Major project, ‘mini’ results at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club

A series of substantial upgrades to an Arizona gem resulted in, among other things, an innovative six-hole short course in an unexpected location.


Filed to: Arizona

Major project, ‘mini’ results
The creation of #miniDunes, the six-hole short course at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club, was overseen by former superintendent Kelly McCaffrey and general manager Brady Wilson. Using the club’s existing driving range, McCaffrey and his team constructed new greens and bunker complexes for the short course. The range is open for traditional uses in the mornings, and then after the range has been picked and hole locations have been set up, the short course opens for play in the afternoons. Photo courtesy of Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club

When Kelly McCaffrey took the superintendent reins at Troon-managed Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club in Maricopa, Ariz., five years ago, he had a checklist of items calling for his attention. Replace a water pipeline. Fix drainage issues. Enhance playability via bunker reduction. And, eventually, work with original course designer Brian Curley to renovate a par 3. Nothing out of the ordinary, really.

But build a brand-new, six-hole short course on the public course’s existing driving range? That was a new one for the GCSAA Class A member. Part of a grow-the-game initiative conceived by general manager Brady Wilson and supported by the Ak-Chin Indian Community (the owners of the property, which unfolds across 320 acres of the Ak-Chin Indian Reservation), the short course concept, dubbed #miniDunes, was rolled into a larger project — spurred by much-needed bunker work on the course — that began in May 2014 and was completed four months later.

Bunker mentality

“We had received a lot of survey feedback about the quality and firmness of the bunkers, so those were the first priority,” says McCaffrey, a Colorado native who had previously spent 11 years at Monarch Beach Golf Links in Dana Point, Calif., and who assumed the director of agronomy post at The King Kamehameha Golf Club in Wailuku, Hawaii, in 2016. “We got into the bunkers right away and found a lot of drainage issues. We had to remove the material, remove the liner, get in and fix the drainage, put a new liner in, and then put in the new sand. There was some reshaping, but you could tell where the core of the bunkers were supposed to be.”

McCaffrey opted for Pioneer White sand in the bunkers. “We went with heavier-particle sand because the wind blows out there, and the bunker faces are extremely steep. Initially it was soft, so we changed to less aggressive grooming and raking, put some water on it, and let it set up by itself. After doing that, they transitioned pretty well.”

The installation of JM spunbond liners tackled another concern. “That’s why we had such firm bunkers previously,” says McCaffrey, a 25-year GCSAA member. “We had the native soil that migrated up and a less-than-ideal liner — a very thin-membrane version — so that soil contaminated the existing sand, and then more sand had been placed on top of that. Mix that all together, and it was almost concrete in the bunkers. It was so hard that we had to take a tiller to soften them up for playability.”

The size and scope of the bunkers also underwent a significant reduction, with 80,000 square feet of sand ousted from the course. “We removed a handful of aesthetic bunkers, but a lot of the reduction involved bunkers that transitioned from the turf out to the native grass,” McCaffrey says. “You could lose essentially a quarter to a third of those because they were so massive. They looked nice, but weren’t necessarily in play. The reduction led to a labor savings, but golfers also see that there aren’t as many forced carries over another bunker.”

Prioritizing playability

Another charge was to redesign Ak-Chin Southern Dunes’ par-3 17th hole, where only a quarter of the green was visible from the tee because of a sizable, obstructive dune. “The idea was to let golfers see the entire green and make it look like it belongs,” McCaffrey says. “We started by cutting down vegetation and stripping down that dune, and then stood back on that tee and looked at it.” Among those on hand to analyze the site was Brian Curley, who had built the 7,546-yard course in 2001. “Our first go-through was somewhat successful, so we went back and moved some more dirt and did some additional shaping,” McCaffrey continues. “That was really a process. There wasn’t one change where we said we nailed it. There was a tweak here, a change there — a let’s-try-this kind of process. It took a while before we could see what we felt we needed to see.”

The renovation also brought turf (Tifway 419 bermudagrass) areas back to the tees, most notably on the third, fifth, 10th, 12th and 15th holes. Doing so eliminated forced carries for shorter hitters and increased playability while still maintaining the course integrity for longer hitters. “The perception of the course was that it was too big, too long and too difficult for the average player,” says McCaffrey.

The upgrade of a water line, previously used as an agricultural canal system, stemmed from a number of issues. “The efficiency of the water we were getting from it was less than 100 percent, so we wanted to improve that,” says McCaffrey, who used aerial images from a drone to monitor progress throughout the renovation work. “The existing routing was kind of elaborate — it basically went around the property. So we created more of a direct, straight line to a lake and then took it underground.” Responsible use of resources is important to the Ak-Chin community, McCaffrey adds.

In general manager Brady Wilson’s view, McCaffrey saw the distinct pieces of the renovation work as an opportunity to make the entire course better. “He took existing bunker sand to topdress fairways. He stayed ahead of the bunker crew and blew out every drainage line on the course. There were drainage lines that may not have ever worked; some he dug up with a backhoe, others he used a high-pressure hose to open. Every inch of drainage got cleaned out,” Wilson recalls. “Nowhere in the project was there capital money to clear the drainage — Kelly did that on his own. He didn’t take many days off, and he didn’t work many short days from the middle of May to the end of September.”

Short course, long view

And then there was that mandate to build a “convertible” course of six holes (ranging from 50 to 120 yards in length) right on the driving range. McCaffrey’s first thought? “‘What are the conditions of those greens going to be after players are out there for the first month or so hitting wedges into the closest ones?’” he says. That concern shaped his approach to what would come to be known as #miniDunes — complete with the hashtag — with the superintendent placing particular emphasis on practices that would keep the greens as firm as possible (or, as he puts it, from turning into “Swiss cheese”).

He next focused on the operational challenge. “We opened the range in the morning and then closed it at 2 p.m., picked the range in an hour (using three staff members), and set the course up for afternoon play,” McCaffrey says. “We mowed the entire range completely once a week, including the rough, fairway and tees. The greens were mowed more frequently.”

According to Wilson, the expectation was never to hold #miniDunes — now overseen by current Ak-Chin Southern Dunes superintendent Daniel Payson — to the same agronomic standards as its highly regarded 18-hole counterpart. “It’s a nice opportunity for some buddies to have fun and settle some bets, and to grow the game,” Wilson says. “The juniors who are out there learning how to hold a club for the first time don’t care about ball marks on the greens. We care about them having fun and learning the game.” Playing #miniDunes is free for golfers age 17 and under.

As for the amount of play #miniDunes received, McCaffrey says it gradually built up steam. “Initially it was pretty slow because it was a new concept,” he says. “People were also asking. ‘Why is the driving range closed in the afternoon because I want to go beat balls for the next two hours?’ But once people get out there, especially people who don’t play on a regular basis, they see there’s less stress and it’s fun. Then you get people who just keep going around and around the holes. They think it’s great. It’s certainly helping to grow the game.”

A sunny outlook

Packing so many elements into a single project made for a long summer of 2014 for McCaffrey. “I knew we had masked a lot of things by making cosmetic improvements, but we had to fix the underlying stuff to maintain the level we were at,” McCaffrey says. “I knew by doing the project we would get to the next level. There was never a question of, ‘Will we fall off by doing this project?’ It was more, ‘Let’s grind our way through it and then we will come out better on the other side.’”

Wilson says he admired McCaffrey’s attitude throughout that summer. “Turning your driving range into a six-hole short course that you have to manage every day is not a superintendent’s dream,” Wilson admits. “But Kelly never complained and was excited to be doing something unique and different. That whole project doesn’t happen without him. He was the right guy at the right time. I’ve worked with great superintendents, and I don’t know many better than Kelly.”

Tom Mackin is a freelance writer and a former senior editor for Golf Magazine. He is based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Filed to: Arizona