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Scottsdale National Golf Club

From the finishing holes that evoke high-noon duels to the ‘cowboy casual’ atmosphere of the clubhouse, the Old West thrives at this club in one of golf’s meccas

By: Cori Brett

Appeared in 2010 LINKS Premier Clubs as The Golf Club Scottsdale

The bullet-riddled wooden sign announcing “Gambler’s Bluff” sits high above Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, where cactus-studded hillsides reach out to distant mountain ranges: the McDowells, the Superstitions and the knobby landmark of Pinnacle Peak. It’s a wonder that early settlers managed to cross such rugged terrain in covered wagons and stagecoaches.

Musing about the Old West could certainly distract players from the real business of Gambler’s Bluff, which is golf. The name refers to the four finishing holes at Golf Club Scottsdale, which climb up Fraesfield Mountain like emerald stepping stones, then tumble down in dramatic fashion to conclude what is always a memorable round. 

As Matt McIntee, Vice President of Operations for Crown Golf Properties, which owns Golf Club Scottsdale, says: “It’s the Arizona that you came here to find.” 

If you’re looking for extras like mango-scented towels, on-course chefs and yoga classes, look elsewhere. The Golf Club Scottsdale is all about the golf. (Although staff members have been known to bring Baileys and coffee out to golfers on chilly days.) 

Renowned golf architect Jay Morrish worked with design partner Dick Bailey to create a course that was an instant success. Golf Digest named Golf Club Scottsdale one of the “Top Ten Best New Private Courses” in 2004.

Unlike most of the Scottsdale area’s high-end courses built in the past 20 years, Golf Club Scottsdale is not tied to real estate development. The 7,561-yard layout will always retain its secluded setting, surrounded by thousands of acres of desert wilderness designated for preservation.  

“It was a luxury to build a golf course unencumbered by real estate considerations,” says Bailey, who co-designed the course under the assumption that the membership would be made up of a substantial number of low-handicap players.

The members take their direction from Director of Golf Don Yrene, one of the deans of Arizona golf, as well as one of the best players in the Southwest Section of the PGA of America. Yrene garnered national attention when he finished as the low pro at the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club in Illinois. 

The crystal trophy marking the feat is displayed in the pro shop, and a photo of Yrene shaking hands with the champion, Tiger Woods, sits in his office.

Of course, playing the Golf Club Scottsdale layout on a regular basis could help anybody’s game. Resembling ribbons of bright green that twist and turn along the desert floor, which is considered in play, the holes at the club require both good thought and precise execution.

The split-fairway 456-yard 3rd hole offers a good example of the course’s myriad risk-reward choices. Cautious first-timers may play it safe and go for the wide fairway to the left, only to find the approach shot stymied by a mounded bunker. The right side requires a riskier carry, but yields a shorter, unimpeded view of the green.

Just as architects in other parts of the country employ trees to define holes, Bailey and Morrish used the area’s distinctive Saguaro cacti as sign posts. On the 480-yard 4th, an aggressive line off the tee means aiming for two prominent cacti to the left of the apparent landing area. It may seem risky to play toward the cacti, which look to be in the middle of the desert, but the hole actually opens up to a fairly wide fairway.

Although there are no water hazards, the architects used washes and desert to create angles that promote hitting to the correct sides of the fairways for approaches into the firm, fast, multi-tiered greens. And Golf Club Scottsdale does offer a drivable par 4, a Morrish trademark, at the 347-yard 11th.

The strategy and demands increase once players enter Gambler’s Bluff, where elevation changes add to the challenge. The 548-yard 15th climbs steadily from the tee, crossing a deep arroyo on its way to a triple-tiered green with a steep false front. 

Players have been known to putt off the front of the green, so no matter how many shots it takes you to reach the putting surface, the outcome of the hole during a match is always in doubt.

The “Shootout at Gambler’s Bluff” plays out on the four finishing holes to determine the winner of the Pistolero 

Invitational, the member-guest tournament. Names of the winning two-man teams are engraved on the trophy, which displays a pair of reproduced antique Spanish pistols.    

The Spanish theme comes from the gracious hacienda-style clubhouse at the heart of Golf Club Scottsdale. Tall wooden gates lead into a serene courtyard surrounded by three separate buildings, connected via covered porticos.  

Old World styling is reflected in the weathered and distressed wood used alongside decorative wrought-iron metal work. The Great Room radiates warmth and comfort, thanks to exposed wooden beams and rough brick walls, enhanced by plush, large-scale furniture and rich textiles.

The 25,000-square-foot clubhouse contains all the luxurious amenities and services expected of a high-end club. Well-appointed men’s and women’s locker rooms are each equipped with a steam room, hot pool and massage room.  Locker room manager Paul Cormier facilitates concierge services: concert or sporting tickets, car wash, airport transportation, dry cleaning delivery—you name it. Need a private jet right away? Just ask. 

Although members are ensconced in a setting that feels centuries old, they are at the cusp of a club that is new and exciting. “We’re a young club,” says Membership Director Sharon Carry, “still developing who we are.”

Since mid 2008, an executive management team consisting of Carry, Yrene, Course Superintendent Ed Shimkus and Clubhouse Manager Dave Warchot has run the club. From Crown’s corporate office in Chicago, McIntee oversees the four-person on-site team as they progress steadily toward the goal of “sustainable greatness.”

At a time when many private clubs are cutting back, Crown Golf Properties is investing in Golf Club Scottsdale for the long term. In July 2009 the club built a new maintenance complex. 

By fall 2010 the club will expand the practice facility, already recognized as one of the best in the country. With the addition of a bentgrass putting green, chipping green and a driving range tee, the practice ground will be nearly 14 acres and will support the successful initiatives begun by Director of Instruction Steve Dahlby, who came on board in 2007 to organize the teaching program and build a strong junior program.

One of Dahlby’s most popular events is the annual Champions Clinic, in which the club’s tour pros, Jeff Quinney and Roger Tambellini, play a four-hole rotation while members follow along and ask questions. 

And members who need help negotiating greens like the formidable 15th can turn to teaching pro and former PGA Tour member Gabriel Hjertstedt, who specializes in short game instruction. Trivia buffs will know that Hjertstedt was the first Swede to win on the PGA Tour when he captured the 1997 B.C. Open. (He also won the 1999 Touchstone Energy Tucson Open.)

The club derives much of its identity and atmosphere from the Wild West surroundings. “Cowboy casual is our mantra,” says McIntee. “It says everything about us.” 

McIntee refers not to paraphernalia like hats and lassos but to the sense of camaraderie—the modern equivalent of setting up camp and sitting around the fire, telling stories. Says Warchot: “I want the members to feel like they’re coming into their own living room when they enter the clubhouse.”

The staff’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. “The club is very welcoming,” says member Bob Pastore, “with a warm and friendly atmosphere at every level.”

Sometimes the cowboy metaphor has turned literal. Soon after opening, neighboring cows got onto the property and started trampling the new turf. Shimkus had to chase off the cattle with a truck.

Rather than bemoan their ill bovine fortune, members have used the incident as a bonding experience. Retelling of stories like these is the perfect vehicle for forming bonds, whether over a campfire, in the grill or on the 16th tee.

Considering the golf, the facilities and the camaraderie, it doesn’t take long to realize that Golf Club Scottsdale is a special place, where the legacy of frontier hospitality thrives as a shining example for current and future generations.

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