Nature trumps forced carries at Prescott's one-of-a-kind Stone Ridge

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. - The coyote lingers on the 14th tee, not intimidated by the golf cart coming up over the ridge one bit. It is a jarring sight for a city dweller, a clear reminder you're not in the Phoenix-Scottsdale resort labyrinth anymore.

Suddenly, even your favorite three wood looks woefully inadequate.

Especially when the coyote yawns. No club's doing anything against those teeth. Space-age technology does have its limits after all.

Then just as quickly as he/she (who's getting close enough to tell?) appeared, the coyote is gone, vanishing into the brush. Again, it is jarring, noting how quickly the creature covered the ground, imagining how swiftly it could have lunged the other way as well.

Getting pumped to drill your drive isn't so easy anymore. You find yourself glancing over at the deep mountain bushes on all sides, wondering what else is out here.

Then the howling starts. It sounds close, appears to be coming from all sides, bouncing off the dramatic hills and valleys that mark the Stone Ridge Golf Course.

Turns out the coyote has plenty of friends.

A smile is on the way now. You hear the coyotes marking their territory, challenging the lone fools with golf clubs out here at twilight, their time, and cannot help but grin. This is why you come to Prescott, to experience things you're not going to experience in the tired and true golf destinations. And you're definitely not going to get to swing to a coyote chorus in Scottsdale's resort paradises.

Bring up Stone Ridge in Prescott and the first thing anyone asks you is, "How many balls did you lose?" This course of steep elevation changes carries a local reputation for almost Rubik's Cube-like difficulty, with its greens sitting on ledges, guarded by canyons. But in truth, all the forced carries can grow monotonous. It is the setting, particularly the secluded, coyote-friendly back nine, that really makes this course work.

Rather than standing as one-trick magician, Stone Ridge's surroundings give the Randy Heckenkemper design a resonance it might otherwise lack. This is a course you want to play as the last group on a sunny, slow January Monday afternoon. The better to get lost in the moment.

"When I want to impress my out-of-town friends, I take them out to Stone Ridge," said Prescott golfer and Southern Californian transplant Howard Butler. "It's the course they haven't seen anything like before. So I show them and hope they have a lot of balls."

It is unlikely any golfer, extra balls or not, has seen quite this many forced carries on any one course. Heckenkemper dares you to clear huge gullies, dramatic drops and stony rock croppings. Then he turns around and double dares you all over again.

The most entertaining stretch of forced carries - there really is no other kind of stretch here - is No. 8 through No. 10. It starts off with a 186-yard par-3 where golfers aim at an almost-island-looking green hanging in the air. Any ball that misses this landing area has nowhere to go but down. There's no echo when your Pro V goes tumbling into the abyss, but there might as well be. Adding to the dramatic effect, there are circular stone walls set up next to the green across from the tee.

Get it on the green and you have a great chance at par or a relatively routine bogey. Miss from the tee and you're setting yourself up for a skyrocketing number.

For once many golfers find the bottom of the canyon once at Stone Ridge, a repeat visit never seems to be far behind. It is almost like the high-tech GPS systems on the carts are suddenly matched by a haywire, bottom-fixated system on your clubs. Those Titleists are headed for the low ground.

"A lot of people get intimidated," assistant pro Luke Davidson said. "They don't like seeing the fairway across from them or below them."

It is not the difficulty of the individual forced carries, it is the sheer volume that tests here. Finding one or two of Stone Ridge's carries on any course, most decent golfers would not have much trouble. But faced with an endless succession of them, there is no time to breathe or regroup after a gully shot.

Typical of the course, after shooting at the air island of No. 8, it's straight to a 575-yard par-5 that requires not one, but two carries. The first is right off the tee, the second is halfway down the fairway. Here the golfer's shooting over a rocky desert drop that not even the best trick shot artist could mount a recovery from. For the most part when you land in one of Heckenkemper's obstacles, you've lost a ball.

If Heckenkemper's havoc haven has a masterpiece, it is No. 10. This 430-yard par-4 does not just necessitate a sizable carry off the tee. It requires shooting up a steep dogleg right.

"Most people comment on the 10th hole one way or the other," Davidson said. "A lot of people love it and a lot of people hate it."

It is best not to get too worked up over your game, your score or your feelings on the design at Stone Ridge. Instead just go with the carry flow and enjoy the scene. One of the great things about Stone Ridge is it literally takes you up and down through the canyon. There are frequent and severe elevation changes.

The cart paths have speed bumps. That's right, speed bumps. It is easy to scoff at what looks like unnecessary showmanship. Easy that is until you give the cart a little too much gas on the downhill and need those little bumps. It is all climbing and dipping, straining every bit of cart, giving your eyes plenty to strain at.

If your idea of a secluded course comes from a Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach or Scottsdale take on one, Stone Ridge is likely to shatter those perceptions. The trees and hills seemingly stretch everywhere, mountains looming in the background. Except for the coyotes, it's quiet.

For a course that seemingly tries so hard to frustrate with its forced carry parade, Stone Ridge might actually turn out to be one of your most relaxing rounds. Once you accept the coyotes and they accept you, of course.

The Verdict

A golf trip to Prescott isn't complete without a round at Stone Ridge. As Davidson notes, "It's much more dramatic and extreme than the other courses around here." This might not be the course you want to play every day, but it is a course you want to experience.

Chances are something about this round will stick with you, whether it is the shots over gullies, the windy trip through the canyon or just a coyote or antelope close encounter. This is the kind of place that grabs your interest. You may not love the course, but you'll be curious about the mind behind it.

Heckenkemper's design starts off like it is going to ease you into the round. The first five holes are relatively trick free, including a fun little par-3 third. But before you know it, the forced carries are piling up like cars on LA's 405 freeway and you're off, liable to run into trouble. Four legged or otherwise.

Places to eat

The most famous restaurant in Prescott is The Palace ((928) 777-8308), a saloon that dates back to the days of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. There are number of neat Old Wild West artifacts kept in glass display cases around the large dining room. The real treat is the authentic swinging saloon doors. The food's decent, especially if you like your steaks grilled cowboy style. But this is place where the scene and the atmosphere are the real stars.

For cheap dinning with a little more character than your average fast food joint, both Prescott's casinos - Bucky's and Yavapai ((928) 445-5767) - offer great deals on heaping portions of tacos, hot dogs and the like in an attempt to draw customers through the doors.

Places to stay

The staff will set up your entire golf itinerary if you wish, leaving you little to worry about besides your swing thoughts. There are three, five and seven-day golf packages available, averaging out to about $600 per person for the entire stay and play experience.

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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