Flying high: America's best desert courses

By Shane Sharp

PHOENIX, AZ - Just exactly what is "desert style" golf these days? At times, it seems the most popular courses are those throwing so much artificial water and non-native trees, it's almost an attempt to distract you from realizing why most of these places are so uninhabitable in the first place.

On the other hand, ask anyone who has watched their ball sail (an extra 10%, thanks to altitude) into a red rock backdrop as the sun sets over the mountains and they'll tell you there isn't a much better feeling in the game.

Simply put: any golfer must at least once breathe the dry desert air on a freshly cut golf course fairway. It's a far cry from the game's origins, but arguably just as unique.

In Arizona, the Phoenix/Scottsdale area is the epicenter of desert golf with over 100 courses accessible to the sojourning golfer by way of Sky Harbor International Airport and a well-planned freeway system. To the south, the rustic college town of Tucson holds its own with a handful of nationally ranked tracks.

To the north, Las Vegas has not-so-quietly emerged as one of the Southwest's most elegant golf destinations. "Sin City," boasts a cadre of modern, desert style golf courses. And, as evidenced by multi million and billon dollar facilities like Shadow Mountain and Reflection Bay, cost is a non-issue.

On the western flank of the Southwestern deserts, Palm Desert and Palm Springs have long been known as two of the country's premier golf destinations. The "Skins" game, the late Bob Hope, and 300-plus sunny days a year have embedded this arid region in the collective conscious of diehard golfers everywhere.

New Mexico, the dark horse of the group, has a number of outstanding desert golf offerings for those with the wherewithal to seek them out. Houston-based designer Ken Dye has made a name for himself by crafting thoughtful, affordable desert venues in the northern part of the state.

What exactly is desert golf, you ask? In recent years, the answer has simply morphed into "golf courses built in the desert." In the mid 1980's and early 1990's, a desert course, almost by definition, had to be penal, painstaking and target by design. Those days are over. Developers and golf course architects have come to the realization that you can only beat up on golfers so much before they decide to take their business elsewhere.

Here's the toast of the desert for 2005. No greens fees or accommodations or convenience included, this is strictly from the 1st tee to 18th cup, and all the cacti and 200-foot elevation drops in between.

Shadow Creek, Las Vegas, Nev.

Brainchild of casino mogul Steve Wynn and designed by Tom Fazio, Shadow Creek has become one of the most talked about golf courses in the world over the past 15 years. Wynn, cost be dammed, simply asked Fazio to build the most lavishly appointed, meticulously plotted courses in America. Word on the street is that the final price tag came in somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 million, a good chunk going towards morphing desert with rain forest. If you are fortunate enough to grab one of Shadow Creek's limited tee times and can cough up the $500, you'll find a layout choc-full of lakes, waterfalls, ponds and 200 varieties of tropical plants. The course is reputed to be a favorite of Michael Jordan's, James Woods', George Clooney, and some of the top money winners on the PGA Tour. For Tee Times: Good luck.

We-Ko-Pa, Phoenix, Ariz.

This Scott Miller designed gem burst on to the Scottsdale golf scene just over a year ago and immediately established itself as one of the best tracks in the Valley of the Sun. The course is owned by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Indian Nation and because of its location on the reservation, is devoid of the ubiquitous housing that plagues so many other Southern Arizona courses. Miller, a protégé of Jack Nicklaus for more than a decade, favors large landing areas and minimal bunkering. Another 18-hole course is in the works.

Monument and Pinnacle Courses at Troon North Golf Club, Scottsdale, AZ

Tom Weiskopf designed the newer Pinnacle Course and teamed with Jay Morrish on the Monument Course. These Sonoran desert masterpieces are easily two of Arizona's most visually stunning layouts. High and mid-handicappers have been known to lose over a dozen balls a side on Pinnacle, whereas Monument is a bit more forgiving off the tee and around the greens. Plenty of sculpted granite, stomach turning elevation changes, deep dramatic bunkers and target golf await at Pinnacle. Both courses include the signature Weiskopf/Morrish drivable par-4 and great finishing holes.

Paa-Ko Ridge Golf Club, Sandia Park, N.M.

Ken Dye (no relation to "the" Dye) isn't all that popular outside the "Land of Enchantment" or his home state of Texas. But inside the borders of this dramatic land of big skies and craggy mountains, his designs captivate visitors and locals alike. Paa-Ko Ridge is set at 6700 feet of elevation, just outside of Albuquerque. While it's not desert in the traditional sense, most holes play through native pinions, juniper and ponderosa pines. The towering Sandia Mountains form the backdrop.

PGA West Stadium Course, La Quinta, Calif.

This Pete Dye design doesn't get the hype it once did, but the Stadium Course remains one of the quintessential desert properties and one of the most difficult courses in the world. The course was the home of the Skins Game from 1986 to 1991, and the site of Lee Trevino's hole-in-on at the 166-yard par-3 island green known as Alcatraz.

Talon Course at Grayhawk Golf Club, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Professional golfer Phil Mickelson used to call Grayhawk home, and the Talon course reamins one of Lefty's favorites. David Graham and Gary Panks, two of Arizona's most innovative architects, designed the course, which is the former home of the Anderson Consulting World Championship of Golf. Expect great views of the McDowell Mountains, a five-level waterfall, and with a slope rating of 146, a golf course that will eat your lunch.

Mountain Course at The Lodge at Ventana Canyon, Tucson, Ariz.

Tom Fazio makes a rare appearance in the Sonoran Desert with this mountainous layout that continually ranks as on of the nation's best. The 107-yard par 3 third hole cost over $1 million to build, and is one of the most famous, and expensive holes in all of golf.

The South Course at the Boulders, Carefree, Ariz.

The Boulders are a solo effort from Jay Morrish, who used to team with Tom Weiskopf to produce some of the world's most memorable golf courses. You've probably seen pictures of this course's prehistoric looking rock formations, all of which distract players from the task at hand - clearing treacherous arroyos and canyons in hopes of making par.

The Mountain Course at LaQuinta Resort and Club, LaQuinta, Calif.

Pete Dye gets in again at No. 9 with this California desert course that features two of the most contrasting nines in golf. Undulating greens, and fairways carved from desert mountains define most of the course, as do the vintage Dye pot bunkers and water hazards. Dye throws in an island green at the par-3 16th hole.

Rio Secco Golf Club, Las Vegas, Nev.

Butch Harmon's home course is an 18-hole championship venue designed primarily for guests of the Rio All-Suite Casino Resort and is just a pitching wedge away from the award-winning property. The course makes its way across 240 acres of some of the most breathtaking scenery in the west, and is perched 800 feet above the Las Vegas valley. The course was designed by Rees Jones, best known for his redesigns of U.S. Open host courses. Panoramic views of the Las Vegas Valley and the desert-mountain landscape provide a golf experience for the senses and a formidable test of skill at all levels. Players are challenged on multiple elevations on arroyos, plateaus and steep canyons through ever-changing terrain.

Best of the Rest

Reflection Bay Golf Club at Lake Las Vegas Resort, Henderson, NV: A lush, Florida style course at Lake Las Vegas brought to you by the Golden Bear. Look for double carries over water and deep arroyos. The course begins along steep canyon sides, and works its way to a majestic finish along an after-shave blue, palm-lined lake.

Desert Course at Primm Valley Golf Club, Primm, NV: Tom Fazio was not one to be left out of the Las Vegas golf course gold rush of the late 1990's. The Desert Course is a "sin"tillating blend of cactus, palms, elevated tees, native grasses, and generally, outstanding desert style golf.

Pinon Hills Golf Course, Farmington NM: Another exquisite Ken Dye design located smack dab in the middle of nowhere. Play this course for $25 and you might assume it's the best golfing value in the country. You'd be right. Elevated tee boxes, finely groomed grass and surreal vistas all mark this modern layout.

Shane Sharp

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