Muirhead's Pine Course at McCormick an early, satisfying look inside a mad golf design mind

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - There are toothpicks larger than that fairway. Is that a green or a thimble? Those are two thoughts that spring to mind navigating the Pine Course at McCormick Ranch Golf Club. And then you step up to the 15th tee and are rendered speechless.

Not in wonder. The hole doesn't wow as much as it hits you with the sheer audacity of it all. This 470-yard, par-4 is shaped like ... well, like a sea monkey with a large gut. As ridiculous as the description sounds, it's the only one that really fits. And you get the idea that Pine Course architect Desmond Muirhead would want it that way. It is easy to picture Muirhead, plotting out this track in the early 1970s, smiling as he imagined stodgy golf traditionalists having to use a lark of a creature traditionally ordered from the back pages of Mad magazine (almost always to disappointing results) to capture the essence of the hole.

Muirhead wasn't known as the Mad Scientist for nothing after all.

The Pines Course at McCormick gives you a glimpseinto the genesis of this maverick designer. It issomething of a history lesson with perfectly manicuredgreens and hundreds of pine trees sticking out in thedesert. Muirhead doesn't do anything too crazy at Pines -sea monkey with protruding gut aside. It was only 1971when he designed this course and its even more traditionalsister PalmsCourse. Muirhead wasn't going full mad wild back then.

Still there are signs of the budding tinkering experimenter. From the narrow takes on fairways to postage-stamp-size greens, you can see Muirhead beginning his run into creative (or depraved, depending on your view) golf architecture. The guy Golf World called "the most innovative golf architect of the last 100 years" has clearly put his mark here.

"It seems like this nice, little average course,"said vacationing Chicago golfer Chris Price. "And then youget to a hole that makes you scratch your head and think,'How the heck, I'm I supposed to play this thing?'"

This is the type of course that sneaks up on you.If you just drove around the Pine Course in a cart, you'dthink there was nothing to it. This is not a visuallyintimidating course, it will not scare from the pages of agolf magazine. It takes swinging a 5-iron into some ofthe tight, tree-lined openings to grasp the difficulty ofyour situation.

Muirhead's start adds to the illusion. He gets thegolfer going with three straight, short par 4s -- all less than 400yards from the back tees. It is easy to begin on aroll at the Pine Course. In fact, if you're not feelinggood about your game after this opening trio, it may betime to put away your clubs for good.

Of course, once your bravado is up, once you've made a bet you probably shouldn't have with an experienced Pine player, Muirhead starts chipping away at the veneer, little jab after little jab. A dastardly placed bunker here, a lake in the middle of the fairway there (No. 6), a fairway shaped like a sling blade, narrowing the farther up you get, ahead (No. 7). Before long you're ready to fling your clubs into the nearest man-made lake.

Not because you're playing one of your worstrounds. Because you think you should be playing so muchbetter on this course.

It is all a matter of perception at the McCormickPine Course. Things look so deceivingly easy, thechallenge hits a golfer with the force of a pop quiz on asunny spring fever day.

It is not the strength of the humiliation here, itis the unexpectedness of it.

"The resort guests probably prefer the PalmsCourse as a general rule," McCormick Golf Director MikeLindsey said. "It plays about three shots easier anddoesn't have as many hidden little tricks to learn.

"The Pine Course is a favorite of those who want alittle tougher, distinctive test."

Muirhead's Pine is not one of those courses that'sgoing to make you run through four month's budget of golfballs in four hours. Despite the narrowness of thefairways and the skimpiness of the greens, the Pine Courseis fairly wide open. A golfer who misses his fairway isliable to land in a decent lie on a neighboring fairway,and getting back isn't as daunting as it sounds. Thebunkers are as shallow as Tara Reid and as easy to getover. This in spite of a reported toughening, deepeningbunker revamp five years ago.

Of course, that all fades away once you step up to15.

The man-made lake's bigger than the fairwaythrough most of this hole. It starts out with a forcedcarry over a small brush area or a little slab of the lake(your choice). This places you on the gut of the seamonkey. From here, the best approach is going for it,across the lake and right at the green. With the greensemi-raised on a ridge and water on three sides, that'smuch easier said than done, however. There is also theskinniest of fairway approaches for the truly water-leery.

Of course, the land opportunity is an Muirheadillusion. It's much easier to find a splash trying totiptoe along this peninsula than actually just going forthe lake clear.

"Fifteen is my favorite," said AmandaBlumenherst, a Duke-bound top-ranked junior player whosegolf game grew up at the McCormick complex. "It tests yourgame in a lot of different ways and the lake looks nice."

On this day, a college couple fishes off the far side of this desert illusion, looking up now and then at the golf ball plops that send their targets scattering. It is easy to forget you're in the middle of a desert city here. Muirhead makes sure you know you're playing one of his courses though.

The Verdict

The Pine Course at McCormick Ranch would be worthplaying if only for the look at Muirhead's architecturalevolution. This course stands on its own merits though andsurpasses any history lesson. In a Scottsdale areaobsessed with spectacular desert shows, Pine sticks out asan almost unique take.

Muirhead shows that target golf does not have tomean a ton of forced carries and desert brush everywhere.Just setting a traditional track up in the right way canproduce a fair, tough test of shotmaking.

The service at McCormick gives the Pines anotherboost. This is a truly friendly place, which anyone who'sspent a lot of time around golf courses knows is notnearly the case as often as it should be. The staff goesout of their way to please and even though this place isoften packed, it never feels like an assembly-line setup.

This is one Scottsdale course that the locals actually play. You see tons of women and youngsters out on the course, probably because both groups are encouraged here rather than given tee-time hassles. The Pine is tough, but it's not intimidating or limiting to the shorter hitters. One of the joys here is that everyone is likely to struggle equally on their own scale.

Muirhead may have been ahead of even his own time on this one. This isn't the extraordinary course you would build a vacation around. But it is something memorable to play between the firework rounds.

Places to eat

It's short drive to Old Town Scottsdale area andmany of the best restaurants in Arizona. Chef Nobuo Fukudaworks wonders with his counter-side tasting menus at SeaSaw ( (480) 481-9463), producing dishes every bit theequal of New York's more famous Nobu at a third of thecost.

For a happening, mingling spot, you only have togo down the alley behind Sea Saw and open the unmarkeddoor 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 thePhoenix area's thirty and 40-somethings relax with aselection of 1,800 wines to choose from, you'll forgiveit. Make sure you try the Country Pate.

Places to stay

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

The Scottsdale Resort & Conference Center ((480) 991-9000) provides distinctive, comfortable accommodations at cheaper rates (still well over $100) than some of the surrounding resorts that aren't as nice. This is an especially good place to get a last-minute deal. Another bonus is that most of the rooms have balconies to enjoy the area's temperate winter weather.

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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