SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — At the time, creating a golf course on land seemingly best suited for critters like snakes and lizards must have appeared to be a goofy idea.
But 25 years later, you can say it was a brilliant brainstorm after all.
In an area where numerous target-golf courses now exist, Troon North was one of the trailblazers. The imagination of former PGA Tour star Tom Weiskopf (a British Open champion), and his course development colleague, Jay Morrish, who passed away on March 2, collaborated on some magnificent 18-hole layouts near Pinnacle Peak, a majestic landmark in this part of the Valley of the Sun.
Troon Country Club, the granddaddy of the threesome, opened in the mid-1980s as a private club, joining the Jack Nicklaus-designed Desert Highlands as the first target-golf layouts in Arizona.
On the public side, the Troon North Monument Course, which opened on March 13, 1990, is celebrating its 25th birthday this year. The younger Pinnacle Course (1996 debut) also is a celebratory mood.
The celebration, which started with a champagne toast on the anniversary date, continues through the remainder of the calendar year.
As one of the courses selected to be part of a three-state, three-week journey through Nevada, Arizona and California, Troon North was high on my must-play list. Back in the early 1990s, when Troon North was just a baby, I played the Monument Course. It must have been a long day as there isn’t much I remember about the experience, other than it was the first time I had played a target-golf course, where there is a lot more desert than grass.
The Monument Course was carved in the desert with no structures around it. The landscape now includes spectacular multi-million dollar homes.
I figured it would it be pretty cool to return many years later as a senior writer and editor for Golferswest.com and put an average (at best) game to the test. It was an even better outing than I expected, starting with the weather – sunny and temperature in the high-80s for my St. Patrick’s Day round of golf.
Corby Foster, the Assistant General Manager of the 36-hole facility, explained in a pre-round interview that the Monument Course has stood the test of time and basically remains exactly the same now as it did a quarter-century ago when it opened to rave reviews.
“Troon North Golf Club stands as a hallmark of the Scottsdale desert golf experience with two 18-hole courses stretching through the natural ravines and foothills in the shadows of Pinnacle Peak. Giant granite boulders lie strewn across the rugged landscape of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, where Troon North Golf Club combines iconic golf with the visual sensation of desert landscape, providing a standard unmatched in the American Southwest.”
“In 2007, about 10 years after the Pinnacle Course opened, we rerouted the two courses,” Foster explained, “taking the front nine of the Monument Course and combining it with the front nine of the Pinnacle Course. A big part of the reason for the reroute was because you had to drive through a neighborhood to reach No. 10 on the Monument Course. That is now No. 2 on the Pinnacle Course. It’s the only change made on the Monument Course since it opened.”
Well, that and the green fee. It was $80 per round back then and upwards of $250 now during the peak season, which runs from January through April. On this March 17, both courses were jammed with all types of golfers from the first tee time, 7 a.m., to the last, at 3 p.m.
Business is obviously booming as the Great Recession fades further behind us. The past seven or so years has been difficult for the golf industry, but Troon North has weathered the storm.
“It hurt,” no doubt about it,” Foster said of the recession. “We had to look at how we do things from an operations standpoint, but we didn’t really have to sacrifice the conditions or the experience as much as maybe some of the other clubs in the area. It did have an impact on us but we are doing well now. We’re climbing again and basically we feel like we are back to the early 2000s. We’ve turned it around and are back humming again.”
A social media-driven marketing campaign, “To get our guests out to celebrate with us,” is ongoing Foster said. “We’ve had success of servicing the golfing public for 25 great years. We have pin decals on the flags, merchandise in our golf shop, giving away ball markers, which everyone is pretty excited about, and are doing a drone flyover shooting all 36 holes (of the Monument and Pinnacle Courses.)
“It’s easy to get caught up in the scenery, and that is part of our draw. People come out here and say they have never seen anything like it. They are in awe. This is desert golf at its finest.”
From any given tee box many of the landing areas look like postage stamps. But, as the flyovers indicate, the fairways actually are larger than what your eyes are telling you from ground level.
The unique view of each hole started on March 1 and will run through April 6.
A Silver Anniversary Package includes 25 percent off on an ensuing round, 25 percent off on golf shop items and 25 percent off in the Dynamite Grille. “We were going to make this available for a month or two,” Foster said, “but decided to celebrate this milestone throughout the year.”
My part in the celebration started when I unloaded my golf clubs at the bag drop and, including an interview and lunch, ended about six hours (and 94 strokes) later.
I initially had been part of a foursome that was teeing off at 12:50 p.m., but as I was warming up on the driving range, a starter asked if I would like to join a single and begin the round a few minutes earlier.
The practice session was cut short and I joined Kevin Heisler on the first tee. The recently-retired 52-year-old (he has three engineering degrees from Purdue and had much success with several startup companies) has a terrific swing and a 3-handicap. He played from the gold tees and I played from the whites, which measured about 6,200 yards.
I rode a cart, Kevin walked. Even so, there was ample opportunity for us to chat and he was more than happy to help me with tips on how to play each hole – not that I could follow his suggestions.
He was down the middle off the tee most of the time. Me, not so much.
The first hole, a 400-yard par 4, was not good. My first tee shot of the day sailed right – into the brush. “Mulligan!” The next tee shot found the fairway, but my second didn’t. Lost ball No. 2 if you’re counting at home.
Kevin was on the green in two and two-putted for a par. I was on the green in five and two-putted for a “7”. Ouch.
Undaunted, I regrouped, hit a 6-iron on the green on the 154-yard par 3 second hole and two-putted for a par.
Next up: The signature 502-yard, par 5 third hole. Right smack in the middle of the fairway stands a huge boulder, called “The Monument.”
During construction, crews kept trying to move the huge rock, but thankfully they gave up when Scottsdale city officials requested that it be left alone.
There is fairway on both sides of the rock, but more grass on the left. I aimed for the middle of the obstacle, realizing I had little chance of hitting it. Sure enough, my tee ball went just left of the rock, nestling safely in the pristine fairway.
“Great drive!” Kevin said.
A well-struck 3-metal got me closer to the green, my advance-wedge got me onto the green in three and I two-putted for a par. That’s two pars in three holes – and only three more the remainder of the round, including No. 18, a 348-yard par-4.
Heisler getting his game in tip-top shape for a series of Arizona Golf Association tournaments during the summer, shot an impressive (to me) 78 and nearly drove the second of the two short par-4s – the 285-yard No. 6, (called “Gamble) and the 275-yard No. 15.
“Tom (Weiskopf) likes at least one drivable par 4 on the courses he designs,” Foster said. “Before the reroute, there was only one, No. 6, on the Monument Course. But now there are two.”
Among the lasting impressions: The back nine was more scenic and judging from my 49 score (compared to 45 on the front), more difficult. When it was all said and done, playing the Monument Course was one of my most enjoyable rounds ever. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
An ever-expanding bucket list now includes the Pinnacle Course.