Camelback Ambiente

Camelback GC, Scottsdale. Ambiente course by Jason Straka and Dana Fry, 2013.

This course occupies the spot of Arthur Jack Snyder’s old Indian Bend course, which was notable because it was among the first courses built in a Phoenix drainage basin—those washes where all the water goes during a flash flood in a monsoon storm. But the concept was really successful. So much so that in this Indian Bend wash alone that are now parts of eight courses within a stretch of about 12 miles.

But the original course had fallen into miserable disrepair. The new course built in its place occupies the same land but otherwise has nothing in common with what was there previously.

The new course certainly looks good—big flashy bunkers, large greens with multiple tiers, plus high grasses and flowers defining the holes. It’s a more modern and appealing look than the previous tree-lined wall-to-wall green of the old Indian Bend course.

The golf doesn’t sing to me, though. Those tall grasses and flowers are incredibly penal—almost everything off the fairway is a lost ball. I visited once and was encouraged to see that some of that long grass was being cut down on the first hole, then saw throughout the round that most such areas were actually being watered! There are a few interesting greens with some slope, but mostly they’re just big, and the different lobes and tiers don’t really change the strategy of the holes—there’s not enough width here to make that realistic. Also, the course plays out and back through the drainage canal. The old course flipped sides of the canal a few times, but at Ambiente every hole has homes on the left and the low area of the canal to the right.

#2 (Credit: Fry Straka)

The best holes mostly come early. After the tight first, you emerge to the second into what feels like a huge open field. This is a long par 3 to an angled green, but the vista establishes the aesthetic of the rest of the course.

The next few holes are potential birdie opportunities. The third is a par 5 that’s often downwind and where approach shots on the right line can roll onto the green.

The fourth is one of the few holes that play across the wash to a fairway angling left to right. The green is readily in view from the tee, but the carry is farther than it looks. A wise tee shot in the fairway here should still just leave a wedge approach.

The fifth is the potential opportunity to drive the green. There’s water all the way up the right side of the hole and, though the green appears to be on a peninsula in the pond, it is ringed with bunkers, giving offline shots somewhat of a buffer before finding the water.

#15 green with #5 green in the distance (Credit: Fry Straka)

After that, the course toughens. The sixth is a longer par 4 with a nasty bunker cutting into the fairway from the left side. The seventh is a long par 5 with a narrow fairway and the eighth a long par 3 to a perched green.

The ninth is shorter, but a bunker in the fairway complicates the drive—it is too far for most to carry and yet laying back of it means a very long shot into one of the more severe greens on the course. As such, unless you can fit your drive into the narrow slice of fairway to the right of the bunker, this is a sub-400 yard par 4 that ends up playing long. The green has a large tier in it and a nasty false front. The green is fine for a 390-yard hole, in theory, but not one where many players will still be approaching with mid- or long-irons, which is the case here.

The 10th is the last hole going out and seems like another potential chance to get a birdie. Big hitters can take it over the corner of this dogleg or even take aim at the green. But it’s not all bad to lay back to the fairway and come in to the green from that angle because the green is steeply pitched back toward the fairway. If you go for the green and drive wildly, you could have a pitch from a very awkward angle to a green that’s sloping away from you.

Once the course turns home, the screws tighten again. It seems these holes always play into the wind and it is somewhere here in the back nine that the repetitive nature of the holes begins to wear on you.

The 13th, which is one that breaks the pattern due to a routing quirk that makes it play due south, is a good hole with a long angled bunker along the right side of the fairway. The more of it you take on with your drive, the better your angle for a second shot into a narrow green. But if you play away from that bunker, you’re not completely without options. It’s still not a terribly long shot and, depending on where the hole is, you may be able to use a slope right of the green to bounce one in and keep it away from the deep bunkers guarding the green’s left side.

#13 (Credit: Fry Straka)

But by the end of the round here it too often just feels like work. There aren’t necessarily any bad holes. Looked at individually, most have merit. But a course is more than just the sum of its parts and the way everything adds up here just doesn’t quite compute for me.

Arizona 3rd Decile [2019]