SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Desert golf should be its own course category, much like links, parkland, mountain or coastal. On most desert courses, you play station-to-station and if you veer off the fairway, you’re dealing with desert, cactus and indigenous scrub.
You can play from there if you want and you don’t worry about scuffing your clubs, but most people treat the desert as what we term today as a "penalty area" — take a one-shot penalty, drop it on the grass and play on.
Talking Stick Golf Club is one of the exceptions. Both courses at the Scottsdale, Ariz., resort are traditional layouts in a desert setting, designed by the now legendary duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw and opened in 1998.
But that doesn’t mean they created identical courses. Far from it.
"(Coore and Crenshaw) wanted two different experiences on the same property," said Steve Leonard, Talking Stick’s general manager.
The fairways of the Piipaash (formerly the South Course) are lined with eucalyptus and cottonwood trees and other plants, along with some water features that you don’t normally find in the desert. The greens are raised and framed on the sides with bunkers.
The Piipaash is a resort-style parkland course. If not for the backdrop of the McDowell Mountains, Camelback Mountain and Pinnacle Peak, you might not know you were in Arizona.
On the other hand, the O’odham (formerly the North Course) is classic Coore and Crenshaw, with generous fairways and crowned greens, both with strategically placed bunkers.
"The O’odham is the championship course," Leonard said. "It’s more of a player's course. Everything there is very natural. (Coore and Crenshaw) left only the indigenous plant materials and didn’t move a whole lot of dirt.
“It’s for the better player who understands the nuances of course strategy, the different angles to take into greens and the different lines to take off the tees for the best approach shots. The more you play it, the better you like it."
Leonard cited the par-5 second hole at O’odham.
"You have this super wide fairway with the fence line along the left,” he said. “The left third of the fairway is pinched a little. So, if you are on that side of the fairway, there’s a good chance you’re going to get close to the fence line.
“The hole opens up from that side but it’s risky. The fairway opens on the right but the difficulty comes with the second and third shots. All of a sudden, the fence line comes in and deep bunkers guard the right side of the green, which makes it tricky."
Talking Stick does about 85,000 rounds a year combined.
"It’s a busy place," Leonard said. And the preference of the paying customers is split between the two courses.
Talking Stick is on tribal land belonging to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, which encompasses 56,000 acres with 12,000 registered community members. The community owns both courses. The tribal council decided two years ago to incorporate Indian names at the two courses. The O’odham is named for the Pima tribe and the Piipaash for the Maricopa tribe. All 36 holes now have tribal names.
Talking Stick is named for the traditional O’odham calendar stick. Significant events and milestones would be carved in symbols throughout the year into the stick, giving the tribe a record of its important activities.
The club has plenty of instruction opportunities for those who desire it. But the big instruction draw is Vision54, which was founded and is operated by Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson, the top two female teachers in the U.S., according to Golf Digest's "Top 50 Teachers in America."
Vision54 has been at Talking Stick for eight years and offers individual and group programs for practicing and playing, called 54Golf; programs for coaches and teachers, called 54Coach; and corporate programs designed to maximize employees’ potential, called 54Think.
Marriott and Nilsson have coached players to more than 100 victories on the LPGA Tour, PGA Tour, European Tour, Ladies European Tour, and Japan Tour. They've coached nine different major winners and four No. 1-ranked players in the world.
“They’re a fantastic partner and we’re lucky to have them here,” Leonard said. “We continue to support their program so they can expand.”
Plans are in the works to expand and repurpose much of the space in Talking Stick’s 26,000-square-foot clubhouse, including a banquet room that will hold 225 people.
“We want to expand all the food and beverage operations to take advantage of the beautiful views out of the clubhouse,” Leonard said. "We plan to start offering dinner service, which we haven’t had in the past."
Leonard said that because of its proximity to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport, many golf trips to Scottsdale begin or end with a round at Talking Stick. And because of Coore and Crenshaw’s approach, players have two distinct choices.