Estrella Mountain Ranch: 180 degrees from the Scottsdale golf experience
GOODYEAR, Ariz. - Golfers, get away from the Scottsdale grind. Leave behind the crowded roads and the crowded courses and take a long, relaxing drive. Then do some driving that should prove even more relaxing at Estrella Mountain Ranch Golf Club.
Estrella is actually only about 50 minutes from Scottsdale (35 minutes west of downtown Phoenix), but it might as well be a world away. Situated in the foothills of, what else, the Sierra Estrella Mountains, the Jack Nicklaus Jr.-designed golf course is still in its infancy.
It opened in February, and it maintains all the innocence of youth. No over-trodden or burned-out fairways. No beat-up tee boxes. No greens that look like battlefields. At first glance, Estrella looks like a desert course with an Eastern touch. But really it's more of an Eastern course molded into vast expanses of colorful desert. The plush Bermuda grass will soon give way to winter rye, but the signs of transition are subtler than on other courses around the Valley.
Young Jack apparently has learned more from the Golden Bear than how to handle a sand wedge. The design shows imagination in its twisting and turning fairways and desert washes. The desert and rough on most holes merge in an almost seamless wave, making it difficult to tell which is intruding on the other.
That, combined with the multitude of sand traps laid out on the course, brings an element of luck to the average drive. But Nicklaus also added wide landing areas and large, rolling greens to his creation to make the course playable for golfers of all levels. The low-cut rough makes Estrella even friendlier to cart golfers like myself.
Estrella is a simple but impressive golf course that, from first look to last, is visitor-friendly and immaculately clean. (My playing partner said the rest rooms on the course are the cleanest he's ever seen.) The staff is courteous and seems to smile a lot, which is enough to remind you that you're not in Scottsdale anymore.
Playing to 7,102 yards from the back (black) tees, Estrella's length is a little unforgiving. The copper tees (6,707 yards) are more reasonable, but still require several long carries over the desert.
Advanced women should have no problem with the gold tees (6,232 yards) and novices will appreciate the fact that the forward-most (silver, 5,124 yards) tee boxes eliminate the difficult carries over desert and wash, while still providing a challenge in the course's difficulty and length. There is water on the course, but it didn't seem too imposing. You can play a full round without ever hitting directly over the drink.
They say in the clubhouse that the 17th hole, a 176-yard par 3 from the copper tees, named Grand Consequence, is the course's signature. A long iron shot from the tee must reach a small green that slopes off drastically on the front and left sides and is well-guarded by sand.
But the real signature of Estrella has got to be its bunkers. Fairways and greens alike are graced by these sand swells, large enough to be confused with Native American burial mounds and found in groups three and four strong.
At Estrella, it's not the quantity of sand that counts, but the quantity of sand traps. The traps are avoidable, however, and beautiful as long as you are not in them. The sand is dark and soft and not too difficult to manage, but the high lips can be intimidating.
There is no drinking water to be found on the course at Estrella, but fear not. Each cart comes equipped with a cooler of ice water and Styrofoam cups. Look for the roving snack cart if you're interested in a more alcoholic refreshment.
Lunch at the turn was pricey ($13.50 for hot dogs, sides and drinks) but freshly cooked and filling. The Player's Grill, like the clubhouse and the rest of Estrella Mountain Ranch, provides simple elegance and a cozy, comfortable atmosphere.
The planned community at Estrella Mountain Ranch is in the 10th year of a 30-year growth plan. That means the only life forms you may see once you set off on the first tee are the rattlesnakes whose homes are designated by a plethora of signs throughout the valley. I didn't spy any rattlers myself, but retrieve your duck-hooked drive at your own risk.
When I try to think of a downside to the Estrella golf experience, I'm completely at a loss. The closest I can come is to mention that I found the par-4 ninth hole, The Island, to be a much better finishing hole than 18 (Evening Star). The latter was a fun hole, playing from an elevated tee over a row of menacing fairway bunkers, but the former is more unique, picturesque and challenging - just what you look for on your way into the clubhouse.
It's named for a patch of desert that sits like an island in the middle of the fairway, too far to reach from the tee by all but the longest hitters. The drive must carry about 100 yards of desert, then it's uphill, over a desert "stream" to the green. The island is mostly for looks, but watch out for the stream.
Estrella's Susan Mayer says the summer rates worked well to introduce the Valley to the course and community.
"We want people to have the opportunity to see and play the course," says Mayer. "We believe the course will sell itself. It's very peaceful and challenging enough to keep them coming back."
But you'll want to hurry if you haven't yet previewed Estrella. Those summer rates are only in effect for two more weeks, and tee times for the winter months are filling fast. Mayer says she has events booked for the next two months, with more calls coming in every day. A good portion of the clientele, she says, are referrals from other resorts such as the nearby Wigwam and local businesses entertaining guests.
As for after-golf entertainment, Goodyear is a little too far off the beaten path to provide much of a night-life. Jake's Bar in Goodyear is one popular watering hole, which may have some competition when the Driver's Grill opens for business.
No, there is not much going on in this part of the Valley, but that's exactly what makes Estrella Mountain Ranch such a nice departure from your average Scottsdale 18. The course has been ranked among the Top 10 in the Valley by the Phoenix Business Journal, and it should definitely be on your top 10 list of courses to play.