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Golf in Phoenix

Course designer Scott Miller took one look at a 700-acre parcel of the Fort McDowell Yavapi Nation Reservation east of Phoenix and knew immediately what he was seeing: "A once in a lifetime opportunity to build 36 holes on an unparalleled site."

While most course designers frequently indulge in overstatements regarding a new course, Miller hasn't - his effort, called We-Ko-Pa, made a stunning debut late last year and leads a bumper crop of above-average public courses that are either recently opened or are about to open in the Phoenix area.

Of course, finding a golf course in the Valley of the Sun is like finding a cactus - they're everywhere.

But quantity and quality are not always teammates in the course building game, especially here in the Sonoran Desert, where the majority of layouts are either incredibly difficult target-style tracks, or overpriced designs framed all too tightly by sprawling housing developments.

But there are seven new courses out here -- including two on Indian Reservations that plan to retain a natural setting and not build housing of any type -- that don't fall into either of those categories right now.

Located just off the Beeline Highway (Rte. 87) some 30 minutes east of central Phoenix, We-Ko-Pa is named for the Yavapi pronunciation of Four Peaks Mountain, located 30 miles northeast of the course.

The site provided Miller with the ideal topography on which to build a course, and plans call for another 18 to be built nearby within the next few years. The Kansas native, who worked with Jack Nicklaus for many years, incorporated what he calls some "old school" design theories into the layout of We-Ko-Pa.

"On most holes, we gave golfers an A position and a B position to aim for with their drives and approach shots,""said Miller, who has lived in Phoenix for the past 22 years. "We left room for the higher handicapper to still be in play without the harsh penalty of landing in the desert in many cases."

That said, you'll still need more than just one round here to get familiar with some of the fairway mounding and blind shots that may be frustrating the first time around. Pick the right tees though and playability won't be an issue.

You're also guaranteed to come away raving about the course conditioning (remarkable for a course open for less than a year) and the distracting panoramic views of the McDowell Mountains, Red Mountains and Superstitions, each providing distant backdrops on many holes.

Miller, who also designed the Eagle Mountain course just a few minutes away (look for a towering geyser of water for an indication of that course's location southwest of We-Ko-Pa), is especially proud of the closing stretch of holes, from the 14th through the 18th. He should be, since it's one of the most scenic in the Valley.

And if you've managed to win some bets during your round, the Fort McDowell Casino awaits you just across the street from the entrance to the golf course.

At the base of Phoenix's South Mountain State Park, charitable concerns have meshed nicely with pure golf business. The Thunderbirds, a local civic organization promoting Phoenix for the past 70 years through various sporting events (including The Phoenix Open each January), teamed up with the Alkhaseh family to create Thunderbirds Golf Club.

The facility includes an 18-hole regulation course, and a 9-hole short course which is home to The First Tee Program of Phoenix. A portion of green fees is donated to the latter group to promote youth golf in the area.

The new course, which debuted last fall on a 160-acre piece of land owned by the Alkhaseh family, is rated highly enough to have already served as a U.S. Open qualifying site and host of the Arizona Women's Open. The layout was created by PGA Tour Design Services Inc., and benefited greatly from additional consulting from pros Tom Lehman, Billy Mayfair and Howard Twitty.

The routing takes full advantage of some great views of the downtown skyline, most notably on the first and 10th tees, where you can use The Bob as a target.

The Bob, if you missed last year's World Series, is short for Bank One Ballpark, home of the 2001 world champion Arizona Diamondbacks.

Even if you can't catch a game (though the Diamondbacks do have 14 home games in both August and September, with Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants in town August 30th to September 1st) you can take a 75-minute tour of this spectacular, retractable-roof stadium for $6. More information and tickets are available by calling (602) 462-6799.

Wall-to-wall rough will be growing in at Thunderbirds for the first time this fall, adding more challenge to a course that comes in just more than 7,000 yards from the back tees.

Par threes of note include the 12th, (167 yards from the tips) with a peninsula green that calls for a confident carry over water, and the short 17th, (144 yards all the way back) which requires a carry over desert scrub. And, if the pin is right of center, you'll have to contend with a tree halfway between the tee and green. The par-four ninth and par-five 18th share a huge double green that curves around a lake.

Unless you need to concentrate for a career-best score, take a look to the left of the 17th and 18th holes. The unusual house you'll see nestled between the course and South Mountain is known as The Mystery Castle.

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