Longform

Par Tee On!

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"It was all timing," Goldwater says. "My mom grew up in western Nebraska and went to school in Chicago and she would talk about how tough this time of winter could be on your brain. It's a rough time to hear about people playing outside in the sun. We just figured people couldn't help but come be a part of it."

Then World War II hit and the region was flooded with servicemen and factory workers. Tens of thousands stayed behind or returned quickly after the war ended. Phoenix had been discovered as a sunny haven for anyone who wanted to spend more of their year enjoying outdoor activities.

Over the coming decades, golf emerged as the king of those outdoor activities.

The influx of golfing northerners would build the employment base for large companies. And the influx of people would put pressure on land values of once dirt-cheap desert parcels. And somebody would have to build houses and golf courses on those ever-more-valuable parcels of land.

Goldwater and his business/golfing buddies, particularly Del Webb, started giving some of that cheap land to golf course management companies to build courses. Developers made their money back with lot premiums on course-side homes. The deal allowed homebuilders and golf courses to keep their costs down and, so, allowed them to offer golf community lifestyles to middle-class Americans who could never before afford them.

Webb started Sun City in the late 1950s. Others followed. Goldwater built Moon Valley in the 1960s.

Fed by cheap piped-in water, buoyed by an atmosphere of anti-regulatory, anti-government Goldwater conservatism toward everything but cheap piped-in water, the little idea ultimately lured hundreds of thousands of northerners and earned billions for those who owned the means of producing this sunny playground.

Now, golf courses are the centerpiece of choice for major developers in the Western United States. So now you have Western cities populated by golfers.



"After the success of Webb's project and some others, golf courses became a must," says Roger Smith, co-owner of Scottsdale Development Inc. and a major Valley developer since the 1970s. "You just sell the golf course land for one dollar and go from there. A good golf course means you're always looking at a much faster buildout."

The cultural implications of this golf-centrism, some argue, are that Phoenix is a city with no culture.

"Hogwash," Goldwater says.

In Goldwater's equation, the other essential ingredient for a successful Phoenix golf tournament was fun. The Phoenix Open wouldn't be like those stuffy eastern tournaments or those tournaments held at the increasingly gentrified California clubs. It should ooze Southwestern hospitality and frontier egalitarianism and a bit of the mythical Western outlaw party flair.



This was easy to accomplish. Bob Goldwater, the legendary playboy, just needed to make the tournament feel like one of his parties.

Goldwater grins impishly when asked about the famous post-tournament follies at his old home on the third fairway of the Phoenix Country Club. Everybody from Bing Crosby to Babe Didriksen was there and, as was the culture then, they all drank hard and played hard. He won't deny the Phoenix Open gained its saucy reputation early in life.

"The whole atmosphere was so loose and so fun," he says. "That's why people wanted to come back.

"But not everybody thought everything we did was appropriate. By the 1950s, the PGA was becoming a big money thing. And some of what we did didn't fit with the image they wanted to convey."


John Perkinson is the product of the Thunderbirds' push for diversity. Sure, he's a white male developer golfer, but he is a white male developer golfer from Mesa. And unlike most Thunderbird members, he was not in a fraternity.

"Coming from my background, the ritual stuff was a little weird at first," he says. "But you get used to it. The main things are the friendships and the incredible work the Thunderbirds do for charity."

The Thunderbirds started back in the mid-1930s as the Phoenix Chamber's special events committee. In time, with the help of guys like Bob Goldwater, the group evolved into a sort of half serious/half parody fraternal organization.

The club takes in members -- men only -- from ages 30 to 45. They recruit from their friends or business associates.

They have vaguely Native American rituals, with the president of the group being referred to as "the Big Chief." They dress a lot like Shriners, usually wearing their trademark tunics and silver medallions. They find endless humor in tacky pants. (The Thunderbirds have a "Crazy Pants Day" in the days leading up to the tournament.)

But the group does serious charity work, putting in more than 20,000 volunteer hours while raising more than $3 million each year for charity, mostly from the Phoenix Open.

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Robert Nelson