Editor’s notebook: Change in the Valley of the Sun
Desert Mountain is a seven-course facility in the Arizona desert.
Matt LaWell

Editor’s notebook: Change in the Valley of the Sun

A trip out West reveals plenty of evolution at Arizona golf giant Desert Mountain.

September 3, 2019

The sun beats down on Taliesin West, because Taliesin West is smack in the center of the Valley of the Sun and the sun, as you should probably expect, almost always beats down on the valley that bears its name.
Frank Lloyd Wright trekked to Taliesin West just about every year for more than two decades, from 1937, when the Wisconsin winters started to chill his bones, until his death in 1959. Situated on a mesa just below McDowell Peak 26 miles north of downtown Phoenix, Wright described it in his autobiography as “the top of the world.” 

Wright used Taliesin West as a place to live, to work and to learn, and he never stopped learning. Living quarters and studios and cabaret theatres popped up around the 620-acre property — just 20 acres shy of a full section — and every building evolved. For years, Wright refused to use any glass, opting instead for heavy hemp tarps to shield interiors from the sun. His third wife, Olgivanna, persuaded him to make the switch.

She also updated decorations inside and outside, and constantly swapped out furniture. If you tour Taliesin West, your guide might tell you that most of the buildings are today as they were in 1959, but they are still evolving and changing. Taliesin West is still a living place in every sense of the word.

Twenty miles north, there is plenty of evolution and change at Desert Mountain, too.

Situated in the shadow of the Tonto National Forest, Desert Mountain has been famous for years for its sextet of Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Courses: Renegade and Cochise, Geronimo and Apache, Chiricahua and Outlaw. But the expansive golf community recently added a seventh course, a par 54 rather appropriately named Seven that might just provide a glimpse into the future of golf.
Seven designers Wendell Pickett and Bill Brownlee designed the course for both serious and casual players, because 3,114 yards make for an easier introduction to the game than, say, 7,200 yards of championship golf. And while homes are still popping up around the grounds, Seven already feels open and inviting. 
A quick cart path ride away, the original Renegade course is a memory, redesigned and rebuilt over the last year and a half. Tee boxes are long gone, removed in favor of longer, wider, undulating landforms that return the game to its origins. Each hole includes multiple greens, too, offering an opportunity for a different round every day.
Beyond the style of play, Renegade now features bentgrass — a seemingly bold choice that makes perfect sense according to Shawn Emerson, the longtime director of agronomy. Temperatures soar — sometimes as high as 120 — but Desert Mountain’s 8,000-acre pocket is normally relatively free from humidity and has an ideal elevation for bentgrass cultivation. “It wouldn’t work everywhere,” Emerson told me during a visit last week. “But it works here.”
Desert Mountain will be featured next month in our annual construction and renovation issue. Because of their recently wrapped concurrent projects on Seven and Renegade, Emerson opted to hire a different contractor to work on each course, but those contractors turned to many of the same suppliers, including one rather taxed sandman who was asked for more than 110,000 tons of the stuff. The club will also be featured because of the culture Emerson has helped build near what Wright once considered the world’s apex.
Each of the seven courses across Desert Mountain has its own superintendent, and each superintendent — and even some of the assistants — istasked with learning every aspect of course management, from general maintenance to the most minute points on an annual budget. The club has labor challenges like everybody else, but Emerson has shortened workdays, pushing through six intense hours and affording crew members an opportunity to head home or off to a second job by the early afternoon. And Emerson has become more and more active in the state’s water discussion, fighting along with a united group of superintendents, agency officials and advocates for the cultural and financial importance of the golf industry.
There is a fascinating story out in the desert, and just like Desert Mountain, just like Taliesin West — just like all of us — it will never stop evolving and changing.
Matt LaWell is GCI’s managing editor.