True Phoenicians—not the Chicagoans who come for spring training and stay for Social Security checks—will argue that Arizona’s first golf course was Phoenix Golf Club. Its nine dirt fairways and sand greens were built in 1901 on the corner of Central Avenue and Roosevelt Street, a strip now considered the hub of the city’s scrappy arts community.
Skeptics and historians, on the other hand, hold evidence that some cowboys in the nearby border town of Bisbee stuck branding irons in oil greens and sent the first tee shots into the Grand Canyon State’s sky two years earlier.
Steve Weiss straddles the line of the state’s complex golf history: He calls the Roosevelt Row Arts District home, yet he fancies himself an outlaw of sorts.
Spend enough time in Phoenix and you’ll quickly gather that there’s no such thing as “quickly.” Due to its sheer sprawl, a typical commute in America’s fifth-most-populated city takes somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes. For Weiss, that means plenty of time to notice the myriad vacant lots.
While a common sight in every metropolis, the deserted lots in downtown Phoenix are something of an epidemic. Long considered a developer’s paradise, the city often opts for bulldozers rather than restorations—a fact that only fuels a common local gripe that the city has no history. Residents also lament that too often the dozers come, but the construction crews don’t follow.
Weiss knows this all too well. He and several artist-community companions protested the building of the $455 million University of Phoenix stadium for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals in 2006. He was devastated when the Valley of the Sunflowers—a program started by a local group, intended to activate vacant lots by cultivating and then harvesting sunflowers—bloomed and died. And he has constantly butted heads with city council members over funding for his various community-engagement proposals. By 2012, he’d had enough.
“I am working on a plan of action for a guerrilla golf course,” he wrote on Facebook that July. “Do not invite anyone to this group unless they can keep a secret.”
Weiss planned to use golf to add value, real or imagined, to blights on the community. He typed “vacant lot” into Google Translate’s English-to-Spanish site, and Terreno Baldío Country Club was born. It had a name—now it needed a home.
Over the coming months, he drove in circles around downtown Phoenix, scoured aerials, cozied up to developers and updated his small but eager Facebook group.
“When you create these [empty] lots,” Weiss says now, “you denigrate the land value [for] the people next to it, and in my mind you denigrate the value of the whole community.”
After 20-plus years managing locations for commercial shoots, many of which involved desert golf imagery, Weiss knew what to look for in a site. He found it in the bones of a formerly thriving neighborhood in the Garfield area that had been demolished to erect a new biomedical facility or athletic complex. Nothing was ever built; all that remained was an empty lot full of gravel and a lone palm tree. He dubbed the site Terreno Baldío Country Club’s La Palma Course.
Just one issue remained: Steve Weiss had no idea how to golf.
Fifty-seven years old at the time, his one attempt at a proper round came in eighth grade and lasted only 14 holes before boredom prevailed.
Desiring to build an authentic golf experience, Weiss designated Joe Brklacich, a local artist and his lone golfer friend, as Terreno Baldío’s head pro. Together, they fleshed out the unique architecture their site required. Brklacich walked the lot countless times with a practice wiffle ball, staging a par 3, 4 and 5 that accurately scaled to life-size holes. The three-hole loop was to be played three times, thus creating a nine-hole, par-36 routing.
The next challenge was the playing surface: The group believed in leaving the lot cleaner than when they found it, and gravel divots wouldn’t do. After failed experiments with shag carpet in his backyard, Weiss came across a Facebook post offering 800 feet of “Yorkie stained” AstroTurf to anyone who would lug it down from the sixth floor of a nearby high-rise. Three greens with regulation holes were subsequently hand carved, and 12-by-18-inch strips were cut for players to use on each shot thanks to a modified “lift, clean and place under” provision. “You carry your fairway with you,” says Weiss.
The AstroTurf was a massive improvement on quality of play, but it also shed light on the nuances of strategy for their version of golf. Players realized that turning their portable fairways down grain led to less resistance and cleaner shots. This delivered the revelation that approach shots and pitches should always leave a down-grain putt, as wiffle balls and sticky synthetic grass do not mix.
“I can’t tell you how many times somebody has missed a 1-foot putt because the turf literally grabs the ball and says, ‘No!’” hollers Brklacich.
“One of the funniest moments was when we looked in and the ball was still hanging an inch below the edge of the cup because the AstroTurf had grabbed on to it,” recalls Weiss.
Once the kinks were finally ironed out, a Facebook alert officially invited the group to Terreno Baldío’s grand opening, on Dec. 31, 2016—more than four years after Weiss had first planted his internet seeds. The shots struck that day marked the first time golf had been played downtown since the Phoenix Country Club moved in 1921.
“To be honest,” says Brklacich, “I always thought this idea of a vacant-lot golf course sounded silly. Then once we got it installed and we played it for the first time, I turned to a buddy and said, ‘Don’t tell Steve I said this, but this is way more fun than I ever thought it was going to be.’”
For Brklacich and the dozen others who joined Weiss for the inaugural nine, the experience was a euphoric blast to a simpler past. He had grown up on a farm and had fond memories of using hardened cow dung for bases on his makeshift baseball diamond; now fecal matter from local birds, dogs and cats is the only impediment for which TBCC awards a free drop. The simplicity and resourcefulness of this endeavor awoke Brklacich’s inner child.
“This takes you back to that,” he says, adult beverage in hand. “With a couple of spare items, we made a game and then went and played the game. Now if we decide to make a dogleg, we just put a spare tire out there and you have to get around it.”
Realizing the further potential of their blank canvas, Weiss rang Leslie Barton, with whom he had previously collaborated on rebellious, community-based film projects. She had the eye for design he craved.
With Barton at the helm, the lot came to life. One week they punched holes in an abandoned kiddie pool to create a dry hazard. A hubcap found on the side of the road was repurposed as an OB stake on a wicked new dogleg. Old windows, a fire hydrant and even discarded Christmas trees were suddenly in play.
“I loved them because they were perhaps the best version of art, which is the most naïve and direct,” says Weiss of the impediments. “Our thing is, essentially, very naïve and direct.”
What began as the politest of middle fingers to the city had officially morphed into full-blown street art.
“A little golfing Dismaland,” Barton says.
Terreno Baldío’s contingent group, made up primarily of painters, performance artists and comedians ranging in age from mid-20s to 60s, was well versed in Banksy’s Dismaland, a dystopian rendition of Disneyland constructed in secret along the English seaside. In many ways, the golf course embodies the risk and grit that make the anonymous street art so appealing.
For one, it’s technically illegal. On the second-ever hole played at La Palma—roughly 15 minutes into its existence—Weiss and Brklacich froze as a patrol car pulled up alongside their fairways. A behemoth of a man emerged, hand on his hip. He was flanked by a female officer who looked, Weiss says, as if “she could tear us up.”
“We got a complaint that people are hitting golf balls over here?” the male officer inquired.
“No, no, officer! We are hitting wiffle balls,” Weiss replied, holding up the evidence.
The officer relaxed his grip on his weapon. “Well, what the heck? It’s a fine day. You guys have a great time.”
“Will you let your partners at the station know what we’re doing here?”
“Oh, trust me, we’ll tell them.”
In the history of Terreno Baldío, it remains the only complaint the group has encountered. The cops even stuck around to watch a few holes. In fact, the reception by the local community has been overwhelmingly positive. According to regulars, they routinely hear a smattering of applause coming from surrounding condos after quality shots.
The lack of trouble could also be attributed to Weiss’ natural affability. When La Palma was threatened with new construction, he negotiated a deal with a general contractor who planned to use the site for staging. The gentleman turned over the lockbox combination to Weiss and allowed the group to play right up until the foundation was laid.
“We actually went from creating the people’s golf course to creating an elitist place with a locked gate that only we could play in,” Weiss recalls. “There was a weird feeling of both accomplishment and complicity.”
The group has since set up tracks at different lots around town. The second site, TBCC: Las Pirámides, located just east of Central Avenue on Columbus, was short-lived due to swampy conditions. After parking on nearby Cambridge Street one day, Weiss found their next home: a spacious lot with even more palm trees to play around. He named it Cambridge Country Club at Terreno Baldío: Mas Palmas.
Ever weary of finding their home course barred from entry, the group always keeps tabs on future sites. When Mas Palmas runs its course, they plan on moving to Terreno Baldío: Los Surcos, or “The Ruts,” a nod to the lot’s more rugged and challenging terrain—in a sense, their Open Championship venue.
“We like to think of it as St. Andrews if the greenskeeper went on strike,” says Brklacich.
Intentional or not, the idea of accessibility isn’t the only golf issue that Terreno Baldío combats. Take affordability, for instance: As an ode to the founders’ favorite golf movie, Tin Cup, vacant-lot golf requires only a 7-iron, which most members picked up at a nearby Goodwill. After breaking countless standard wiffle balls, a group member who goes by “The Elusive Zack” introduced the more durable SKLZ practice balls. Brklacich says he has now used the same black-and-yellow ball for two and a half seasons.
Pace of play? An average foursome takes 45 minutes to complete a round. Solo trips can be played in under 30 minutes, making it an ideal companion to a liquid lunch.
Even civility and honesty are addressed. Out of respect for La Palma’s true owners, Weiss opted not to cut standard 4-inch holes in the ground for cups. Instead, he slid plastic dinner plates under the AstroTurf cutout, which solved one problem but created another when the ball wouldn’t stay in the hole.
“We determined very early on that as long as you heard it tap the bottom of the plate, it was good,” says Weiss. “Now, if only you thought it had tapped, we’ll see, but somebody else had to qualify it. This is a democracy, so it’s basically majority rule.”
Most importantly, TBCC has proven it can eviscerate the stigma and angst of trying golf. Brklacich is the only member who had played before joining.
“You don’t have to invest in expensive equipment. You don’t have to invest a lot of time,” he says. “My girlfriend wanted to come, but she was afraid to swing a club because she’d never done it. By the third hole, she said, ‘I’m a golfer!’”
While the conversion rate from vacant-lot golf to traditional course still stands at zero, Terreno Baldío members are no less golf-obsessed than those at regular clubs. The Elusive Zack still holds the all-time-low vacant-lot round: a 9-under-par smoker at La Palma. He and Weiss now routinely team up to beat their head pro. They even have plans to try, and hopefully finish, their first regulation 18 soon.
“Ordinarily I would say, ‘Let’s go to the driving range first, and let’s do that for six weeks before you even try it,’” says Brklacich. “But the funny thing about this wiffle ball is that you’re taking actual golf swings. You have to hit the ball very similarly.”
Anyone who’s ever mishit a practice ball into the wind during a backyard session will concur: A solid strike is a solid strike.
Today, the Terreno Baldío Facebook group has grown to more than 200 members. Weiss, Brklacich, Barton and the core group of 20 or so regulars still play three to four times a week—often on their own.
“All I need is a 7-iron,” says Barton. “I can do it by myself. I don’t need anybody else.”
Weiss plans to continue to badger the city to fund more pocket parks and art installations, with the hope that a variation of vacant-lot golf can be part of it. He envisions three to five holes running through downtown Phoenix, with places to pop in and refill a flask nearby. In his mind, it could replace mini-golf entirely while offering a high-quality introduction to the game at virtually no cost.
Much like the origin of Arizona’s first golf course, whether or not the city council acts on those plans is up for debate. What’s undeniable, though, is that value has been added where emptiness once lay.
“Whenever anybody who walks by, who lives in the neighborhood, sees us out playing, they give big smiles and waves, and they will stop to ask what we are doing,” says Brklacich. “It’s always a happy curiosity to see a bunch of grown people swinging golf clubs and hitting little balls in a vacant lot.”