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Well Grounded
Arizona - The State of Golf, October 2009
By: Michael Bartlett

After he found his way to Arizona, Gary Panks blossomed into one of the country's top golf course architects.

It is late August and Gary Panks is in the grill room at Grayhawk Golf Club, recounting a recent attempt to shoot his age - 68.

"I got to 18 needing birdie, went for it and made double bogey," explained Panks, who designed Grayhawk's Talon Course. "Oh well, summer's not over yet."

Four days later, Panks rolled in a nervy 6-foot, final-hole birdie putt - for 68. Mission accomplished.

While he may look like a mild-mannered CPA, the real Gary Panks is a CY - certified "Yooper" - the self deprecating nickname natives of Michigan's rugged Upper Peninsula give themselves. Hardened in the region's bitter weather and a natural-born hunter, he's as focused and tenacious as they come, whether it's trying to win a golf tournament, finding the right way to route a course through sacred tribal lands, or shooting his age.

"The truth is, I had no idea what the Arizona desert was like," Panks says, laughing at his own naiveté. "I thought it was going to have sand dunes."

Happily for Panks, Arizona's landscape was more complex and captivating for a Midwestern transplant armed with a degree in landscape architecture.

"Starting out, I almost worked for Robert Trent Jones, Sr., but the deal fell through and that proved to be a good thing," he recalls. Instead, in 1965 he took a job as a landscaper for the Maricopa County Parks System. Panks quickly grasped the potential of Arizona's wide variety of plant life. It was like nothing he'd ever seen and it became the palette for his course design inspirations.

Panks's lifelong passions have been nature and golf and during his career as one of Arizona's leading course architects, he has easily melded the two to the benefit of those who experience the courses he's designed and remodeled over 30 years.

On the playing side, he quickly showed talent, earning a scholarship on the Michigan State golf team where, in 1963, he captained the squad. He has competed successfully at all levels of amateur competition and has the distinction of winning 10 club championships at six different clubs.

Panks uses his superior playing skills to his advantage when shaping courses. "As a single-digit amateur, I see courses from the vantage point of the low handicapper," he says. "Conversely, I play with a lot of 25-handicappers and observing them gives me a feel for how they go at a hole. Blending the two perspectives, you can make a course that satisfies all types of golfers."

In practice, Panks's courses display his ability to orchestrate a variety of well-defined landing zones on both fairways and greens. "I work overtime at creating a lot of elevation changes on my courses and use bunkers as frames, but judiciously, about 45-55 per layout," he explained. "It's not how many, but where, that counts."

His transition from landscape to golf course architect started when he did nine holes in Casa Grande, but his first notable commission was Ahwataukee Lakes G.C. in 1979. He followed with a renovation at Phoenix Country Club, work that, in his words, "gave me credibility as well as offers to do other projects."

Currently, these include courses in Australia, Canada, Mexico and Thailand, and 14 spread across the U.S. In Arizona, he has authored more than 30 designs. This fall his latest creation, Conestoga GC, opened in Mesquite, Nev. Sandwiched in are 10 designs with major championship winner David Graham.

In 2009 Panks received the Arizona Golf Association's Championship of Golf Award, given for unselfish contributions to the game. On that occasion he summed up his career by saying, "I was very fortunate to arrive in Arizona when golf course architecture was exploding in the 1960s. I surely didn't seek this recognition because I've already gotten my reward by being allowed to compete here, build courses and contribute to the AGA. To raise the quality of Arizona golf and leave a legacy of courses people enjoy is as good as it gets."