By Steve Eubanks, Contributor, Golf Business
If you’re a fan of old western movies, you know the area. “Coogan’s Bluff,” “Mackenna’s Gold,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “The Comancheros,” “Apache,” and four years of “Death Valley Days” all were filmed in Sedona, Arizona, an area of the country where glistening shades of red on sundrenched cliffs put the C in Technicolor.
Sitting 115 miles north of Phoenix and an hour south of Flagstaff, Sedona is the place you go to tour ancient cave dwellings of the Palatki Indians; the kind of spot where Californians trek to meditate in a sweat lodge before hiking Bell Rock at sunrise. The old Chuck Hogan Golf School was there, a new-age, holistic golf camp that inspired Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott to create Vision 54.
You get the idea. Sedona is about fresh air, beautiful surroundings, hot days and cool nights with the constant smell of mesquite wood coating the senses.
Golf has always been second, third or maybe fourth on the priority list in the area. If you’re a golf nut, you don’t need to venture north of Scottsdale. The Phoenix metropolitan area has 200 courses, one of the highest densities of any major city. Sedona, which sits at 4,600 feet above sea level, is the Joshua Tree of Arizona. Hike a mile or two and you’ll be winded. And you won’t drive far around town before seeing a dreamcatcher on a porch or crystals in a bay window.
Having lived there for more than 20 years, Dave Bisbee has seen the entire evolution of the area.
“I’ve been here since before the beginning,” Bisbee said, speaking not just of Sedona but Seven Canyons, the club that now employs him as general manager and director of golf. “I came up and looked at this site on behalf of the original developer in 2001. Then I moved here in early 2003 and have been here ever since.”
Sedona was more than a whistle-stop town in ’01, but not by much. There were a few golf courses associated with hotels, but helicopter tours outpaced the game as a popular outdoor activity.
According to Bisbee, the original plan for Seven Canyons, which borders the Coconino National Forest, was for it to be a Four Seasons destination club full of fractional ownership units – what most people called “timeshare” until that term was tarnished by some unscrupulous operators.
“There were originally planned 110 fractional units,” Bisbee said. “We ended up building 30 of those buildings of which 24 are fractionalized and 6 are whole ownership. We then created three distinct neighborhoods, one with townhomes, another with homesite and one with 22 estate lots. That developer finished out the golf course and opened it in April of 2003.”
Those who lived through the real estate crash of 2008 know what happened next. By 2010, Seven Canyons, along with its Tom Weiskopf golf course, was in bankruptcy.
“Another development group came in and brought it out of bankruptcy in 2013 and had a partnership with Enchantment Resort, which is one canyon over from us,” Bisbee said. “Then four members worked out a deal to buy the club in 2022. They forced me out of a perfectly happy retirement to come back.
“We took the club back to completely private, worked through all the membership categories and reworked all the classifications.”
Like much of golf, Seven Canyons found new life in the post-COVID era. But when most of the world returned to normal at the end of 2021, Sedona and the Seven Canyons area continued to boom. Whether it was upper-middle-class people fleeing taxes and crime, a longing for a more peaceful lifestyle in the wide-open spaces or some combination of both, migration to Sedona out of California, New York, Chicago and other parts of the country continued at breakneck speed.
“It was amazing,” Bisbee said. “Tongue-in-cheek I said that people thought COVID couldn’t get inside these gates.”
The community added about 100 residents in short order.
“We have a resident membership that goes with real estate inside the gates – that’s our only transferable membership,” Bisbee said. “We have a social membership. And we had a corporate membership that we discontinued. We gave all those participants the option to convert to an individual or a family. And we have fractional memberships.”
They also have a vibrant club that is growing under new ownership.
“When the member-owners took over, we were working with the golf course maintenance staff of 5 people, no superintendent, no chef, no golf professional, no controller, no HR or accounting department,” Bisbee said. “On March 1, we started looking to fill those positions.
“The maintenance staff is now up to 19. We have a director of agronomy who is a superstar. We hired an executive chef who has redesigned the entire dining experience. We have a food and beverage director who has elevated every aspect of dining.
“The head golf professional, Jeff Bass, has done an excellent job in creating a new identity for the staff and focusing on member experiences.”
They also will have a reasonably new golf course soon.
“We’re lucky enough that this was the last place Tom (Weiskopf) visited before he passed away (from cancer in August of 2022),” Bisbee said. “He provided us with a master plan to redo the bunkers, irrigation system, drainage and tee boxes, and also worked up plans for a new short-game practice park. We started on that project (last) November.
“We took out 11 bunkers and recontoured the original elevations that Tom had when this place opened in 2003. And we went back to Augusta White sand in our bunkers.”
The practice park, which has one of the most spectacular views in the country, opened the first week of July with fireworks and fanfare.
“It is this little oasis in the middle of the course with bunkers, chipping and pitching area, and it will also be home to our turn house,” Bisbee said. “And we’ve already started the dining room renovations, which include adding sound-attenuation paneling. We’ve completely redone the kitchen and created a business center and conference room with a new Weiskopf Room that is a flex space for yoga and meetings and special functions.”
The current membership hovers around 280, but Bisbee thinks the renovations could get the number to 375 quickly.
“The four members who own the club paid all cash,” Bisbee said. “All four of them have homes inside the gates. I’ve known them for many years. They’re very active participants in everything we do here.
“They’re members first. Their philosophy is that if they invest in the right amenities and culture, the membership will sustain this place.
“We still have the relationship with Enchantment Resort, which is about a mile and a half away. They have tennis and pickleball. We have a group (of members) that go over there three days a week. On site here we have spa treatment rooms, a fantastic fitness center, a pool complex and some strategic access points to the trail systems. That allows our members to have access (to the Red-Rock Mountain Range and the Coconino National Forest).
“It’s been a great partnership with the Forest Service. We give them access to water for fires and participate in the trail systems that they have. We’re also involved in as much volunteer stuff as we can.
“Our whole project (at Seven Canyons) is 200 acres surrounded by 100,000 acres of national forest,” Bisbee said. “We’re touching national forest all the way around. It’s this beautiful donut hole in the middle of something really special.”
This article was featured in the July/August edition of Golf Business magazine.