Arizona State University's Karsten Golf Course a low-key, high-energy Dye design in Tempe

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Calling it a bunker would be akin to describing Broadway as a street, the Louvre as a museum and Halle Berry as a nice-looking woman. Accurate to be sure, but nevertheless severely underselling reality.

ASU's Karsten Golf Course - 12th hole
The 209-yard, par-3 12th at the ASU's Karsten Golf Course features two large bunkers left of the green.
ASU's Karsten Golf Course - 12th holeKarsten Golf Course - bunkersASU's Karsten Golf Course - 9th hole
If you go

For the eighth hole of the Pete Dye-credited (more on this later) design at Karsten Golf Course isn't a bunker as much as it's a rite of passage. Running along a huge chunk of the left side of the 380-yard par 4, sunken into the earth like a Martian crater, it looks more architectural dig than golf obstacle.

The Brown Mile, if you will.

That's what it feels like if you end up in it and have to scamper down those small Dye stairs, sand wedge shaking in your hands. Heck, from the inside it looms longer than any real mile you've ever faced. Most sand traps have two, maybe three, rakes. The Brown Mile holds six, and they're about as cramped together as residents of a Donald Trump $15-million-an-apartment luxury high rise.

The dirt's not easily dislodged either. It's dark brown and packed together, even more so if you're playing it in a Phoenix-Scottsdale summer when it's been baked by a steady stream of triple digits This Brown Mile is a beast with little beauty.

Landing in here off the tee brings a quick groan. You're in purgatory and you'll do anything for a fast journey on. A ridiculously poor shot that travels the entire length of The Brown Mile bunker, barely three feet off the ground and ricochets off one wall, bangs straight into the air off another and somehow careens up and out onto a neighboring hill is greeted by cheers from one and all in our group.

Any humiliation at the method of exit is tempered by the fact you're out. Like a bases-loaded jam or a prison break, no one's quibbling details. The only thing that matters is you got out of it.

"It's one of the tougher courses in the area if you haven't noticed," local Tempe golfer Joe Reynoso deadpanned.

It's certainly one of the hardest college courses you'll find anywhere. This is anything but the golfing equivalent of Basket Weaving 101. Karsten is run by Arizona State University in Tempe, the school whose golf programs have produced Phil Mickelson, Heather Farr and a host of other pro golf stalwarts and the course is capable of testing that caliber of talent.

The expected, almost demanded, Dye toughness is upheld at Karsten. With its undesert-like rolling hills and narrow links look fairways, this is a course that will make a dumb player curse at the hot air.

"You can't be blasting," as Tempe's Charles Foster put it. "You've got to be strategizing."

It's an analogy that fits the place. While Karsten is undoubtedly Dye, it's anything but a sister in attitude to the many highfalutin resort courses that carry the Dye name.

Karsten comes across low key in clubhouse atmosphere while remaining high energy in demanding design. It's the kind of place where golfers from all types of backgrounds and skill levels mix easily. For an area with as many Mexican-Americans as Phoenix, you don't see much diversity out on the golf courses. Karsten is one of the exceptions, befitting an inclusive university approach.

It also draws more than its share of women golfers. Even though it's a par 76 with a 132 slope rating from the champion tees for the women, matching the highest slope rating for the men, Dye equalizes things by putting the premium on precise iron play.

While Karsten measures 7,057 yards from the back tees and has a 471-yard par 4 and a 581-yard par 5, this isn't a course where you pull out driver, driver, driver hole after hole.

The 446-yard par-4 ninth reflects this hold-up-and-think challenge. Just bombing away here is likely to put you in one of two untenable positions. Either right, plop into the lake. Or left - and only slightly more desirable - mired in the succession of hills. The only real play is to go with a club you can hit reasonably straight off the tee and stay left, but not too left in this narrow fairway.

Of course, once you get close to the green, the precise calibrations start all over again. This green is large enough to have two area codes and the difference between being on the green and on the green with a chance to do something can be as large as the difference between the careers of David Spade and Jerry Seinfeld.

This is how Dye plays with your mind at Karsten. He switches the expected with the unexpected. He gives you a 155-yard par 3 (No. 7) with its green on a ridge slight enough not to be fussed over, but just steep enough to play havoc and send those approaches bouncing bunker down.

After not allowing you to go driver on par 4s and par 5s, he throws a picturesque 248-yard par-3 (No. 16) with a sizable pond lake taking up the entire right side that screams to play it safe, but actually requires a daring blast.

"It's probably the only par 3 in Arizona that you have to hit driver into to stay out of trouble," said local golfer Pat Contreras. "You need to get it up into the wind and let it carry."

Adding to the intrigue is the fact no one seems quite sure which Dye to credit this madness with. Pete Dye's name is on the course, but everyone agrees that his son Perry oversaw most of the hands-on work.

And there are several locals who were around when Karsten was built in 1989 who swear it's almost a completely Perry Dye track. Back then, Perry's name wasn't big enough to stand on its own, so Dad needed to carry the marquee.

Whichever Dye did it used the links concept without becoming obsessed with it. There are plenty of rolling hills at Karsten, but there is more water here than you'd find in a true Scottish links track that went through a Noah's Ark-worthy flood.

Local legend has it that Phil Mickelson used to purposely skip shots off the water and onto the green on No. 16, Lefty's version of Tiger Woods' bouncing the ball on the club face and ripping off a long drive in that Nike commercial, apparently.

Of course, everyone may not so enamored with Karsten's propensity for splashdowns.

"There's too much water," local golfer Ramon Maes said.

Karsten Golf Course may be low-key in attitude, but it's still a Dye. It's going to prompt debate.

ASU's Karsten Golf Course: The verdict

Available for $13.50 after noon in the heat of Arizona's summer months, this Dye is a bargain to grab. At $77 weekdays during the prime tourist late January to early April months, it's only worthwhile if you check that conditions are good first.

This is a university course and it sometimes shows in maintenance less obsessive than you find at the high-profile resort tracks that fill this golf mecca. On the scorching summer day of this visit, there were several burned-out patches in the fairways. Nothing that would stop you from enjoying the round, but not what you'd expect from a top-of-the-line golf course either.

"It's not as bad as what you'd get at a muni-quality course, not as good as you get at the resort courses," said experienced local golfer Brent Richardson. "It's about average in conditions. You're going to have burnt out patches at almost every course when it's 115.

"But you'll get less large patches than this at the better courses."

Karsten compensates for any average maintenance with the variety of looks provided in this Dye design. Touted as a links course, it actual combines undulation, water, multi-tiered greens, narrow and a few more wide open fairways to hold your interest throughout the round.

It gives you a little bit of everything as it challenges. It's easy to see why it would be a good home base for elite college golf programs.

For Karsten is tough without being mind-numbingly tough.

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Pete Dye Solid

    Cole Trickle (4.5) wrote on: Jan 12, 2008

    I played this course Super Bowl Sunday in 2006. Would rather walk but carts mandatory. Greens rolling medium, fairways/greens little patchy. Good variety of holes, many bunkers, undulations abound in fairways (Dye classic) need to hit it straight off tee or there are big numbers out there. For $115 with range balls, 11am tee time, would have liked to play twilight instead. Would play this course again only twilight rate. A good course to end the trip on & fly back to Mpls and snow!


  • ASU Karste Golf Course

    Rick wrote on: Mar 20, 2006

    Probably my favorite course. Just played there again last week. Great shape, superb greens, lush rough. HIT THE BALL IN THE FAIRWAY. If you blast away, you'd better do it accurately or your score will soar.