In Search of Non-Desert Golf in the Valley of the Sun

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

PHOENIX, AZ - Desert golf doesn't always have to be about forcing carries over a 200-yard ravine, or looking for you ball amid cacti that resemble some Medieval torture devices. Tens of thousands of people call the Valley of the Sun home, and you can bet a good percentage of them love to golf.

Another safe a bet would be that they all don't necessarily love losing a dozen golf balls in prickly pear infested washes, or staring at a green 175 yards away surrounded by more elevation change than the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Over the years, a demand for non-desert, desert golf has emerged, and some Phoenix area courses roll out some traditional layouts that just might remind you more of your home course in the Midwest, or back east than those devilish layouts you see strewn across the front of brochures.

Back in the Day

Target golf hasn't always been the norm in the Valley. Phoenix's first courses were traditional in the sense that they featured grass from tee to green, were typically built on the valley floor where they could be easily irrigated, and contained a wide variety of large shade trees to keep walkers from overheating.

Then came the earth mover, the golf cart, and a world of other equipment that made constructing golf courses in the foothills of Phoenix's scraggy mountain ranges all the rage.

The desert courses of the late 1980's and early 1990's were extremely penal, with numerous forced carries off the tee and on approach shots to the green. This type of design, as practiced by Robert Trent Jones Senior, Jack Nicklaus, and Tom Fazio, among others, became known as "Target Golf."

Target golf was a lot like a good cigar or an aged glass of Scotch - it was good, but only in small doses.

Towards the mid 1990's, things began to take a turn back towards the traditional. The same architects that seemed to take pleasure in striking down duffers with prickly plant filled chasms began to churn out tracks sporting grass from tee to green and concave fairways that kept balls from caroming into the desert washes.

By the onset of the new millennium, the layouts being built around Phoenix, Palm Desert and Las Vegas were a beautiful marriage between the striking visual characteristics of target golf, and the playability of some of the southwest's oldest golf courses.

If you're visiting the Valley of the Sun this fall, and you get your fill of desert course, here are a few venues that might remind you a little of home.

McCormick Ranch - McCormick Ranch isn't just a pit stop for traditional golf: With 36 holes of lush fairways, wispy trees, hundreds of palms, and water on almost every hole, McCormick Ranch is a old school golf mecca.

The Palm Course is the more traditional of the two, and draws raves from players and writers for its championship caliber golfing experience. The course opened back in 1972 and was designed by noted golf eccentric Desmond Muirhead.

The Palm Course is wide open, and is a long hitter's dream. But Muirhead included enough hazards, particularly in the way of water, to keep the better players from conquering the course. Fairways, and even greens, are typically rolling, and are a pleasure to behold in an otherwise parched landscape.

The Raven at South Mountain - If you've played the Raven at Sabino Springs down in Tucson, you are in for a shock when you visit the Raven at South Mountain for the first time. Instead of stately Saguaro cactus, you'll find pine trees. Most of the forced carries have been replaced with fairways that run tee to green, but the course still features some fantastic views of the surrounding mountain ranges.

Raven South Mountain is a favorite among the Phoenix area sports teams. A number of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Valley's Major League Baseball squad, regularly play at the Raven, as do some of the Arizona Cardinals, the state's NFL team.

In addition to its traditional layout, the Raven at South Mountain has set itself apart from other upscale courses with its award winning service. No joke - if you need anything, from food and towels to updates on game scores, someone from the Raven's staff is going to make sure you get it. Call 800-767-3574 for more information.

Ocotillo Golf Club - To visualize Raven at South Mountain, think Colorado, or Northern Arizona. To create a picture of Ocotillo in your mind's eye, think Florida. Ocotillo has quietly become one of the most sought after rounds of golf in the South Valley.

The 27-hole facility is loaded with gently rolling fairways, palm trees, lakes, and a whole bunch of other things you usually don't find on golf courses in Arizona. A few years back, the doublewide trailer that served as the pro shop cloaked the fact that Ocotillo has some of the best-maintained greens and fairways in the Valley.

These days, the course sports a 25,000-square-foot golf facility, complete with a massive cart barn, state-of-the-art pro shop, snazzy restaurant and a pavilion that can handle parties for over 500 guests. Call 800-767-3574 for more information.

The Arizona Biltmore Adobe Course - The Adobe Course is the fourth oldest in Arizona, and you'd be hard pressed to find a more pleasant round of golf. Coaxing customers to the desert to play golf was not always as easy as it is today. So the old Adobe Course offers plenty of shade trees, water hazards, and a leisurely pace of play.

The Adobe's sister track, the Links Course, couldn't be more different. The Links Course is as modern as the Adobe Course is traditional. And in a rare perfection of a sibling relationship, neither course can claim to be superior to the other. Call (602) 955-6600 for more information.

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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