The Raven at Verrado gives desert golf a shot in the arm
BUCKEYE, Ariz. - Famed golf course architect John Fought never struggled to start a design as much as he did with The Raven at Verrado, but it was a difficulty that he welcomed.
Architects are typically provided 180 to 220 acres of land on which to craft memorable golfing experience. At the Raven at Verrado, Fought was presented with the entire 8,800 acres in the foothills of the White Tank Mountains, 25 miles west of downtown Phoenix.
"We didn't know where to begin," Fought said. "It was like being a mosquito in nudist colony, you know exactly what you want to do, but you don't know where to begin."
Fought and Tom Lehman collaborated on a voluptuous design that meanders through the old Caterpillar bulldozer proving grounds - yeah, it's up and down for 18 holes and we're not talking about "a chip and a putt." The course is good test with chances to score and a handful of memorable and scenic holes.
As for the conditions, nobody in Arizona owns a living room carpet better than The Raven's fairways and greens. The viridescent patches contrast brilliantly against the brown and red desert. The fairways are wide for a desert course, and hard, yielding extra distance off the tee. The same is true of the greens, which are difficult to hold with anything stronger than a 7-iron. But most are big enough to allow for run-up shots.
Where The Raven will eat you alive is in the bunkers. At times, it felt like Fought asked Lehman and an 18 handicap to hit a half dozen tee shots to see where their ball landed, and then used it as a bunker-building guide. Some bunkers are hard to carry, others collect wayward shots. But the fairways are wide enough to avoid trouble, and what appears to be the safe shot off the tee will often bring greenside bunkers more into play. So pick your poison.
The par-4 12th hole, which most agree is the course's best hole, is a perfect example of this design technique. The sprawling green fairway is a scenic oasis at the floor of a box canyon that plays up hill and slightly to the left. But waiting in the middle of this wide fairway 230 yards away is a pot bunker that Old Tom Morris would be proud of - no chance of full recovery. The area left of the bunker is the shorter route, but there is less fairway between the pot bunker and the desert on that side. Go to the right, and the approach is a longer shot to a multi-tier green. This is one of the best holes in the state, and Fought followed it with an entertaining stretch.
The par-4 13th is only 291 yards, but the slope of the green makes it the most difficult to negotiate upon approach. A ridge runs through the middle of the green with a harsh downhill slope in front that will send high shots tumbling back to the fairway. Behind the ridge, the green tilts backward, but to a much lesser degree. If you've got a little Chi Chi Rodriguez or Seve Ballesteros in you, this is the time to bring him out. Good humor and magic will help on this delicate bump and run. This scenic hole, which is at the course's peak elevation, seems simple if taken for its individual parts - short yardage, generous landing area and easy opening to the green. It turns out to be the best mental trap on the course.
But Fought appears to be a fair man. He gives golfers a quick breather to gather themselves on the next hole, a 184-yard par-3 that is 60 feet downhill and plays to a large green. Then comes the par-5 15th, a 587-yard beast that not even Lehman has hit in two. Nos. 17 and 18 are two of the finer finishing holes around. The 17th is a 158-yard par-3 to a peninsula green that appears much tougher when you're trying to close out a low score. The par-4, 478-yard 18th is a well-conceived risk-reward tee shot: carry the bunker and try to use the sudden downhill slope for another 40 yards, or take 3-wood short of the bunker leaving a long iron in. Water guards the right side of the green.
While the back nine is far superior to its sibling, the front still has its fair share of memorable holes. A huge boulder 30 feet tall on the par-4 eighth jets out from the left side around which the fairway shapes itself. A perfect line from the tee box is to take the ball five yards right off its edge, but hitting the boulder is certain death by desert. A shot too far right leaves a long iron or a wood to the green. The boulder was scheduled to crumble via dynamite, but stood up to the TNT and was deemed an immoveable object.
The par-4, 408-yard second is another mental test that golfers consumed with distance will fail. A bunker on the right requires a 260-yard drive to carry, but if your drive strays slightly left of the bunker, it will roll to its death into the base of a ravine 60 feet deep. The hole is straight away, but the ravine cuts off the left two thirds of the fairway. It's hard to judge how far the ravine is from the tee box, but with the hard surfaces, it is drivable.
The Raven experience
Chances are, if you live in the Valley of the Sun, you've heard of or played The Raven at South Mountain in Phoenix. Both courses are managed by Intrawest Golf, a company that owns or runs 30 golf courses worldwide. Of those courses, eight have "The Raven" label, which is reserved for clubs that maintain a high level of service for an all-inclusive green fee. For $119 during the week and $139 on the weekend, guests receive unlimited golf, unlimited use of the practice facilities, two full meals, golf carts and non-alcoholic beverages and snacks from the beverage car.
The Raven at Verrado has a splendid clubhouse that features a top-notch pro shop, locker room, snazzy dining room and bar with outdoor seating and180-degree views of the White Tank Mountains. The food is superb and the service is off the charts.
The practice facilities are second to none. For proof, ask Lehman, who spent the week before the Sony Invitational working on his game at The Raven. The grass range is has one of the largest hitting areas in the Phoenix area. It's accompanied by large chipping and putting greens.
Centerpiece of the future
The Raven at Verrado is step one of the West Valley's first big-time development that is sure to start a trend in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Scottsdale, Mesa, Gilbert and Chandler are all East Valley suburbs that have flourished. Other than Glendale, the West Valley has not seen fully developed growing communities - yet. With the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes new arena out that way and a new football stadium for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals under construction next door, developers are starting to make their way west.
The Raven at Verrado is the centerpiece of a Truman Show-like development by Scottsdale-based DMB, Inc., that will feature an old-fashion downtown section with bars, restaurants and shops with apartments above. Verrado will grow outward from there with homes in the mid $100,000s to low $400,000. And the success of The Raven at Verrado will be the most important factor in the early stages of getting homebuyers to consider a western dwelling some 25 miles from downtown Phoenix.
It's hard to find anything wrong with The Raven at Verrado. If there is one thing, it might be that the service is a little over the top, but that's what you're paying for. You won't find a better value at a high-end daily fee course in the Valley of the Sun: two meals, free snacks on the beverage cart, unlimited golf and use of the practice area. That can't be topped, at best could only be equaled, but no one is on the bandwagon yet.
The course itself is open and playable - ideal for the recreational golfer who doesn't like paying over $100 to get beat up by desert style golf. Instead of losing balls in the desert, the strokes will add up elsewhere. What golfer couldn't live with that? While it's tough to get your ball out of the bunkers, walking in and out is hardly ever difficult - an important characteristic for older players.
In all, The Raven at Verrado is a sublime experience. You'll dance the steps of mental and physical toughness while on the high of being treated like you own the place.
June 3, 2004