Blind shot's bluff: Scottsdale area's Desert Canyon tries your patience for wacky design

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

FOUNTAIN HILLS, Ariz. — Ever wonder what it would be like to play golf blind? To shoot into an abyss, unsure exactly what you're aiming at or how it's going to get there?

Three big trees block the dogleg turn on Desert Canyon's No. 12.
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Desert Canyon Golf Club

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Desert Canyon Golf Club in Fountain Hills offers some of the best scenery of any of the courses in the area. The mountain setting provides the layout with elevated tee and green complexes with stunning mountain backdrops.

18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 71 | 6410 yards | Book online | ... details »

Desert Canyon Golf Club can give you a heck of a simulation.

This design by the relatively unknown John Allen just outside North Scottsdale does for blind shots what "The Man Show" did for girls bouncing on trampolines: There can never be enough of them.

For it's rare indeed at Desert Canyon when you can see the flag from the tee. Instead you're consulting the laminated yardage book attached to the cart on three rings. Hoping that the 17th and 18th hole pages aren't missing (like they were on this play.) For this laminated three-ring yardage book — call it throwback GPS — is your eyes for the day.

Greens are around bends, stuffed into crannies up on ridges, almost perpendicular to the tee across a heavy desert brush area you cannot even see through let alone shoot through. Navigating this golf course as a first timer can make you feel like you've been sent on some kind of scavenger hunt. Where oh where art thou, green?

Desert Canyon is actually one of the older courses in the Phoenix-Scottsdale resort corridor, built in 1971. Apparently, John Allen very much got into the wackiness of the '70s.

Anything goes? You'd better believe it.

Magellan could be confused by the routing of some of these holes.

"It's a little different than what I'm used to," California golfer John Esplana said.

It's different than what anyone's used to. Desert Canyon has some canyon effects with a number of raised tees — though nothing too dramatic or showy. Maybe in the 1970s, this was roller-coaster golf. By today's standards, it's only sky-high tame.

The actual skies are the best effect at Desert Canyon. This is ultra blue popping sky with wispy white clouds. Think the sky's the same everywhere? Think again. Up a little higher and out a little further, Desert Canyon avoids the desert dust and smog that can cloak the Phoenix valley. This is sky from a painting.

Of course, there are also houses from a nightmare of suburbia. You're playing through a subdivision at Desert Canyon and you'll never forget it. It's like playing desert golf in someone's backyard. At least it all follows the course's eccentric theme. Desert Canyon has blind cart paths too. You'll be zooming up a hill and suddenly a street will appear.

Look twice. The soccer moms in the SUVs aren't always paying attention.

This is the kind of place where old guys in homes along the course, particularly the back nine, come out late in the day, looking to collect some wayward golf balls. One enterprising senior practically shadowed our group step for step along the 15th hole. If a ball fell out of someone's pocket, you had the sense he'd jump on it like it was a live grenade.

The only thing that outnumbers the
at Desert Canyon is the amount of traffic on the course. Being a reasonable greens fee option — especially for Arizona residents — this place can pack them in. There are fair share of beginners and plenty of hackers just out for a good time. If you're one of those golf snobs who thinks that playing with the great non handicap card certified masses is beneath your game, head elsewhere.

On this St. Patrick's Day Friday play, golfers teed off well after 3 p.m. and there were waits on several tees. Still, everyone who wanted to finish 18, seemed to get it in before Arizona's late winter sunset.

And for all the footprints, Desert Canyon is in pretty good shape.

"It's a lot nicer than the courses I've played back home for about the same price," San Francisco golfer Joe Schlanfemper said.

The nicest of Desert Canyon may be its most straightforward hole. No. 7 — a 154-yard par 3 — has you shooting down from a high tee to a slim peninsula green effect. The slanted green is huge, so there's margin for error. But a slice is going to end up bouncing down the sides of the desert brush area. The hole is framed by trees right on its sides, huge houses up on the hilltop and mountains peeking out even higher overhead.

It's simple, dramatic golf. Which is probably enough to send Desert Canyon architect John Allen into dry heaves. What's a matter with you? You don't love the bends?

The verdict

Desert Canyon can leave you dizzy with doglegs. If you're not curving through a housing development (No. 8), you're curving around a lake (No. 10). You're always navigating something, searching for those elusive greens. A compass might be your best 14th club here.

All the wackiness does give you a chance to try some inventive shots. Golfers are tempted with visions of cutting the corner on doglegs. A lot of times this means clearing desert brush — or at least attempting to clear desert brush — that's much higher than it first looks.

"It's harder than you think," Esplana said. "The greens are in places you just don't expect."

Sometimes, they're behind trees. Three bushy tall trees stand right at the sharp dogleg turn of the par-4 12th. This offers the deliciously intimidating possibility of approach shots bouncing off trunks and returning to sender. Right back at you, buddy!

Call it the bark boomerang.

Of course, you also get the chance to pull off one of those shots you'll be talking about long after the rest of the Desert Canyon round fades from memory. Sending a ball flying high through the opening in the trees and watching it settle safely on the green qualifies as pure cool. This is the best Desert Canyon has to offer. It's a moment when Allen's dogleg, no-seeing-the-green obsession pays off in high drama, risk-reward theater.

The problem is that by the time you get to No. 12, you may be so dulled by all the blind shots before it that even this losses any allure.

Eventually, you just want to see the darn green. Desert Canyon is a design that's going to test your patience reserves.

Dining out

The greater Old Town Scottsdale area is home to many of the best restaurants in Arizona. Chef Nobuo Fukuda works wonders with his counter side tasting menus at Sea Saw (480-481-9463), producing dishes every bit the equal of New York's more famous Nobu at a third of the cost.

For a happening, mingling spot, you only have to go down the alley behind Sea Saw and open the unmarked door to the Kazimierz World Wine Bar (480-946-3004). Sure, this forced, faux mysteriousness is a little cheesy, but once you get inside the comfortable place where the Phoenix area's thirty-somethings relax with a selection of 1,800 wines to choose from, you'll forgive it. Make sure you try the Country Pate.

Stay and play

Your high-end accommodations escape palace is the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess (1-800-257-7544). This sprawling AAA Five Diamond resort offers huge pool complexes that are open 24 hours a day. No more fitting your schedule around the pool schedule.

Add a spa that just may take pampering to new heights with its own private waterfall pool and this is real luxury in a town with too many pretender hotels claiming that distinction.

The Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort (602-997-2626) is far enough away from the hustle and bustle to provide a relaxing getaway retreat and close enough to easily reach all the areas you want to visit. This sprawling complex includes a meandering, slow-raft-lounging pool and a putting practice course. There are a good half dozen golf courses easy within a 10-minute drive.

Fast fact

There's a soda machine in the cart path return building that costs only 40 cents per can. Ask the cart kids for where to get a drink to bring on the course and they'll send you to it. As long as you haven't annoyed them.

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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