From stone wall to Gary Coleman hole, fun Coyote Lakes is all character

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

SUPRISE, Ariz. - It's not every day you come across a stone wall guarding a green. It's not every day you face a hole that's intimidatingly short. It's not every day you check in with a clubhouse guy who actually knows the golf course beyond the scorecard and can spin a yarn to boot.

A golfer confronts the rock wall on No. 6, too close for comfort.
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Coyote Lakes Golf Club

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Coyote Lakes Golf Club in Surprise, northwest of Phoenix offers an enjoyable day of golf for players of varied skill levels. Featuring water on five holes and an intimate desert landscape, the Arthur Jack Snyder design plays just 6,213 yards from the Black Paw tees.

18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 71 | 6213 yards | Book online | ... details »

If Coyote Lakes Golf Club was a house or a studio loft, the real-estate nerds would be talking about its character.

Character is one of those hard-to-define, nebulous things that's often overblown (say, to turn a cramped one-room dump with exposed pipes into a "find," to stick with the real-estate theme). Not at Coyote Lakes. It doesn't take long into a round here to know this place has character, and characters.

This Arthur Jack Snyder design a little off the Scottsdale track in Surprise is more than just a low-fee option ($55 top rate in high season, $27.50 twilight) in a land of big-money monsters. You don't play Coyote Lakes just because it's cheap. You play it for a staff that obviously loves golf and seems to want you to love it too. You play it for its quirky, one-of-a-kind holes. You play it because it's one of the most enjoyable, relaxed hangouts in the whole Phoenix valley, ripe with regulars who all seem to be quick with a smile and a story.

It really is all about character.

Of course, nobody ever said character couldn't knock you on your butt. Or in this case, smack your approach shot out of the air. There's character and there's character. Walking up to the sixth tee, Coyote Lakes first-timers can be excused for thinking they're facing an optical illusion or the product of one too many pre-round mai tais.

For there's a stone wall blocking the green. Not some neat, dainty backyard-garden thing with bricks carefully molded together. This is essentially a pile of big rocks stacked on top of one another. A pile that stretches across the entire fairway and stands an easy 7 feet high.

Suddenly, this straightforward 549-yard par 5 isn't so simple after all. There's the little strategy of clearing the rocks to reach the raised green. Get too greedy and you'll be watching your shot ricochet off the rocks and back down into the fairway (if you're lucky). It's like Manute Bol standing at the basket and blocking your shot without leaving the ground.

"That hole can keep you humble," Maine golfer Harold Jones said, laughing. "It's the toughest hole on the course."

"You have to think of the rock wall in terms of your third shot," Coyote Lakes General Manager James Hook said. "It's essentially a three-shot par 5. Not too many golfers are reaching that green in two. It's all about the position you give yourself on your third shot. If you're too close to the wall, it can be hard to pop it over. If you're too far away, you've set yourself up with a tough clear."

In other words, chances are you'll end up feeling like Goldilocks: Nothing's just right no matter how you approach it. Of course, you might also feel like Goldilocks if one of the 81-year-old regulars clears the stone pile as easy as can be.

Experience trumps all at Coyote Lakes. The bullheaded will take one look at 6,213 yards on the scorecard and figure this is a course to bully, only to walk off No. 18 four and half hours later with one of their highest scores of the trip.
"I've had mini-tour guys out here who were sure they were going to shatter the course record and then end up shooting 70-71," Hook said. "Then they want to come back and play it again, convinced it's a fluke."

It's no fluke. It's quirk over brawn. It's the stone wall on No. 6 (a hole course officials are sadly thinking of changing to take away some of the rock intimidation). It's No. 12, a hole with a story so delicious behind it you don't really care if it's true. Clubhouse legend has it that when Snyder finished up Coyote Lakes, he realized he had a slight problem: He built only 17 holes.

So he did what any self respecting golf architect would: He jammed a short par 3 into the best opening he could find. The result is No. 12, a hole that's been dubbed Little Pup. It measures a mere 107 yards from the gold tees that most golfers play the course from, and it delivers frustration hundred times its size.

"You can never get comfortable on it," said Peter Schwab, the guy who answers the phone in the clubhouse, sets up your round and keeps the stories rolling. "At about 100 yards, I find a sand wedge puts me short and a pitching wedge puts me over.

"The shortest hole on the whole course and it's the one where I find myself getting bogey or double bogey most. A lot of guys will be cursing that it's a stupid little hole because it got them."

Schwab smiles. Did he mention there's water hidden behind the back of the green?

This is the Gary Coleman of golf holes - the adult, bus-driver-punching Gary Coleman. In other words, it's a character. And at Coyote Lakes, it fits right in.

The verdict

Coyote Lakes is a course you want to work into your Phoenix-Scottsdale vacation rotation. It's just so different from the glitzy resort-track norm. Spending an afternoon here after a week of showcase plays is like stepping back into your favorite Cheers-type bar after a long run of five-star restaurant meals.

Everything's a little more relaxed at Coyote Lakes. Everyone is a lot friendlier. "We may not be the five-star resort, but that doesn't mean we cannot give five-star-resort service," Hook is fond of saying, but the service is anything but five-star-resort stiff. Guys like Schwab and marshal Ray Chamberlain making you feel comfortable with their easy manner.

When a guy walked in on this late afternoon in a T-shirt, Schwab gently informed him that next time he'd need to have a collar. The golfer looked a little stunned. Coyote Lakes seems so relaxed it's easy to assume anything goes.

That's not the case when it comes to conditions - plenty of care is put into this track. An old American Golf Corp. course, Coyote Lakes was purchased by Chicago businessman John Guba in January 2005, and a number of golfers expressed joy at the improvements made since then.

"It's in the best shape it's ever been in," said Chicago snowbird Paul DeWitt, a Coyote Lakes regular.

It's not Troon North-green, mind you - but remember, this is a course you can often play for less than $30 in high, high season. There are patchy areas on the edges of a number of fairways, particularly on the front nine. A few tee boxes could use work. But you'll never find greens this good on comparably priced courses, or on some much more expensive ones.

Hence the crowds that can build up on the tees.

"Some guys think it's too slow," DeWitt said, shrugging about pace of play. "But it's just about right."

Characters sometimes require some patience. Coyote Lakes pays it back in fun.

Dining out

The greater Old Town Scottsdale area is home to many of the best restaurants in Arizona. Chef Nobuo Fukuda works wonders with his counter-side tasting menus at Sea Saw (480-481-9463), producing dishes every bit the equal of New York's more famous Nobu at a third of the cost.

For a happening mingling spot, you only have to go down the alley behind Sea Saw and open the unmarked door to the Kazimierz World Wine Bar (480-946-3004). The forced faux-mysteriousness is a little cheesy, but once you get inside the comfortable place where Phoenix-area thirtysomethings relax with a selection of 1,800 wines to choose from, you'll forgive it. Make sure you try the Country Pate.

Stay and play

The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess (800-257-7544) is your high-end escape palace. This sprawling AAA Five Diamond resort offers huge pool complexes that are open 24 hours a day. No more fitting your schedule around the pool schedule.

Add a spa that takes pampering to new heights with its own private waterfall pool and this is real luxury in a town with too many pretender hotels claiming that distinction.

Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort (602-997-2626) is far enough from the hustle and bustle to provide a relaxing getaway retreat and close enough for easy reach of all the areas you want to visit. This sprawling complex includes a meandering, slow-raft-lounging pool and a putting practice course. There are a good half-dozen golf courses within a 10-minute drive.

Fast fact

There is water on seven of the nine holes on the back nine, but it's not till No. 15 (from the back tees) and No. 16 that forced water clears really come into play.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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