Many of the finest golf courses in Arizona have Gary Panks’ architectural fingerprints on them.
Antelope Hills South in Prescott.Grayhawk Golf Club’s Talon inScottsdale.The Raven Golf Club at South Mountain.Sedona Golf Resort. Tonto Verde Golf Club’s Ranch and Peaks courses.Whirlwind Golf Club’s Cattailand Desert Claw courses just south of Ahwatukee.
And the list goes on.
Panks also has overseen remodeling of long-established courses at Paradise Valley Country Club, Phoenix Country Club and Rio Verde Country Club.
And while his design of The Golf Club at Chaparral Pines in Payson gained him perhaps his greatest critical acclaim, the golf-course architect still has a fondness for his very first 18-hole effort 36 years ago: Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Club.
“I was a rookie at the time, but it turned out fine,” Panks, 75, said in a telephone interview from his summer home in Pinetop.
For anybody who rolled in 20-foot birdie putts on the front side at the Lakes and then suddenly began three-putting the back side (in the Lakes’ final years of operation the nines were reversed), it’s no mystery why, according to Panks.
“If you noticed, the greens on the front side were relatively flat. There was not a lot of contour. I was feeling my way,” he said. “I got to the back side and said, ‘We need to put a little more contour on those greens.’ I was learning my craft.”
Panks,a 2009 inductee into the Arizona Golf Hall of Fame,has been semi-retired for 10 years, limiting his projects almost exclusively to renovation of courses that he previously designed.
He says he’d love to get his hands on one in particular and design a renovation.
“No one has contacted me, but certainly I would be very interested in doing the Lakes again,” Panks said.
‘It’s very sad to see’
Panks is pained by what has happened to the Lakes, once regarded as the finest executive-length course—no par 5s—in Arizona and regular host of the state short-course championships.
The Lakes was closed in 2013 by then-owner Wilson Gee, who said he was losing money on it.
Fairways quickly browned out and now are bare dirt. The series of five lakes that Panks designed to mitigate storm runoff from South Mountain were drained two years ago. Distressed trees have been cut down. The clubhouse burned in February in a fire ruled “suspicious.” The remains were razed in March. The once-lush layout now is a public eyesore.
“It’s very sad to see,” Panks said.
“You know, communities in Arizona to a great extent are judged on the quantity and quality of their recreational facilities. That’s important to attract families and businesses.
“To see what’s happening in Ahwatukee, with golf facilities not being well maintained, doesn’t reflect well on Ahwatukee.”
The Lakes property now is owned by the True Life Companies, which last month unveiled plans to build Ahwatukee Farms on the site. The project would include about 300 homes, community agriculture, a farmers market and café, K-12 private Montessori school, trails and two lakes.
Many Ahwatukee residents have embraced the plan, calling it a refreshing approach to long-overdue redevelopment of the blighted parcel.
But neighbors whose lot-premium homes back the former golf course are livid. They’re attempting to block True Life from getting necessary consent from the community to change deed restrictions to build the Farms. Current CC&Rs restrict the property’s use to golf only.
Tough debut for a rookie
Panks acknowledged challenges in designing the Lakes on the parcel’s 101 acres, bisected by South 44th Street between Warner and Knox roads.
The property’s elevation drops approximately 60 feet from its highest point on its western edge near 41st Street to its lowest on the east at 48th.
Presley Development Co. built the master-planned community with the Lakes as its centerpiece. The golf course’s secondary function, Panks said, was to slow and store runoff with its series of cascading lakes that acted as shock absorbers to running water. Panks said he worked with an engineer to design the project to withstand a 100-year storm, although none of the property is within a 100-year floodplain, according to the Maricopa County Flood Control District.
“It was designed to provide three feet of free board (distance from normal water level to top edge of the lake) before it topped out and went on downstream,” Panks said. “It could handle an additional three feet of surface water.”
Another consideration, Panks said, was realizing that the Lakes would be an executive-length golf course.
“I thought that was a good fit for the community,” Panks said. “Families and people who don’t play as much could enjoy the game, spend time learning on a course like that, and not take so much time and invest as much money in the effort.”
Being a golfer himself, Panks also wanted to do deliver a fair challenge and enjoyment for experienced players. His generous use of water, sand bunkers, undulation around the greens and three tee choices on each hole accomplished that.
Highly sophisticated components
“I don’t recall the amount of soil we removed to create undulations but it was considerable for a small golf course,” Panks said. “And I believe that we installedTifdwarf Bermuda grassputting greens, one of the first to have that hybrid on greens.
“It also had one of the first highly sophisticated computerized irrigation systems.”
Other golf courses at the time did not have centralized watering control from the superintendent’s office.
“Someone sent me a picture of myself standing in front of the control panel for that system and it had to have been about 8 feet long and 4 feet high,” Panks said, laughing. “Today, you could probably do that on a cellphone.”
For nearly three decades, the golf course, with its lakes and open mountain views, was the pride of Ahwatukee. Panks called the maintenance staff in the early years “excellent.” Stan Hickerson, from a family of golf-course superintendents, was the Lakes’ first. The director of golf, who gave Panks the opportunity to design the course, was Doug MacDonald.
Panks watched his popular Riverview Golf Course in Mesa plowed under in 2012 to make way for the Chicago Cubs new spring-training complex.
“When we did Riverview, a nine-hole course and excellent practice facility, it was very well maintained by the city of Mesa for years,” Panks said. “In fact, the idea was that there would be another nine built until the freeway (Loop 202) came through. I was very disappointed to see that facility go under because it was so well maintained.”
And owners at the Panks-designed Raven this year were considering shutting down nine holes for development, but recently backed off after backlash from neighbors.
Doubts reports of golf’s demise
Panks acknowledges that Arizona might have been overbuilt for golf at the turn of the 21st century.
The recession in 2008 also took a toll on golf in the state. Maintenance and upkeep of a golf course are not cheap, causing many owners to rethink whether golf is the best use of their property.
But Panks says when he hears the blanket indictment that “golf doesn’t pencil out,” he is quick to say, “I’m not sure it’s true.” Augusta Ranch in Mesa is thriving, now holding the distinction the Lakes once held, as the top executive course in the state where the Arizona short-course championship is played.
“Golf is like any other business and industry: If it’s not properly represented and promoted, it may not be successful,” Panks said. “There are examples of other executive courses like Augusta Ranch that are doing well because of superior management.”
Neighbors who are adamant that the Lakes property remain a golf course hold Augusta Ranch up as a model, insisting that if a Lakes course were rebuilt and properly maintained, it would thrive.
Long-time players of the Lakes said it was thriving until Gee purchased it in 2006 and gradually allowed it to fall into disrepair, before closing it three years ago and selling it last year. In its heyday, a tee time was not easy to get.
But after True Life paid $8.25 million for the property, the chances of it ever being a golf course again are about the same as saving par after hitting a tee-shot into one of Panks’ lakes.
“But I would love to re-do it, I really would,” Panks said. “I’d make it better than ever. I’m convinced that it could be successful with the right operator.”
THE PRETTY PICTURE FROM THE TRUE LIFE COMPANIES IS JUST A CONCEPT. WAIVING THE RESTRICTION IS PERMANENT! PLEASE DO NOT SIGN ANYTHING UNTIL YOU HEAR MORE.
The public is being misled by True Life and the underlying property owner. On several occasions, True Life and the owner have lied to the residents surrounding the Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Club, so why should we trust them now?
It is my obligation to make sure that I protect the quality of life in our community, provide the facts and consider the impact of any decision on other areas of our community. Those other areas would include Ahwatukee Country Club, Foothills and Club West golf courses. Any decision made on the Lakes property could and would set a precedent for those other areas.
That said, I am not surprised by True Life's development plan. This is what developers do.
They promise a “farm” or a “school,” but in reality, they are paving the way for high-density development. And if they succeed at the Lakes, it will open the floodgates to high-density development in all of our golf courses and in particular Ahwatukee Country Club.
We are being told that the Lakes is going to be turned into some type of agricultural setting. This could not be further from the truth.
The same developers that purposely shut down the golf course and created an environmental hazard are coming out with a plan to save our community?
The truth is they purposely neglected maintaining the golf course in order to create a wasteland so that the surrounding residents will be put in a desperate situation.
True Life is one of the parties that created this blight to exact concessions from neighbors. That is not what a good neighbor does.
True Life owes $1.4 million in back taxes which could go towards our schools and other vital services for our community. That is not what a good neighbor does.
True Life had multiple code enforcement violations because of the way they managed the Lakes property. That is not what a good neighbor does.
You and your family take care of your property and pay your taxes. Why should they be exempt from that basic requirement?
Do not buy into the argument that these developers don't have money. The amount of money True Life spends every month on public relations and a lobbyist could have easily kept this golf course watered and clean.
Let's lay out the facts about the developer’s proposal and the impact of development on this property:
Fact One: The developers want to triple the density that would normally be allowed on this property.
Fact Two: The Lakes golf course was purposely designed to curb flood waters from negatively impacting surrounding properties. We recently saw many homes surrounding the Lakes property flooded. Imagine what would happen if this property, this open space and flood plain were developed.
These developers live in areas that would never allow this type of density to come into their neighborhood. Nor would their neighborhood ever allow a critical flood plain to be compromised by high-density development putting existing homes at risk.
Fact Three: The Ahwatukee Lakes was purposely designed to provide an open space for our community. The open space was provided to the original developer in exchange for higher density at other locations.
Fact Four: Ahwatukee Country Club has over 2,000 high-density units zoned on that property. If it is developed, we are looking at the equivalent to five high-rise apartment complexes on one single parcel of land. Regardless of the promises these developers make, nothing will stop them or anyone in the future from coming in and using the Lakes as precedent.
If True Life succeeds, they will have created a model for all developers: neglect a property until it becomes a blight and an environmental hazard, then use strong-arm tactics on desperate residents, forcing them to accept anything to make the blight go away, even if that means high-density housing. That means Ahwatukee Country Club, Foothills and Club West golf courses would all have higher density on their properties as well.
For these reasons, I caution residents not to sign anything until it has been reviewed by an attorney. This plan has nothing to do with agriculture. This is all about maximizing density and profits.
Sal DiCiccio is the city councilman for Phoenix’s Council District 6, which includes Ahwatukee.
REGRETS? AIready signed??? :( Your consent may be rescinded by sending or delivering written notice of rescission to TTLC at 8601 N. Scottsdale Road, Suite 335, Scottsdale,AZ 85253