Prescott turning into a golfer's paradise

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- Hard to believe, but until five years ago, the main place to play golf in the Prescott area were the two courses at Antelope Hills owned by the city of Prescott. Now there are four more courses and talk of new ones to come.

StoneRidge Golf Course
StoneRidge Golf Course in Prescott Valley is a hybrid of the desert- and mountain-course styles.
StoneRidge Golf Course
If you go

First to debut in 1998 was a private course, Hassayampa Country Club, a completely new design created by Tom Weiskopf on the site of an old deteriorating club. Then came Prescott Lakes, a Hale Irwin layout. Then last year, StoneRidge Golf Course in Prescott Valley, a daily-fee mountain-style course by Randy Heckenkemper, opened up, and so did Talking Rock Ranch, a private layout by Jay Morrish.

At the same time, this mountain-area town and its surrounding communities have grown from a population of about 50,000 in 1990 to almost 80,000. A lot of the interest in this picturesque area in northern Arizona got started about 10 years ago when Money magazine named Prescott the best retirement area in the United States.

Despite the population increase, says Jim Noe, director of golf at Antelope Hills, his muni club with two 18-hole layouts has seen a drop in play over the past few years. "It started with Hassayampa five years ago," Noe says. "Even though some of the clubs are private, they've been inviting groups in and having outings that otherwise could have been ours."

Susan Rakozy, head professional at StoneRidge, doesn't mind the competition.

"The more courses they build, the more likely that people will come up here and stay longer and play three or four of them," she says.

Rakozy thinks Prescott is a lot like Bend, Ore., where the building of golf courses has exploded in recent years. Bend is two hours from Portland; Prescott is less than two hours from Phoenix. Both are in high-desert areas, but Prescott gets less snow.

"When people go to Bend now, they end up playing 18 to 36 holes everyday," she says.

Possible new courses in the Prescott area include one that could be built by Universal Homes at the Granville development off Glassford Hill Road and maybe another in nearby Chino Valley. "This is all based on a lot of optimistic speculation and might never happen, but there's a lot going on up here," Rakozy says.

This is a popular weekend spot for Phoenix residents to visit during the summer when temperatures can be 15 to 20 degrees cooler. But the golfing season here can run from March to December for permanant residents and sometimes longer. Prescott is at about 5,000 feet and does get snow. The town also makes for a great two-day stay if you're traveling through Arizona.

Here's a quick rundown on the possibilities:

Antelope Hills Golf Courses

If you're expecting Antelope Hills to be the typical muni facility, you're in for a pleasant surprise. There are two par-72 courses here, both well maintained, and one a 1992 design by renowned Scottsdale architect Gary Panks -- is well worth the 100-mile trip from Phoenix.

The Panks course, known as the South Course, has the generous fairways and interesting mounding that are part of his trademark. Once you've played one of his courses, you'll become adept at using those mounds as a way to bump your ball into position on the greens or fairway. You'll enjoy the elevated tees and greens as well. This is not a short course; it measures more than 7,014 yards.

You'll face a different kind of challenge on Antelope Hills' North Course, which takes you back in time to 1956 to be precise. That's when designer Lawrence Hughes created this 6,778-yard course that winds its way through mature poplar, spruce, elm, cottonwood and willow trees. Hughes incidentally also did the original layout of the Phoenix area's most exclusive golf club, Paradise Valley Country Club.

"Both courses are equally popular," says Jim Noe, director of golf for Antelope Hills. "On the old course you have the traditional tree-lined course that's Midwestern or Eastern in style. It has small greens, few bunkers and it's shorter from the back.

"On the new, you have more mounding, limited trees, bigger bunkers and more water in play. Most people enjoy the difference, but there are some diehards who think the old is superior."

Although conditions are excellent on these courses, the pace of play can be slow.

Prescott Lakes Golf & Country Club

Prescott Lakes Golf & Country Club was built three years ago as part of a 1,200-acre, master-planned community by the same name. The 7,200-yard course covers 150 acres including lakes, natural washes and wild grasslands; views from the course take in the Granite Dells, Mingus Mountain and Thumb Butte major local landmarks.

Hale Irwin designed this par-72 semi-private layout. If you're interested in Prescott Lakes, play now rather than later as the eventual aim maybe in a year or two is to turn it into a completely private facility restricted to members, residents of the development and guests at a resort yet to be built on the site.

Many holes have very wide and generous fairways. This course seems to favor the distance hitter, but accurate shots are important, too. You'll find many arroyos to cross and dry washes to avoid. Several holes offer serious water hazards and many fairway bunkers. Conditions here are superb, both on the fairways and greens, which are all watered with treated wastewater. The manmade lakes and waterfalls are sparkling blue.

StoneRidge Golf Course

StoneRidge Golf Course in Prescott Valley is a hybrid of the desert- and mountain-course styles. The course (about 7,000 yards from the back tees) winds its way up and down for miles through brush-tangled, boulder-dotted canyons and ravines. Randy Heckenkemper has designed the course, in the Bradshaw Mountains, so that a smart golfer can play the slopes and curves to best advantage. The fairways may be narrow; the greens may be hiding around blind turns. But once you catch onto the concept, instead of fighting the course, you'll be conquering it.

In general, Susan Rakozy, the head golf professional at StoneRidge, advises players, "If you're going to miss it, miss it short, because the fairways get narrower as the shots get longer. The same is true with the greens. If you miss them in front, it's OK. But if you go over, you're in trouble. You' re either going to have a close putt or a long putt here. There are no in-betweens."

Rakozy's personal favorite is the signature hole, No. 12, a par 3 (230 yards from the back tees, 101 from the forward). Stony ridges and boulders surround this hole and serve as a backdrop for your target on the green.

Talking Rock G.C.

This Arizona high-country, par-72 course (7,350 yards from the back tees, 5,105 yards from the forward) is on a site about 14 miles north of the town of Prescott and about 120 miles from Phoenix. It's an area known as Williamson Valley where there is still a wide-open rural feeling.

Talking Rock's front nine travels through the scrub pine forest with views of local peaks like Granite Mountain. The back nine is where the elevation gets higher, and the terrain grows more rugged. The mountain views are more spectacular as well.

Although there is no walk-on traffic from the public here, Jim Leisenring, the director of golf, does allow reciprocal play from some other private clubs. Groups of from 12 to 24 can also arrange golf outings in an effort to get to know the property, he says.

Hassayampa Country Club

Since 1919, folks have been playing golf at Hassayampa C.C., although at first they only had six holes and players went around three times to get in their 18-hole rounds. In 1969, the club was forced to close; in the 1990s, Desert Troon bought the property along with another 547 acres and developed it with housing and a golf course designed by Tom Weiskopf.

This great mountain-style course starts out high above the town and offers sweeping views of local hills and dales. Lots of wonderful holes here including the par-5 No. 5, the infamous "Bloody Basin." You tee off from a knoll down to the first landing area which would be fairly generous if it were not for a big rock outcropping smack dab in the center. Your second shot has to cross a side swath of wetlands, and then you're shooting back uphill toward an elevated green well-protected by bunkers. Back-to-back par-3s on the back 9 Nos. 16 and 17 require lofting your ball across canyons to greens tucked into hillsides.

Farther to the east

There are two other older public golf courses in the town of Dewey just outside Prescott Valley, Prescott Golf and Country Club and Quailwood Greens Golf Club.

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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