When it comes to the pinnacle of private golf, there is no place in the United States that compares to the Golf Club at Desert Mountain.
Dynamic in size at 8,000 acres, phenomenal in terms of high-end growth with more than 2,000 homes, unrivaled in the game with six Jack Nicklaus golf courses and 2,250 members, "The Mountain'' is the showcase of northeast Scottsdale.
What most people fail to realize is, the master plan that shaped the Desert Mountain golf community, the dream borne out by developer Lyle Anderson in the mid-1980s, was far smaller in its original scope than the upscale community that exists today.
"I thought it would be three courses with more of a residential community that included a lot of other recreational activities besides golf,'' said Anderson, who discovered the property during a fateful hike up the slope through the saguaros during the spring of 1984.
"There were plans for a resort(s), and a small village with maybe 3,000 to 4,000 units of mixed use. But we had no idea that the golf would turn out so exciting and so pure, and that Desert Mountain would become, literally, a golf mecca.''
An amazing story, especially since Anderson almost missed the opportunity if not for his own dogged persistence.
"For months I had tried to get someone to take me out to look at that piece of land, but with no success,'' he said. "Finally, I just parked the car one day and hiked from the road all the way to the top of the highest peak. As it turned out, it took all day, and I had to go it alone every step of the way, but that was when I really became enthused.''
A visionary who had created Desert Highlands a few years earlier, Anderson is an intensely private man who always has kept a low profile for his stature in the golf industry. What he saw that spring day, only he knows for sure.
As it turned out, the mild-mannered Anderson purchased the property for $45 million, which seems like a pittance these days for such a vast parcel of property in Scottsdale. That the last 10 percent of his lots remain on the market for $500,000 and up, and memberships go for an unreal $275,000, some might even say he got a steal.
Whatever the viewpoint, Desert Mountain has become a golfing gold mine. Sure, Anderson had to struggle through a land recession in the late 1980s, as well as changing partners — Bank of Boston to Mobil to the current co-owner, Crescent Real Estate — and sales staffs through the years. But lately, with everything turning out so spectacularly on Desert Mountain, it's been all downhill.
Bob Jones, the senior vice president for club operations at Desert Mountain, said there is a simple reason why Desert Mountain turned out so well, and it has nothing to do with money, although certainly the payoff has been great.
"For Lyle and Jack, it was a labor of love,'' Jones said. "The two have such tremendous respect for each other, and that just carried over into a whole lot of fun.
"And let me say this, when you start a 15- to 20-year project, you never know exactly where it's going to go. But the reality is, I don't think Desert Mountain could have turned out any bigger or any better than it has.''
Only The Landings in Savannah, Ga., or perhaps Reynolds Plantation outside of Atlanta, are mentioned in the same breath as Desert Mountain. And while The Landings has five courses, Desert Mountain recently broke the tie with the arrival of its sixth, the Outlaw. Jones said even the final piece of the puzzle was a bit of a reach from the original plans, because Anderson and Co. had to purchase an additional 200 acres to build Outlaw. The newest Nicklaus layout is about three miles east of the entrance to Desert Mountain, located on the south side of Cave Creek Road up against the Tonto National Forest.
What's different about Outlaw, besides being basically off the main property, is that there are no homes lining its fairways, nor ever will there be. With the national forest surrounding it on three sides, and Cave Creek Road running along its northern border, it offers panoramic views of the Four Peaks, Weaver's Needle, Pinnacle Peak and the Superstition Mountains.
"Outlaw is true to its natural surroundings, in that it keeps as much of the natural lie of the land as possible,'' Anderson observed. "The land dictates the hole rather than the design dictating the hole.
Anderson, who has teamed up to build 12 courses with Nicklaus through the years and has a 13th on the books with him in Scotland, says Desert Mountain is "done.'' But then he hedges slightly.
"There might be some type of golf, possibly a short course, that still goes in on the southwest corner of the (main) property," he said. "But if the last one is Outlaw, well, I'm pretty happy about that. It's different — no houses — and it's just a real fun place to hang out.''
What's interesting about the creation of the Desert Mountain empire is that, as a rule, the courses have gotten easier through the years. Anderson's "Mount Rushmore of Golf " includes:
- Renegade was the first on the scene in 1987, and from the gold-to-gold tees (7,443 yards) it remains the toughest. Featuring double greens and double pins, which allow the members to play all the way down to white-to-white (5,136 yards), it remains the member's favorite.
- Cochise came along in 1988, and was much easier (7,002 yards). But that was not the reason the course once hosted The Tradition on the PGA Senior Tour (now called Champions Tour). That bit of irony developed when Geronimo, originally planned for the tournament, was not ready in time for The Tradition, which rolled around in the spring of ’89. So the event stayed at Cochise until 2001, and along the way the Golden Bear captured four of its titles (1990, ’91, ’95, ’96).
- Geronimo also was a brute when it debuted in the summer of ’89. At 7,414 yards, it was more in the ballpark of Renegade, but with more extreme greens and elevation. Some of the holes were all-or-nothing, like the 197-yard 18th, where Nicklaus dared to build a closing par-3.
- Apache, which came along in ’96, was a complete departure, but it, too, was more playable (7,191 yards). It came in the form of a links-style layout, one that the members could walk for a change.