ORO VALLEY, AZ - Gazing out over a rocky desert landscape, Jay Morrish was "dumbstruck" when he first saw the terrain at The Stone Canyon Club.
In the distance he saw the Santa Catalina and Tortolita Mountains northwest of Tucson. He saw craggy rock formations with petroglyphs left by the Hohokam Indians. He saw a forest of giant saguaros, including some of the rarest double-crested saguaros, and countless native trees - ironwood, mesquite and palo verde. He saw yellow flowering brittlebush, purple verbena and desert lavender. He saw an unusual Sonoran Desert elevation change of 3,000 feet to 3,300.
After seeing the land for the first time, some folks said Morrish uttered: "I hope I don't mess it up."
Little chance of that.
Stone Canyon was Morrish's 50th course, an important milestone in his award-winning 36-year career, which included a period designing winners with Tom Weiskopf.
"I was overwhelmed when I saw this site," said Morrish, who has designed championship courses throughout the United States as well as Scotland, Spain, Canada, Australia and Japan. "I have been involved in several desert golf courses, but this is by far the best desert site I have ever seen. Period. It is the best."
"There must be a thousand cacti throughout the course. It really takes your breath away. Arizona truly is one of the most geographically rich regions in the world," said Morrish. "I've designed courses all over. But, I keep coming back to Arizona. It is a magnificent medium for design."
Stone Canyon could be Morrish's best effort among some of Arizona's favorites. His portfolio includes The Boulders in Carefree, Troon North in Scottsdale, TPC Scottsdale, Rim Golf Club in Payson, Forest Highlands in Flagstaff, the Foothills in Phoenix and Troon Golf & Country Club in Scottsdale. These are some of the most highly regarded courses in the state. He's not finished - The Pine Canyon Club in Flagstaff is next.
Director of Golf Todd Huizinga says one of the pleasures of his job is to hear daily compliments from the members at Stone Canyon.
"You can ask the members what they would do to improve Stone Canyon and they unanimously say 'nothing'. I think the members are truly ecstatic every time they come out to play," he said.
Stone Canyon has approximately 131 members with a goal of 390 and it is strictly first-class. When you see the clubhouse you would never dream it is temporary. The service is unparalleled - from the staff members who greet you in the parking lot to the starter and driving range employee.
"I like the variety Stone Canyon gives the golfer," said Huizinga. "It can play short or long and for the high-handicapper there's always a tee that allows him to hit without a forced carry. We are ready for all levels of play and even have a junior tee and scorecard."
Stone Canyon measures 7,230 yards from the Copper Tees and the most photographed view is No. 6, Echo Canyon, 135 yards of sensory delight. From the elevated tee the lush green target is dwarfed by the surrounding hills and saguaros as water falls from above the hole, cascading down to a pond and under a bridge just fronting the forward tees. The hole plays slightly uphill as the terrain dips from the tee and climbs back upward.
Each step of the way, with holes named Petroglyph, Catalina, Ricochet, Rattlesnake Hill, Coyote Run, Rustler's Roost, Roadrunner, Devil's Bunker, Peep Sight and Lions' Den, the golfer is rewarded with a round of golf to rival anything he's ever experienced.
The finishing holes are memorable.
The visually stimulating 15th, a monster 632 yards from the back is called Tortolita Pass, and zigzags through the desert. At some point on this journey you will be aiming over a rocky formation or tall cacti to find the green of the fairway.
You are at the highest point on No. 16, a downhill 237 yards. Ambush Canyon, No. 17, is only 306 yards, but it is visually challenging - the fairway target looks tiny from the tee and club selection is vital to keep it in play. The back tee towers above, giving the golfer a panoramic 360-degree view of the surroundings.
When you arrive at the 18th tee, a 471-yard par 4, you will wish you had time for 36. On the way home look for a few massive saguaros, estimated to be more than 300 to 500 years old. One grouping was so special, the designer just left them in the middle of the fairway for golfers to enjoy.
And just when you think you are done, Morrish placed a 19th hole, a 107-yard, par-3, named Double or Nothing, on the way to the clubhouse, just perfect for one last wager with your playing partners.
"We took great care to ensure that we worked with the environment, instead of against it," Morrish said. "Initially, it was challenging working around the granite outcroppings and desert vegetation. But, it truly was worth it. We realized early on that the substantial desert features are what differentiate Stone Canyon from other courses. It's a challenging course. But, it's a stimulating one as well. It won't be easy to conquer Stone Canyon, and its majesty will keep golfers coming back."
"Today's golfers are demanding that designers push the envelope and design courses that are even more challenging and memorable than ever before. And, members are demanding the utmost in luxury. I believe that with Stone Canyon, we've satisfied their demands by creating the pinnacle of desert golf communities," he said.
They vanished in the 15th century, but the Hohokam Indians, who lived in Arizona for more than 8,000 years, told us they once survived here. They paved the way to live in this hot, dry land by building irrigation systems, developing an organized society and by leaving snapshots of their lives.
At Stone Canyon these "petroglyphs" live on. A rock pile was preserved in the middle of the driving range, where you can find examples of this rock art. The Hohokam Indians used a direct percussion technique, hammering into the rock, to display likeness of deer, antelope, dogs and coyotes. Another popular symbol found appears to be a spiral or bull's-eye, know as the Vistoso Sun.
"These petroglyphs are unique reminders of our ancestors," said Director of Golf Todd Huizinga. "You can find them on the rocks in the practice area and right off the No. 1 tee to the right. Another thing we have found are unique stone walls they built around holes 7, 9 and 17. You can just imagine what the Hohokams used these for, but just everyone agrees that at No. 17 the area was used as an ambush, most likely for hunting game."
Thus the name of "Ambush Canyon", No. 17, a risk-reward par 4 of only 306 yards, where the rocks rise behind the hole creating a natural spot for the Indians to hide and wait.
Also, just to the left of the 17th green, you will find two double-crested saguaros, a unique formation where the tops of the cactus branch out in numerous fingers. Only one in 300,000 saguaros have this feature. An on-staff horticulturist has reported a success rate of 91 percent on transplantation of saguaros, ironwood, mesquite and palo verde trees.
Green Fees: Sorry, Stone Canyon is an exclusive private club. The only way you can play it is become a member. There is hope, however, that a Ritz-Carlton will be built nearby in the next couple of years, and there has been talk that the hotel would possibly get two tee times a day.
Hole-By-Hole Descriptions: www.stonecanyon.com/gsc_co.html.
The private Stone Canyon Club lies in a 1,400-acre master-planned community between the Santa Catalina and Tortolita mountains.
For more information about Stone Canyon, call the sales office at 520-219-9000.
February 24, 2002