Just Outside of Scottsdale, Sleepy Vista Verde Offers a Throwback Style of Golf

March 2, 2014

No. 15 at Vista Verde No. 15 at Vista Verde outside of Scottsdale, Ariz. (Courtesy of Vista Verde Golf Club)

About a month ago, while in Scottsdale to bear witness to the Waste Management Open, I broke away one morning from the booze and the bare midriffs and lit out just beyond the city limits.
The drive took 25 minutes. It was worth the trip.
My route led me due east along Dynamite Blvd., past a Murderer’s Row of local layouts (Troon North, Troon Country Club, Estancia, Scottsdale National), toward the town of Rio Verde and a course as quiet as the Waste Management was loud.
Why so sleepy?
When it opened, in late 2006, Vista Verde Golf Club seemed destined to cause a stir. It had an architect with a distinctive vision, and a routing stretched against the striking backdrop of the Mazatzal Mountain range. What was lousy was its timing.
A little more than a year after the new club’s ribbon cutting, “credit-default swaps” entered the lexicon.
If you build it, they will come … unless the economy crashes. Vista Verde never really stood a chance. Like so many courses around the country, it suffered dearly from the financial downturn. But unlike so many others, it remained open for play.
Those who made it to the first tee wound up face to face with a different breed of high desert layout. In a region dominated by modern golf aesthetics, most of us expect to play a typecast modern game: target golf that calls for long, forced carries through tight lines of saguaros, aerial assaults to fiercely guarded greens. For the average player, the greatest worry is to keep in on the grass.
At Vista Verde, the architect, Ken Kavanaugh, had something else in mind. Inspired by Metropolitan Golf Club in Australia, one of Melbourne’s iconic Sandbelt courses, Kavanaugh envisioned a throwback style of golf: the “ground-game,” as they call it, played firm and fast, on fairways more forgiving of erratic tee shots.
Not that it was easy. The challenges were different. Positioning was central, and demands increased as you approached the pins. Around the greens, you could roll it, fly it, bump it, flop it. The course asked lots of questions, and welcomed many answers. It was golf in the desert, but it wasn’t “desert golf.” You might not like your shot, but at least you’d find your ball.
How was the course received? Architecture buffs on Golf Club Atlas had nice things to say about it, lauding, among other things, the steep-sloped, sharp-edged bunkers, which looked, like the bunkers at Metropolitan, as if they’d been clawed out by some giant unseen hand. But with little foot traffic, and even less marketing behind it, Vista Verde remained golf’s version of a camouflaged gecko: a desert creature almost no one saw.
A semi-private club, it had a handful of members, a few of them, apparently, Judge Smail types. As the course slumbered on, they made some alterations to it, removing a dozen or so bunkers, the majority of them centerline bunkers, the kind you can play around multiple ways: right, left, short, or long.
Fair enough. They could do what they wanted. It’s not as if angry throngs rose up in opposition. Vista Verde wasn’t drawing crowds.
But I get the feeling that’s about to change.
Late last year, new ownership took over, with a plan to bring the property back to life. A name-change is in store. Soon, they’ll be calling the club Tegavah, which sounds to my ear like a lightly sweetened caffeinated beverage but is in fact a Native American word for “gathering.” But who cares about the name if the course is good? It is.
From the opening hole, a slightly dogleg left par-four, you get a faithful sense of what awaits: firm, wide fairways, eye-catching bunkers, greens receptive to an array of shots. At 7,229 yards, the tips call for some brawn. But brains are even better. Options abound, as on the seventh, a short par-four that dares you to drive it, even if mid-iron is the smarter play. What’s also nice is that the layout builds in drama, its back nine tilting gently into a valley, with the mountains looking on as your silent gallery.
Downsides? Yep. Though walking is allowed, it’s not a great layout for hoofing, built as it was with real estate in mind. Amenities are scarce. No clubhouse. No comfort station. A pro shop housed for now in a single trailer. But under the new ownership, expect that to change too.
On the day I played it, I went off early and finished quickly, invigorated by the high desert air and highly entertained by my 18 holes. By early afternoon, I was back at the Waste Management, hanging out amid the hordes around the 16th hole. Sitting in the grandstands, between jeers and cheers, I got to talking with two guys sitting beside me, fraternity brothers from Arizona State.
It was the standard boozy chatter you hear from avid golfers. We spoke of favorite players, favorite courses. One of my chummy sidekicks put an arm around me, and asked me loudly, close-up and in beer-slurred speech where I’d been playing.
“Vista Verde,” I said.
He leaned in even closer.
“Vista who?”
If I thought that he’d remember, I would have told him he’d been missing out.
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