Not just another ad campaign: Phantom Horse delivers truly memorable holes in Phoenix

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

PHOENIX - Every golf course's marketing campaign centers around some "unforgettable" holes. Every course architect worth his blueprints tries to design something golfers have never seen before.

But really, how often do you leave a golf course certain you'll always remember a single hole, let alone a few holes? For the regular golfer, courses tend to blend together after a while, with that par 3 in Las Vegas merging with that par 5 in Phoenix, until it's all eventually one blur.

You'll never have that problem at Phantom Horse Golf Club on South Mountain. This Phoenix track delivers a few truly memorable holes, the kind that stick with you no matter how many courses you've played.

Play Phantom Horse once and you'll anticipate the Jailhouse Steps No. 12 hole and the Alcatraz No. 18 hole on a return visit a decade later. Yes, this is one of those courses that annoyingly named every single hole. Only in this case, it's actually worth it. A few of these holes deserve name recognition, maybe even their own state postage stamp.

In a Phoenix-Scottsdale resort labyrinth with 200 courses, these holes make Phantom Horse stick out.

"Around here you need something that makes you a little unique," director of golf Jim Fossenkemper said.

Phantom Horse has that in No. 12 and No. 18. The 12th hole is a 538-yard par 5 that goes dogleg left along a relatively narrow fairway. There are trees and desert brush along the sides of the fairway and even a small pond that's not really in play. But it's the approach to the green that truly steals the show.

The green is up on a hill. Leading up that steep little hill are three long, deep bunkers stacked one after the other - hence the Jailhouse Steps moniker.

"If you get into those bunkers, you might not ever get out," Fossenkemper said, smiling.

It sounds like more hype than ominous threat at the clubhouse. How often have golfers heard something like that from a director of golf trying to build mystique around his course? Then you're on 12 in the bunker and suddenly the hype's biting.

The bunkers are positioned in such a stack that if you blast out of the first one, you're liable to land in the third. And if you overcompensate for that possibility and really let loose, you're apt to send your pitch out of the first bunker and up over the hilltop green.

It's one of the more enjoyable dilemmas you'll find in Phoenix golf. So much for the boring par 5s.

"Those bunker steps play with your head, man," Chicago golfer Kevin Parcycuck said.

If No. 12 plays mind games, No. 18 tempts with the possibilities. Alcatraz features a true island green of course. But it is the relative shortness of this par 4 that tantalizes and torments. At 362 yards from the back tees, the Tiger Woods-types of the world would simply drive the green.

The average bogey golfer is left with an interesting decision, however. You don't want to leave yourself with an uncomfortable, unfamiliar yardage on your second shot. For finding yourself in between clubs on the approach to this island green is a sure recipe for a splashdown.

The waterbody itself is not a significant carry. This isn't the 17th at Sawgrass by any means. But it's still an impressive enough looking tableau of blue to make a golfer think twice or flinch on swing for a plop. There are few bunkers o fairway's edge along the water and in front of the green to catch errant shots that would otherwise roll in. This hole isn't designed toruthlessly punish as much as to royally entertain.

That's what Phantom Horse is all about. Some might say it's too short at 6,336 yards from the back tees, but there's plenty of course here if you're not looking for something to prove. In fact, Phantom Horse brings golfers back to a period before every course had to be 7,000-plus yards, revealing just how enthralling that time could be.

"It's very traditional," Fossenkemper said.

There are still four par 5s you can rip driver out on and bomb away. The second hole comes in at a very healthy 596 yards. The difference comes in the fact there are five par 3s.

These are worthwhile plays, however, particularly the 202-yard 17th. This par 3 features a forced carry over a desert brush area to a raised green, which can be tricky depending on pin placement. The green provides a great view of the mountains looming in the background.

Phantom Horse allows you to get lost in the scenery, at least on the back nine. While portions of the front nine stretches along the bustling neighboring resort and on a few holes a highway, the back nine stands devoid of most signs of construction progress.

From No. 12 on, you can get into your own little golf world until you're shooting for that 18th island green along the clubhouse patio and outdoor bar.

This is a relatively new twist to Phantom Horse. A reconstruction two years ago set things up so the 18th finishes right along a new clubhouse. Prior to that, the 18th finished out on the edge of the course with the clubhouse still a long drive up on a hill.

The switch adds a dash of drama to the close. Now golfers shoot for the island green with a peanut gallery of finished and emboldened hackers at the outdoor bar.

On a crowded day, it can be almost like being a PGA Tour player playing to the crowd.

"It's fun to shoot for the island with a little crowd watching," local golfer Ed Jamison said. "Of course, it's not so fun if you land one in the water. And it really loses its luster if you manage to put two in there."

Jamison laughed.

No one said fun always equaled stress-free.

The verdict

Phantom Horse stands out from the crowd of Phoenix-Scottsdale resort courses with its distinct character. It would be worth finding your way out here if just to play the stacked bunkers of No. 12 and the island green of No. 18. These are gripping and enjoyable holes.

But Phantom Horse is more than a few memorable holes. The entire round flows well as golfers realize they don't have to play the now-standard 7,000-plus yard courses to get their money's worth.

With its shorter yardage, Phantom Horse is a favorite of women and senior golfers. It may not be the longest course in the world, but it never plays down to you either. It's a challenge.

On this day, in the midst of the change from paradise Arizona fall to scorching Arizona summer, there were a few splotchy patches in fairways. The course was transitioning from rye to Bermuda grass and that's not always pretty.

The difference at Phantom Horse comes in how open the staff is about such things. Led by Fossenkemper, they don't try to fool golfers or gloss over a few rough spots. They let hackers know upfront. This refreshing honesty makes all the difference in goodwill.

Besides even when Phantom Horse isn't as green as it is during its prime, it's a fun play.

Places to eat

The greater Old Town Scottsdale area is home to many of the best restaurants in Arizona. Chef Nobuo Fukuda works wonders with his counter side tasting menus at Sea Saw ((480) 481-9463), producing dishes every bit the equal of New York's more famous Nobu at a third of the cost.

For a happening, mingling spot, you only have to go down the alley behind Sea Saw and open the unmarked door to the Kazimierz World Wine Bar ((480) 946-3004). Sure, this forced, faux mysteriousness is a little cheesy, but once you get inside the comfortable place where the Phoenix area's 30- and 40-somethings relax with a selection of 1,800 wines to choose from, you'll forgive it. Make sure you try the Country Pate.

Places to stay

The Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort ((602) 997-2626) is far enough away from the hustle and bustle to provide a relaxing getaway retreat and close enough to easily reach all the areas you want to visit. This sprawling complex includes a meandering, slow-raft-lounging pool and a putting practice course. There are a half-dozen golf courses within a 10-minute drive.

The Scottsdale Resort & Conference Center ((480) 991-9000) provides distinctive, comfortable accommodations at cheaper rates than some of the surrounding resorts that aren't as nice, but still run well over $100. This is an especially good place to get a last-minute deal. Another bonus is that most of the rooms have balconies to enjoy the area's temperate winter weather.

Fast Fact

Five holes were changed in the $2.5 million, 2002 redesign.

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
  • Phantom Horse

    Barry Cronin wrote on: Jun 1, 2005

    Who is the architect/architects?


    • RE: Phantom Horse

      Phoenix Golfer wrote on: Jun 27, 2005

      Forrest Richardson designed this dog track. One of the worst golf courses ever made. The fairways are about 2 feet wide....the course is in bad condition.....their isn't a driving range...the clubhouse is small...with no place to eat inside......badly designed holes where you hit 7 iron off par 4's.....holes that run by major roads......par 3's that you hit down to two tier greens from 100 yards......poor service.....bad green reason at all to play this goat track.....I play it every year in a company outing.......there are many many many better courses than this one........