SunRidge Canyon Golf Club: Sonoran Desert Provides Incredible Backdrop

By Michael Hegarty, Contributor

FOUNTAIN HILLS, AZ - Mother Nature should receive part of the credit for the breathtaking layout at SunRidge Canyon Golf Club in Fountain Hills.

Not to take away from Keith Foster's astonishing design, but the championship course that winds down and back up the foothills of the McDowell Mountains, nestled between the canyon walls, is expertly placed like the missing piece to a beautiful golf course puzzle that evolved over millions of years in the Sonoran Desert.

The final picture includes spell-binding views of nature in its natural form intertwined with pristine fairways rolling around strategically placed hazards to undulating greens, all the while allowing the Sonoran Desert to provide a natural border.

"They did a great job of working with the land," Head Pro Joel Schafer said of Foster's 1995 championship course. "There was only one way to develop it, straight out and back again, with non-returning holes, like the traditional courses."

"It's how golf was created," Schafer added.

And that's the way it should be played, from beginning to its incredible finish It can compete with any course in the area (and far beyond) for its stunning panoramic views and pure measurement of your mental game and shot-making skills.

The final six holes are appropriately dubbed the "Wicked Six" for its difficult climb up the canyon, and fierce winds that normally flow against the golfers, creating a finish few can, or want to, forget.

"It really leaves them with a lasting impression," Schafer said of the course that was rated No. 42 in Golf Magazine's "Top 100 Course You Can Play in the United States."

"When they get off the course, their response is usually, 'Wow, that was awesome.' It's the last thing they remember," Schafer said.

The first thing golfers experience is the beauty, from the drive up the mountains northeast of Phoenix, to the pair of putting greens nestled around a roaring waterfall that hosts many functions in the clubhouse, especially weddings with the course and mountains as the backdrop.

Once on the course, SunRidge Canyon, which charges $160 during the season (and drops to $95 during the summer), gives players the option of four sets of tees: 6,823 yards from the championship set; 6,403 yards from the back; 6,004 yards from the middle; and 5,122 yards from the front.

Length plays a factor on the par-71 course, but the tees are set up accordingly for each type of golfer: the back includes a couple par-4s over 400 yards, while the middle tees keep their longest ones just under that number.

But it's the direction, not the distance of your drives, that you need to focus on. "Sometimes it's wise to just get it into the fairway and rely on your second or third shot to get it on the green," Schafer advises.

Besides, many of the par-5s aren't reachable in two anyway. "Golf course management is essential for playing this course," Schafer added.

So be sure and pick up a yardage book in the pro shop (which has been annually rated in the top 100 Best Golf Shops in America since 1997), as it's important to know where your next shot could end up before you play it.

The fairways are narrow, and the desert - which is thick, full of cacti, brush, boulders, wildflowers, and plenty of lost balls - "creeps up on you sometimes," Schafer warns.

Danger also lurks amongst the gullies, sand and grass bunkers, four lakes, and a wash that snakes through the back nine. Homes are kept at a distance, never intruding on the course, just providing the fortunate residents with magnificent views of the Red, McDowell, Superstition and Four Peaks Mountains that surround the course.

After playing your way down the cascading fairways of the front side to sloping, often tiered, greens that roll well (with some, unfortunately, marred with dead spots), the real adventure home begins on No. 13.

This par-5 is the longest hole on the course at 578 yards from the way back, 544 from the back tees. Driver is safe off the tee, but water along the right side comes into play on the second shot and continues up the length of the divided fairway that is split apart by the winding wash that leads you into the clubhouse.

No. 14 is a long-to-middle-iron tee shot over the same lake that surrounds the par-3 green. A lone bunker sits on the left side of the green.

The next hole is a par-4 that measures 457 yards from the championship tees (439 up one) whose fairway is littered with bunkers on the left side of the slight dogleg. The wash runs up the length of the hole, just on the outer side of the traps. A monster bunker on the left waits like a glove to catch errand balls.

The final par-5 begins with an elevated tee box, but the hole is definitely three full shots, climbing uphill with the wash running through the fairway about 100 yards short of the green that's 533 yards away from the farthest tee box (515 from the back). The putting surface is raised above the canyon that hugs the left side of the fairway. A trio of sand traps protect the green.

SunRidge's signature hole lies on the 17th - which changes daily. With a 7,000-square-foot horseshoe-shaped green, and two separate sets of tee boxes (while Foster was laying down the first set of tees he found another location just as remarkable and irresistible on the adjoining ridge), the pin location is moved each morning from side to side to create two completely different shots. A crescent shaped bunker plays havoc regardless of the pin placement.

"It's a very unique hole," Schafer said. "It can play so many different ways."

If the pin is on the left, the tournament tees play 209 yards (190 from the back), with a carry over a 50-foot-deep, 100-yard-wide box canyon. When the pin's on the right side, the tee box moves to a maximum of 152 yards (131 up one), but it's also the highest point on the golf course. Whichever side the pin is on, the green can create some amazing putts.

SunRidge closes out with a 432-yard climb (400 from the back) on a hard dogleg left, with a flurry of bunkers grapping drives down the left side or long through the short fairway. The wash collects any shots to the left and short of the green as it provides a break from the fairway to the final putting green that is bordered with bunkers.

In the end, looking back over your round and the course below you, there's only one word to define SunRidge Canyon: Wow!

SunCor Players Club Card

For locals (and long-term vacationing guests) SunCor Golf offers golfers a $250 card that gives 50 percent off tee times Monday-Thursday and 25 percent discounts Friday-Saturday at their six courses. Besides SunRidge Canyon, there is Sanctuary Golf Course in Scottsdale, Palm Valley's 36 holes in Goodyear, Club West Golf Club in Phoenix, Sedona Golf Resort, and Coral Canyon Golf Club in St. George, Utah.

The card, which is valid through December 31, 2001, can be purchased at any of the participating golf course pro shops or by calling SunCor at 800-767-3574

Michael Hegarty, Contributor

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