The Buzz: Legend has it that the Apache Stronghold area was created by Usen (an Apache word for God, the giver of life) as a region abundant with everything its people would need to survive. Guarded by the Chiricahua, Aravaipa, Superstition and White mountains, the stronghold was a mystical haven in which the Apaches could walk invisibly among their enemies.
It was here that designer Tom Doak created the golf course that allowed the public for the first time to walk on what are considered sacred grounds. Doak most likely was selected because of his minimalist approach to design, which takes added precaution to preserve what nature provided. The northern Michigan resident, whose projects include Bandon Dunes in Oregon, is a student of Pete Dye but gets his greatest design influence from the legendary Alister MacKenzie. On his web site, Doak says, “Instead of reshaping a severe slope, we try to figure out how to use it to make a golf hole interesting. If it’s too severe, we’ll try a sequence of holes which avoids it entirely. The bulldozer is our third and last option.”
The San Carlos Apache Tribal Government owns and operates the course, which sets at 3,200 feet elevation, plays to par 72 at 7,519 yards, is free of other development and has won numerous awards for design. In fact, at one point it was ranked the No. 1 public course in Arizona by Golfweek magazine before its playing conditions declined. It opened in 1999 and has struggled at various times to maintain conditions befitting such a serene, spectacular setting. That might be due in part to the type of grass and vegetation used in an effort to comply with the tribe’s requests to preserve the land, which has 14 archaeological sites. Since opening, it has undergone extensive replanting to restore what Doak created.
Stronghold is a rambling layout that takes advantage of the area’s rugged peaks and valleys, where snakes and Gila monsters feel right at home, and serves up a host of risk-reward shots. From the back tees it is a beast at 7,519 yards, with a rating of 74.5 and slope of 146. The introduction is a startling one with a par-5 first hole at 661 yards from the tips to a hidden green. The 15th is another monster at 614 yards. Although the back nine is a little shorter, it is a tougher test with some truly memorable holes. The par-4 10th, at 472 yards, snakes its way around a sandy waste bunker that splits the fairway into two long strips with the green on the left, where the fairway is narrower and bumpier. The par-3 14th at 186 yards is a modified Redan hole set atop a 90-foot ridge. On the heels of the elongated 15th hole, another par 5 awaits, and though it is considerably shorter, the 16th also is trickier. The fairway offers a generous landing area, where the best play is to the left side near the 50-yard-wide Gilson Wash. From there, you need a long second shot to clear the wash and reach the other fairway. Next up is the par-3 17th, at 230 yards uphill, where you must clear Gilson Wash again.
The course is the centerpiece of the Apache Gold Resort, which features a Best Western Hotel and casino, and offers a variety of stay-and-play packages.