Slicing through the Arizona desert with golf
By Robert Cross
By Robert Cross
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Consider it an earth work — the creative blending of grass, sand and hard desert scrabble until the land becomes art, a velvety green playing field amidst the cacti.
Majestic mountains provide backdrop. Watching a golf ball soar toward that purple majesty is a thrill.
It could be argued that golf courses in the flat, arid valleys of the Sonoran Desert subvert the natural order. How dare they install grass, palm trees, flowers and scenic water hazards in a setting with plenty of its own kind of charm?
But people have accessorized the Arizona desert with mile after mile of aesthetically questionable strip malls and acres of orange-tile rooftops. They plant cactus in orderly formations on graveled front yards, preferring a desert "theme" to desert raw. For good or ill, Arizona has become a popular comfort zone, a place to settle down — for the winter or for a lifetime. Bring your own garden gnomes.
Golf inevitably follows the better climates and the more financially stable snowbirds.
As winter set in late last year, my son, Gabe, and I played a few of Arizona's top-rated courses — 4 1/2-star tracks on Golf Digest magazine's scale of 0 to 5. No Arizona courses open to the general public rate 5 stars, according to the Golf Digest Web site.
A few exclusive country clubs might be superior to the venues we tried, but let's leave those bastions of privilege to the lobbyists, politicians and expense-account wizards.
At the 4 1/2-star courses, whether standing alone or attached to a resort, service and amenities rise to country club level anyway.
The experience generally goes like this: In front of an impressive clubhouse entrance, employees cheerfully wrestle golf bags from the car trunk and lash them onto an electric cart. Pro-shop clerks and first-tee starters treat golfers like royalty.
Here you'll see young people wearing baseball caps brimforward, shirts tucked in, smiles in place. "You'd rather play at 10:30? No problem, ma'am."
The driving range typically features unlimited practice balls, stacked all in a row. An attendant often comes along to scrub soiled clubs.
Although greens fees might range close to $250 and tips are de rigueur, golfers experience a private-club vibe without any long-term obligations.
They don't have to cajole an invitation and sponsorship from a member, or dole out a $100,000 initiation fee plus hefty annual dues. By throwing their money around judiciously now and then, they get to play a variety of excellent courses, instead of the same old members-only layout.
Gabe and I started out by playing the Raven Golf Club at South Mountain. The club has location going for it, being just a few minutes from Phoenix's Sky Harbor airport.
The closest neighborhood is less than enchanting — fairly modest houses, malls, an apartment complex or three. But that made the golf course feel even more like an oasis.
The Raven resembles Midwestern parkland. Hundreds of pine trees line the lush fairways, which spread out from an unobtrusive but nicely equipped clubhouse. The 20-year-old course was designed by David Graham and Gary Panks, who carved it out of a former cotton farm.
Pleasant background music from hidden speakers serenaded the practice area. A man wearing a headset (the better to communicate with a distant starter) cleaned our clubs and introduced our partners — Phil, a local, and Tracy, a Connecticut resident on a business trip. None of us was particularly dapper. Gabe and I had come directly from the airport. Evidently, Tracy had retrieved his wrinkled shorts from the depths of his suitcase.
Still, we all played fairly well and agreed the experience lacked for nothing. The man with the headset met us at the end of our round, cleaned our clubs again, and loaded them into our cars. "How'd it go?" he asked, and he really seemed to care.
Our next day, at the golf course called Talking Stick, was less impressive. I consider Talking Stick to be a forthright, straight-ahead layout with wide fairways but a lot of challenging subtleties around the greens. Architects Bill Coore and former Masters champion Ben Crenshaw laid out two courses on land owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, east of Scottsdale.
We played the South Course, and it truly was an example of carpeted Arizona desert, green amidst the familiar background of sage, cacti and gray/brown soil. Players call it target golf.
The clubhouse has a Southwestern Indian motif — from the straw-flecked adobe walls of the pueblo-style clubhouse to the intricately worked blankets arranged across the pro shop merchandise displays.
I came away from our struggles with the brisk wind feeling as if I had accomplished something. We had chased our golf balls near an endless desert valley that had Talking Stick's acres vastly outnumbered. Coyotes ambled down the access roads. Distant views included sparse vegetation, mountains and a casino.
Gabe left Talking Stick shaking his head. "I don't see why this course gets such a high rating," he said. I had been to Scotland and he hadn't. There, the courses aren't necessarily pretty, but they test even the most skilled players and rank among the best in the world. Wind is considered a vital part of the game. Talking Stick was a little like that.
Next on our schedule were Troon North's two Scottsdale courses, Monument and Pinnacle, opened in 1990 and 1996.
Although the craggy and difficult Pinnacle has its partisans (and a 4 1/2-star rating), Monument is considered the more classic — and a demonstration of just how posh and colorful a desert course can be.
Golfers who go there must be absolutely convinced that they're in for a grand experience. With Saturday-morning greens fees of $243 per person, you're approaching the price range of the Pebble Beaches, Pinehursts and Broadmoors, those ancient, once-in-a-lifetime classic courses.
As we made our way over vivid green fairways, past handsome plantings of cactus and desert blooms and around formidable boulders, Gabe's grin said it all.
One huge boulder stands smack in the middle of the third fairway. Architects Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish apparently decided the rock would add to the excitement.
It was exhilarating to hit good shots over and around the obstacles, but it was hard to love the extremely slick greens. They would often reject even the most well-executed approach shots and send gentle putts rolling merrily into the adjoining rough.
There's no denying that Troon North looks like a human creation, an aberration in the desert dust, but it's a thing of beauty and a mean opponent. Gabe and I could barely hold below a score of 100 on the par-72 course.
"I'll be curious to see how you like We-Ko-Pa," said a relative with whom we had played Troon North. "It's one of the few courses around here that doesn't have houses all along the fairways."
The We-Ko-Pa course is part of the rocky, canyon-laced desert reservation of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. When the U.S. government turned over the 40 square miles of land in 1903, officials probably considered the property worthless. But in 2001, the Yavapai — with the help of architect Scott Miller — turned 700 acres of it into an exemplar of Arizona target golf.
A good many courses in the area require precise shot-making onto relatively small grass landing areas. We-Ko-Pa adds more challenges, twisting over or around box canyons, arroyos and stretches of dry wash. Imposing saguaro cactus and other spectacular plantings frame the targets. We-Ko-Pa means "four peaks," after the nearby mountains that complete the picturesque Old West setting.
We struggled all day with cleverly hidden hazards, thickets of sage, gaping craters and tiny landing areas. Yet we felt satisfied at the end. We-Ko-Pa incorporated the desert's best features and more than anywhere else we felt as one with nature.
"I think this is the best so far," Gabe said after our round, "even better than Troon North."
That ended our play in the Phoenix/Scottsdale megalopolis, but I did take a look at some of the other famous courses that range across the area.
The Phoenician seems to have taken golf-course manicure to new levels, beginning with the immense resort logo outlined in flowers and stones at the entrance off Scottsdale's Camelback Road. The surroundings imply paradise: palms, gentle hills, ponds, a waterfall and fairways that might have been trimmed with a barber's clippers.
A teeing ground at the Boulders Resort nestles against some of the tallest and bulkiest boulders I have ever seen. They serve as a bulwark against everything else in unripened but clangorous northern Scottsdale. I found serenity there, even though the difficult fairways designed by Jay Morrish are bordered in spots by resort guests' casitas and several private homes.
At the Camelback Golf Club, farther south in Scottsdale, a big mural depicting a desert scene faces the clubhouse/restaurant front door, and detailed David McGary bronze sculptures of legendary Indian leaders grace some niches in the foyer.
From the terrace, I could see that Camelback's portion of the desert had been tamed and transformed into a couple of 18-hole golf courses by architects Jack Snyder and Arthur Hills. As at many Arizona tracks, yellow grass rough outlined emerald fairways and some greens, as if the whole property had been carefully removed from a painter's easel.
For our last excursion, Gabe and I drove the 117 miles to Tucson to play the Canyon Course at the Ventana Canyon Resort.
A lot of the holes are laid out on the floor of Esperro Canyon. Enormous rocks loom above some fairways, and the 13th hole demands an accurate tee shot from a dizzying height across an expanse of cactus and brush.
Unlike We-Ko-Pa, the Canyon's Tom Fazio design squeezes players through housing developments as well as boulder-strewn terrain. We weren't always sure where one hole ended and the next began. At one point, we almost teed off on the 10th tee of the neighboring Mountain course. (An attendant who seemed to be there just for that purpose politely pointed us in the right direction.)
When we made it to the end, and our reward was Ventana Canyon's iconic waterfall, draped gracefully over an embankment behind the 18th green.
It might as well have been the trademark of Arizona golf. There we were, surrounded by handsomely rugged desert, yet safely on a verdant carpet, our whims indulged, our skills tested, winter temporarily rebuffed. Plus a waterfall! Just to show how improbable Arizona can get.