, 415 yards, Sand Hills, O’od Totonk; Perhaps the course’s most attractive hole as it plays into a corner of the property with just the desert and mountains beyond, the third enjoys the similar conundrum as the second. Out of bounds left and two greenside bunkers right create the tension. 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.

Fifth hole, 355 yards, Left is Right, O:gig o sape; 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 fourth on Piipaash is named ‘Right is Right,’ and with good reason.

Eighth hole, 145 yards, Short – Shortest Hole, Sopodk; Hindsight can help reveal when trends were in the process of changing. In 2018, courses are much more frequently judged by how artful their their short holes are: short one shotters, drivable par fours and reachable par fives. In the mid 1990s, though, toughness was still a false God. Firms like Tom Doak’s Renassiance Design and Coore & Crenshaw lead the charge away from length for length’s sake and reintroduced variety into course design.  This short one shotter with two glaring forward bunkers gives way to a pushed up green that falls away on all sides. It seems simple, right until your tee ball catches one of the green’s soft sides and is whisked away by the tight short grass. This hole is a harbinger of a more enlightened period of course design.

Tenth hole, 390 yards, New Beginning – Second Chance, Epoi I oidcu; The opportunity to route this hole straight at Pinnacle Peak didn’t escape Bill Coore. Such a ploy forces even the most crude player to appreciate his surroundings and the bunkerless green does nothing to distract the eye from the glories of the setting.

Eleventh hole, 215 yards, The Big Battle, S’Hasikam O Gevito; 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.

Twelfth hole, 360 yards, Red Mountain, Ve:ki Do’ag; An excellent match play hole, with a wash splitting the fairway. By going down the narrow left side, between the wash and the boundary, the player can knock it within 60 to 90 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.

Thirteenth hole, 350 yards, Left is Safe, O:gig o ma sape; As the name says, left is safe … but is it wise? As always with a Coore & Crenshaw design, a copious amount of fairway grass acts as a siren but the golfer is invariably better off to look for a hazard or something to challenge as without doubt, the next shot will be easier if he does.

All the trouble is right off the tee but once the left greenside bunker is factored into the equation, middle right off the tee does indeed have merit!

 

Fifteenth hole, 425 yards, Cresote or Grease Wood, Segoi; Coore & Crenshaw do a remarkable job of keeping the golf engaging for eighteen holes over such a flat site. Would they have wished for more topgraphy? Of course, as that is the easiest way to give each hole its own voice. Nonetheless, here is an example where a slight up-slope was put to maximum advantage. The green was artfully placed so that left hole locations are obscured behind a hillock.

Eighteenth hole, 440 yards, That’s It, We Will See You Again, Dai Hegai, t’va epom nei!; The author’s favorite finisher by Coore & Crenshaw is found at Kapalua Plantation, whose half par finisher has provided so many indelible television moments over the years. Apart from that three shotter, many of their Home holes are of the two tough shotter variety.  There are a few exceptions (including the sister course here and their course in China as well as other par fives at Streamsong and Clear Creek) but Sand Hills, Friar’s Head, Old Sandwich, Chechessee Creek, and Austin Golf Club are standard bearers. One of the author’s favorites is found at Lost Farms and the only one that he thinks rivals it? This one here. How neat is that the a daily fee course can conclude in a world class manner?!

When the author was here in October, 2018, the course had recently reopened after flooding from a monsoon. In a testament to its fine greenkeeping staff, the playing surfaces were remarkably firm and bouncy and such conditions ensuring that the course plays as 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. Sadly, this course was about to be over-seeded like the Piipaash Course. The author fails to understand why facilities with two courses (Pine Needs/Mid Pines, Forest Creek, etc.) elect to over-seed both courses. After all the marching orders to Coore & Crenshaw were to build to different courses so why then present the courses in a similar manner? Rye grass is always slower than dormant Bermuda and the O’odham Course needs to play bouncy-bounce in order for its ground game options to flourish.

The Piipaash Course features more trees than the O’odham Course.

Two more different opportunities could not have presented themselves relatively early in the career of Coore & Crenshaw than Sand Hills and Talking Stick. The raw potential at Sand Hills was a ’10’ and the pressure that fell on them not to build a 9 or 8 course was immense. Talking Stick was entirely different. The best thing going for it was it was in a pretty setting and that no homes would intrude on the playing experience. Nonetheless, Coore & Crenshaw took a 5 property and made it into something much better. As such, it is a study in what good architecture is all about.

The End