Show Me the Money! The Priciest Private Places in Arizona

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

SCOTTSDALE, AZ - You just inherited a fortune from your rich uncle. So you're going out to Arizona to do what you always dreamed about: Buy a house and join the most exclusive, luxurious private course you can find.

Arizona offers a virtual quagmire of private-club options where you can easily sink that fortune. Probably the best advice is to find a Realtor who can guide you through the twists and turns of the system so that you end up with what you want. But to get you started, we've got a list of some of the top places in the Phoenix area.

A big price tag isn't the only criteria for finding a great private club. "It's a little bit like going to a restaurant with someone who says, 'I don' t care what it costs,'" says Chuck O'Malley of Re/Max Realty (888-402-7700). "You still have to decide whether you want seafood or steak. If you want to join a place with multiple courses, then Desert Mountain might be appropriate. If you want a small boutique course, go somewhere else. If you want a course where mainly men play, then you might try Whisper Rock where you won't find country club dinners and Valentine's Day parties. Or for those who want to life closer in to Phoenix, because they want to commute to a job, DC Ranch is a good possibility."

The gold-plated places are mainly in North Scottsdale and range from about $100,000 to $225,000 to join, though some big names cost less. After that, monthly fees cost from about $400 to $700. Many clubs require you to buy a lot or house in a development before buying a membership. Most have equity memberships, so that you can sell the membership later and get some, but not all your money back, but others do not.

The pricier courses all opened within the past 20 years. They generally lie at higher elevations from about 2,500 to almost 5,000 feet. They offer beautiful layouts by top architects with national reputations, combined with fabulous mountain and desert views.

The Golf Club of Scottsdale

We'll start with one club that isn't even built yet. The Golf Club of Scottsdale (480-443-8868) will be an equity club limited to 265 members. Memberships cost $200,000 now, but will go up once the course is built, according to managing partner Mark Isakson of Scottsdale. "We will be the most private and the most exclusive club in a very high-end market," he says.

Isakson notes, however, that similar exclusive clubs around the country can cost $300,000 to $350,000. Other clubs in the Scottsdale area - Estancia and Desert Mountain, for example - cost from $200,000 to $225,000. Right now, there are 35 charter members in Isakson's venture. "They've all been attracted by word of mouth and referral," he says.

The club is being built near the famous Troon North public fee course and will be located between Dynamite and Dixileta on 122nd Street. Construction will begin this fall, and the club will open about a year later. Memberships here can be resold. But it's also an individual membership - no bringing your spouse in to play unless the spouse pays another $200,000 to join.

What would a golfer get for such big bucks? "It all gets down to access," Isakson says, "and the fact that you don't have to buy real estate in order to get a membership which is the case at most clubs in the area. You can live where you want."

Desert Mountain

Desert Mountain (480-595-4000) is a complex of five - soon to be six - courses in North Scottsdale built over the past 15 years in an area of exclusive homes developed by builder Lyle Anderson. Jack Nicklaus' design firm laid out all the courses.

Most of the courses, in the Carefree area off Cave Creek Road, have a desert-target style. They are: Renegade (par 72, 7,008 yards), built in 1987; Cochise (par 72, 7,002 yards), built in 1988; Geronimo (par 72, 7,414 yards), built in 1989, Apache (par 72, 7,191 yards), built in 1996; and Chiricahua (par 72, 7,418 yards), built in 1999. For several years, Cochise hosted a senior PGA major, the Countrywide Tradition. Desert Mountain is now building a sixth course, Outlaw, opening in fall 2003.

To join, you must first buy a home or lot in the 8,500-acre Desert Mountain community. You don't have to build a house on your lot, which can cost a bundle as well. The initiation fee is $225,000. If you buy a resale house, the membership fee is usually included in the price of the home because almost all homeowners are members. Monthly fees are $525.

These are equity memberships; so you get back something when you sell your house. But you have to pay 20 percent of the going membership fee to the club's parent company when you sell that membership. So if Desert Mountain says the membership is $225,000, you pay $45,000; if they raise the price, your fee goes up accordingly.

Members can play at all six courses, offering more variety than at the average club. There are five clubhouses where you can dine with friends or hold your daughter's wedding. There are hard, clay and grass tennis courts and a fitness center and pool.

All is not happy in this Shangri-La of golf. A group of members recently sued Anderson claiming that there are too many members at Desert Mountain and that getting tee times is difficult, even with five courses. Leslie Tweeton, marketing and public relations director for Desert Mountain, responds: "We have some members that claim that access is a problem, but we don't believe that their claims have merit. The building of a sixth course will certainly improve access. There are now 396 members per course; some want it limited to 300."

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DC Ranch

The Country Club at DC Ranch (480-502-6905) is part of a giant housing community that is great for younger families. The course (par 72, 6,872 yards) stands on the slopes of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale and is several miles south of most other private clubs in this story. Scott Miller, designer of the Golf Club at Eagle Mountain, laid out this desert-target course which opened in 1997. There's a hacienda-style clubhouse that's suppose to remind golfers that the property was once part of the Desert Camp cattle ranch - "DC" for short. Membership is limited to 400 families. Only DC Ranch property owners can join. Initiation fees - partly refundable - are $135,000. Monthly dues are $500. Part of DC Ranch's claim to fame is that PGA star Tom Lehman is a member and lives on the 10th green. Although the course is fairly new, Lehman and his architectural firm, John Fought-Tom Lehman Golf Course Architecture, are now renovating the greens and bunkers to make the course more challenging.

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The Estancia Club

The Estancia Club (480-585-7373), on a dramatic rocky piece of property off Dynamite Boulevard, at the base of Pinnacle Peak in Scottsdale, was designed by Tom Fazio and developed by Discovery Land Co. of San Francisco. Equity memberships cost $205,000 and are tied to buying property in the community of 267 homes. There are currently 319 members; the cap on membership is 325. Monthly fees are $775. Some of the most expensive homes in North Scottsdale are on this course, ranging in price from $1.5 million to more than $5 million. When this course (par 72, 7,146 yards) opened in 1996, it received the New Private Course of the Year award from Golf Digest magazine.

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For a more affordable club-buy, check out Mirabel, on Cave Creek Road two miles east of Pima Road in Scottsdale. This par-71 course at 7,127 yards from the championship tees was also designed by Tom Fazio as part of a Discovery Land Co. development.

Mirabel (480-595-2545) started out as a public-fee course called Stonehaven that was designed by Greg Norman who used only 42 acres of grassy turf. But Stonehaven, judged by many to be too difficult for the average golfer, never even opened. Discovery took it over and completely rebuilt it, making it easier to play with almost twice as much turf.

Membership at Mirabel, which opened in December 2001, will be limited to 350, the number of homes allowed on the course. "Those who buy property will be invited to join," says Jim Blum, vice president of marketing and sales for Mirabel. Lots on the course are priced from $175,000 to $750,000.

The initiation fee is $95,000, less than half of what it costs at nearby Desert Mountain or Estancia. In addition, buyers have equity and can get 80 percent back on whatever the membership sells for when they leave. Monthly fees are $400 but will be $650 once a clubhouse is built next year. Blum says, "Sales have gone way beyond our expectations. We've sold 165 lots in a very slow market."

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Troon Golf and Country Club

There is a public-fee Troon North club where anyone can play; but this is the private Troon, on Windy Walk Drive in Scottsdale (480-585-0540). Troon (par 72, 7,041 yards) is the first course that Tom Weiskopf did with his former partner Jay Morrish. It was a prize-winner when it opened in 1986. The two went on to create a couple dozen more courses before splitting up.

You'll pay $85,000 to join Troon; monthly fees are $555. There is no equity in the memberships now, but members are considering going into an equity arrangement. Membership is limited to 390 families. Because of resignations, a couple of memberships will open up in September.

Whisper Rock Golf Club

Whisper Rock, which opened in 2001, was designed by PGA star Phil Mickelson (his first course) and architect Gary Stephenson. The project was developed by the same firm that built Grayhawk, the public-fee club 10 miles to the south. It's a tough course, a par-72 at 7,400 yards from the back tees, with lots of boulder outcroppings and desert washes. Members are encouraged to walk and use caddies.

The goal at Whisper Rock is to give members an experience that focuses purely on golf. Local Realtors say that men make up most of the club, although women can join. The initiation fee is $100,000 per person for an equity membership; these are not family memberships, but relatives of members can play on a limited basis. Monthly fees are $610. Memberships are non-equity; but 90 percent of the purchase price will be refunded if you quit.

Membership will be limited to 350; the club is about half sold-out right now. If there is enough demand, another course will be built and members added. You don't have to buy one of the 190 home sites ($300,000 and up) that surround the course in order to join. Whisper Rock is located at Hayden Road and Lone Mountain in North Scottsdale (480-575-8700).

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Desert Highlands

Desert Highlands (480-585-7444) is another club that costs a bit less. When you buy one of the 575 properties at Desert Highlands, off Happy Valley Road in North Scottsdale, you can also buy a golf membership for $75,000. It's a non-equity membership. Monthly fees are $710. The club has 600 members, which means the course, on the south slope of Pinnacle Peak, is a bit more crowded than some of the others. Eventually, however, some changes in the club rules will limit members to 575.

Desert Highlands, opened in 1983, is a landmark course in the history of golf in Arizona. The club was the first that developer Lyle Anderson built in North Scottsdale; Jack Nicklaus designed it with architect Jay Morrish. Some golf writers say Desert Highlands touched off the boom in modern target-desert golf that began in the mid-1980s in Arizona. The par-72 course plays at 7,062 yards from the back tees and is a bit of a tough round with a slope of 151 from the back.

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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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