McCormick Ranch is a cool oasis in a desert of Scottsdale golf

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - After being lost, in more ways than one, in a desert of golf, the McCormick Ranch Golf Club is a cool, soothing oasis.

Literally and figuratively. The course is a traditional layout in the midst of one of the most popular desert, target-style golf course strongholds in the world - Phoenix/Scottsdale.

Play enough desert courses out here and you'll feel like one of those grisled prospectors in an old movie; except, instead of searching for gold, you'll be searching for your golf balls. Nowadays, they're about equal in value.

McCormick Ranch - just across the lake from the Millennium Resort - is a sight for sore eyes after all that cactus and mesquite: Drink in all those trees and lush, green fairways, so at odds with the brown tones of the desert courses and - good lord! - is that water?

Yes, and plenty of it: three, 40-acre lakes.

"It's a playable course where you can find the ball," McCormick Director of Golf Mike Lindsey said. "That's what I think golfers really enjoy about coming here. They might play a desert course and get frustrated, and come back here and play two or three times in a week."

It stands to reason this course was designed by Desmond Muirhead, sometimes called the Mad Scientist of golf architecture, if for no other reason than its incongruous location.

This is the same guy who likes to employ literal symbols in his designs: He was responsible for a par-3 at Aberdeen Golf Course in Florida shaped like a fire-breathing dragon. Another "mermaid hole" came with fish-shaped bunkers, scales and two mounds inspired by the assets of the fairer sex.

He designed McCormick Ranch in his early days, and while it is devoid of some of his more outlandish embellishments, it still stands out here. Strange, then, that most people who come here for a golf vacation have never heard of it; they all want to play the newer desert courses.

McCormick has two courses, the Palm and the Pine, both measuring out at more than 7,000 yards. The Palm has more water, whereas the Pine, though more open and dry, is still the more difficult.

The club opened in 1971, and had all its greens re-designed five years ago, putting more undulation into them. The bunkers, both around the greens and in the fairways, also went back on the drawing board, becoming deeper, as compared to the older, shallower bunkers.

"The courses here are real good layouts," Lindsey said. "He put the water into play. It's not a flat course; you have undulations in the fairways and greens that are considerable."

Since the water is mostly on the left, you'll need to bring your cut shot with you.

"You need to have a nice cut shot or a straight drive since almost every water hole is to the left side of fairway," Lindsey said. "The right side is normally bunkered well. I see an average-to-good player hitting it straight or a high cut. A 'position' drive here in the narrow fairways is very important."

No. 4, a 446-yard, par-4 with water down the left side, stands out. The lake comes in to about eight paces to the edge of the green, and you're left with about 200 yards after a good drive. If you're left of the pin on your approach, your ball stands a good chance of rolling off into the water.

No. 9 has won all kinds of awards; it's 408 yards onto an island fairway - which Muirhead takes credit for inventing - with a lake in front and to the left.

The verdict

This is a top-notch, Scottsdale course even if it didn't offer such an alternative to desert golf.

The Pine course was closed during a recent visit but the Palm, said by Lindsey to be two to four strokes easier, was still test enough for the high handicapper to the scratch golfer.

When the Gateway Tour played 13 events in Arizona recently, some of the highest scores were at these two courses, so even very good golfers have to tussle with these courses.

The water presents a formidable obstacle but is mostly on the left, so it isn't as penalizing for right-handers as it initially looks. The course appears to be kept in good condition, and looks unusually green after all the desert experiences.

The greens are "tournament" small but the course uses unusually accurate distance markers to help out; all fairway yardage-markers are to the pins, not to the middle of the green as are most course markers. Therefore, the yardage, course officials say, is accurate to one yard.

Stay and play

• The Millennium Resort in Scottsdale has 176 units, of which 51 are two- and three-bedroom villas that cater to golfers. The rest are guest rooms.

• Centrally located in the heart of Scottsdale, most golf courses in the Phoenix area are within a 30-minute drive from the resort.

• The resort overlooks a man-made lake and features mountain views and access to two non-desert, traditional courses at the McCormick Ranch.

• The resort also features a poolside bar and hot tub, two restaurants and use of kayaks, canoes, pedal boats and sailboats. Call 800-767-3574.

• Also, try the Resort Suites of Scottsdale, Summerfield Suites, Sheraton Phoenix East or the Marriott Camelback Inn Resort, Golf Club and Spa. Call 800-767-3574.

Dining out

The Millennium resort's two restaurants offer excellent food, especially the Pinon Grill. For heaping portions at good prices, try Claim Jumpers.

Fast fact

Muirhead once partnered with Jack Nicklaus until the two had a falling out during their collaboration on Nicklaus' famed Muirfield Village.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald 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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