Spring in Arizona adds up to golf paradise

No. 4 at Southern Dunes

No. 4 at Southern Dunes

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – No sooner had the rental-car shuttle at Sky Harbor Airport pulled away from the curb than the driver grabbed the intercom and told the vacuum-packed tourists he was hauling, “This is the best time of year to come to Phoenix.”

Amen, brother. Just get us to our rental cars and everything will be perfect. Which is darn near how everything is here in early spring.

For golfers, the Valley of the Sun has more assets than Wells Fargo. Those include two clubs – Superstition Mountain and Southern Dunes – that not long ago were strictly private.

Lyle Anderson, the visionary developer who shaped much of the valley over the past 30 years, built Superstition Mountain, only to lose control of the project when his empire collapsed in late 2008. OB Sports, which now manages the club, recently opened the two 18-hole Jack Nicklaus designs – Prospector and Lost Gold – for public play on alternate days.

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Superstition Mountain's Prospector course

The day that I visited, the Great Unwashed were being escorted to Lost Gold, while the members had the run of Prospector. The latter is more widely recognized, owing to the fact that it hosted the LPGA’s Safeway International from 2004 to ’08. Water lines the left side of Prospector’s 18th, directly below the clubhouse, and inevitably, people point to it and say, “Oh, that’s where Lorena . . . ” And before they can finish, someone says, “Yeah, that’s it,” recalling how Ochoa dropped four shots on the final three holes of the 2005 Safeway, memorably hooking her drive into the water on the 72nd hole before losing in a playoff.

The club still looks as if it could host a pro event tomorrow. Lost Gold’s big, active greens rank among the slickest in the region. Superstition Mountain also has one of the coolest settings for a practice range, thanks to the backdrop provided by the club’s eponymous mountain range.

Though Southern Dunes opened in 2002, its origins as a men’s club and its remote location in Maricopa shrouded the club in mystery. My GPS couldn’t locate the course even when I arrived at the understated entrance.

“It’s like Atlantis,” joked Garrett Wallace, Southern Dunes’ general manager.

But the secret has seeped out. Southern Dunes opened to the public in November 2008 and recorded 30,000 rounds last year. It sits at No. 9 on the state’s Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list, leading one to wonder: How can any state, even one with as rich a golf culture as Arizona, possibly contain eight better public-access layouts?

Southern Dunes is big – it can be stretched to more than 7,600 yards for U.S. Open qualifying – with more than 12 acres of bunkering, which tends to be flashed up around the greens. And it’s intentionally a bit unkempt; architect Brian Curley sought a more organic connection between the turf and desert. The vast bunkering creates angles and hazards for good players – and there are plenty here – without torturing hackers.

“The key to desert golf is not what you do with your turf, it’s what you do with your non-turf,” Curley said as we toured the course.

One of the best examples of that is No. 14. At just 312 yards, it’s the shortest par 4 at Southern Dunes, though Curley said, “I wanted to make this a big, showy hole.” Mission accomplished. Like great short holes, it can yield an easy 3 or a scrambling 6. There’s no safe play; even a slightly errant iron off the tee could result in a blind approach or a tricky wedge from a yawning fairway bunker.

Two days later, while talking with a playing partner at Talking Stick’s North Course in Scottsdale, my thoughts on Curley’s work coalesced with this notion: Southern Dunes is what desert golf should be.

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Talking Stick North

Not that Talking Stick North is any slouch. Like its sister South Course, it was produced by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who have won the hearts and minds of the golf intelligentsia in recent years. The course has some of the architects’ trademark elements: enormous fairways that create a false sense of security, a pint-sized par 3 (No. 8) where you’ll feel lucky to escape with par, and strategic choices that you’ll still be pondering weeks later. The latter is best exemplified at the split fairway on No. 12. Play to the safe side and your approach still must navigate a wash that runs the length of the hole.

Talking Stick occupies prime real estate just off Highway 101, and it’s only going to become more appealing with the scheduled opening later this month of the 497-room Talking Stick Resort, which is nearing completion behind the practice range. The resort will have more than 100,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space and a 240,000-square-foot casino.

There’s more. Just across Indian Bend Road, work has begun on a baseball complex that will house the Colorado Rockies and hometown Arizona Diamondbacks’ spring-training camps. But that won’t open until 2011, so I made the half-hour drive to Peoria that afternoon to catch the Cactus League game between the San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners.

It was 75 degrees with a high sky, and everyone was – there’s no other word for it – happy. Even the people waiting in the 40-deep ticket line were laughing. Fans smiled as they plunked down $5.75 for Cracker Jacks and $7.25 for a Red Hook Microbrew. A vendor walked through the crowd on the outfield berm, repeating his sing-song pitch: “Lemonade, lemonade, like grandma made.”

If there’s a commercial to be made about the glories of desert living in the spring, that scene was it.

Or you could send visitors north of town to The Boulders, home to two Jay Moorish designs. Both the North Course, No. 11 among Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Arizona, and the South, which ranks No. 18, place a heavy premium on accuracy.

If that’s not your strong suit, you needn’t worry. The Boulders, celebrating its 25th anniversary, has an ethereal vibe that’s inherently calming. Visitors even arrive via Languid Lane, and buildings meld so effortlessly into the rugged setting that they often go unnoticed. The harmonic confluence with nature is underscored by guests’ stories – such as those told by my playing partner, who has vacationed with his wife at The Boulders for the past two years – of crossing paths with bobcats, coyotes and other wildlife.

As we made our way around the North Course, it was impossible not to be distracted by the setting – the Black Mountains and the startling rock formations that always seem about to topple down the surrounding hills and across the fairways.

It was going to be hard getting back on that rental-car shuttle.

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