Phantom Horse Golf Club: Antivenom Not Included

By Ray Bangs, Contributor

Chip Shot: Neatly tucked close to South Mountain Park, the blend of traditional links play and desert target golf found at Phantom Horse Golf Club makes for a challenging and sometimes exciting round.

PHOENIX, AZ - I watched as my old college pal crouched, trying to reach his ball that had landed just off the fairway. "Can you get it?"

"Are you kidding me.that's a f&%#'ing rattlesnake!"

"Just grab it. He won't bite. He's six feet away from you!"

I was trying hard not to laugh. The rattlesnake really was at least six feet away, but when it moved ever so slightly, Rob immediately jumped back in the cart and floored it. As we raced away, I patted him on the shoulder, the terror apparent in his white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel. Welcome to Arizona golf.

Rattlesnakes are a common sight in Arizona, especially in the spring and summer when they like to lounge around on sunny rocks. They are almost always harmless if you just leave them alone. A friend of mine actually stepped on one while hiking and it still did not bite her. That's not to say that you will be as lucky, so watch where you tread, but do not let a few lazy snakes stop you from experiencing the joy (and frustrations) of desert golf.

Phantom Horse Golf Club, nestled close to South Mountain Park, has its share of snakes and is the perfect opportunity for golfers to test their game against a traditional links layout mixed with desert target golf. The course usually wins, however with the scenery and dramatic landscapes, scoring usually becomes less important. When you reach the back nine and see nothing but Sonoran desert with only a few strips and patches of green fairway here and there, the hope for any decent score disappears with your confidence. Plus, according to the local rules, "all natural, desert areas and washes shall be played as lateral hazards." Your strokes and penalties can easily add up to embarrassment, but I was still excited for Rob to play the course; I always enjoy people's reaction to the back nine.

The front side went surprisingly well. The first tee anywhere is intimidating, but Phantom Horse pushes you one step further. Water is a factor for four out of the five tee boxes while everybody shoots blind to a green tucked well behind the steep hill in the middle of the fairway. By focusing on the target flag and striking your drive at least somewhat solidly, the two cavernous sand traps on the left never come into play. Easier said than done, especially with the starter and the group behind you watching.

The 596-yard, 3rd hole seemed like it would never end and Rob said he needed an abacus to figure out his score on this one. The distance covering a relatively narrow fairway makes this (according to the scorecard) the most difficult hole on the course. With the water following most of the right side, double-digit scores are not infrequent. Take your lumps and tell yourself it won't get worse.well, not too much anyway.

If you made it through the first four holes without too many bogies (despite all the water) and want to keep your score low, which is possible on the front nine, ease back on the reins. Use the targeting flags to your advantage and take the time to study the yardage guide. Shot placement will make or break your score at Phantom Horse.

The par three 5th hole is your first preview of the back nine. I had been talking it up so much that I chili-dipped one off the tee and donated it to the desert. Rob was laughing after almost nailing the ace. Unfortunately, he three putted for a bogey (and that was because I told him to pick up a slanting three-footer). The greens at Phantom Horse are usually in excellent condition and are just slow enough to be realistic on just about every other hole, subtly challenging enough to be ridiculous.

Closing out the front nine is a deceptive 377-yard par four where you need a little oomph off the back tees. If you hit your long irons well, that might be a better option. A good drive puts you at that sometimes-awkward half wedge distance, but with the curving dogleg left, a good drive is a little harder to come by. If you are going to go for it, aim left of the target flag and cross your fingers. Keep in mind that safer shot selection is imperative in preparation for the desert target golf as you are about to make the turn.

The back nine starts out with an easy carry over open desert, but the 11th hole is not quite as painless from the tee box. The landing area is relatively generous, but an unfriendly gust and his sporadic slice introduced Rob to the rattler on this long par five, coincidentally named Sidewinder. A short par three and an island green welcomes you at Hole 12-instead of water, your island is surrounded by sand, rocks, and cactus. This is where it all falls apart usually, but don't lose your confidence. The Jailhouse Steps is next and you'll need all the confidence you can muster. Welcome to desert golf.

The 13th is Phantom Horse's signature hole. Many people find the pot bunkers on the right edge so stay center-fairway off the tee. Even with an average drive, you can use a 7 or 8-iron to get it close enough. Although I warned him after he watched me lay up, with his huge tee shot, Rob was determined to blast his second shot onto the green. (Remember the elevation gain adds two clubs.) Of course he landed in the beach-almost everyone does trying to make it in two-but the worst thing is that the tiered traps offer no mercy whatsoever. If you hit the bottom one, your shot out will land in the second one, one level higher. The next shot is into the third one and finally you're just on the green in par. That is the best-case scenario though; the traps are tall enough that you might not get up to the next step in one shot. I hit an easy wedge onto the fringe, which just infuriated Rob. He was caught under the lip and had to hit it backwards and then up again, but it caught the lip again. I couldn't help it, but I was in tears from laughing so hard. The hole is very aptly named, so for a good laugh, be sure to tell your playing partner to go for it.

After The Jailhouse Steps, the next four holes seem almost easy, but the desert target golf continues. Keep you eye open for snakes, but also for Gambels Quail, roadrunners, and the occasional coyote. Coming in, the 18th tee offers a spectacular panorama of Phoenix, Tempe, and the surrounding area mountains. With excellent service and high quality everything, Phantom Horse is a great choice whether you live in or are just visiting Phoenix. The summer rates are sizzling, while the high season is relatively still quite reasonable. After you've fully soaked in the views and it's time to hit, don't forget to club down like yours truly did. It is a 150-foot drop to the green. Good thing there's covered parking!

Stay and Play: Pointe South Mountain Resort

Built in 1989, Phantom Horse Golf Club has quickly developed into an outstanding Arizona course. In the opinions of many locals, the course rates much higher than often ranked, especially with the added convenience of being so centrally located in the Valley of the Sun. From the moment you drop off your clubs, to when you finally pick them up after the round, excellent service is always a high priority. This smart sense of guest urgency has carried over from the Pointe South Mountain Resort, a world-class destination resort that spent $8 million redesigning its 640 guest suites (to be completed September 2001). Getting a tee time during the high season may prove more difficult. Summer rates are incredibly reasonable and despite the heat, a cooler of ice water cleverly attached to your cart helps keep you comfortable.

With six restaurants on site, you have plenty of fare to choose from. If you worked up a hearty appetite for dinner after your round, drive up the mountain to the Rustler's Roost. Overlooking the Valley, you can enter the dining room by scooting down a tin slide. After feasting on mouth-watering steaks and bread pudding, two of the menu highlights, if you have any energy left, you can try dancing to live country music. If you are looking for a little more excitement, nearby Mill Avenue in downtown Tempe is the hippest place in town and a popular hangout for Arizona State University students.

For a great golf vacation, close to Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, Pointe South Mountain Resort is an obvious choice. As an added bonus, just across the road, you'll find Phantom Horse's sister course, The Raven at South Mountain, ranked among the top 20 in the state, just extra incentive to give desert golf a chance.

Driving Directions

Follow I-10 to the Baseline exit, near the Arizona Mills Outlet Mall. Go west 200 yards, turn south (left) on Pointe Pkwy. Follow the signs to the golf course parking area.

Course Stats
Blue Tees: 67.2/120/5,767
White Tees: 64.6/110/5,353
Red Tees: 66.2/107/4,550
Par: 70

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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