Phoenix fun at Raven South Mountain: Fast greens, good times and friendly smiles

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

PHOENIX - The greens look supersized, large and inviting enough to attract an extraterrestrial searching for a convenient landing pad. All this space is both the curse and the charm of the Raven at South Mountain's layout.

The greens provide plenty of room to make mistakes on your approach shots. In theory at least. For theories tend to go out the window when they're rolling 11 on the stimpmeter. Who knows if Einstein could have kept up that relativity thing if his putts kept rolling off the green and into a bunker.

These extra-large landing areas can ridicule. In some cases you'd be better off hitting an extra chip than plopping your ball down in the wrong spot of these huge greens. Location is key. You quickly learn that the duffer thrill of reaching the green can be short-lived at the Raven.

Here, the ready reply to that should be, "Yeah so. Now get to work."

"The greens are really nice," first-time Raven player Wayne Carlson of Minneapolis said. "They're fast, but true. They're fun."

Which is pretty much what the Raven is all about. It's a fun course, reasonably priced for Phoenix-Scottsdale resort heaven, that's liable to leave a smile on your face all round. It's not a particularly hard course, despite its 130 back tees slope rating. The Raven at South Mountain is a place where the average hacker can get around without much serious trouble, while the competitive players can challenge themselves on several good risk-reward holes.

In short, it's a place where a bungling golf writer can tee it up right after an all-conference college player like Ben Kreger of New Mexico State and everyone feels comfortable.

"It's challenging, but it's fun for the little guy too," Kreger said. "I'd take my friends who weren't great golfers here and we'd all get something out of it.

"Like I really like hole No. 18 with its risk reward, but for the average golfer I'd guess hole No. 3 would be a lot more fun."

No. 18 is actually fun for the mere mortals as well. This 428-yard par-4 curves around a bend and over a few small, rolling hills to a green tucked back to the side with water behind and to the right. The best path to the green is to shoot right. Of course, it's also the most dangerous path with the water and a possible big number lurking.

The Raven's received plenty of hype for holes like this. The press clippings started rolling out soon after it opened in 1995 and it seems like everyone and their mother's given the Raven at South Mountain a best of something. But the truth is, the course is much better now that it's had time to mature a little.

The more than 5,000 pine trees that the design team of David Graham and Gary Panks put into the layout actually look like pine trees now. Shooting down No. 18 with the developed pines flanking the fairway is a real treat you rarely get in the world of desert golf.

"Having the pine trees out in Phoenix, it's just so different from what people are able to play most of the time," Raven sales manager Ryan Barmore said, looking out over 18 from the clubhouse patio.

The pine trees are not all that's a refreshing departure at Raven at South Mountain. In the high-stress, high-traffic labyrinth of Phoenix-Scottsdale, this is something of a low-key oasis. The people working at the Raven actually smile, seem relaxed about the whole experience while paying attention to detail.

When a foursome two groups ahead of us slowed the pace, one of the course attendants drove up and explained the situation while cracking jokes. This guy - a college kid rather than your typical retired gruff marshal - didn't get on the foursome's case to move along and ruin their day, while doing nothing to help the situation. He just kept an eye on it and let the groups right behind know what was coming. And it worked.

On a packed sunny Sunday afternoon, our round time came in at just around four hours.

Nothing's forced at the Raven. This isn't a course where you can get into a lot of dire dilemmas. The fairways are forgiving, even if the distance impaired are not going to get much friendly bounce. Even the desert carries are mostly smooth dirt (a base of mulch chips), allowing you to rather easily hit your ball out. The bunkers are not going to trap you for more than a shot.

This is a course where you're sure you'll get a good score. Unless those greens keep confounding you.

"They must be rolling a 14," Kansas golfer Andy Utz said.

Not quite. But no one gets the license plate of that Porsche whether it's going 120 or a 130 either. At some point, degrees become insignificant.

There are a number of satisfying touches besides the speeding greens.

No. 2 has these perfectly tended two-foot high bushes right in front of the tees. They're not really an obstacle unless you truly shank one, but they're a nice little aesthetic nonetheless.

At No. 7, the scenery turns into a fun obstacle. This 221-yard par 3 is the rare narrow approach on the Raven with water to the left and a huge sloping green on a ridge. I watched one golfer land her shot on the green below the ridge, only to see it roll all the way off, and this was a good 55-foot roll, into the water on the other side.

Such is life at Raven at South Mountain, where the little things loom big.

"There are a number of holes where a small distance makes a huge difference," Barmore said. "You wouldn't think it's a big deal between hitting it 260 and 240. But that 20 yards really makes a difference."

The Verdict

You will have a great time playing at the Raven at South Mountain, but that doesn't mean you'll necessarily remember it in the morning. This is one of the truly enjoyable courses in Phoenix-Scottsdale, but it's not particularly awe-inspiring. That's a distinction to keep in mind.

If you're coming to the area for that once in a lifetime golf trip, there are many more visually arresting playing experiences elsewhere. But if you're a regular Phoenix vacationer or if you're looking for a low-key, enjoyable, moderately-priced round ($99 weekend twilight rates are available even in the high, high season), the Raven is the place for you.

If the holes don't stick with you, the friendly service will. The Raven at South Mountain is the perfect place to spend an afternoon with buddies of various handicaps, shooting away and drinking a few cold ones. (The cart girls come around like clockwork.)

This is the kind of course you'll want to play again, even if you can't remember exactly why. It just leaves you with a good feeling.

Places to eat

The Raven at South Mountain opened as one of the first developments on Baseline Road, an actual fertile farm region in Phoenix. This gives you quick access to Quiessence ( (602) 276-0601), one of the most unique dining experiences in the region.

Set back from the road, this is an actual working farm. (The Farm at South Mountain appropriately enough.) Quiessence is a food adventure from start to finish. Just driving up to it in the dark piques the curiosity. You're in this little gravel parking lot, not sure you're in the right place. Then you get out of your car, walk past the working farm stands and get to what is essentially a little cabin on the edge of the woods.

It really is like dining in someone's house rather than going out for a stuffy, gourmet meal. Only this someone can really cook. Quiessence not only has good food, it's hard to imagine there being a friendlier place in Phoenix.

A little farther away in Scottsdale, 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. Avoid Sea Saw's next door sister restaurant Cowboy Ciao and its overblown claims of having the best chopped salad ever though. Chef difference makes a big difference.

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.

If you book the Holiday Inn Express downtown, you're a traveling fool. It's not that it's a bad hotel. It's actual pretty nice for a Holiday Inn. It's just you could get so much more for the same price. This place shouldn't be charging $100-plus per room.

Fast Fact

The Raven at South Mountain is the first facility to get the Raven symbol in the IntraWest chain. Since it opened in 1995, five other courses have been designated Ravens throughout the West Coast by IntraWest.

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.

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