Going Back in Time at McCormick Ranch Golf Club's Challenging Pine Course

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

SCOTTSDALE, AZ - A visit to McCormick Ranch Golf Club's Pine Course represents more than a round of golf. It's a trip back in history to what golfing was like in Scottsdale in the more relaxed, less glittering era of the 1970s.

At the same time, what looks at first like a course with very few twists and turns, can be a fine challenge in terms of testing a golfer's distance and control.

It's hard to talk about the Pine Course without mentioning its sister course, the Palm Course, which lies right next to it at McCormick Ranch, where Arabian horses and Angus cattle roamed decades ago. The two courses were built in the early 1970s amid the giant McCormick Ranch subdivision in the heart of Scottsdale.

Both Pine and Palm were designed by Desmond Muirhead, the British-born designer once called an "iconoclastic genius" by Forbes magazine and the man who claims to have invented the term "golf course community."

"Some people call him the mad scientist of golf," said Mike Lindsey, Director of Golf at McCormick Ranch.

Among Muirhead's most famous courses are Mission Hills in California and Muirfield Village in Ohio. Some of his later work, Aberdeen in Florida and Stone Harbor in New Jersey, has been controversial, almost like mini-golf on LSD. For example, at Aberdeen, one par-3 has the outline of a fire-breathing dragon with bunkers as eyes.

At Stone Harbor, one green is shaped like the state of New Jersey flanked by bunkers shaped like Manhattan and Pennsylvania.

But it would be hard to call McCormick Ranch controversial and certainly the club doesn't offer gimmicky golf either. Both Pine and Palm are solid, traditional courses that also have little similarity to the desert courses now the rage in much of Arizona. At McCormick Ranch, you're not going to be chipping over chollas or hunting for lost balls while wondering if you will be nipped by a rattlesnake in the process.

Both courses have lots of rolling, green grass, acres of manmade lakes and large mature trees that throw abundant shade - a distinct advantage over desert courses when playing a round in Scottsdale's 110-degree summers. Another plus are the spectacular views of Camelback, Mummy and McDowell mountains from fairway after fairway and green after green.

Even though McCormick Ranch offers little of Muirhead's later quirkiness, "I think he did some of his most top-notch work here," said Lindsey.

"Both courses are equal in difficulty, which is not always true when you visit a resort with two courses," Lindsey said. "The Pine is a little tighter with less water but with a lot of trees. The Palm is more open but has 10 water holes. There's a lot of quality to the length and toughness of these courses. Both are more than 7,000 yards from the back tees. You'll also notice that there are not a lot of homes crowding the holes or the fairways."

The respect that Lindsey has for the courses is borne out in the meticulous maintenance job that is done on the 30-year-old fairways and greens. McCormick Ranch Golf Club clearly offers some of the most well-manicured courses in the Valley of the Sun.

Overseeding is done a little later in the fall than at many courses, so that a golfer can still play both courses at the ranch in September and October when temperatures are still in the 70s and 80s.

Control, control and more control are essential in playing the Pine Course, which, although it has hundreds of mature pine trees lining its fairways, also has a fair number of huge palms and smaller desert mesquite. It's comparatively easy on the extra-long par-5s to blast a drive off the tee just behind a pine that's two- or three-feet in diameter, requiring some kind of dramatic save just to get a bogey. In some cases, the lines of trees get closer together to form a bottleneck for balls about 150 yards down the fairway.

From the very first hole of the 7,187-yard Pine Course, there are wide-open views of local mountains. The first nine holes are relatively flat, with more knobs and knolls on the back nine. A fair number of holes require blind tee shots, making the global positioning system on the carts an invaluable asset. Sand is frequently a factor. The shortest par 3s from the back tees are both 185 yards.

There are five water holes on the course and they present the biggest challenges. Mike Lindsey's favorite holes on the course are both on lakes and are both par-4s: No. 15 and No. 6.

No. 15, the toughest hole on Pine, lies 470 yards from the back tees, requiring a drive that skirts a long winding lake that's in play all the way down to the green. After landing safely on the fairway with a decent shot, you still need to hit almost 200 yards across water to hit the island green.

No. 6, the second most difficult hole, "is 419 yards from the back tees," Lindsey said. Making par requires a decent tee shot, followed by hitting over a lake for the second shot, all the while avoiding trees on the right and a pot-like sand trap to the right of the island green.

Which is Lindsey's favorite course? Definitely, the Pine. "It's tighter," he said, "and it makes you hit good shots. I actually think it's two strokes harder than the Palm. And it does play 80 yards longer from the back tees."

Designer: Desmond Muirhead
Year Built: 1971
Turf: Greens and Fairways Bermuda, overseeded with rye
Slope/Ratings: 74.4/135, 70.3/132, 68.2/125, 75.9/130, 73.4/126, 69.9/117
Yardage: 7,044, 6,279, 5,820, 5,057
Director of Golf: Mike Lindsey

More on the course: Although distances can be challenging on this course, the forward tees allow any caliber of golfer to have an enjoyable round. Keep in mind that McCormick Ranch is the site of the Arizona Open qualifying in June for professionals from throughout the state. It will also be the site of a winter tournament for the Canadian PGA in March.

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

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