Golfing Arizona's finest courses, 2012
PHOENIX -- Some readers told me that last year's golf reviews were too Scottsdale-centric. So we took heed and made a concerted effort to spread ourselves out into the greater Phoenix area this year. 2012's Arizona swing includes a resort course, a mountainside track under brand new ownership, a desolate desert classic and visit with an old favorite.
6808 S 32nd St.
If you are aching for golf as soon as you deplane, The Legacy is an excellent South Phoenix choice that will cure your winter golf jones. It's mere minutes from the airport to the first tee.
The Legacy Resort opened its gates in 1999 and has been a welcome wagon for those seeking resort quality golf at bargain course prices. It's very affordable by the premium standards of Pleasant Valley greens fees. There are packages for guests of their myriad guest condos and suites, frequent specials on their Website and they are also very active with Golfnow.
The course is a great solution to helping you retrain your atrophied off-season golf muscles. While it's far from a pushover, this Gary Panks design has wide and beautifully maintained fairways provide you with welcoming landing areas for swings that aren't piped down the middle. It measures a respectable 6,900+ yards and the entire par 71 course winds its way through its sprawling developments built on a former farm at the base of South Mountain.
Standout holes include the scenic par-3 seventh. It is an elongated, rising narrow target, surrounded front, back and side with forbidding bunkers. On the day we played it was chilly and raining throughout the morning, but as we approached the tee the sun broke through the overcast and South Mountain glistened in the sun framing the hole with a shimmering silvery backdrop.
Panks plays mind games with you on another par 3. Hole 15 has a tee box that juts out into the water hazard and forces you to carry water to an elevated green guarded by sand. On that rainy day I hated the feeling that I to think "Don't let this club slip out of your hands today or it will end up in a watery grave" countermanding the usual swing thoughts of "What water? There is no water – just hit it straight."
The course includes a number of old farm machines scattered throughout lending it a rustic feel. Old fashioned silos greet you along the right side of the long par-5, 18th making for hard to miss out of bounds markers. Beyond those silos there is still a working farm where horses are still kept at pasture.
The clubhouse is large but they have such a huge stock of clothing and equipment that it feels a little bit constricted. You could spend a half an hour in the place just checking out the inventory.
The Boulders North Course
34831 N. Tom Darlington Dr.
The further you travel north from the 101, which loops around the entire city, the more the desert begins to re-establish its desolate, craggy beauty. Local building ordinances try to assure that man-made structures do not ruin the views by restricting the color and height of homes and business developments. I was shocked to see the ubiquitous Target symbol in a very reduced size in an adobe wall no higher than 5 feet high along the main thoroughfare Scottsdale Road. If not for that tiny sign, you couldn't tell it was even there. The residences become more impressive in their scale, design and construction. Angular post-modern palaces of glass and steel side by side with green construction takes on the traditional adobe homes. You begin to peep cars that you have only seen in magazines and movies. By the time you get to Carefree, you know that you are headed for an epic golf destination.
We returned again to review the South Course this year, unfortunately, that course was only available to members that day, so we decided to check back in with the North Course and see what, if anything had changed over the year. Thankfully, nothing much had.
The Boulders course is a gem. Designed by Jay Morrish, the course architect that has made spectacularly taming wild spaces as his calling card, it is my favorite desert golf experience for more reasons than just the golf. It is easily one of the prettiest courses you will ever play, but its beauty belies the fact that it is punitive and will kick your ass if you are slicing or hooking your ball. As you travel around the course, you are constantly in view of Black Mountain and of a boulder pile that looks as though it was created by theme park designers. It looks so alien as to be fake, but it isn't. The lush green grass is bordered on all sides by dozens of varietals of cacti, scrub brush, flowers bushes and trees. As we were about to tee off on the third hole we were confronted by an unholy clamor as four hawks mixed it up in the tree above our heads. Wild life abounds, which is why the starter, with a chuckle, told us that local lees allow for a golfer to play his ball with no penalty if a coyote steals it.
As I mentioned earlier, this a target course. We played from the white tees which measured nearly 6,300 yards, but on this day, I had a case of the lefts with my driver which made it a terrible day to score. Mishit balls will as likely hit the many rocks and carom as they will land on the flinty sand and stay anywhere near where you saw them go in. Game management is the name of the game out there, don't let your ego talk you in to trying to pull off a magnificent shot, when a safe shot will leave you a look at the green. But even a bad golf day on the Boulders is offset by the otherworldly desert experience.
From the moment you enter the gates of this Waldorf Astoria property, till the time you leave, you are treated remarkably well. If you have never played a desert golf course, and your budget allows, mark the Boulders as a must.
Ak-Chin Southern Dunes
48456 W Highway 238
Southern Dunes Golf Club is located roughly 40 minutes south of Phoenix on the Ak-Chin Reservation in Maricopa County. This Scottish-styled links course was designed with input from Fred Couples and was opened as an exclusive all-male club in 2002. That business model didn't work out and in 2008 they opened the facility to the public (including women). It is a sprawling layout in the middle of the desert. The only development for miles. We were paired up with a Packers shirt wearing fellow from Beloit named Kevin by the starter from Eagle who is a retiree that spends his winters in Maricopa. It is amazing how frequently you come across fellow Wisconsinites on golf courses in Arizona. Never fails.
With six sets of tees and play measuring from 5,100 to 7,500 yards, the course comes on like a pussycat and ends like a lion. The first four holes include the shortest par 5 and par 3 on the course and two of the shortest par 4s. From there challenges get much stiffer.
Though this course is smack dab in the middle of the desert, there are no cacti anywhere to be seen, but there is sand, lots and lots of sand. More bunkering than almost any course I've seen besides Whistling Straits. An employee in the clubhouse said that there were more than 125 on Southern Dunes and about 12 acres of sand spread throughout the course which is roughly five to six times the amount of sand on an average course. They can be intimidating when you address your ball, but it forces you to make many risk/reward decisions, and that makes for a really fun round. You have got to be able to know your limitations or you will be spending a great deal of quality time with your sand wedge. The drivable 14th hole actually contains more sand than grass in the fairway.
We were fortunate that the winds were calm the day we played, because the track is so exposed, a stiff breeze could really wreak havoc on a round. The greens are in brilliant condition, they are cut short and run on forever. They are tough to hold on approach and are frequently undulating so you need to be creative and sharp with your wedges. It is generally good policy to land your ball short and let it run up on to the greens. Make sure you spend time on the practice green getting your pace dialed.
On the third hole, as we were approaching our second shots, Kevin said to us, "Do you hear that?" in reference to a train barely audibly clunk-clunking down some tracks in the distance. "That's the only sound you will hear out here." And it was true. Southern Dunes is without question the quietest course I have ever played. There were several times when I stood over my ball ready to hit when I was distracted by the sound of my own breathing or heart beating. A very strange sensation. Almost like playing in a vacuum, so alien and so mesmerizing. After I got over the initial disconcerting feeling of playing in deafening silence, I really began to enjoy it. So therapeutic.
This is another course that is a tremendous bargain. It is a Troon managed golf facility and has all the earmarks of that company. Professional quality championship golf course management, from staff to facilities to the food at the grill, every facet of your golf experience is done exceptionally well. If this course was located 30 miles north the greens fees would more than likely double. The only issue that we found curious was that there were hardly any garbage cans to be found at the tee boxes. By no means is the course dirty, but I prefer not having to carry my garbage with me throughout the round. On a plus note, the in cart GPS scorecard display can now be e-mailed to both players e-mail accounts directly from the cart. I've never seen this offered before and it is a really neat perk. It's a wonder that this convenient practice isn't more prevalent.
The Ak Chin tribe owns the Harrahs casino about five miles down the road and it offers some great deals for stay and play, including two rounds plus a nights stay for $189. Southern Dunes also is a partner with Golfnow and if you are willing to race the sunset and play later in the afternoon, you can find tee times as low as $45.
McDowell Mountain Golf Club
10690 E. Sheena Dr.
On a brilliant, sunny Arizona morning, we traveled across town to the base of the McDowell Mountains to check out the newly re-christened McDowell Mountain Golf Club. This course was formerly known as the Sanctuary and was designed on a site formerly owned by the Bureau of Reclamation's storm water retention area. Arizona State graduate and Scottsdale resident Phil Mickelson and his college coach took over managing ownership in 2011. They tweaked many things like adding 400 yards to the tips making it a little over 7,000 yards, filling in bunkers to increase the pace of play and flipping the nines around so that No. 18 now finishes adjacent to the clubhouse and massive driving range.
It is a very friendly course with generous bail out areas which help avoid the trouble in the fairways. It is fairly tight and mostly bereft of trees and cacti but waste bunkers are omnipresent throughout and are waiting to collect errant shots. The greens are very firm and in excellent shape, quick and true. Several mountain ranges frame your approach shots as you work your way around the course. Take the time to march up to the championship tee on No. 6 and look around. Bronzed life size animal sculptures add to the serene and picturesque views.
Among the most memorable holes on the front nine is the eighth. Measuring 191 yards, it is a straight shot to an oblong, slightly raised green that is buttressed along the front by a long 6-foot high rock wall (in my mind's eye it's 8-10 feet - it gets inside your head). It is intimidating. If you are short and hit that wall, you will see that ball returning at you like a rocket. Fortunately, there is a bail out area provided short right of the green. If the pin is tucked in the corner though, you are going to have quite a second shot to get it within a reasonable distance for a par putt.
It's a great way to prepare you for the ninth, which is a sensational both for its beauty and for its teasing layout which goads you into going for it. from the tee, it is a fairly flat drive to an uphill dog leg left par 5 measuring 542 yards from the black. A birdie and even possibly a legitimate eagle chance loom should you dare to thread the needle at the dogleg. If you miss short, you are in a world of hurt inside a waste bunker with many ball catching, swing altering bushes and trees. If you hit it too long, you will be cavorting amongst barrel cactus' and bronze deer sculptures in a beautiful hazard at the corner. There is a ton of room right, but unless you are uber-lengthy with your fairway woods, you are not going to make the green in two from there.
The back nine starts with a downhill par 4 to a very inviting green, but you don't want to miss right on your drive because the hole borders the driving range and you will find yourself looking for a needle in a haystack. The par-3, 14th abuts a rusty modernistic Sports Complex and on the day we played was quiet, but we were told occasionally pumps out the jams. This nine finishes strongly with a long carry over water to an uphill par 3 on No. 17 and a 508-yard par 4 to finish. there is a waste bunker running the entire length of the right side of the fairway and on the other side of that bunker is the driving range. You don't want to miss right here for obvious reasons.
As with all the courses I review, I do try to factor in budget as a chief barometer of playability. McDowell Mountain Golf Club is very affordable, particularly when you consider the cost of tee times at neighboring clubs. If you can play in the afternoon and book more than eight days in advance, you can play for as little as $65. As with most courses in Phoenix, they also participate in Golfnow, where a quick glance showed deals available for the same price day of.
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