Earlier this year, on a break from the grind of the PGA Tour, Joel Dahmen put his own dough on the line at Papago Golf Course, a municipal track near the Phoenix airport.
Though the stakes were nothing close to professional purses, some of the competition was about as stiff.
Monday skins games at Papago are not unlike skins games at munis everywhere: a bunch of regulars and ringers put some cash into a pot, and divvy up the winnings at the end.
What sets Papago apart is the strength of its fields.
Weekly money matches here are known for drawing dead-eye golfers, including those who make their living at the game. In addition to Dahmen, the Tour winners Pat Perez, Max Homa and Martin Laird have all taken part, not to mention multitudes of mini-tour stalwarts.
The sticks don’t restrict themselves to Mondays, either.
At almost any given hour, Papago’s tee sheet is stacked with single-digit handicaps. It’s not just one of the best public courses in Arizona — it’s a course for the masses that doubles as a magnet for elite play.
“That’s always been the case,” says Papago general manager Daryl Crawford. “If you’re serious about golf, this is the kind of place where you want to test yourself.”
A Phoenix native, Crawford picked up golf as a kid in the 1970s, learning to play at another local muni. In his eyes, Papago was an intimidating temptress, a course he longed to take on, but not before he felt sure that his game was ready.
“And even then, that first time out, the course still pretty much had its way with me,” Crawford says. “What I remember thinking was, ‘Wow, this place is just brutally long.’”
Built in 1963, the original Billy Bell design stretched to 6,900-plus yards, a hefty distance for the persimmon era. Its challenges were not the target-y demands that dominate desert golf today. Walking-friendly, with few forced carries, Papago nodded to the Golden Age. It allowed the ground game. You could get creative. Losing your golf ball was not the issue, it was figuring out how to play it next.
If you could score at Papago, your handicap could travel. In some cases, it could take you to the PGA Tour. Howard Twitty and Joe Porter were among the future pros who cut their teeth at Papago in the 1960s. Billy Mayfair did the same a decade later. Heather and Missy Farr were Papago fixtures, too, grooming skills as youngsters that they’d later put to use on the LPGA Tour.
By the time Daryl Crawford first set foot on Papago, the course had hosted the 1971 U.S. Amateur Public Links, another layer of purist’s polish for its reputation. In 2009, the tournament served as fill-in host for the J Golf Phoenix LPGA International, won by Karrie Webb.
It also became a popular stomping ground for top collegiate players, most notably members the Arizona State University men’s and women’s teams. For many Sun Devils, Papago served as an unofficial home-away-from-home course—a relationship that became official two years ago, when ASU’s actual home course (the Karsten Course) closed and the school established Papago as its new base.
It has turned into quite the spiffy residence.
“Home of Sun Devil Golf,” reads the sign at the entrance of the Thunderbirds Golf Complex, ASU’s 7,000-square foot golf facility, which opened at Papago in 2018. Funded by a number of donors, including the Thunderbirds, a local powerhouse of a charitable organization, and featuring an elaborate practice range and short-game facility designed by former Sun Devil Phil Mickelson, it ranks among the finest training grounds in college golf.
While the complex is accessible to ASU players only, other upgrades at Papago are for everyone, including a new clubhouse and restaurant, built two years ago. In 2008, the course also underwent a $5.8 million renovation that revived its greens and bunkers, sharpening the classic features that had dulled throughout the decades. Irrigation was improved. Trees were removed, opening views of the nearby Papago Buttes.
In a nod to modern times, the course was lengthened, too. It now tips out at more than 7,300 yards, though multiple tees allow you to make it as forgiving as you need it.
What’s more, at its heart, Papago remains a muni. You don’t need to swing like the pros, or earn like the pros, to enjoy a round here. County residents pay as little as $45, while rates for out-of-towners range from $90 to $125.
Not counting whatever you lose in skins.
This is part of our Muni Monday series, spotlighting stories from the world of city- and county-owned golf courses around the world. Got a muni story that needs telling? Send tips to Dylan Dethier or to email@example.com and follow Muni Mondays on Instagram.