Marriott Golf’s Indian Bend Course gets an extreme – and sustainable – makeover

They nicknamed it “The Bone” for a few apt reasons. First, Camelback Golf Club’s Indian Bend Course, located in Paradise Valley, Arizona, was shaped like a bone. Second, the 18-hole resort course had the attributes of a bone – it was colorless and lifeless.

“It was a tired golf course,” says Rob Bartley, Camelback’s director of golf, noting that not much money had been pumped into the 30-year-old track over the years.

Indian Bend was also not a sustainable golf course. While it wasn’t a complete foe to the environment, it wasn’t exactly a friend. The course didn’t bring in much revenue, and it wasn’t exactly a pillar in the upscale Paradise Valley community.

Indian Bend had more problems than a math test. When it rained, a wash that runs through the course would turn into a raging river and flood the course, closing it for days. Indian Bend’s bunkers were broken, and the cart paths were cracked. The course’s taxed turfgrass – common bermudagrass on fairways, tees and roughs, and 328 bermudagrass on the greens – was as outdated as a 1970s lime green leisure suit.

“There wasn’t a hole on the course that was worth remembering,” Bartley states.

It was so bad that golfers didn’t want to play Indian Bend, not even in charity events, for which the Paradise Valley area is well known.

“We couldn’t lower our rate low enough to get people to come and play it,” Bartley says, noting that it bottomed out at $29 for 18 holes.

Camelback, which also includes the 18-hole and better-conditioned Padre Course, is operated by Orlando-based Marriott Golf, which manages about 80 golf resorts worldwide on behalf of hotel magnate Marriott International. Because golf rounds at Indian Bend were sinking like a bad stock, stays at the property’s hotel, the Camelback Inn & Spa, were also dwindling. Considering that Marriott International is in the business of booking hotel rooms, first and foremost, the underachieving Indian Bend was a bright red flag. And of the people who stayed at the hotel, only a meager 1.5 percent of them played golf on Indian Bend. Local memberships to the course were also down.

“The golf course was like a goat track,” a disgruntled golfer wrote in his comments about his round on Indian Bend. “Too bad a hotel with such a high rating sends people to play on this dirt track.”

But something dramatic happened to Indian Bend on the way to the scrap heap. The course received an Extreme Makeover: Golf Course Edition. In fact, the course’s 18-month, $10.5 million renovation was so radical that when it “reopened” last fall, it did so with a new name – it’s now the Ambiente Course.

In Sync with Nature: Originally, 200 acres of the 250-acre course consisted of maintained turf. Now there are 78 acres of maintained turf and 172 acres of native grasses and wildflowers.
Photos: Courtesy of Camelback Golf Club

Jason Straka, at the time a designer with Columbus, Ohio-based Hurdzan/Fry Environmental Golf Design, spearheaded the project, which began in 2012 and featured a huge eco-friendly focus. Incidentally, “Ambiente” means “environment” in Spanish.

“Jason took a flat, characterless golf course surrounded by homes and designed something that’s extraordinary,” Bartley says. “It’s dramatically different. And his environmental sensitivity [toward the design] was off the charts.”

Although it’s still maturing, the change is evident. Ambiente looked splendid recently under a sunny, cloud-specked desert sky, with its wispy native grasses and acres of yellow, purple and red wildflowers waving in a slight breeze. The bunkers, while neatly raked, had a wild look about them, due in part to the unmaintained native plants along some edges.

Two years ago, when the renovation was beginning at Indian Bend, David Robinson, Marriott Golf’s senior director of golf grounds, was simultaneously putting together the Environmental Sustainability Performance Award Program (ESPA), an initiative designed to serve as a benchmark for environmental stewardship across the company’s worldwide golf portfolio. As part of the program, 60 Marriott golf courses at 44 resorts in 13 countries are working to meet the program’s criteria. Upon completion the courses receive an ESPA commendation signifying their commitment to environmental leadership (see sidebar on page S10).

It’s safe to say the Ambiente Course is the poster child for the ESPA program.

Sustainable transformation

Ambiente is also a fine example of golf and sustainability, which is about ensuring profitable businesses while making decisions that are in the long-term interest of the environment and communities, according to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA).

Straka, now a principal in Dublin, Ohio-based Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design, says the three components of sustainability – environmental, economic and social – were a major focus of the project.

“Marriott Golf recognized that maintaining more than 200 acres of irrigated bermudagrass for one golf course in the desert was no longer environmentally, economically or socially responsible,” Straka adds.

While Marriott Golf invested the money to create Ambiente, it was a business decision made with an expected return on investment. Marriott also wanted the course to be in sync with nature. Both the economic and environmental directives position Ambiente to be a worthwhile social asset to the community.

Bartley and Robinson lobbied for the project to the Marriott brass for several years. They knew it wouldn’t be easy securing millions of dollars for a golf course renovation in the tough economy.

“We had to educate up the ladder because we’re a hotel company,” Bartley says. “We had to educate all the way up to [Marriott International Executive Chairman] Bill Marriott.”

When Robinson and Bartley stressed that a renewed golf course would lead to an increase in golf rounds, hotel stays, and food and beverage sales, the Marriott brass began to listen and consented to the project.

But there were many hurdles to jump along the way. The project had to be approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the town of Paradise Valley, the city of Phoenix and the county water district, not to mention the more than 100 affluent homeowners who live on the course.

And change is never easy.

“People don’t like the tuna fish being taken off the menu,” Bartley says. “Some people liked the old golf course because it was what they knew for 30 years.”

The lobbying effort, which cost about $1 million, was a lesson in patience and politics.

“No project is easy, but this one took everyone to the limits of their abilities,” Robinson says.

In the end, almost everyone viewed the project as a triumph. Most homeowners realized that a revitalized golf course would increase their home values. And more rounds of golf meant more taxes for the town of Paradise Valley.

Massive changes

Originally, 200 acres of the 250-acre course consisted of maintained turf. Now there are 78 acres of maintained turf and 172 acres of native grasses and wildflowers.

Every tree on the property – about 1,100 of them – was inventoried, and it was discovered that about 99 percent of the trees weren’t indigenous to Arizona.

Not surprisingly, most of the trees were removed.

“In their place we planted more than 100 irrigated box trees that are indigenous to Arizona,” Robinson says.

The flooding issues were also rectified. A normal rainfall 10 miles upstream from the course would often cause major flooding on the course.

“Everything we did was based on flood control,” says Straka, noting the entire site lies within a major flood control area. “The wash had at times flowed so fast and furious that kids would ride old mattresses down the golf course like they were surfboards. Even when the flood waters receded, the staff was left with a huge amount of cleanup from dead fish washed in from reservoirs upstream to urban trash from city streets.”

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers ruled that no dirt could be imported to the property to raise the sides of the wash. So the wash was lowered anywhere from 2 to 10 feet, with the excavated material used to raise the greens, tees, fairways and primary rough.

“The excavated material used to raise the golf features was contoured so that there is now more elevation change in one golf hole than used to be in six or seven of them,” Straka says.

The course was rebuilt to combat a 100-year flood, meaning that bridges and playing surfaces couldn’t be flooded by such an event. The course was tested last July, shortly before reopening, when it experienced a 200-year rain event and didn’t flood, Bartley notes.

The greens were sprigged with Champion ultradwarf bermudagrass, which many courses in the Southwest and Southeast are turning to because of its hardiness. Champion has made a name for itself as a sustainable variety.

Indian Bend’s 328 bermudagrass greens were overseeded annually, but that won’t be the case with Champion, which holds its color much better in the winter.

“When you consider year-round management of those greens, we’re reducing a lot of inputs by not putting seed on them,” Robinson says.

Aaron Thomas, director of golf grounds at Camelback, has cut back on overseeding throughout the course as another sustainable measure. The average overseeding rate at golf courses in the area is 600 to 750 pounds an acre, Thomas says. But Ambiente is overseeding at 250 pounds an acre with minimal preparation, meaning there’s no beating back the bermudagrass by scalping it or spraying it with a selective herbicide. The course is saving money on seed and labor, but not at the expense of aesthetics and playability. Robinson says the fairways look as good as ever.

The course was also in dire need of a new irrigation system, as irrigation doughnuts were as common as complaints about the course’s playability when it was Indian Bend. A new Toro Irrigation system with the latest computerized features was installed on the course, a big step up from the manual block-operated irrigation system.

With the new irrigation system, the 150 acres of native fauna and the Champion greens, the course will save about 64 million gallons of water annually, Bartley notes.

With less acreage to maintain, Ambiente is also using fewer pesticides. Because turf disease pressure is low in the desert, Thomas already doesn’t have to spray much fungicide. However, certain insects, such as cutworms, can pose problems.

“The key is to create a threshold and know when to treat and not to treat,” Thomas says.

Weeds can also pose a challenge, especially since seeds from many species flow down the wash and are deposited on the golf course. Goosegrass, crabgrass and Poa annuaare the main culprits. Thomas also sprays Bayer’s Specticle, an environmentally friendly pre-emergent herbicide known for its low use rates, on nonoverseeded bunkers.

The final product

Wildflowers thrive on 100 of the 150 acres that were returned to their native state. Listening closely, you can hear honeybees and other pollinating insects buzzing among the yellow cosmos, scarlet flax, bluebells, plains coreopsis and Mexican gold poppy. The wildflowers are the product of Operation Pollinator, a program developed by Syngenta that aims to reverse the plight of bees and other pollinating insects by creating valuable habitats in out-of-play areas on golf courses.

“You ride around and look at these wildflowers and almost everywhere you see bees,” Robinson says. “[The program] is working. It’s really neat to see.”

The native areas have also led to an increase in wildlife. There were always plenty of birds, coyotes and deer, but now there are just more of them, not to mention the bees, butterflies and dragonflies.

“It’s just so robust,” Bartley says. “The golf course stimulates you in so many ways. You can see, hear and smell nature. Playing golf is almost secondary. Yes, that’s our primary business, but you can get lost out there in nature.”

The improved conditions, from the upgraded infrastructure to the surface contouring, allow Thomas and his staff to provide for much better playing conditions, Straka says.

“The improved conditions will attract golfers, rather than drive them away like before,” Straka says. “It’s also a much more exciting golf course to play. The fun factor was raised a bunch, which is desperately needed in golf nowadays.”

About that return on investment … it’s happening. Thanks to Ambiente, golf packages at the Camelback Inn and Spa are up 62 percent from a year ago. Membership play is also rising, which says something considering that the price of membership increased 40 percent after the renovation.

“It’s just so cool to see,” Robinson says of the course’s transformation. “We all know what this place looked like before. It has been a really, really rewarding project.”

A project wrought all in the name of golf and sustainability.