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Only in Scottsdale: Now named the Champion, TPC's former Desert track gets $12 million renovation revamp

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - "Only in Scottsdale" isn't a phrase you're going to hear very often. This upscale sophisticated Arizona golf city does not try to push a catchy slogan for itself ad nauseum like a Las Vegas or Disney World.

Scottsdale Golf - Cactus
Scottsdale's golf scene rarely gets new desert courses these days.
Scottsdale Golf - CactusTPC Scottsdale - Champions CourseHeckenkemper's Champions Course - Desert

But "Only in Scottsdale" definitely applies to the ambitious, publicly funded renovation of the TPC Scottsdale Desert Course.

Twelve million dollars has been poured into a course that's consistently been rated one of the best bargains in the desert, bringing about a near complete retooling under architect Randy Heckenkemper.

It's been done in a Phoenix-Scottsdale area with more than 200 golf courses already. And few people have complained about it.

That's Scottsdale. Golf is holy and everything else can get in line.

Now the Desert Course is set to reopen this Friday, Nov. 23 with a new name (the Champions Course) and an almost completely new look (Heckenkemper did something on every hole) - and everyone is sure to have an opinion on it.

What already goes without debate is the uniqueness of the deal that brought about this new/old course that's going to carry plenty of buzz this winter golf season.

The Bureau of Reclamation - a U.S. government agency under the Department of the Interior that oversees water resource management - actually owns the land the course is on. The city of Scottsdale finances the two TPC courses (including the more famous TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course, host of the FBR Open) in collaboration with the PGA Tour.

In fact, the Scottsdale city council had to approve the funds for that $12 million renovation budget.

"I've never seen anything like it in golf," Heckenkemper told TravelGolf.com in an exclusive interview. "You have these three entities that are all working together with one goal: Making it the best golf course it can be. I haven't seen any political infighting at all since I've been on the project. And with different groups like this, you almost have to expect some. But not in this project.

"I think it's a testament to everyone involved. It really speaks to the foresight the city of Scottsdale and the Bureau of Reclamation had when they first went into arrangement 20 years ago."

A lot's changed in Scottsdale golf in the two decades since the TPC Desert Course was built. There is virtually no room left for new courses within Scottsdale's boundaries, for one thing, which makes this redone course the newest thing that's hit the city's golf scene in a while.

"It's very unique to have this type of opportunity within Scottsdale itself," Heckenkemper said.

Heckenkemper clearly took the chance extremely seriously. Since the course closed in January and the bulldozers arrived, the architect's been a regular presence. Heckenkemper promotes the Champions Course with a passion too, giving reporters his cell phone number in case the slightest question arises.

He disputes some earlier reports that the revamped course is going to provide less of a desert feel.

"I think that was a little blown out of proportion," Heckenkemper said.

What Heckenkemper has done is stretch out the course from a narrow 6,423-yard, par-70 into a 7,115-yard par 71 with more shot options. "The Bureau of Reclamation allowed us to use some additional land and by moving some of the tees around, we were able to create more," Heckenkemper said.

The most dramatic differences are likely to be noticed on the closing stretch. Heckenkemper turned No. 15 into a risk-reward head scratcher with dual fairways to chose from and a long drop below a raised green. Airmail at heavy peril.

No. 18 has been pumped up to a 460-yard par 4 with the lake much more in play. This is one change that Heckenkemper believes can really alter the feel of the entire course.

"We felt it needed a much stronger finishing hole," he said. "A hole that you can play more than one way coming in. We wanted something that offered more of a challenge."

A need to change TPC Scottsdale Desert?

Not everyone is pumped about this new-look Champions Course. Some local golfers still resent the course closing down for almost a year. Others worry that the affordability of TPC Desert and its $57 high season greens fee will be lost (TPC has promised the city it will keep local rates very reasonable, but no guarantees have been made for out-of-town vacationers).

Then, there are all those press clippings TPC Scottsdale Desert racked up for being one of the best bargains in the desert.

"It seems like everyone liked the course as is, so why was there this big need to change it?" golfer John Haggis asked. "I don't like it when they just change stuff for the sake of changing it."

Not everyone loved TPC Scottsdale Desert as it was. I found it to be a somewhat overrated play in a December 2005 course review. The most disappointing features were the sandy washes that posed as real desert and offered little shot challenge or pleasing looks.

Original course designers Jay Morrish and Tom Weiskopf seemed to pay most attention to the greens (which could be tricky as a con man) on the course.

Heckenkemper has fleshed out some of the obstacles, created more contrast. He even brought in more desert plants to boost the course's vegetation. One thing that does not figure to change is the number of small jets zooming overhead, taking off from and landing at the nearby Scottsdale Airport.

Scottsdale's a jet setter's town which always has its eye on golf. Even from the sky. Even in the city budget.

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