Arizona golf courses capitalize on college connections

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

PHOENIX, Ariz. - College golf is huge in Arizona with lots of ink in local newspapers devoted to how the future PGA and LPGA stars of America are doing in the NCAA. After all, these are the schools that turned out Phil Mickelson (Arizona State) and Annika Sorenstam (University of Arizona).

ASU Golf Karsten Course - hole 4
Treachery awaits at the 420-yard par-4 fourth at the ASU Karsten Golf Course in Tempe.
ASU Golf Karsten Course - hole 4Arizona National GC - No. 14
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So it's no wonder that both ASU and the U of A have home courses. The word "have" isn't exactly on the money because ASU has a foundation that owns and runs the ASU Karsten Golf Course next door to the campus in Tempe. Meanwhile, the U of A players train at a privately owned course - Arizona National - several miles down the road from the university campus in Tucson.

Both these courses have tried to capitalize on their college connections. Open to the public, these are great places to play 18 holes whether you're an alumnus of one of the schools or not. And the two have strikingly different personalities and layouts.

ASU Karsten in Tempe

If you really want to get that rah-rah, Sun Devil feeling, you'll find it at the ASU Karsten golf course. The name comes by way of Karsten Solheim, who founded the PING golf club company in Phoenix in the early 1960s and whose family helped pay for the ASU Karsten course. The handles on the clubhouse doors are the heads of PING woods. "He made the largest cash donation to the course - more than $2 million," says David Raper, director of golf.

A visit to ASU Karsten will make you feel right in tune with the school. The football stadium is right across the street. There are students everywhere: working in the pro shop, waiting on tables in the restaurant, cleaning your clubs after your round of golf. And in the afternoons during the school year, you'll also see the college players out on the driving range. The pro shop, of course, is well stocked with maroon and gold gear - sweatshirts, shirts, hats, the works - even tiny golf shirts for babies.

There's a huge driving range and practice facility here as you might expect and a brand-new building where you can have your swing analyzed by computer and video. The teaching staff here is top-notch and open to the public as well as the college.

The golf course, built in 1988 and laid out by the design team of Pete Dye, who hasn't done all that many golf courses in Arizona, has a Scottish links style with knolls, mounds, railroad ties and lots of pot bunkers and water.

"Actually, Pete's wife, Alice, probably was more involved with our course than he was," says Raper, which may account for why the course is especially kind to women players.

This isn't a course with lots of lush desert and scenic wonders; after all, you're a couple of three-wood shots away from downtown Tempe. You're going to see power-plant towers, high-tension wires and lots of planes making an approach to Sky Harbor. But still this is a fun course to play.

The course overall ranges in length from 7,026 yards from the tips to 4,765 from the forward tees. But you'll find that from all tee boxes, the back nine plays about 400 or 500 yards longer than the front. So save your energy for the tough finish.

Lots of short, harmless-looking holes here appear to be a snap - like No. 1 with the trademark Pete Dye mounds around the green. But at the end of the hole, you're scratching your head and kicking the tires of your golf cart.

Strategy and accuracy are very important. Consider No. 3, a dogleg left par-4 (423 yards from the back tees, 266 from the middle) that requires a good shot down the right side of the fairway. The crook of the dogleg has a bunker so you don't want to go left or you'll be shooting blindly out of the sand at a green you can't see. A treacherous pot bunker also guards the front left of this green.

Another intriguing hole is the par-4 No. 4 (420 yards from the back, 288 from the front) runs along a lagoon and has a bunker yawning in the middle of the fairway. To get to the green safely, you're supposed to bear left, but not too left or you're wet. There's also a lot of Pete Dye style to No. 8, a par-4 with a lot of sand and railroad ties, says Raper.

The par-4 finishing hole - No. 18 (471 yards from the back, 340 from the forward) - has huge water trouble on the left. On top of it all, it's a dogleg left that could require you to make a long second shot over water. The cowardly can lay up on the right-hand side. But be careful of the bunkers you're going to find along the way.

"This is well recognized as a challenging hole," says Raper. "When you're far away from the hole, you think that you have a lot more room on the approach than you actually do. A lot of people think of this as our signature hole as well because of the views of Sun Devil Stadium in the background."

Arizona National Golf Club in Tucson

Arizona National Golf Club in Tucson has been the home of the Wildcats for some time, but until last year the name of the course was The Raven at Sabino Springs. When the course was sold by Intrawest to IRI Golf Group, the new owners changed the name and decided to capitalize more on the ties to the local school.

"The affiliation has been fantastic in every way," says Eric Hoffman, director of golf, even though the University of Arizona doesn't pay rent to IRI.

"The use of the course is a donation that IRI makes to the school," Hoffman says. "But it's paid off for us in terms of the corporate tours and fundraisers that come here because of the U of A connection. Sponsors of the athletic program book outings with us."

You have to drive about 12 miles from Interstate 10 into subdivisions and the mountain foothills to get to the course. Along the way, you touch the fringes of the U of A campus. But the golf course itself feels more like a high-end daily-fee course even though there is a giant U of A logo on the fairway overlooking a lagoon in front of the clubhouse.

This course lies higher up than Phoenix and is even at a higher altitude than much of Tucson. It skirts Sabino Canyon, a fabulous desert preserve, and so you're going to find the fairways jumping with chollas and saguaros.

Robert Trent Jones Jr. did the layout for this desert target course built in 1996 after a good bit of opposition from local cactus huggers. You will feel a bit sad about the fact that humans moved in here to lay out the holes and houses, but that's all sand under the bulldozer now; so be prepared for four hours of breathtaking scenery and amazing golf. This par-71 course (6,785 yards from the tips) has won loads of awards and was named to Golf Magazine's list of Top 100 Public Courses last year.

Right from the start you climb the course to fire uphill shots on Nos. 1 through 3. The easiest hole and one of the most scenic is the par-4 No. 3 (329 yards from the back tees and 254 from the front) that rises to an elevated green with a false front and bunkers that seem to be everywhere.

Then you turn around and go back down again starting with the par-3 No. 4 (184 yards from the back tees and 109 from the forward) where you make a tee shot at a tiny green floating above a sea of saguaros. As you stand on the tee box for No. 4, you'll be impressed with the views of Tucson and maybe even Mexico below you. In fact, you'll see panoramas like this all along the course.

Then you head downhill on No. 5 toward the clubhouse and the course levels out a bit before you start climbing again - reaching the high point on the tees of No. 11. On that hole, a long par-5 (625 yards from the back tees and 371 from the forward), you make a blind tee shot downhill that requires a forced carry as well as the ability to stay out of bunkers on the right side. Although this is allegedly the toughest hole on the course, it didn't feel all that difficult to play.

Lots of arroyos to cross all through this course, and the carries can be particularly severe from the tips - especially on No. 14, a par-4 that's 404 yards from the back and 191 from the forward. From the forward tees, however, women get a big break on distance and on avoiding the brush and ravines.

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.

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