The Duke is a challenge that's worth the 35-mile trip
MARICOPA, Ariz. - You've got to have a spirit of adventure to play some of the newest courses being built in the Phoenix area these days, like The Duke at Rancho El Dorado.
That's because you have to drive about 35 miles out of the city until you get to almost wide-open desert. Although it might seem like a long way out there, The Duke, a Wild West kind of experience, is a challenge that's worth the trip.
The course is the centerpiece of a 1,600-acre community where contractors plan to build more than 5,500 homes eventually. Rancho El Dorado and The Duke are located near Maricopa, a small town west of I-10, the highway that runs from Phoenix to Tucson.
These new courses start out on flat, open sites with mountains in the distance. At The Duke, Phoenix architect David Druzisky has created a rolling terrain of knolls and bumps on the fairways, combined with elevated greens. He's also made effective use of the Santa Rosa Wash, which wiggles through the course introducing hazards, and forced carries. "The original site was absolutely flat," Druzisky said, "but 3 million yards of dirt were moved to create the sites for the houses surrounding the course. So we were able to cut out a golf course with contours and subtle shapes."
The distance from Phoenix makes land and housing prices cheap. So green fees are lower as well than at pricier courses in Phoenix and Scottsdale. From Feb. 1 through April 6, The Duke will charge $80 during the week and $85 on weekends for non-Arizona residents and $60 and $65 for Arizonans. Phil Green, president of OB Sports, which manages the property said, "We view this course as a complement to We-Ko-Pa and it will be at a different price level. There's a lot of value here for what you get."
At We-Ko-Pa, a high-end desert-mountain course in Fountain Hills, also managed by OB Sports, the green fees in the high season are $180 for non-residents, $95 for residents, seven days a week.
Apparently, the price is right at The Duke because it's been packed since it opened a few weeks ago. According to Bret Greenwood, general manager of the course, The Duke has averaged 90 players a day, mostly Arizona residents.
The Duke is a long course - 7,011 yards from the back tees and 5,136 from the forward. It's also tough and challenging with uphill approaches to most greens. These situations call for using a longer or bigger club than usual. Don't be fooled by the relatively low slope and rating that the course got from the Arizona Golf Association - 120 and 72.4 from the back tees. Greenwood plans to have the association back next year to re-rate the course.
Architect Druzisky said his two favorite holes are Nos. 12 and 13 because of "their dynamic bunker placement that is of the Pine Valley type." No. 12 is a mid-length par-4 (375 yards from the back tees, 260 yards from the forward) and has seven bunkers, the most of any hole on the course. No. 13 is the shortest par 3 (149 from the back, 99 from the forward). "It has a big, sandy waste area on the left and the green is perched above it," he said. "But you can bail out to the right."
In fact, the par-3s seem to be one of the real strengths of this course. The par-3 No. 5 (177 from the back tees and 104 from the forward) is the most photogenic hole. It requires a shot to an island green ringed with palm trees. From the back tees, set at 177 yards, you need to carry 120 to 140 yards to get over the water. "A lot of architects might have had the green run right up to the water," Druzisky said, "but I left about 20 yards of approach in the front to make it accessible."
A much tougher par-3 is No. 16 (225 yards from the back tees, 149 from the forward). From the slightly elevated tees, you stare straight into a giant bunker shaped like a saucer standing on end. It protects the bunker on the left side and almost completely blocks your view of a green that falls away to the right. "That bunker is your target," Druzisky said.
In other words, you have to hit your ball up and over the bunker to reach the green. "Then the ball will run down to the green," he said. "But there's still some space - about 20 yards - to cover. It's not the typical aerial game that you find on a par-3."
So don't expect to hit the green and get two putts for par, Druzisky said. More likely you'll hit your first shot, then try to chip close to the pin and putt in. The favorite hole of general manager Brett Greenwood is No. 18, a par-5 dogleg left (523 yards from the back tees, 416 from the forward). "It has a lot of water on the left and a lot of native vegetation and it makes for a great finishing hole," he said.
Druzisky, also designer of DragonRidge in Las Vegas, came up with the name for The Duke. "It's a neat, strong name that grabs your attention," he said. "Everyone thought it sounds kind of rough and tumble."
Of course, "Duke" was a nickname associated with the late cowboy actor John Wayne, who does have some history in the area, but who has nothing to do with the golf course. The management firm, OB Sports, is well known for playing off themes at its courses, and has successfully used a Western motif here. The tee markers are made out of slices of train rails and bag tags are shaped like a boot with a spur on the back. The clubhouse that will open in the fall will also have a rustic ranch house look.
Where to stay
Nearby is the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort on the Gila River Reservation, south of Phoenix. This brand-new, very spiffy resort is about eight or nine miles north of The Duke and is off I-10. It has 500 rooms and two great championship golf courses, designed by Scottsdale's Gary Panks, which you can also play.
Address: 5594 Wild Horse Pass Blvd., Chandler.
Web site: www.sheraton.com
Places to see
There's not much near the course, but you can drive farther south on I-10 to the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in the town of Coolidge. Admission is $3, including a visit to the on-site museum and a tour led by a park ranger. Hohokam Indians built a village here in the 1300s and then abandoned it by the end of the century. If you're coming from Phoenix, take the Casa Grande exit off I-10 and travel about 15 miles to the site on Route 87.
February 18, 2003