Mountain Shadows proves even executive courses can be overrated

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Mountain Shadows is like a 4-foot-9 guy who thinks he's destined to be an NBA superstar. This executive course in the shadow of the Camelback Mountain touts itself as every bit the worthy of some full-course golf experiences and clearly one of the best short courses you will ever play.

It is the No. 4-rated executive course in the entire U.S. by Golf Digest decree. And it is packaged with the nearby Camelback Inn JW Marriott Resort as a straightforward golf experience.

"We don't see ourselves as a so-called executive course," general manager Jeff Jones said. "We think we're an excellent course in super shape all around."

It's that kind of promotion, that type of breathless advertising that makes Mountain Shadows worthy of a new designation: The Most Overrated Pitch & Putt Course in the U.S. It's unlikely Mountain Shadows will adopt this snazzy title, but it is the most fitting and not altogether insulting moniker.

For as pitch & putts go, Mountain Shadows may be unmatched. But that is all it is. This "executive course" has all of two par 4s and one of those measures in at a mere 295 yards. In fact at 3,081 yards from the back tees, this may be the shortest executive course you've ever played.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. As long as the golfer isn't misled going in, which is exactly what most of the hype surrounding Mountain Shadows seems built to do.

"The thing that bothers me about Mountain Shadows is that a lot of people who go there don't get what they expect," said Penny Broom, a regular Scottsdale golfer and short course enthusiast. "It's really short. And for what they charge and how it's talked up, you wouldn't expect that."

Your view on Mountain Shadows will largely be shaped by what you know about it before stepping up to the first tee. A golfer aware of its limitations is likely to enjoy working on his short game in picturesque surroundings. But if you expect to take anything bigger than a six iron out of your bag, it is almost certain to be a downer.

This isn't like many executive courses that allow you to grip it and rip it on a token hole or two. Not only are Mountain Shadows' holes short, they are tight, crammed into a subdivision against the mountains.

Which actually brings its own unexpected pleasures. There are more guys who look like actual executives on Mountain Shadows than any other executive course you've ever seen - probably because of the unrealistic course hype. Inevitably a bunch of these executives start drilling balls out of bounds, into ponds, off fences, and turning to each other with proud, "Too much club," remarks.

Of course, it's unlikely these same men's men ever admit to firing 20 over on a par 56. Such is life at Mountain Shadows.

One of the place's charms is the unpretentious atmosphere of the experience, wild self-important hype and wayward gung-ho businessmen aside. Mountain Shadows is a spot where an older couple like David and Audrey Raclaw can show up without clubs and get out on the course without taking any attitude.

The Raclaws came from Chicago to escape the winter, and they were looking for a quick golf experience with little stress. Enter Mountain Shadows.

"I haven't picked up any clubs in about a year and I wanted to see if I could still hit it around," Audrey said, shrugging. "This is the perfect course for that."

Which makes it hard to fault Mountain Shadows too much. This is the type of pitch & putt that creates new golf nuts, brings old golfers back into the game. A beginner or returnee who has fun here is liable to want to try out a full course. Golf needs as many places like this as it can get. For a sport with plummeting participation numbers, the Mountain Shadows of the world provide an invaluable service.

The trumped up marketing campaign cannot help but tarnish Mountain Shadows' honor though. Even a moderately experienced golfer who comes here for an experience is likely to leave disappointed.

There are nice backdrops to work with your pitching wedge. No. 8 , a 126-yarder, has an expanse of tall, wet grass to clear right off the tees and then a pond right in front of the green. No. 12, an uphill 175-yarder, is another hole that requires a skillful approach.

"There are some holes you're not going to soon forget," Jones said.

What you're not going to forget is the mountains seemingly looming over every hole, looking close enough to drill with a good three-wood blast. Mountain Shadows lives up its name in this respect.

If only they could have left it at that.

The Verdict

Mountain Shadows' faults are sins of hubris. If it came straight out and told golfers what it offered, rather than trying to be what it's not, this could be known as the top pitch & putt in Arizona. This could be the place where moms and dads took their kids how to learn how to play, the place where the pitch & putt experience met full-course service.

For no one would question that Jones and his staff bring an almost country club customer-pleasing approach to pitch & putt. It is impossible to fault the course's condition either. The fairways are deep green even in winter, the greens largely full-course worthy. In fact, the tight landing areas the greens provide are actually the most fun and interesting factor. People should leave talking about these things.

Instead too many golfers depart Mountain Shadows feeling duped.

Places to eat

One great thing about Mountain Shadows is it's right down the road from the greater Old Town Scottsdale area and 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 and fortysomethings relax with a selection of 1,800 wines to choose from, you'll forgive it. 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 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 half dozen golf courses within a 10-minute drive.

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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