Courses and Travel

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.

It was built over a 28-year period ending in 1945 by Boyce Luther Gullery, who somehow gathered all sorts of scrap materials to build a fairy-tale castle for his daughter. The 8,000-square-foot structure is open to tours from October through June.

Just across the street from a good-sized driving range is a Junior Course -- but not just any pitch and putt course.

This one was designed by Tom Fazio, complete with full-sized greens and bunkers. As home of the city's First Tee program, it's a great place for some short game practice, or a round with the kids. Just bring a wedge and a putter and have some fun.

For a great daytime view of both the course and downtown Phoenix, take the twisting and turning six-mile drive through nearby South Mountain Park, the world's largest municipal park covering 20,000 acres.

Make your way to Dobbins Lookout, located directly above the course and near the blinking television antennas visible for miles at night. You'll have the entire Valley below you -- it's easily the most scenic elevated tee in the city.

On the other side of South Mountain, just one minute off Interstate 10, sits the Whirlwind Golf Club, located within the Gila River Indian Community.

This 372,00 acre Reservation is home to two Indian tribes - the Pima and Maricopa. And once you see one of the brown, mini-funnel clouds that spring up on the desert floor, also known as dust devils, you'll appreciate the Club's name.

Whirlwind already has 18 holes called Devil's Claw, created by Phoenix-based designer Gary Panks.

He's the architect behind a number of other highly-touted Arionza courses, including The Talon at Grayhawk in Scottsdale, The Raven at South Mountain in Phoenix, and Sedona Golf Resort in the northern part of the state.

The mostly straightforward and very enjoyable Devil's Claw course has hosted a BUY.COM Tour event for the past few years (won last year by Ben Crane on the fourth playoff hole).

Two par threes here -- the 7th and 12th -- both require a carry over water, while the 10th and 17th share a connected fairway.

Wild grasses, mesquite, and saguaros frame the course, which also features great views of the Santan and Estrella Mountain ranges.

Panks has also designed a second, slightly more challenging course here -- The Cat's Tail -- which will open this October.

Like Devil's Claw, it will appear like a lush green oasis in the otherwise brown desert landscape. But The Cat's Tail will have more water features (including three man-made lakes) than its counterpart, making it a few shots harder overall. It will also take over hosting duties for the BUY.COM TOUR event this fall.

On the facility front, a new Sheraton Wild Horse Resort & Spa is slated to open on the property this October, with 500 rooms and an Adji Spa (featuring treatments developed from traditional rituals). There will also be a Cultural Heritage Center, an equestrian center, and the Wild Horse Pass Casino.

A unique transportation option will also be available to guests -- they'll be able to move between the facilities via boats riding along a two-mile long canal connecting the hotel, casino and clubhouse.

The huge development will even include the resort's own exit off Interstate 10 when construction is completed later this year.

Southeast of Phoenix, the East Valley continues to grow, fueled largely by the expansion of suburban Mesa to the north and Chandler to the west.

In fact Riggs Road in Gilbert has become a sort of golf course row, with numerous private communities and some good public courses found alongside it.

The newest course to open in this part of town is the Seville Golf & Country Club.

Built on land dominated by citrus groves, the Gary Panks-designed course is part of a 1,300 acre housing community. Plans call for the course to eventually be a private track, but for now the public is welcome.

Citrus trees, which dominated the site prior to construction, are still found throughout the course, as are pines, ironwoods, oaks, palo verdes, and cottonwoods.

Opened in February of this year, the course has wide landing areas off most tees, while shaved collection areas are found hugging many greens.

In fact, the large greens provide the strongest line of defense offered by the course, thanks mostly to their speed. Plus their newness currently lends disdain to nothing but the softest approach shots.

The closing trio of holes is very good, with water in play on each. The 16th is a drivable par four if you're hitting it straight.

The short, par-three 17th features a generously large island green, with an ironwood tree on the back edge that will hopefully knock down any long balls.

The 18th is a solid par five, with water in front of the green waiting for mishit approach shots.

On your way down Riggs Road to Seville, you'll pass Bear Creek Golf Course at Chandler on your left. The facility has 36 holes -- an 18-hole regulation par-71 course that opened in 2000, and an 18-hole, par-59 short course that opened last year.

Both were created by Nicklaus Design (two of the company's 12 course designs in Arizona), with Bill O'Leary, son-in-law of Jack Nicklaus, serving as the designer.

Also, both have an wide open, links-type feel, with wind often a factor in the afternoon. Keep the ball low and you can run up approach shots through openings on every hole.

If you're looking for a less expensive and less exotic option among the more glamorous semi-private and private courses in the vicinity, Bear Creek is the place.

Back in the heart of the Valley, an Englishman has left an Australian-flavored mark with a new design at Marriott's Wildfire Golf Club at Desert Ridge.

Nick Faldo's eponymous course opened here this past January and complements the adjacent Arnold Palmer-designed course, which opened in 1997.

Unlike Arnie's track, which offers wider fairways and more of a typical target-golf, desert experience, Faldo's course (potentially five to six strokes harder than its counterpart) almost is the desert -- with more than 100 bunkers throughout. And not just any bunkers (especially on the par-four eighth and par-four 13th).

These bunkers have lips so thick that collagen injections must have been involved, and they flash up in the fairways so much they could be arrested for indecent exposure. Put it this way, going backwards may be better than attempting to move forward in some of them.

But the prolific presence of sculpted sand, fashioned by Faldo in honor of those found on Australian courses like Royal Melbourne, does not make it an impossible course to play.

What it does encourage though is a little more thought than just ripping away aimlessly. Ultimately, solid course management is rewarded.

The Faldo Course also encircles what will be the largest resort ever built in Arizona -- the sprawling JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa.

When it opens this December, the hotel and convention center will have 950 rooms (with 81 suites), nine dining options, a two-story Southwest-themed spa, and 200,000-square-feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space.

That's not all. There will also be four acres of swimming pools and a 20,00-square-footDesert Botanical Garden.

Hotel guests will most likely have priority access to the two courses -- to what degree has yet to be determined.

If you're looking to play a new course and get away from the ever-expanding Phoenix area, head north on Interstate 17 to Prescott.

It's promoted as cooler (literally) and less crowded, and the charming town is just that and more.

Located an hour's drive away from Phoenix, Prescott is well known for Whiskey Row, a historic Courthouse on the town square, and a good mix of public and private golf.

Adding to that reputation is Stone Ridge Golf Course, which opened in June.

Carved out of a series of ridges just south of town near the Bradshaw Mountains (panning for gold was a popular activity in this area back in the 1800s), Stone Ridge appears to be a vivid green mirage poured onto an otherwise nondescript brown and grey desert landscape.

Designer Randy Heckenkemper, an Oklahoma native who has worked with Jack Nicklaus, Jay Morrish, and Tom Weiskopf, carved the course out of some pretty harsh terrain full of scrub oak, pinon pine, prickly pear cactus, wild flowers, granite rock outcroppings and native vegetation.

Miss some of the fairways and your ball will find eternal rest out of reach in deep ravines -- being conservative, especially the first few rounds here, would be the best advice.

Study the course guide closely, since plenty of uphill and uneven lies await, as do dramatic vistas that will impact your depth perception and consequently, your club selection. Some extremely steep cart paths, complete with tight switchbacks, provide an extra thrill on a layout that has 350 feet of elevation change from the highest tee to the lowest green.

The course is long, including some 600-yard par fives and 230-yard par threes, but that distance is minimized somewhat because you're playing at 5,200 feet above sea level.

Stone Ridge has another distinction in addition to its unique layout. It's one of the few courses in Arizona, if not the country, to have a female head professional (Susan Rakozy, previously at The Sanctuary in Phoenix) and a female superintendent (Cheryl Aungst, formerly of Arizona courses like Sedona Golf Resort, Forest Highlands, and Troon North).

Gender aside, the quality of Stone Ridge speaks for itself, and at less than $60, it could be the centerpiece of a cool day trip to Prescott.

Despite what seems to be a new course sprouting up every day in the Phoenix area, the big-name courses are still rolling out here in the Valley. Some however, are going through updates, most notably The Monument Course at Troon North in Scottsdale.

The highest - rated Arizona course in GOLF Magazine's "Top 100 You Can Play" was originally designed by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish.

Now Weiskopf is overseeing the first major renovation of the course since its debut in 1990. "Every classic golf course in existence, from Pebble Beach to Augusta National, has inevitably undergone changes and upgrades over time to remain competitive," says Weiskopf, a Scottsdale resident who started his own design firm in 1994.

The work, much of which involves restoring the greens to their original size, will close the front nine beginning in July. The back nine, which will also undergo renovation, will remain open until the first nine reopens again for play.

If you're planning a trip out here in early fall, you should also take into account an annual event that area courses go through. It's called overseeding, where courses shut down for two to three weeks while changing fairways from a more heat-resistant strain of grass to one more receptive to the slightly cooler winter temperatures. This takes place anywhere from mid-September to mid-October, so call ahead and plan accordingly.

After all, timing is as important in scheduling tee times as it is in making a good swing.

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