There's gold in that grass at Vistancia

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

PEORIA, Ariz. - The golden grass rough and the bunkers are the two things you will remember most about playing Trilogy at Vistancia, northwest of Phoenix.

That grass - an unusual blend of three varieties, blue gramma, weeping love and sanddrop - turns gold in winter to provide a stunning backdrop for the emerald green fairways. And looking for lost balls in that stuff is like holding an Easter egg hunt in Kansas. "It is like a wheat field," admits Gary Panks, who designed the course, "stretching to the edges of the Bermuda fairways."

At first it strikes you that this grass is a little out of place for Arizona. After all, shouldn't the rough and the out-of-bounds area be mesquite, saguaro and brittle bush like many of the Arizona desert's most famous courses? Those courses would include the Talon at Grayhawk and the Whirlwind courses at Wild Horse Pass, all designed by Panks.

But Panks drew his inspiration from grasses he saw on a hunting trip in southeast Arizona. He was in the Sulfur Springs Valley between the Chiricahua and Dragoon mountains. "It's a big cattle ranching area, and I fell in love with the look of it," he says.

As for the bunkers, they're not the most you'll ever see while playing golf in Arizona or the deepest, but there are 72, about a third more than Panks usually digs out on one of his courses. They can get pretty exciting.

A good example is the mini-minefield on the par-4 No. 15 (348 yards from the back tees, 253 from the forward). "There are so many options for playing this hole that you really have to think about how to play your shots on a hole like this," Panks says.

The options include landing among a sea of cross-bunkers that divide the fairway in half or in the bunker to the right of the green. "On all his courses there's usually a reachable par-4," says Buddy Satterfield, president of Shea Homes, developer of the course, as he stood on the tee. "From some tees here, you could probably do that. But there's so much trouble here with all that sand."

The bunkers didn't bother Satterfield too much. He scored a 73 on his round, played from the middle tees, but the rest of our foursome got to know the bunkers well.

This course came to be because big home builders, like Shea, are starting to run out of places to go on the east side of Phoenix. So now they're heading out west where two giant developments had their debut this winter. In January, it was Verrado, a planned community in Buckeye, off I-10 in theWhite Tank Mountains. A month later, it was Vistancia, where eventually17,000 houses and five golf courses could be built in the Peoria area,tucked away into a rugged valley, about 30 to 40 miles from downtownPhoenix. It's a scenic spot surrounded by craggy hills and mountains.

Some might ask: Isn't this too far away from anywhere for anyone to want tolive? But the success of another way-out-there development - Del Webb's Anthem, about the same distance to the north on Highway 17 - seems to answer that question.

Trilogy is the first course to be built at Vistancia and is one of six Trilogy layouts plus subdivisions being built around the country by Shea Homes. Only buyers 55 and older can purchase at Trilogy, but Shea is also building other areas at Vistancia for all ages. The aim is to provide places where grandparents, parents and children can all live nearby each other.

Panks already has done three other Trilogy courses, with the others located in Redmond, Wash., and La Quinta, near Palm Springs. Trilogy at La Quinta got nationwide exposure last Thanksgiving when the Skins game was played there. According to Satterfield, there's hope that the Skins could be played as well at Vistancia. That's why there are five sets of tees with the tips set at 7,259 yards.

Although this is a subdivision course, designed to sell housing sites, it's being done with great style and a fabulous clubhouse created by Bing Hu, a noted Scottsdale architect who also did clubhouses at The Gallery in Tucson and at Desert Mountain in North Scottsdale.

Besides the golden grass and bunkers, you'll find generous landing areas on many holes and great variety in the par-3s, including some with water.

Many of the memorable holes are par-4s, like No. 3, a 416-yard test, which is one of the more difficult carry holes. There is desert to cross off the tee as well as on the approach to the green. "It's not a short par-4 by any means," says Panks.

There's also No. 6, a 373-yard dogleg right with a major wash in front of the tees. Off the tee, you can aim right and shorten the distance with a risk-reward shot over a knoll studded with two saguaros. "You have to decide how much you can bite off," says Panks.

The ninth hole makes a beautiful finish to the front side. It's a 509-yard par-5 dogleg left with significant bunkers on the drive and approach shot. You're going to have to hit over a transition zone that lies below a very elevated green. Once the grass grows up, that zone will be filled with more strands of that testy straw.

Where to stay

In the immediate area, there are as yet no motels or resorts. But it's a short drive to Glendale or Peoria where you'll find many restaurants and places to stay.

What else to see

It's just a 15-minute drive north to Lake Pleasant, a regional park and reservoir popular with boaters and water skiers. The Desert Princess II, berthed at Pleasant Harbor, also gives regular daily tours and sunset cruises for the public. Call (623) 815-2628 for information.

The verdict

Trilogy at Vistancia is a course I liked so much that I took a family member back to play a week later. And my golfing partner agreed with me completely about what a great course this is.

Part of our enthusiasm stems from the design. Architect Gary Panks has a knack for creating courses that are playable and fair, yet intriguing. He puts obstacles out there on the fairways, but always shows you how to take the path to the green.

The mountain scenery at Trilogy is also dramatic - kind of like North Scottsdale before the bulldozers and the shopping centers arrived. Obviously, the developers will be building here like crazy, too, so get out to play at Vistancia soon.

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • 5 star rating

    Richard Krause wrote on: Jan 30, 2009

    Golf Digest must have confused this course with another. I've played courses (public and private)all over the US and this course is 3.5 star at best!!!!!!!!!!!