GCU Golf Course changes view of west Phoenix
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
It is as serene a setting as you can imagine, with kids happily participating in a putting contest at the weekly junior golf clinic and parents enjoying the shade of a tree next to the stylish new clubhouse at Grand Canyon University Championship Golf Course.
“Once you get into this course, it’s just a peaceful feeling, like the outside world doesn’t matter,” David Gaxiola says as he watches his son Ian, a regular participant in the clinic, frolic around the putting green. “It’s like going to Disneyland. You can feel a divine presence here.”
Mona Shelley, whose granddaughter Amelia has been to a number of GCU camps in addition to the golf clinic, is visiting the course for the first time and is stunned by what she sees.
“Everything Grand Canyon does is amazing — ah-mazing,” Mona says. “Everything they’ve done, I’m just thumbs-up on it all. I think it’s beautiful here. We’re fortunate to have this in the middle of the city.”
The free junior clinic — 4 p.m. every Friday — is just one of the reasons why the transformation of Maryvale Golf Course to the new GCU facility has been such a success in its first 4½ months.
Golfers rave about the course’s playability and affordability (and rates will go even lower on June 1 — see gcugolf.com for details). Visitors to the Lope House restaurant rave about the food creations of executive chef Kevin Walton and the view, created by a much higher power.
But there’s another factor for longtime residents. There are the Maryvale memories and how good it feels to see it rejuvenated in such spectacular fashion.
Case in point: David Gaxiola. “When I was younger, when it was Maryvale, my dad used to bring me here to play golf,” he said. And now his son can’t get enough of it.
“A lot of people have good feelings toward the course,” said Jesse Mueller, the course’s director of golf. “‘This is the first golf course I ever played,’ ‘I learned to play golf here’ — we get that a lot.”
Don’t text and drive — or look at the golf course
In fact, those feelings are so strong, it has become a very large, very green driving hazard — the kind of driving you do in a car, not on a golf course. GCU President Brian Mueller said one alumnus told him that he’s so overtaken with emotion every time he drives past the course, he tends to lose track of the traffic around him.
“He feels so much pride, partly because he’s an alumnus of the institution but mainly because he lives on the west side and he’s proud of where he lives,” Brian Mueller said. “To see this gives him hope. He told me that every time he drives by that golf course he nearly gets in an accident because he’s rubber-necking and looking at it.
“People tell me all the time they drive by that golf course and it makes them feel good because it’s a growing, thriving, beautiful place that people are getting lots of enjoyment out of.”
How much enjoyment? Try on these numbers for size: In its first three months, the new GCU course made almost as much ($949,307) as Maryvale made ($950,000) in all of 2014, its final year before GCU began the renovation, and averaged 5,511 rounds a month in that span, up from 3,041 a month at Maryvale in 2014.
“It’s just further evidence that inner cities can be turned around,” Brian Mueller said. “You can invest in assets that are worth investing in, and if you have a good business plan you can create real value in a neighborhood like this. It’s a lesson that is being learned by us, it’s a lesson being learned by the people managing it, it’s a lesson being learned by the students who are working there, that we need to keep investing in the west side.”
Providing west Phoenix attractions
It is Brian Mueller’s passion to grow west Phoenix by building strong, attractive businesses, and the golf course and the new Grand Canyon University Hotel are two very important first steps. He wants more people getting gleeful as they drive around the neighborhood near GCU — although the Arizona Department of Transportation probably would appreciate it if they’d keep their eyes on the road.
“We look at it in two ways,” he said. “Most people look at inner-city neighborhoods and they think in terms of charity. And there’s nothing wrong with that — that is good. But long term it’s even more important to think about investment and building value-added businesses that are profitable and give people a reason to come to the west side and spend money and give people who are on the west side more reasons to have pride in where they live.”
He also wants to give them reasons to be able to work in the neighborhood and have pride in that, too. The idea of taking over Maryvale had many positive implications, for the University as well as for the residents.
“Almost all the people who work there live right in the neighborhood,” he said. “Our athletes are playing out there. Our golf management students are working out there. You sit out there in that restaurant and in that bar, and you’re looking at a world-class view. It just makes you feel good that these people have an opportunity to have this right in their neighborhood.”
It’s a winner with tournaments, too
Then there’s the course itself, which already has hosted several major tournaments, including the Arizona College Football Championship Golf Classic and the Arizona Stroke Play Championship.
Officials of the Stroke Play were so impressed, one of them wrote a letter praising the course and the staff and promising to return.
But this is only the start. The Arizona Junior Golf Association is moving its tournament to the GCU course, and the Web.com Tour — the steppingstone to the PGA Tour — has expressed strong interest in having an event there.
Imagine that: Professional golfers playing at 59th Avenue and Indian School Road. Who says west Phoenix can’t be a popular destination? Jesse Mueller noted that a lot of golfers who live on the east side of the Valley have come to play it, joining local residents who looked fondly at what Maryvale once was.
“A lot of people grew up playing the course in the ’70s, and some haven’t been back since,” he said. “They grew up playing here and have a lot of great memories, and a lot of them are coming back.”
And some of them are bringing their kids and creating new memories — and who knows where those memories could lead? David Gaxiola suggested that maybe his son will want to attend GCU someday, and it certainly makes it more likely when Dad is saying things like, “I love everything that Grand Canyon University is doing. It’s incredible.”
It’s Exhibit A of what GCU is aiming to do in the community. This combination of serenity and Disneyland quickly has become the Happiest Place on the West Side, and the visitors — and the drivers — have spoken: The transformation has been ah-mazing.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.