Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
It’s as clear as the seemingly miraculous sunshine Wednesday morning that this was the first press conference for a golf course opening that featured a marching band, cheerleaders, a dance team … and a milkshake.
Amid all the praise that poured out at the grand opening of Grand Canyon University Golf Course, there was one request from Phoenix District 3 Councilman Bill Gates: During his speech, he said he hoped the Lope House restaurant, the gathering place in the spectacular new 22,000-square-foot clubhouse, would have the milkshakes he found so tasty when it was Maryvale Golf Course.
All well and good, except that milkshakes are on the menu at the Lope House, and standing right there were two champions of championship customer service, Kevin Walton, the restaurant’s executive chef, and Brett Cortright, general manager of the Grand Canyon University Hotel. Walton hustled back to the kitchen to have a shake specially made, and a surprise announcement was reserved for the end of the press conference: Right on cue, Cortright delivered the shake to Gates.
Talk about the perfect mix.
GCU planners couldn’t have ordered better weather after a night of continuous rain ended and the clouds temporarily parted. President Brian Mueller said he got up at 3 a.m. and nervously noted that it still was pouring outside, but when he arose for good two hours later the storm had stopped.
As it should in Arizona, the tent that was erected for the press conference served as shade rather than a giant umbrella.
Things have come together in similar fine fashion at the golf course, which promises to be another transformational west Phoenix site operated by the University. Just 369 days earlier, Mueller had stood at the same site and promised a new beginning for Maryvale, but even he couldn’t envision how great it would look Wednesday.
“When you walked around this place, even when it was in a state of disrepair, it wasn’t hard to see the potential. It’s just a rare piece of land for the west side. But I will say it turned out even better than we thought,” he said.
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, Vice Mayor and District 5 Councilman Daniel Valenzuela and District 7 Councilman Michael Nowakowski got in the spirit of the festivities by hitting a few shots on the practice range before the press conference. They each talked about how important it was for the city to continue to provide places for golfers to congregate — and how the unique partnership between the city and GCU has paid off in the renovation of the golf course.
“Partnership, partnership, partnership — that’s what this is all about, and we’re a better city because of it,” Stanton said.
Valenzuela, who grew up playing Maryvale, was a vociferous opponent two years ago when the city council discussed the idea of getting out of the golf business, but he also knew that Phoenix couldn’t continue to hemorrhage money on municipal courses. Having GCU take over management of the course was the ideal solution.
“If you’re a taxpayer in Phoenix, today you win,” he said.
Nowakowski said, “I call it the Team Phoenix approach. What happened today is a fine example of that.”
(Click here for a slideshow from the press conference. Click here to read a GCU Today Magazine story about the 18 ways the golf course is a win-win for everyone and here for a hole-by-hole guide in GCU Today.)
A popular place from the get-go
From the minute it officially opened on New Year’s Day, the course was a hit with local golfers.
Director of Golf Jesse Mueller said he was told by officials from GolfNow.com that the website booked 100 more tee times for GCU Golf Course than any other course in Arizona over the weekend — about 210 rounds each day. That’s about seven to eight hours of continuous starting times, which means that some players were so eager to play the course they didn’t get on the first tee until midafternoon.
Heavy golf traffic continued Monday and Tuesday despite the rain and cold. Jesse Mueller said there were about 140 rounds on each of those days — still excellent for a weekday. Extrapolate that five-day total over a year and it would be more than 66,000 rounds, which any course would take in a heartbeat.
Not surprisingly, the feedback from golfers, including those who played it for years when it was Maryvale Golf Course, was just as positive.
“They say they like it,” Jesse Mueller said. “They all say the same thing: It’s challenging but fair. Guys who usually play other city courses said they’d rather play here.”
The course’s first big tournament is Friday, when the College Football Championship Golf Classic is scheduled. A host of celebrities will be on hand for the 10 a.m. shotgun start.
As much as the completely renovated course is an eye-opener, an even more startling sight to longtime Maryvale golfers might be the new clubhouse. It has a spacious, airy feel in both the pro shop and the Lope House, with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the course. There also is an outdoor dining area right behind the ninth green.
The view was fantastic Wednesday as the big crowd of GCU officials and local dignitaries looked out at all the golfers on the renovated layout, a setting Brian Mueller believes will come to be recognized as the best public course in Arizona. But golf is only part of the story.
“This is about hope and transformation as much as it is about golf,” he said. “This is just the beginning. We're going to look for other assets on the west side to invest in.”
Which means more GCU-style customer service. The west Phoenix shake-up continues.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected]