Estrella Mountain Ranch Golf Club in Goodyear: Jack Junior's debut in the desert

By Ray Bangs, Contributor

Playing at Estrella Mountain Ranch Golf Club is a wonderful escape from the automobile and airplane noises, fairway-lined houses, and other distractions many closer-to-Phoenix courses are known for. Maybe more importantly, the pristine Sonoran desert scenery inspires a great golf experience, even if your game is not always breaking par.

Estrella Mountain Ranch Golf Club - 13th hole
Estrella Mountain Ranch Golf Club's 13th hole is a 545-yard par 5 with an arroyo fronting the green.
Estrella Mountain Ranch Golf Club - 13th hole
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Golf Club of Estrella

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As Jack Nicklaus II's inaugural Arizona course, Golf Club of Estrella offers a classic golf experience unlike any in the area. Following in his father's legendary footsteps, Jack II's daily-fee championship course is golf in the traditional sense -- challenging yet forgiving, and always spectacular.

18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 72 | 7139 yards | Book online | ... details »

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Only 30 minutes west of downtown Phoenix and we found ourselves in the surreal paradise of Estrella Mountain Ranch Golf Club. Passing acres and acres of cotton fields on the drive in, we were soon surrounded by lush greenery jumping from the desert to welcome us to this other world. Tropical palm trees lined the community lake and signs pointed the way to the golf course, model homes, as well as this, that, and everything else, including a yacht club.

I had to laugh because the lake wasn't really that big, but just the fact that there was a yacht club added to the classy, luxurious feel of the community, is one reason it is growing more popular by the week. Several Phoenix Suns players even call Estrella Mountain Ranch home.

We were a bit early and decided to take a quick spin around to see some of the area's scenery, so we followed the road leading towards the yacht club.

My golf buddy, Joel, is a fashion photographer and thought the place had great photo potential. I agreed; it certainly looked well polished to me but so-called "master planned communities" always make me do a double take. Something always seems a little off, and sure enough, minutes later, as we inched our way past a bunch of kids playing in the street, a witchy-looking woman snarled at us, "You're not supposed to be driving here!"

We smiled apologetically, waved, and wondered what the heck she was talking about... after all we were driving on a paved road, complete with stop signs and painted lane markers. My friend's car is a brand new BMW so we didn't think we looked like totally out-of-place riff raff. Maybe since the kids were playing in the street, local law dictated no driving. Who knows! We guessed she was probably a teacher tending to her flock of youngsters, but the only thing we knew for sure was that it threw us both off. Of course, we didn't hold that single experience against the entire community, but nonetheless we high-tailed it to the course.

When we arrived at the bag drop, we were still a little dazed by the wacky woman's scolding, and after dropping off the clubs, felt a little lost. Unfortunately, the handful of people I talked to before making it to the first tee seemed lost as well. I cut them some slack because it was a Monday, but it almost seemed like they had never heard of someone showing up early to hit a few range balls.

Furthermore, although the Rates and Reservations brochure explicitly states that "complimentary use of the practice area" is included with the rates, after paying $6.50 for a shag bag, I wasn't exactly sure what that meant. Did most golfers usually bring their own range balls?

Bob saved the day though. Bob was by far the friendliest, most informative, funniest (the list of superlatives goes on and on) starter I have met in my 1,000+ rounds of golf. Everything I needed to know to play this course, I heard from Bob. He even explained how we could order sandwiches at the turn using the ParView GPS golf carts, not to mention how the yardage, auto-scoring, and all the other technologically way-too-nifty features worked. He provided plenty of pointers, including a few tricks on better course management, and thankfully talked us out of playing from the tips.

Just out in front of the tee-box was a towering Saguaro cactus that had almost a dozen golf balls stuck in it. (We started on hole 10.) Trying to psyche out Joel, I offered a friendly wager... if he drilled his drive into the cactus, for the rest of the round I'd enjoy unlimited Gatorades from the beverage cart on his dime. Bob talked up how the cactus was a distraction for a lot of people, playing his part with Oscar-winning potential, and sure enough, Joel was taking his mulligan on the first tee after his "scorpion-torpedo" (Arizona slang for what is known in other parts as a worm-burner). I didn't get my Gatorades, but at least the cactus was spared another scar.

Jack Nicklaus Jr. certainly outdid himself designing Estrella Mountain Ranch Golf Club, his Arizona debut. The best part is his deft touch at creating a course that is, on one hand, plenty challenging for any top player, and on the other, forgiving enough for everybody else. Beginners should steer clear though, because it is a desert course with every hole requiring carry off the tee to reach the fairway or green.

Jack II strove to make sure the terrain would be a challenging experience: "I want people to step away from my course having used every club in their bag." Chances are great you'll be using the sand wedge; Bob had warned us of 88 deep bunkers and I'm guessing we found at least a third of those. (Mostly Joel, of course!)

This upscale beauty opened in February 1999, and not even three years later, the layout already has the feel of a surprisingly mature track. We played only two weeks after reseeding and it was nearly impossible to tell.

Conditions were excellent and the grounds crew was feverishly working to make sure every blade of grass was meticulously manicured and every grain of bunker sand was perfectly positioned. As word gets out about this new kid on the block, reserved tee-times will be even more highly recommended. Also keep in mind that the cooler months are definitely the preferred time to play because there is not a single shade tree throughout the round.

Estrella Mountain Ranch hovers around the top of everybody's "Best Golf Courses" lists, both in Arizona and nationally. There's no doubt about its excellence and the scenery certainly holds its own against any other area courses. The thirty-minute drive from Phoenix is more than worth it whether you are looking for great golf or just a scenic escape from the city's hustle and bustle. If you decide to take a drive and if light freeway traffic happens to give you a few extra minutes to look around, just remember to keep an eye out for kids and especially their shepherd!

From Phoenix, follow I-10 west towards Goodyear. Exit on Estrella Parkway (126), and drive six miles south to Estrella Mountain Ranch. Follow the signs to the golf club. Depending on traffic, average time is 20 to 30 minutes.

Ray BangsRay Bangs, Contributor

In addition to being a frequent contributor to several publications, Ray Bangs is the author of "52 Great Weekend Escapes in Arizona." He is also the co-publisher and senior editor of Arizona Explorer Magazine, a regional publication focusing on active travel, leisure, and recreation. Ray's motto is simple. "If you're way too busy to go fishing and golfing once in a while, you're way too busy!"

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