The Raven at South Mountain: Midwestern, traditional golf in the middle of inner-city Phoenix

By David R. Holland, Contributor

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- There were lots of doubters when Larry Lippon formed Raven Golf back in 1994 and decided his first location would be inner-city Phoenix, right next door to South Mountain Park, the world's largest city park.

Raven at South Mountain golf course - No. 18
Water in front and back makes the Raven at South Mountain's par-4, 428-yard 18th a nice challenge.
Raven at South Mountain golf course - No. 18Raven at South Mountain golf course
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Raven Golf Club - Phoenix

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3636 E Baseline Rd
Phoenix, Arizona 85042
Maricopa County
Phone(s): (602) 243-3636
18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 72 | 7078 yards | ... details »

A successful Montana businessman, entrepreneur and avid golfer, Lippon, moved Arizona in 1992, and decided the recreational golfer needed more high-quality daily-fee golf experiences. He envisioned a country club for a day with unparalleled service and conditions and he made it happen.

In 1998, Raven Golf was acquired by Intrawest, a leading developer of mountain resorts across the USA, and today the lists of Raven Golf Clubs equals five. The others are The Raven at Sabino Springs in Tucson, The Raven at Sandestin in Florida and The Raven at Three Peaks in Silverthorne, CO. Raven Golf will announce plans shortly for a new resort in the eastern USA.

On this day at The Raven at South Mountain, the 1999 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Champion, Jody Niemann-Dansie, was fine-tuning her game on the practice range, preparing for her first LPGA start.

"This practice facility is really good for me," said Neimann-Dansie. "The yardage marking system goes down to 20 yards on up so you can get really precise. And the putting green is so large you can practice everything - from the long lags to shorter putts."

Every once in a while she also gets an opportunity to practice alongside PGA Tour players like Andrew Magee, Jim Ahern and Mark Calcavecchia.

"Just yesterday I was working on my short game, hitting them thin, and I asked Jim Ahern for some help," said Niemann-Dansie, who played golf at Arizona State. "He gave me some pointers that helped immediately. Also, the tour guys that come around here frequently give me some insight to life on the tour.

"You can always count on this course being in great condition and full of challenges. It can get pretty narrow and there are some tough recovery shots from the rough, especially if you get in the mulch around the trees," said Niemann-Dansie, who grew up in Rigby, Idaho.

No doubt these folks are doing something right. The Raven at South Mountain is a favorite hangout for Arizona Diamondbacks players, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Calcavecchia.

Lippon's layout scheme was created by Gary Panks and David Graham. It's a 7,078-yard, par-72 course on 162 acres that was a former cotton field. The flat land was transformed by moving 800,000 cubic yards of earth into an expansive field of a countless framing mounds and 7,100 Aleppo, Mondale and Canary Island pines. More vegetation includes African sumac and oleander lining the fairways and 42,000 bales of pine needles brought in to pack around the newly planted trees.

Result? Flat, boring land became a verdant, parkland-style Midwestern country club. The subtle elevation changes were enhanced and challenging sand and grass bunkers were edged against large multi-tiered bentgrass greens. It all became a strategic design, but a fair one, even with water coming into play on four holes and a series of waterfalls and a pond making the par-4, 428-yard 18th a nice challenge with water in front and behind.

Panks' philosophy is to "design more courses with reasonably sloped putting surfaces, broad enough fairway landing areas and hazards that give us half a chance of escaping."

Panks also advocates: "Designing a golf course to make it playable for a diverse set of golfers. The course must be enjoyable by high-caliber players, members, higher handicappers, shorter hitters, men and women. The objective is to design four or five courses in one. The course must be flexible in terms of setup.

Multiple tees (four or five sets per hole) are the first step toward this flexibility. The speed of the greens and the pin positions should also be variable to allow easier and tougher setups. Finally, the rough should be adaptable to a variety of course setups."

Panks' philosophy is apparent in this design. It's challenging, but it can be had. It's a much more playable course for the average golfer than The Raven at Sabino Springs, which challenges you over and over with forced carries and hidden arroyos.

The much ballyhooed service? It's every bit as good as they say. There's mist nozzles on carts and mango-scented wet towels to cool you down in the oppressive Arizona summer heat. The assistant professionals wear two-way radios with headsets so that they are in constant contact with the clubhouse and can be dispatched to serve players at a moment's notice.

Also, Raven player assistants are strategically positioned throughout the golf course - each par-3 holes has an assistant to give you pointers, mark your ball, rake the bunkers and generally keep play moving. Did you run out of golf balls or split your only golf glove? A player assistant can get one for you.

Even though it's a traditional golf course there are some fun, target holes. No. 4 is only 264 yards, but its dotted with six traps straightaway and to the right. You must hit a tee shot down the left side avoiding the trouble. Your reward is a short second shot to the narrow, elongated green.

David R. HollandDavid R. Holland, Contributor

David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter @David_R_Holland.

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