Vistal Golf Club in Phoenix fights back with great green fees

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

PHOENIX -- Armed with bargain green fees and gusto, Vistal Golf Club is fighting to grab a bigger share of the Phoenix golf market.

Vistal Golf Club
Shortly after opening, Sports Illustrated included Vistal G.C. on its list of the top-10 new public courses in the U.S.
Vistal Golf Club
If you go

Located in south Phoenix, the club changed hands about a year ago after some financial problems.

"We're starting to get people back again," said Drew Hazen, head golf professional. "We're getting a lot of repeat business. There are a lot of locals. But we're also a great entrance and exit course for visitors because we're so close to the airport."

This course took off with a big splash in late 2001, partly because it was built by the Thunderbirds, the non-profit organization that sponsors the FBR Open. Known as the Thunderbirds Golf Club, the club had green fees comparable to some of the better courses in the area. But the downswing in travel after Sept. 11, 2001, hit the Phoenix golf market hard, including this club. After a number of other problems, the course was sold in a bank auction in early 2003 to Phoenix-area investors who have concentrated on improving service and luring locals even in the high season.

Significantly, one of the new owners is Arturo Moreno, the near-billionaire who recently made baseball history. Last year he became the first Latino to acquire a Major League Baseball team when he bought the Anaheim Angels from the Walt Disney Co. for $184 million. One of his first moves in Anaheim was to cut concession prices. He had also previously owned the minor league baseball team, the Salt Lake City Trappers, where he boosted attendance by cutting ticket prices and offering innovative discounts.

So change has been the name of the game at Vistal for some time now. The new name -- Vistal -- is a loose translation of the words "view of the village" in Spanish. This refers to the view of downtown Phoenix you can have here on clear days. The site is at the base of South Mountain, a peak whose brush-pocked slopes provide a rugged backdrop to the fairways.

Other differences: The nines were swapped to make it easier for the staff to keep track of who is on the first tee. The tee boxes dropped from five sets to four, and the GPS units are gone from the carts.

The course remains a great test of accuracy. This is a modified desert-target style course with some washes to cross. Be wary of the greenside bunkers and their steep faces.

The 18 holes were originally laid out with donations of design services from several PGA pros, including Phoenix area residents Tom Lehman, Howard Twitty and Billy Mayfair. And shortly after opening, Sports Illustrated picked the course as No. 5 among the magazine's list of the top-10 new public courses in the nation.

If there's one downside to the layout, it's that the fairways are tight and lie close together. Expect to hear the guys next door yell "Fore" off and on, and then duck.

The par-3s here are among the treats on the course, like No. 3 (167 yards from the back tees and 108 from the forward). The peninsula-style green slopes from left to right toward a lake that swings around the front of the approach.

The par-3 No. 8 (144 from the back and 91 from the forward) takes you up the mountain to tee boxes where you need a big lofted lob over a brushy area to get to the green. It's allegedly one of the easiest holes on the course, but it's easy to lose a ball here in the brittlebush and mesquite. All the par-3s are different and you'll need a different club on every one of them.

An especially photogenic hole is the par-4 No. 6 (430 yards from the back tees, 290 from the forward). You're teeing off from an elevated area on the mountain that gives a fantastic look at the skyscrapers and Bank One Ballpark below. You need a big carry over desert here and you're also coping with a dogleg right.

One of the water holes is No. 9, a long par-5 with trouble on the approach. From the elevated tee boxes, you first go over a wash and then need to veer left, but not too left or you'll encounter the bunkers on that side. Then you need to thread your way past a lake on the right to get to the double green that also provides the pin and hole for No. 18.

Fairway conditions are good and improving. Hazen said that the club held off overseeding until late all in order to pick up business while other clubs closed down. As a result the winter rye didn't take as well as it should. But extra watering is bringing it back.

One of the real upsides here is the service. Everyone from bag drop attendants to the desk clerk to the rangers seem excited about Vistal. Hazen, who previously worked at the plush and private Desert Mountain, says that there are many new staff members on board who went through extensive training during the summer. "And we try to have fun here," he said.

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment