Avoid the Ordinary: Arizona's New Courses for the New Year

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

PHOENIX - The feeling that the other PGA Tour players get when Tiger Woods wins a golf tournament, or the rest of college basketball gets when Duke reaches the Final Four, or NBA teams get when the Lakers make it to the finals ... that is the feeling the golf industry must get when the Phoenix area adds yet another golf course to its arsenal of over 100 world-class tracks.

Posh private, upscale daily fee, and downright affordable golf courses were all represented in the spectrum of golf courses that cut their ribbons in the Valley of the Sun in 2001. But in the grand scheme of things, all was relatively quiet on the Western Front. Of course, when the term "only" applies to the opening of five new or remodeled facilities, you know you are doing okay as a golf destination.

The Golden Bear Serves Up Affordable Golf at Bear Creek

Enough expensive desert courses, already. At least that is how Bear Creek Golf Course owners Dan Strand and Lewis Keller felt about the Phoenix golf scene before rolling out 36 holes of budget conscious golf on Phoenix's south side.

Strand is nothing if not sympathetic to the plight of the local golfer trying to afford a round of golf during the Valley of the Sun's pricey winter season. Bear Creek's revolutionary price scheme ensures that residents have an affordable place to tee it up while the weather is sublime.

"We felt that the person that lived in the Valley was precluded from playing golf in the winter," Strand says. "The guy that works for $10 or $15 an hour can't afford to play here. By contract, we cannot charge more than $65 to a Maricopa County resident, and 50 percent of our tee times have to be for locals. We are the only one in the valley that has differential pricing. Our concept was that price had gotten out of hand because its tourist driven."

Bear Creek also distances itself from other Phoenix area golf courses by shunning the typical Sonoran desert landscape in favor of a more linksy feel.

"We are one of the first links style courses in the desert," Strand says. "Most have desert areas that produce target golf or wall to wall grass like a Florida course. Our place is native Arizona grasses and some wildflowers, that combine with the layout to produce the links feel of the course."

Strand says he used a family connection to get the Nicklaus design team to take a look at his infill site, and he negotiated a 30-year lease with ten-year renewals with the City of Chandler. The Golden Bear's crew ultimately bought into Strand's concept, and designed the par 71 Championship Course, and the par 59 course that locals can play for under $35 in the winter.

"The Championship Heathland Course was a dead flat sugar cane or beet farm when we got here," Strand says. "We moved 550,000 cubic feet of dirt and planted 275 trees."

Stand says he was hands off during the course's design, with the exception of some passionate objections to a few bunkers and a couple of suggestions on the green complexes.

"On the 11th hole, a 468-yard par 4 they put a bunker in the middle of the fairway," Strand says. "I told them that it had to go. I took a lot of the bunkering out on the long holes and I tried to get them to get the green structure to match the typical approach shots of average golfers."

Bear Creek Golf Club - 480.883.8200.

Living Large at Quintero Country Club

Gary McClung owns the largest volume Ford dealership in the U.S., so when the Kansas City, Mo. based business mogul decided to open a golf course, you can be sure he didn't cut any corners.

First there was location.

McClung wanted a breathtaking piece of land located in a moderate climate with excellent access to a full service, international airport. Being a member at Scottsdale's Troon Golf Club, McClung also wanted to locate the course in an affluent area that would have the demographics to support an upscale, private country club.

After testing the waters in San Diego, Napa Valley and Scottsdale, McClung opted for a tract of land surrounded by a federal land reserve at the foot of the Hieroglyphic Mountains in Phoenix's west valley.

Then there was the architect. McClung sought out Rees Jones, a.k.a. the U.S. Open doctor, to design his dream course and put it on equal footing as some of the Valley's swankest addresses.

On November 3, 2000, location, designer, and owner in synch, the Founders Course of the Quintero Golf and Country Club sprung to life in a remote corner of Peoria, thus changing the landscape of upscale golf in the west valley.

"This is about one man's vision and dream to own and operate a golf course," says Quintero head professional Brad Nielson. "Finally he decided to go for it and do it. He contacted Rees Jones through a mutual friend and they decided on the piece of land. Jones routed the course and designed it with the owner's input and here we are today."

At the Founders Course, Jones used a combination of generous fairway landing areas and gently undulating greens to endear his layout to members almost overnight. Nielson says that Jones eschewed the typical desert target course design philosophy for a more player friendly approach.

"I got to walk the fairways quite a bit with Rees as the owner's liaison, and he kept telling me about how he wanted to put the fun back into golf," Nielson said. "One of the best things about this course is that it is straight-forward, but it gets harder as you get towards the green complexes."

Nielson says that Jones didn't design one bad golf hole at Quintero, but a number of holes stand out above and beyond the others.

The No. 6 is a par 3 with over 110 feet of elevation change from tee box to green, and the par 3 ninth serves up a 60-foot drop with a tee shot over a lake. If you like par 5's, the three shot No. 14 hole could be your favorite. The hole features 16 bunkers and is often compared to the ninth hole at Jones' famed Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland.

And as far as the artist himself is concerned, Nielson says he finally did catch Jones doting over one of his creations.

"No. 8 is Rees's favorite hole but he wouldn't say it," Nielson says. "Every time we got to the green he would say, man this is a great hole. The dogleg makes it impossible to get on in two, and it goes uphill into the valley."

Quintero will add another 18 holes to its compound in the fall of 2003. Greg Norman is designing the Charter Course, which has already been routed through the property

South Valley Weighs in with Championship Offering

Not many people outside of Arizona have heard the name Gary Panks. It is a shame, because the guy can flat out design a golf course. The Legacy Golf Club in Phoenix, Grayhawk in Scottsdale, and Antelope Hills in Prescott all claim Pank's signature marks and are continually rated as some of the best courses in the state.

With the addition of Devil's Claw at Whirlwind Golf Club last November, Panks further solidified himself as one of the best golf course architects in the U.S. Devil's Claw has all the necessary ingredients to become one of the top rated daily fee courses in the Valley of the Sun.

Its conditioning is immaculate.

"Right now, I would put our course up against any in the state," says head professional Steve Schyberg.

The layout is player friendly, and has earned its fair share of repeat play.

"When I first played the course, I thought the course was very user friendly," Schyberg says. "You are not going to need two Advil when you are done. It is the kind of golf course you'd want to play everyday, even if you are an average golfer. You can use different clubs and if you think your way around, you can score on it."

Two roles of film are more like it. Every hole at Devil's Claw is a veritable photo opportunity. But don't let Schyberg and Panks lull you to sleep. There is plenty of golf to be played, and if you want to take on the course from the tips, its going to run you about 7000 yards.

Average golfers, however, can move up to the Gold (6400) and Silver (6000) tees and still use every club in their bag. Golfers from out of state expecting a torturous, target style golf course will be pleasantly surprised to find a only a few forced carries, and fairways that run up to Panks' signature tiered greens.

"You have to hit good shots but its not going to tear your heart out," Schyberg says. "You take some guy from Chicago that hasn't touched a club in months and he loses 11 balls on some of those courses in Scottsdale. Out here, that same guy can have a good time."

So many courses these days eschew the idea of having a signature hole, but Schyberg doesn't shy away from pointing out his favorite hole, one that has players talking all the way out to their cars.

The par 4 ninth hole has a split fairway, designed for two different levels of player. To the right, the fairway is much more generous and requires a shorter carry to get to the fairway. The approach shot, however, will be up to a club longer, and the green will be harder to hit.

If you play the hole from the left side, the fairway is significantly narrower and requires a carry of 220 yards from the back tees just to make it over reeds. The reward for the risk taken is a club less on the approach and a better angle into the green.

As far as scoring goes, Schyberg recommends that players take advantage of Devil's Claw's par 5's, especially from the Golf and Silver tees.

"The par 5's are where you have to make your shots up because for good players they are not difficult holes," he says. "Three and six are reachable in two, and fifteen is very reachable in two."

Schyberg says the par 3's are solid, if not spectacular, with the exception of the course's 12th hole.

"The par 3's are good holes and you can make some birdies," he says. "Our toughest hole is the 220 yard par 3 12th hole. When you are standing there with a three iron and the wind in your face, it is daunting."

Signature holes aside, Devil's Claw offers golfers something they can find at only a small number of courses around the state - real estate free golf.

"One of the nice things about it is that when you are out there playing, there are no houses, no dogs, no cars and there are no parallel fairways," Schyberg says. "When you are playing the 15th hole, you can't see anyone. There will be no houses here ever because of the Reservation."

Great conditions, challenging holes and pure golf have appealed to more than just the golfing public. After being open less than a year, Whirlwind will play host to a Buy.com Tour event, the inaugural Gila River Classic Tournament, from October 8-14.

"When we first opened, being where we located, it took a while for people to know where we are," Schyberg says. "We are not in Scottsdale so we are a mystery to some people. But we will get four straight days on the Golf Channel with the Buy.com here, so that should do wonders for us."

So should a 500-room resort hotel and another 18-hole, Panks designed golf course, both slated to open in the fall of 2002.

In the scorching summer months, golfers can play Devil's Claw for $45. Rates will increase to $125 during the peak winter season.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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