Irwin's Prescott Lakes Golf and C.C. a surprise wonder in Scottsdale's shadow

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

PRESCOTT, Ariz. - Teeing off at Prescott Lakes Golf and Country Club is like sitting down to read an unexpectedly good book. Before long you are so engrossed in what's unfolding, you've lost all track of time and place.

You are in Prescott - a town about an hour and half from Phoenix more known for its Old Wild West ties and unArizona-like temperate temperatures than its burgeoning golf scene. It could be the middle of winter, a time when most of the U.S. is buried in snow.

Yet once a golfer gets into Prescott Lakes' Hale Irwin design, all those details fade away. You might as well be playing one of the $300 resort courses in Palm Springs on a sunny spring day. Prescott Lakes takes you away like Calgon was supposed to in that famous advertising campaign. As early as the tee box of the second hole, the seduction's taking hold.

A lake hugs the left side of a narrow fairway, desert brush beckons to the right and bunkers are all around. This isn't the cookie-cutter par-4 you've seen on a half-dozen courses. It is a challenge with some character. It is the little things that count big here. The emphasis on skillful accuracy over pure distance. The size and depth of the bunkers - true tests rather than baby sandboxes just put there because something has to be put there. The green and playable fairway lies even in the dead of winter.

All these little things add up to a hole that captures your attention.

Sure, a lot of courses have a hole or two this worthy and unique. The key to Prescott Lakes is that these holes keep coming, one after another for the most part. Irwin's design isn't geared to a few breathtaking, so-called signature holes, it is largely equal opportunity. Six different golfers could play Prescott Lakes and walk away talking about six different favorite holes.

"There's a different story to every hole," head pro Trey Newton said.

The kind of story you don't expect to find in Prescott. This is a course that would be a great play in almost any of the best-known golf meccas. The fact that it is here in this town where the hotels and the golf are reasonable only adds to the intrigue. Prescott Lakes is the type of course diehard golfers travel for, and much farther than the relatively quick trip from Scottsdale a visit here requires.

Still, despite all this, Prescott Lakes largely remains a golf mystery. This is due to the fact that the course is a private club, with memberships starting at $30,000 per year. Which should only make your round on it that much more enjoyable. That's right, your round.

You do not need 30 grand to play Prescott Lakes. In fact, in most cases all it takes is a call ahead and a friendly golf-interested approach. Operations manager Ray Miller and Newton love letting golfers experience the course.

"The course itself is our best advertising," Ray Miller said.

Miller's convinced a round here and you'll be falling in love, maybe even $30,000-membership love. The mission is to sell as many memberships as possible of course, but that doesn't mean you have to endure a time-share-like sales spiel. Miller and Newton understand that golfers just want to golf, and they give any potential members all the hassle of a nun who's taken a vow of silence.

The easiest part of Prescott Lakes may be getting on the course. This isn't a course where you're going to come anywhere near a career low. Especially the first time you play it. With each hole so unique, it takes even longer to get comfortable with the best way to approach this 18. Which makes it the perfect kind of course for the golfer who truly loves golf.

It's a challenge to figure out the best way to tackle the 601-yard, par-5 eighth and its two gullies dissecting the fairway with a hillside and a dogleg right green guarded by more sand than most people see on a tropical vacation. It is equally trying to hatch a plan for the 539-yard, par-5 11th, a hole that gives you something else to think about just when you think you've navigated the worst of it. For once the green's in sight around the sharp right corner, you see there is clear, blue water right behind it and to the right of it. Turns out, the approach is the shot that takes the most care after all.

Nothing tops No. 14 though - a 402-yard par 4 with a fairway essentially tilted down to the right on a huge hill that stretches the entire hole. The shortest path to the green is to go right down the bottom of the hill, but that puts you on a potential crash course with back-to-back-to-back crater bunkers. Where as going high offers a longer, but easier route.

Decisions, decisions.

It is all about strategy at Prescott Lakes, all about what club you're taking out of the bag, all about which side of the fairway you decide to shoot down. Whether you're a would-be pro or a proud three-digit hacker, your choices are going to be crucial.

"A lot of guys say they're going to do better the next time they play it," Newton said, smiling. "They want to come back and conquer it."

Which is part of Prescott Lakes' charm. Irwin doesn't force you to carry a canyon or to clear a body of water that could be mistaken for Lake Michigan. This course seems conquerable. It is spectacular without being showy, the difference between a Barry Sanders touchdown and a Randy Moss touchdown.

The verdict on Prescott Lakes Golf and C.C.

If you're going to play one course in Prescott, this is the one. Which is actually extremely unfair to the other worthy courses in Prescott. For Prescott Lakes is a course that would demand play anywhere. It is the kind of course that makes you wonder why anyone would ever plunk down $235 to play Las Vegas' Reflection Bay.

"I could name my price (on greens fees) if this course was in Scottsdale or Palm Springs," Miller said.

He was smiling though. Which is another part of what makes Prescott Lakes such a good time. Even though it is a private course, its vibe is much more friendly neighborhood bar than country club.

"We're more Bud Light than champagne," Newton said. "It's mostly a middle-class membership. If you were middle class in California, you're rich in Prescott and playing golf."

Yet for all its low-key charm and its little service touches (like the brand new balls on the tiered, exact-course-greens-and-bunkers-replicated practice range), Irwin's feel is what he really counts. Almost any designer can make a fun par 3 or two. At Prescott Lakes, Irwin manages to make the par 5s sing.

Places to eat

Prescott Lakes is in the process of building a huge clubhouse, which will include dining options. Until that happens, the best place to find grub with character is Prescott's downtown Whiskey Row. Murphy's ((928) 445-4044) ) is just one of the places on the National Register of Historic Places in this Old Wild West area. Nearby, Rose Restaurant ((928) 777-8308) is supposed to have the most creative menu in town, heavily Italian. Rose is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays though.

Places to stay

This condo complex rents 11 of its units to golfers, each one individually decorated. There is also a huge gathering room that's been deemed the golfer frequent flyer lounge. What makes Villas At The Ridge stick out though is its do-anything-to-please staff.

Avoid the Quality Inn & Suites Conference Center which looks nicer and appears much more reasonable from the outside than it really is. This is the kind of place you drop $110 for a room you could get for almost half that down the street.

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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