The Desert Road slightly less traveled: East Valley offers affordable alternatives

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

MESA, Ariz. - The sun was just making its way above the Superstition Mountains, but the Mesa Golf Center was already pulsing with life. It was a Friday morning - a workday in most of America - yet every station on the practice range was occupied. If there was such thing as dew in Southern Arizona, these folks would have been sweeping it.

The swings ranged from fundamentally sound to fundamentally illegal. On the far right side of the range was an old man wearing overalls and swinging golf clubs he seemingly pilfered from Bobby Jones. Towards the middle were two salesmen types - not a hair out of place, cell phones sitting on the ground beside them. To their left was a teenage boy actually taking the time to teach his girlfriend to use a pitching wedge, and on the far left side there were three women sharing a station, laughing and talking more than they were swinging.

Twenty minutes north in Scottsdale, the clientele at a similar practice facility may go something like this: Doctor, doctor, lawyer, Arabian prince, Phil Mickelson, Gary McCord. Then again, there is no practice facility in Scottsdale like the Mesa Golf Center, which despite its utilitarian nature and democratic overtones is not exactly becoming of a space in the Valley's swankiest zip code.

Mesa and Scottsdale share an international airport, the 101 Freeway, and summer temperatures that turn leather car seats into makeshift woks, but the list pretty much ends there. Scottsdale is spa treatments, specialty shops, martinis and Nuevo southwestern cuisine. Mesa is a quick shower, a cold beer and a chile con carne plate special.

Despite the presence of a single skyscraper, a booming industrial complex, or a major university, Mesa has managed to become the 43rd largest city in the U.S. according to the 2000 census. The city population - at just over 400,000 - makes it just a tad bit smaller than Tucson, the state's second largest burg. Mesa's history is similar to that of many southwestern cities. First there were the Native Americans; in this case, the canal-building Hohokams. Then came the Spanish explorers and missionaries, the Mormon Battalion, and then the frontier settlers.

And eventually, when the white man was all nice and settled in with his air conditioning and water supply, there came the golf courses. Phoenix, the elder statesmen of the Valley, got the palm tree laden resort courses. Scottsdale, the eccentric millionaire, got the upscale desert courses with the jaw-dropping views. The East Valley (including Mesa, Chandler, Apache Junction, and Gold Canyon) got an eclectic assortment of municipal, daily fee and semi-private courses that taken collectively, form an affordable, enticing golf destination.

Pathways, helicopters and dinosaurs

The restaurant at the Las Sendas Golf Club is the sort of place where you could easily kill an afternoon. The view from the back patio down to the Valley is a postcard waiting to happen and the hamburger exceeds all clubhouse food expectations. In the background, a large television blares with the sounds of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals getting their usual drubbing.

Out beyond the reach of patio's shade, the sun splashes the fairways of Las Sendas' Robert Trent Jones Jr. designed golf course. When it opened 1995, Las Sendas was to be Mesa's answer to Scottsdale's Troons and Grayhawks. Over time, its owners discovered that $250 greens fees just don't cut it in a blue collar retirement town. The course is not in the pristine condition it was seven years ago, but then again, the reasonable green and cart fee is enough of a reason to ignore a burnt patch of grass here and there.

"We know our price point, and the course you get for the money here is a great value," says marketing director Diane DePaolo.

Especially when you consider that Las Sendas has a story to tell. Over 10,000 years ago, this scenic chunk of earth at the base of Red Mountain served as hunting ground for Paleo Indians. Las Sendas, translated as "the pathways," was later the center of an ancient Hohokam Indian community that farmed the surrounding land using irrigation ducts from the nearby Salt River.

The Hohokam inexplicably disappeared from the area and 100 years later were replaced by Spanish explorers, Pima, Maricopa and Apache Indians and Anglo-American adventurers. Army scout Kit Carson passed through the area, as did fur trapper James O. Pattie. In the 1930's, Las Sendas' enviable setting in the foothills of the Usery Mountains was discovered by the emerging Hollywood movie industry. The property came to be known as the El Rancho Grande dude ranch, and was a favorite vacation spot for John Wayne and other silver screen cowboys.

"Part of the allure of this golf course is actually what came before it," says DePaolo. "Not many courses in the valley have this kind of story to tell. The challenge is getting golfers to consider us alongside the upscale courses of Scottsdale and making the trip down here to play."

At the Red, White and Brew pizza pub on the northwest corner of Power and McDowell Roads, no one seems to be concerned about Mesa's upscale golf inferiority complex. Whether it's the tasty barbecue pizza, the cold draft beer, or the fact that many of the patrons have sampled the Dinosaur Mountain course at Gold Canyon Resort is difficult to discern.

"I would put Dinosaur up against anything in Scottsdale," says Mike Riggs, a Mesa-based engineering consultant who admits to playing 54-72 holes a week. "The elevation changes and the views are awesome. But that track is always in great shape, too. It's worth the drive."

The drive is a straight shot east on the Superstition Freeway through Apache Junction into the remote town of Gold Canyon. It's a solid 25 minutes from downtown Mesa and almost an hour from downtown Phoenix. The surreal setting of alabaster golf casitas tumbling down a craggy hillside is the sight most golfers recall from their first visit to Gold Canyon Resort.

Like the surrounding mountains, the resort's Dinosaur Mountain course and its somewhat lesser known sibling, the Sidewinder course, both came to fruition at a geologic pace. It took golf course architects Ken Kavanaugh, Greg Nash, and Stuart Penge nearly 20 years to complete the 36 holes, with the front nine of the Sidewinder finally finishing up in 1998.

"The setting is so beautiful, all I was trying to do is uncover it," says the Tucson-based Kavanaugh, who crafted Dinosaur Mountain's ridiculously scenic back nine. "I wanted to make simple, sweeping shapes that wouldn't conflict with the dramatic backdrops."

Or conflict with local gold diggers. The precious metal was discovered in the nearby Superstitions in 1870, and the miner who happened upon the booty never disclosed its location. Whether or not the mines actually exist is a popular topic in local bars and greasy spoon diners from Gold Canyon to Flagstaff. The mystery only serves to motivate the hundreds of prospectors who relentlessly search for the lost mines each year.

Back in Mesa, Kavanaugh's other local offering, the Longbow Golf Club, recently opened after being under the knife since April 2003. The original circuit opened in 1997 to rave reviews, but with the availability of additional acreage, ownership brought Kavanaugh back to totally revamp the layout.

The remodeling project was as ambitious as a contestant on The Apprentice. The playing surface was increased from 135 to 160 acres to accommodate wider fairways and an expanded practice area. A number of the forced carries over the desert were reduced and the clubhouse was moved to a central location along Longbow Parkway. A "longer and wider" bow, as Kavanaugh likes to refer to it. But preliminary reports are it's a much better bow as well.

If Kavanaugh was handed the keys to a Mercedes on the back nine at Dinosaur Mountain, the site he inherited from the Boeing Corporation at Longbow was a Ford Taurus, at best. The former vacant lot next to the Confederate Airfield was a collection of broken glass and scrub desert vegetation, and the elevation changes were as about as frequent as measurable rainfall.

That he was able to produce such an outstanding golf course on such a mundane piece of land is a testament to Kavanaugh's skill. Even before the facelift, Longbow was the type of track you could play everyday. At just over 6,200 yards from the middle tees, it was tame enough to be considered "player friendly," but wily enough to be considered challenging. Visually, Longbow is even stunning at times. The shimmering lake behind the 18th green and the sprawling waste bunkers of the ninth and 16th holes are all golf calendar material.

"It is truly unique and exciting to be given the opportunity to enhance a golf course that you are already very proud of," says Kavanaugh. "We have really been able to take advantage of the spectacular views of Red Mountain and the Superstitions."

So come spring, when the cactus bloom and the mercury begins to rise back into the mid-80s, the East Valley golf scene should be fully operational. With courses like Las Sendas, Gold Canyon Resort and Longbow, Mesa might just be worthy of occupying a station next to Scottsdale on the golf practice range of life.

Also playing in the East Valley

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 amid 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.

Dobson Ranch Golf Course (480) 644-2291 is one of the busiest municipal courses in the Southwest, hosting between 95,000 and 100,000 annual rounds. The course is walkable and so affordable that golfers don't seem to mind the five hour rounds.

Stay and Play

Gold Canyon Resort offers golf packages including rounds at Dinosaur Mountain and Sidewinder and plush accommodations in the adjacent casitas. Call (800) 624-6445 for reservations and package rates. Still feel the need to sample Scottsdale's best? Resort Suites of Scottsdale offers golf packages with dozens of nearby courses, and features villa style suites grouped around quaint courtyards with crystal blue pools. The property is located just off Scottsdale Road next to the Princess Resort. Ask about Resort Suites' Personal Vacation Planners and Golf Bank.

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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