Arizona’s top public golf course hit rock bottom, but things are starting to look up
I’ve never been much of a golfer, though I grew up riding in golf carts with my dad as a kid. Truly, I was more interested in driving the cart than hitting the balls. So I wasn’t sure how to feel about writing a story on the Apache Stronghold Golf Course at Apache Gold Casino.
Nonetheless, I show up on a Friday afternoon to speak to the casino’s newly-hired golf director, Stephen Ravenkamp. Bad timing. He’s out spraying the greens with fertilizer when I arrive. So I step into the lounge to take in the atmosphere, and spot one of two customers in the room, sitting at the bar chatting up the bartender. He is working on a Miller Lite and popcorn. He looks like a golfer.
I take a seat next to him and introduce myself. It turns out I’ve chosen the right guy to talk to–Gonzalo Reynoso Jr., the owner of local Mexican food restaurant Chalo’s. He can’t understand why I am writing this article if I don’t play golf, and suggests I pick it up, soon.
“Golf is one sport you can play for the rest of your life,” he says.
Reynoso was born and raised in Globe-Miami, and for the last 18 years of his life, he has been an avid golfer. He plays the Stronghold course three times a week, and is probably an honorary member (he can’t remember for sure, but he knows he gets charged for nothing short of the beers). Regardless, he has been playing this course since it first opened.
“It’s the best layout I’ve ever seen,” he says. “If you miss the fairway, you’re in the hills, in the rocks. It makes for a great course, very challenging.”
He has played courses all over Phoenix, Florida, and Hawaii. Still, this layout tops his list. Once you are out there you are surrounded by desert wildlife, he says, like deer, gila monsters, rabbits and rattlesnakes.
Reynoso remembers those days well.
“It used to be like what you see on TV,” he says.
Unfortunately, there was a litany of problems with the course, which culminated in 2009 when it closed for approximately seven months to give the greens and fairways a chance to recover. When the course reopened that September it was still in poor condition.
At that time the greens were terrible, Reynoso bluntly informs me.
The course remained that way for the next several years, until last summer. By that point, the greens and fairways hardly had grass and the sand traps were contaminated and weed-ridden.
Thus, in conjunction with the casino’s ‘facelift’, which began around the same time, Golf Maintenance Solutions was hired to restore the course in August.
Since then, the course is already showing improvements.
“[The greens] are getting way better,” Reynoso notes, though the course still is not quite the way it used to be.
I meet with Ravenkamp on a Monday morning in his office. While Apache Stronghold is relatively new territory for him, golf course maintenance is not. He has a long career working on golf courses, beginning in 1994. His title at Apache Gold is all-inclusive. He is responsible for the entire course.
He is working alongside a maintenance crew of 12 to 18 to get the course back to what it used to be. Significant progress has already been made–90 percent of the greens are revitalized.
There is still much work to be done, however.
“It doesn’t take long for a golf course to go down hill,” he says.
The team has 50 sand traps spread over three acres to rebuild, as well as 3 1/2 tees to rebuild and 80 acres of fairway to recover.
Not only is this a lot of ground to cover, but as I soon learn from Ravenkamp, golf maintenance in itself is both a science and an art.
For example, on your typical lawn, grass is usually kept at 1 1/2 to two inches. Golf course greens, on the other hand, must be kept to 1/8 of an inch. Here in the desert, the greens are being grown on sand, not to mention the fact that depending where you are on the course, the grass grows differently. Each hole has a different microclimate of its own. Ravenkamp literally has to spoon-feed the grass small doses of fertilizer.
You would think the guy ought to seem overwhelmed. Yet he doesn’t appear that way in the least. He seems extremely patient, optimistic and confident that he will have the course restored, and he loves what he does.
He makes this clear as we drive a cart around the course to admire the spectacular morning views.
“Where else are you going to find a better office?” he asks.
This is how he spends many of his work hours, driving around the ‘office’ monitoring projects. What makes this ‘office’ particularly unique is the way it was designed.
When Doak built the course, he intentionally worked with what he had, Ravenkamp explains.
The beauty of Apache Stronghold is that there is no surrounding development, so Doak supposedly had 900 acres of land at his disposal to work with (courses in the valley usually have about 200).
Thus, the holes don’t run close together, and Doak designed them in such a way that they fit the landscape, disturbing the natural surroundings as little as possible.
“It’s not a cookie-cutter course like what you see in the valley,” Ravenkamp says.
In the valley, where it is flat, courses require up to hundreds of thousands of yards of dirt to be hauled in order to create contours and mounding. In contrast, Apache Stronghold required less than 35,000 cubic yards of dirt to be moved for construction.
“It’s one of the most beautiful layouts I’ve ever been associated with,” Ravenkamp says.
The course’s cart paths are not paved. Ravenkamp intends to keep it that way. In addition to restoring the course, his objective is to maintain the sustainable design that Doak created. In fact, his plan is to turn the course into an Audobon Sanctuary Course.
As the course conditions continue to improve, he also expects to attract more out-of-towners. Currently, locals and people from the East Valley and Tucson come to play the course. The golf club already hosts locally-sponsored tours, but he hopes to bring a nationwide tour to the course in the next five to six years.
Ultimately Ravenkamp is working to make the course a destination near and far. It is easy to get people to come try the course, he explains.
“The challenge is to get them to come back,” he says.
Once the course is back to top-notch condition, this shouldn’t be hard to do.