Men-only fuss aside, Southern Dunes Golf Club in Maricopa is Couples' best work

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

MARICOPA, Ariz. - It's as alien to the Phoenix-Scottsdale resort corridor as snow, as full of hidden tricks as a magician with a mean streak.

Southern Dunes Golf Club  - greens
The bunkers are huge and the greens vast at Southern Dunes Golf Club.
Southern Dunes Golf Club  - greensSouthern Dunes Golf Club - Below GreenSouthern Dunes Golf Club in Maricopa, Ariz.Fred Couples - Southern Dunes Designer
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Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club

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Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club was designed to offer a unique playing opportunity to test players of all levels of expertise. Built in 2002, this Fred Couples and Schmidt-Curley-designed golf course was created in the tradition of some of the world’s most coveted courses.

18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 72 | 7546 yards | Book online | ... details »

Fred Couples came up with anything but the same old course at Southern Dunes Golf Club. "I think it's the best of Fred's golf courses," Couples' longtime friend Kevin Cochran said, looking out at the tall, gangly native grasses swaying in the breeze.

Of course, there's a rub to that pronouncement: Only a select few guys are likely to see Couples' best work. Emphasis on "guys." Southern Dunes is a men-only club, the only one in Arizona and one of a scant few left in the entire United States to that distinction. Southern Dunes Golf Club has received a lot of publicity for this fact, and hardly any for Couples' design.

Which is a shame, in some ways.

Opened in 2002, Southern Dunes Golf Club remains something of a mystery. Many of the dedicated golfers you'll run into around Phoenix will draw blanks at the mention of place. It's not under the radar as much as it's never been on it.

Take away that burst of publicity that centered on its men-only stance and Southern Dunes has passed largely uncommented upon. Internet searches do not yield any reviews of the course (until this one).

So what's Southern Dunes Golf Club like? It's wide open, yet with tight landing areas. At times the almost tree-less course looks like something straight out of the Nebraska prairie. But, as General Manager Garrett Wallace said, "There's so much visual deception people can get into trouble they didn't think was out there."

The grasses are striking - thick, punishing and omnipresent. You spend so much time shooting over and around the stuff that you're liable to think Couples is trying to punish you for one of his divorces.

I wasn't eyeing your ex, Freddie, I swear! Please, no more tall grass!

"It's so different," said Jim Glenn, a guest playing Southern Dunes for the third time. "What I like is that there are no gimmicks. If you hit a good shot, you're going to be rewarded. If you don't ... well, you're going to pay for it."

There needn't need to be this much mystery over Southern Dunes. Not for the unfair sex, at least. The club is on a membership drive, and it's not so hard to get out on the course if you show an interest - and, of course, you are male. It might be one of your more enjoyable rounds of the year, whether you end up joining or not.

There are partial memberships available for $2,500 a year, junior memberships for $5,000, and $35,000 gets you fully vested in the club. For all its men-only bluster, Southern Dunes isn't as hoity-toity exclusive as you might think.

"We have a diverse membership," Wallace said. "We've got all walks of life, from guys who hang wallpaper to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies."

OK, it is hilarious to hear the GM at a men-only club rave about its "diverse" membership. But there's no denying that this is a golf-fixated membership. There's little discussion of career status here. No one cares about what you do; they just care about how you play. And whether they can beat you - and clean out your wallet while doing it.

"The thing I like about is that I can always show and find a game on Saturday morning," said Bryan Hoops, one of the top adult amateur players in Arizona.

"Whether you're looking for a $1 Nassau or a $500 Nassau, you can find it," Wallace said.

There are no tee times at Southern Dunes. For the members it's show up and play. For someone used to public golf, it's no small thrill to take your time at the practice range, deciding when you want to go out on a course that belong almost completely to your foursome in the middle of Scottsdale's traditional mid-morning rush time.

Couples' design (it's a Schmidt-Curley collaboration, as usual) only builds on this effect. The holes are spread out, far enough from each other that you can quickly become lost in your own golf world. The utter absence of houses adds another dimension. By the time you get to No. 4, a 165-yard par 3 with its green squeezed tight by huge titled bunkers, you're sure to have already been hooked.

This is Couples' best, and you won't care who else gets to play it. You'll just be glad you did.

Southern Dunes Golf Club: The verdict

If you're a guy with money to spend on a golf-club membership, or a guy who can look like he has money to spend on one (you don't show up here in jean shorts), a round at Southern Dunes Golf Club should be on your Arizona golf to-do list. Couples is going to make you sweat.

Southern Dunes has a 137 slope rating from the tips (7,494 yards), a 135 from the Blacks (7,337) and a 128 from the Blues (6,851). (If you're thinking of playing the whites, you're probably at the wrong golf course.) Almost every hole includes at least one forced carry - usually a huge expanse of those long, gnarly grasses that are all but impossible to hit out of. Sometimes just landing below the raised ridge green can be punishing enough, like on the 370-yard, par-4 second.

The 15th through 18th will leave you with plenty to discuss over that post-round beer. The closing stretch includes a 576-yard par-5 (No. 16) where a quick scan reveals no hint of fairway grass (Cochran helpfully informs, "You want it hit it 350 here") and the only par 3 you're likely to see with layers of bunkers (No. 17).

There's visually intimidating and then there's visually you've-got-to-be-kidding-me. Southern Dunes crosses the line with relish.

Of course, then you hit a great approach shot on No. 18, a dogleg-right, lake-skirting-par 4 (it's the only water on the course), and you're ready to take on Southern Dunes all over again. Thought it might be best not to whip out your checkbook right after the round, when the wonder's still on. Thirty-five grand's a lot of money.

Then again ...

Dining out

One of the things that makes Southern Dunes distinct is that it's out there (really out there) from the Phoenix-Scottsdale resort corridor. It's only a 40-minute drive from North Scottsdale, but once you turn off the main highway, it seems a whole lot farther removed than that.

In an area marked by congestion - house after house next to each other, golf courses squeezed together so close that you can pass five on one major street - Southern Dunes is literally in its own world. The road to the course is so wide and desert-set that you might wonder if you made the right turn a few times.

That adds to atmosphere, but not to dining choices. Maricopa is a bit more built-up than when the club opened, but your food options are still limited. There's a strip mall with a Carl's Jr. and a pizza joint on the turn toward the course. You're probably better off just grabbing one of the free snacks at the clubhouse (another benefit of playing a membership course as a nonmember).

Stay and play

If you can afford to even consider dropping $35,000 in membership fees, you'll want to stay at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. This sprawling AAA Five Diamond resort offers huge pool complexes that are open 24 hours a day. No more fitting your golf or dining schedule around the pool schedule.

Add a spa that just may take pampering to new heights with its own private waterfall pool and this is real luxury in a town with too many pretender hotels claiming that distinction.

The Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort is far enough from the hustle and bustle to provide a relaxing getaway retreat and close enough for easy access to all the areas you want to visit (including a good half-dozen golf courses within a 10-minute drive). This sprawling complex includes a meandering, raft-lounging pool and a putting practice course.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Now under new ownership, Southern Dunes Golf Club went public and welcomed women in November of 2008.

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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