New and improved Phantom Horse a stiff challenge

By Brian Bujdos, Contributor

PHOENIX - Consider your first experience at the Phantom Horse Golf Club to be a blind date. You'll have a game plan going in, but no idea what to expect. You'll love the personality of your newfound friend, but she constantly keeps reminding you to be a straight shooter, and this can be a bit frustrating.

There's no doubt about it, your new friend is beautiful, and somewhat serene. She'll weave you through some of her memorable experiences in the mountains and give you a new perspective that near the end of your date makes you feel like you're on top of the city.

When all is said and done, you might not score as well as you had hoped, but you can certainly respect each other. Yes, there were some awkward, even tense, moments in this first encounter, but you'll probably see signs of promise. She's a challenge, and that's part of what makes playing the game so much fun.

The Phantom Horse Golf Club is a desert-style course located on-property at the Pointe South Mountain Resort in South Phoenix. Just over 10 minutes from Sky Harbor International Airport, the daily-fee course is tucked in and around the South Mountain Preserve.

"I think it's a good taste of Arizona golf for someone who is not from Arizona," said Paul McDonald, assistant golf professional.

The course's first, and last, two holes were modified in 2003, and have made the course a more exciting, fair and memorable experience. The terrain that used to play uphill as the first hole now provides a captivating finishing hole, playing downhill into an impressive man-made island green.

But let's start, well, at the beginning.

The first hole was formerly a par-3 and played as No. 2. Now it serves as the par-4 opening hole, dogleg left. As with most of your tee shots at Phantom Horse, you can't see the green from the tee. After hitting a 3- or 5-wood from the back tee, a spectacular hole unveils itself. The lake on the right, bordered by boulders and accented with a large fountain, actually stretches into play on the next couple of holes.

Right from the start, this course provides a stiff challenge. Most holes on the course, including this one, play short but aren't pushovers. If you're in for an afternoon of casual golf, this is not the place for you. Literally every shot requires strategy.

"A lot of it is knowing where to miss," McDonald said. "I tell people you don't have to worry about the length, you need to worry about the width."

Moving up the hill to No. 2, you'll find tee boxes redone as attractive "elevated" tees that literally stick right out of the hillside next to Interstate 10, on the left. Not only are these brick sandstone tees visually pleasing, the prospects for your downhill tee shot have improved as well, as sand traps have been added to protect shots that used to roll into the lake that protects the right fairway.

As if the water and narrow fairways weren't enough of a challenge, the course is also littered with sand bunkers, a couple of them at the No. 2 green.

The lake on No. 2 again comes into play on the right side of No. 3, and in fact reaches out into the fairway, necessitating a carry to safety. From there, you'll most likely need to carry some water again into a peninsula green.

After this starting trio, of which all the holes are rated among the toughest seven on the course, the par-3 fourth hole is a welcome breather - although a deep breath is still advised before the backswing.

At first, you might think the text painted on a rock on the elevated tee box is just for show: "Please refrain from hitting until horses have passed." Well, when a guide on horseback appeared leading a small herd of fellow equine into the South Mountain Preserve, I knew the sign had a purpose.

You'll find that four of the five par-3s at the par-71 Phantom Horse play downhill, No. 7 being the exception, providing great views and fun golf holes. Speaking of No. 7, it's a 200-yard hole with water all the way down the right side, so miss left.

As you head to holes No. 9 and No. 10, you'll find yourself in the South Mountain Preserve, where the layout begins to provide a noticeable transition to target-style golf. Rarely will you be able to see the green from the tee on the back nine, but expect spectacular mountain views, like at the No. 11 tee, where two peaks are close and off to the left.

No. 12 used to be the signature hole on the course before the re-configuration of No. 18. A par-5 dubbed "Jailhouse Steps," this is one of the holes that you'd have to play at least once in order to get close on the approach.

The No. 12 fairway, like those on other holes, narrows to about 15 yards before the lay-up landing area. Just beyond this landing area rest three rows of large sand bunkers that slope sharply uphill. These bunkers protect the green above, which although you can't tell, rests 15 yards back from the crest of the hill and is very narrow from front to back. You'll have to read the in-cart pin placement chart, as the distance from front to back can vary another 20 yards. Definitely take one extra club on your approach into the green above.

Upon reaching the 15th tee, you're in for four short finishing holes, including par-4s that measure 325, 307 and 362 yards from the back tees. Mixed in for fun is the spectacular 17th hole, a par-3 that provides a panoramic view of most of Phoenix, including downtown.

Despite short length, just about every hole at Phantom Horse makes you entertain the use of an iron off the tee. If slices and hooks are part of your vocabulary at the start, irons are highly recommended - especially on the short finishing holes.

Greens sizes at the course are average to below average, and all provide drastic variations in shape. The green at No. 15 is downright tiny and the green at No. 16 is 25 yards deep but only 10 yards wide. No. 15 is straightforward, but No. 16 requires a partial carry over a house below if you cut the dogleg right.

No. 17 is as visually pleasing as just about any hole in Phoenix. This 202-yard gem plays shorter, not only because it's downhill, but because it now plays into a green that has been moved up. It has also been leveled out in order to hold incoming shots more effectively. A net behind the green used to protect the nearby road, and in fact some players used to take driver and bounce their ball off the net in order to have a better chance of staying on the green.

No. 18 is now one of the best finishing holes in the state. A long iron off the tee leaves you in good shape for your approach shot. Don't go too long off the tee or you'll have a downhill approach. Play toward to the left of the fairway bunker on the right, but don't go too far left as a pond will gobble up long and errant shots there.

Besides the water, there are two bunkers that protect the island green below. In fact, about 8 yards of rough precede the green, which is very wide but not very deep. If you're neck and neck with your playing partner heading into 18, you couldn't ask for a more fun and challenging hole to decide the winner.

Additional benefits to the re-design include the fact the course is now a par-71 instead of par-70. And the new pro shop building is now located on ground-level near the parking lot/bag drop, instead of four stories up in building at the resort.

"We get to see the golfers and talk to them," McDonald said, "whereas before we really didn't. It's more convenient for our patrons on a personal level, plus they can more readily see what we have in our golf shop."

As stated earlier, the improved Phantom Horse provides so much atmosphere, uncertainty and challenge that a second round seems like the right thing to do.

Fast Facts

Course Designer: Forrest Richardson
Course Opened: 1987
Turf: Bermuda and rye overseed
Golf Digest awarded the course Four Stars in its 2002 Places to Play and also named it one of the Top 50 "Great Service" golf facilities in the nation.
Indoor instruction is offered with the SkillTec video system.
Women's tees play 5,451 yards and are very fair.
South Mountain Park is the largest municipal park in the U.S. At over 16,000 acres, it boasts 58 miles of trails for horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking.
The Pointe South Mountain Resort is the largest all-suite resort in the Southwest with 640 suites, 95,000 sq ft of meeting space and four dining establishments. It also boasts the Oasis water adventure with an 83-foot water slide, wave pool, and active river.

Brian Bujdos, Contributor

Brian Bujdos is a native of Pittsburgh, Penn., a graduate of Syracuse University and a resident of Scottsdale, Ariz. Formerly a sportswriter for the Albuquerque Tribune and an associate editor for the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks, he is currently the communications manager for the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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