Growth and Golf in the East Valley: This is Not Your Father's Chandler

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHANDLER, AZ - Here's a place where cow pastures meet high tech industry, where ostrich farms bump up against high end retail stores, and most folks barely give it a second thought. Most that is, except long time residents like Leon Espinoza, second-generation owner of Espo's Authentic Mexican Food on Chandler Blvd.

Leon's father, David Espinoza, opened the restaurant portion of Espo's back when a young Leon and his compadres would take to the dirt streets and vacant lots of Chandler on their three wheel motorcycles. Fast-forward to today, and you still don't have to look hard to find huge swaths of vacant land around this burgeoning east valley burg.

Just don't count on them being there for long. Chandler's recent population explosion has enabled the Espinoza family to tack a Mexican grocery onto their already popular restaurant.

"I don't recognize this place, and I have only lived here five years," says one Espo's lunch patron on an 80-degree February afternoon. "Yet there are still signs of the past everywhere you look, like this place here."

Chandler's meteoric ascendance from cow town to boom town, like a Randy Johnson fastball, has been difficult to track. According to the U.S. Census, Chandler has been, and remains, one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

According to the latest estimate, over 183,000 residents call this former agricultural and cotton farming hub home. Intel and a number of other high tech tenants have moved to Chandler during the mid-90's, and Chandler Fashion Center, with it's upscale department stores, has cemented the status of Dr. John Chandler's former ranch site as legitimate place to shop-till-you drop.

Adding fuel to the economic fire is the fact that thousands of annual visitors are even beginning to call Chandler and the east valley a golf destination.

"Chandler used to be the armpit of the Valley," says Ocotillo General Manager David Bogue. "I carried that prejudice with me for many years, and when the owner of Ocotillo came to me with a job offer, I said 'not in this lifetime.' But when I came and looked at this golf course, my heart just started thumping."

And with golf facilities like the 27-hole, Ted Robinson designed Ocotillo, and the new 18-hole Whirlwind Golf Club at the Gila River Indian Reservation just minutes south, the entire east valley's heart is thumping with a new sense of purpose.

"We are not Scottsdale, but we aren't trying to compete against Scottsdale," Bogue says. "There is enough room in this valley for a few economic levels of golf vacations, and we are establishing one that is just under the big boys, but still affordable for many players."

Ocotillo is leading Chandler's charge into the golf vacation industry by offering a unique concierge service that enables players to book entire golf packages with one quick phone call. This style of "reverse" marketing might revolutionize the way golf trips are planned in the Valley of the Sun.

"Generally, we go in on bended knee and ask hotels to send us their guests, but now we are using reverse marketing to send them patrons," says Ocotillo's Executive Vice President Tom Bishop. "We put in a concierge center here at the course and we changed the name from Ocotillo Golf Club to Ocotillo Resort, signifying that you can have a complete stay and play deal right here."

Where to Golf

Ocotillo Golf Club is a little slice of Florida golf situated just five minutes south of Chandler Blvd. and the 101 Freeway. The course features 27 holes of lushly turfed fairways and greens, set on 180 acres of Chandler's finest real estate. The story at Ocotillo is the water: over 60 acres of ponds and streams that come together to form one of the most unique golfing experiences in the Valley.

Water is in play on almost every hole on the White, Blue, and Gold nines. While there are few forced carries over the drink off the tee, there are also few dry routes into Robinson's trademark two-tiered greens.

Most players tend to request the White Nine, since it's the course they see when they first drive in. But Bishop and members of the Ocotillo staff all favor the Blue Nine because of its challenging approach shots and aesthetics. At 3404 yards and playing to a slope of 131, the Gold Nine is the longest and most difficult of the three.

Whirlwind Golf Club's Devil's Claw Course has wasted little time in establishing itself as the real deal. The course procured a event in its first year of existence (2001), and the Gary Panks designed layout has many players calling it one of the best tracks in the East Valley.

Who are we to argue? For the money, there's not a better play in Chandler. Summer fees can dip as low as $43, and peak season fees are priced below average, at $120. What you get for the money is real estate-free golf, wide open fairways sprinkled with deep, steep-walled bunkers, and medium sized, gently tiered greens that hold approach shots as well as three to four year old putting surfaces.

Where to Eat

Espo's (3863 W. Chandler Blvd.) is the place for authentic, cheap, Sonoran grub. The specialty of the house is the green Chili plate - tender, shredded beef simmered all day in a mouth watering green chile sauce. Warning: in Arizona and New Mexico, green is typically hotter than red. Espo's plates are served in deep aluminum foil pans, and are filled with refried beans and Mexican rice.

As if that's not enough, the Espinoza family throws in a ground beef taco on the side. Espo's also serves Machaca (shredded beef with onions and garlic), tamales and chorizo (spicy sausage) for breakfast. Nothing on the menu will set you back more than seven bills.

Meals at P.F. Chang's Bistro, on the other hand start at seven and go up to your heart's and stomach's content. Located in the trendy Chandler Fashion Center, P.F. Chang's offers some creative interpretations of traditional Chinese cuisine. The black bean chicken is one of the most popular, and healthiest selections on the menu, and the appetizer of choice for most patrons are the lettuce wraps (filled with spicy beef.)

Where to Shop

You'll think you've died and gone to Scottsdale at the Chandler Fashion Center. Located at the junction of the 101 Freeway and Chandler Blvd., the CFC is home to Nordstrom's, art galleries, almost 30 eateries, a 20-cinema movie theater, 11 jewelry stores, and specialty shops ranging from knives and children's hobbies to Native American Jewelry. All told, over 700,000 square feet of retail store space is available for public consumption!

Where to Stay

From Chandler Spring Hill Suites (225 N. Metro Boulevard, 480.726.7666), you can be at Whirlwind in ten minutes, Ocotillo in five minutes, and the Chandler Fashion Center in five seconds. Why stay anywhere else? Located directly across the street from the CFC, and the only drawback being that peace and quiet finally comes around 3 a.m. when the cars disappear from this busy junction. Rooms include separate areas for eating/working, relaxing and sleeping, plus in-room coffee maker, mini-refrigerator, microwave and sink.

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 from 1997 to 2003.

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