Apache Stronghold Golf Club in San Carlos, AZ
Tee Time: April 7, 2013, 8:00, 79 F, Light wind
Designer: Tom Doak/Jim Urbina (1999)
Playing Partners: None (it was completely empty, I finished in 122 minutes)
Tees: Warrior, Par 72 (72.1 rating/138 slope/7,007 yards)
Course Handicap: 15 (12.5 index)
Stats: 93 (50-43); 37 putts; 4/14 fairways; 4/18 greens; 3 penalty strokes
The vast expanse of desert east of Phoenix is rich with the history of Arizona’s frontier days, tales of Geronimo’s adventures and also a golf course. Keep a sharp eye out for that last one. Apache Stronghold Golf Club meanders through the lands of the San Carlos Apache tribe in Tonto National Forest, about 10 minutes east of Globe and 90 miles from downtown Phoenix. The fairways and greens mesh seamlessly with the surrounding wild grasses and sand, giving the whole course a natural look so often absent from nearby places that would have you believe lush green Bermuda grass, brilliant blue lakes and fluffy bunkers are “desert” golf. The length, design and elevation are very similar to Rochelle Ranch in Wyoming, while the rustic style and idea that the desert alone can be a worthy foe evokes memories of Southern Dunes in Maricopa. Then there are other factors that make Golfweek’s #39 Casino Course unique.
The front nine at Apache Stronghold plays more straightforward and a bit flatter than the back side, but it has a couple memorable spots. The opening par-5 is not one of those memorable spots. At 562 yards (a monster 661 from the farthest set of tees) and straight as an arrow out of an Apache quiver, it’s an easy way to gauge how the round might go from there. The dogleg right, par-4 2nd is the first instance of how accuracy off the tee plays a big role in getting around this course. While most of the fairways are wide enough to stay in, there are preferred lines because the same shot and distance can play either 150 from one side and over 200 in from the opposite end. But the main worry at #2 is the amount of horrors in front of the green. Over is safe, but short brings into play trees, washes, bunkers, rocks and enough natural barriers (and probably snakes) to keep even the hungriest zombie at bay. The lone par-3 on the opening nine is long and downhill to a wide, shallow green surrounded by bunkers and desert. The view makes this hole appear much more intimidating, as the dry brush seems to add 15 yards to the shot in the mind’s eye. The hardest hole on the course, the 463-yard 5th, is brutally long. Bomb a tee shot and still pull out that fairway wood to get uphill to the green. Survive that and enjoy the best view on the front side at the tee of the short par-4 7th. Take in the scenery with the beautiful peak in the background and many different kinds of cactus before deciding if driving the green is worth it or not. Just keep that 30 foot deep wash directly in front of the green in mind when reaching for the driver. The 9th has one of the tougher greens at Apache Stronghold, with a horizontal kidney bean shape. The two ends are much higher than the middle, leading to some tough putts if the approach shot is misplaced.
Sneak past Geronimo’s statue and begin the back nine over at the 10th tee, a 462-yard, dogleg left par 4 that the prime example of how taking the right line can really affect your score. Unless you aim backwards, it’s nearly impossible to miss the fairway. But go to the left and have that 170 yards in rather than leaking right and leaving well over 215 yards. Get the long iron swings out of the way because the 144-yard 11th, one of three par 3’s on the back nine, is the shortest hole on the course and the 408-yard 12th is the smallest par 4 on the back nine. From then on it gets a bit more grueling. Elevation and wind really kick in beginning with the 14th, a 172-yard par 3. With all the trouble up front, including a cactus and massive sand trap, it’s tempting to take more than you need to negate those dangers. But the wind can be tricky and it is downhill to a shallow green, so even by missing all the unpleasantries, it’s no easy par. Don’t even think about cutting the corner at the 551-yard 15th. Take it from someone who tried, it’s not worth it. It’s a three-shot par 5, just accept it. I wish I had known that the 16th, the second consecutive par-5, went left and not right. At 467 yards, it is a prime opportunity for birdie or better because any drive in the fairway will leave less than 200 yards in (as opposed to the 10th, which was a par 4). I went right, thinking it was another blind drive over a hill. Oops, too bad the pro shop wasn’t open yet and I couldn’t get that all-important yardage book. That $5 would have been well worth it to get myself an easy birdie. The 17th is a drivable par 4 disguised as a par 3. Long and two-tiered, aim up the gut to the raised green and have fun. The most extreme elevation change is at the final hole at Apache Stronghold. A lovely view of the high desert, spoiled by that ugly casino, hikes down past an abandoned sand trap (looks like they’re just gonna let Mother Nature iron that over) and snakes back to a narrow green. Now grab a beer, 7,000 yards can be an exhausting day.
I’m still having trouble deciding how I feel about this course. It’s like a fat girl with a pretty face. You can see there’s potential there, but it really needs some hard work. The condition of the course surrounding the greens is very poor, below even broke muni standards. There are dips and tufts all around that the ball will settle down into, rendering any type of chip impossible. This isn’t just in the really far areas, this is the fringe and just next to it. My ball sat in mini dunes of sand more than once, and I did have to take an explosion shot from the fringe, which was a first. When the ball settles down among the patches of dead grass and dirt, no club can get it out and on 5 occasions I took more than one attempt at making a chip. Just a little bit of polish and care would instantly make Apache Stronghold more enjoyable by a large degree. I like the design and letting the natural landscape of the desert present the real challenge here. It’s fun to see a golf course with bite, but don’t let poor greenskeeping also take away strokes.
#13, Par 4, 452 yards, 10-handicap, My Score: 4
On a course with its share of nerve-racking tee shots, the 13th is by far the scariest. A blind tee shot, you have to aim over a massive hill and bunker to get down the right portion of the fairway. Play it safe and to the left and it’ll be at least three shots before pulling out the putter. Maybe a range finder or yardage guide would make this shot a bit less fearsome, but I took aim over that trap and prayed. From the fairway the hole snakes back to the right and uphill to a round green surrounded by dirt and brush. The entire hole feels like a roller coaster. Watching the tee shot head off into the distance and disappear over the hill brings all the tension of that slow crawl up the track. Then finding out you’re in the fairway and able to zero in on the pin with a short iron is as exhilarating as any ride down the rails. No wonder the 13th is named “Snake”. Although I don’t know why they didn’t name the holes in Apache, in which case this hole would be called “Tl’iish”, based on what I have learned from Google. And of course I know how to pronounce that…
Layout: B+; Apache Stronghold is unique in that no two holes are alike. There are no say, dual 180-yard par 3’s where the second feels just like the first. Even holes that share similar shapes and lengths vary with elevation changes and greenside appearances.
Amenities: D; somehow on a Sunday morning at 8AM, the pro shop was not open yet. I had to go in and pay at the turn. The Tin Cup driving range is hard to track balls on. At 10:30 the restaurant still wasn’t open either, so I’m not sure how that place is.
Staff: A; well there was only one staff member, but he was an excellent one, playing the roles of cart boy, starter, cashier and refreshment vendor all in one. I never did catch his name, but I’m sure if he could get his talents to a high end country club, he’d be raking in six figures worth of tips each year.
Difficulty: B; partially challenging because of the layout and negotiating the terrain, but also needlessly difficult with the unkempt hazards and chipping areas.
Scenery: C+; while nothing to really write home about, the feeling of isolation tucked back into the hilly terrain of the high desert is actually an enjoyable atmosphere. Just you and nature.
Value: A-; a weekend rate for a decent course of only $30? I’ll take that any time. Though I’m sure they could up the fees to about $40 and hire some staff…
Overall GPA: 2.88 (C+); a unique challenge where the course can feel like it’s fighting back at times, it’s a worthwhile excursion should you ever find yourself in Globe.