Retro Courses Thrive in the Desert

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

PHOENIX, AZ - Most golfers who visit Phoenix yearn for a desert-course experience, something different from Chicago or Minneapolis. They want to tee off among the saguaros or drive their Titleists over the arroyos. They aren't thinking about monster fairways with miles of green grass.

But Arizona has great traditional courses besides its desert-target experiences. Classic courses have a strong history here and are still popular with Phoenix-area golfers.

After all, that prickly pear scene can get under your skin at times. "People want to try desert courses when they come here, but then they want to go back to playing traditional courses," says Randy Beaupre, head golf pro at one of these classic clubs, McCormick Ranch. "If they're here for three, four, five days, they find it too doggone difficult to play a desert course everyday."

Traditional courses here compete for attention by offering meticulous maintenance and gracious service. "Golfers want to play a quality facility," says David Bogue, manager of the 27-hole Ocotillo Golf Club in Chandler. "It all has to do with quality." Here are some traditional choices to consider:

Mighty McCormick

Decades ago, McCormick Ranch was a real cattle ranch. Now two courses stand there - the Palm and the Pine, built in the early 1970s as the centerpiece of a giant housing subdivision in the heart of Scottsdale. The late Desmond Muirhead, a British designer once called an "iconoclastic genius" by Forbes magazine, designed both. It would be hard to call either course eccentric or iconoclastic now; both have wall-to-wall grass and huge fairways. The Palm plays 7,044 yards from the back tees; the Pine, 7,187 yards. Although today McCormick may not seem daring, when it opened, Muirhead created quite a sensation with his island greens, large lakes, unusual bunkers and huge palm trees.

The courses still receive acclaim. Just recently, a Phoenix TV station named two holes at McCormick Ranch - No. 15 on the Pine and No. 9 on the Palm - to its list of the best 18 holes in the state.

Perhaps that's why McCormick hosts more than 1,200 tournaments a year. When the National Junior College Championships were held on the Pine in May, only one out of 104 players broke par in four days of play.

We played the Palm which was also quite a challenge. Water is a serious issue on the Palm with 10 holes with lakes or ponds; the Pine has only five water holes. There is also a forest of palm trees on the Palm (they were planting more while we played), and we hit several, as have other golfers, judging from pockmarks on the trunks. But the trees provide generous shade on hot days. There are also great views of Mummy and Camelback mountains from the Palm and of the McDowell Mountains on the Pine.

Besides skirting the lakes and canals at the Palm, you'll also find greens that sometimes tilt like flying saucers. Typical is the par-3 No. 5 (214 yards from the back tees, 122 yards from the forward tees). What seems at first to be a straightforward hole is complicated by a three-tiered green that makes club choice a challenge. On many holes, you're avoiding water on one side of the fairway and a bunker on the other side. One of the trickiest is the par-5 No. 7 (535 yards from the back tees, 392 yards from the forward) with lakes flanking the fairway and a bunker almost in the middle. The fairway also narrows as you roll along until water halfway surrounds the green.

That hole the TV station liked so much - the par-4 No. 9 - is the signature hole on the Palm. You hit off the tee there (408 yards from the back tees, 251 yards from the forward) onto an island fairway and then make a long-iron shot onto a peninsula green. To play this hole correctly, you cross water twice. The par-4 No. 15 on the Pine (470 yards from the back, 277 yards from the forward) is similar with an island fairway and island green.

Distance on the par-72 Palm: 7,044 yards from the back tees (rating/slope, 73.7/137); 5,057 yards from the forward tees (68.7/114). Distance on the par-72 Pine: 7,187 yards from the back tees (74.4/135); 5,333 yards from the forward tees (69.9/117). Green fees range from about $39 in summer to $140 in winter. Address: 7505 McCormick Parkway, Scottsdale. Phone: 480-948-0260. Web site: Next door to McCormick Ranch is the Millennium Resort, 7401 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale; phone: 800-767-3574.

Waterworks at Ocotillo

Ocotillo Golf Club will surprise those who think of Arizona solely as a parched haven for cactus and coyotes. This course in Chandler, a mini-Silicon Valley south of Scottsdale, has so many canals and lakes that you could pick Ocotillo up and move it to Florida and it would fit right in. Maintenance here is superb: emerald-green fairways and sparkling clean waterways.

Although Ocotillo will challenge you with its water holes, designed by architect Ted Robinson in 1986, club manager David Bogue says, "The water hazards are mostly lateral, but the fairways are very generous. There are plenty of safe areas to avoid the water."

Ocotillo has three nines - the Blue, the Gold and the White. Among the 27 holes, only five are dry. Bogue's favorite is the Gold because "it offers the most quality challenges. But if you asked three different professional golfers which nine they prefer, you would probably get three different answers." Many golfers, he says, find the Blue nine to be the most beautiful. "Any hole you see out here could be the signature hole for another course," Bogue says.

We started on the Blue - with wet stuff on every hole. Although we had some slam dunks in the drink, we want to play it again soon to see if we can stay dry the second time around; it was that much fun. Many holes force you to cross water from the tee to the fairway and then again from fairway to green. Toughest on the Blue is No. 6, a long par 5 (550 yardsfrom the back, 454 yards from the forward). Water lies in front of the tees and to the left of the fairway. The water hazards create dramatic par 3s, like No. 4, requiring a tee shot over water (192 yards from the back tees, 108 yards from the forward) onto a postage-stamp of a green on a peninsula. An overall tip for Ocotillo: When in doubt, lay up; it may seem humiliating, but you'll be dry and happy.

The White plays somewhat more easily than the Blue; the Gold is a bit longer from most tees. Distance on the Blue: 3,325 yards from the back tees; 2,569 yards from the forward. Distance on the White: 3,188 yards from the back tees; 2,565 yards from the forward. Distance on the Gold: 3,404 yards from the back tees; 2,559 yards from the forward.

Rating and slope for the Blue/White: 70.8/128 from the back; 71.0/127 from the forward. For the Blue/Gold: 71.3/131 from the back; 71.3/128 from the forward. For the White/Gold: 71.4/128 from the back; 71.0/125 from the forward. Green fees range from $45 in summer to $155 in winter. Address: 3751 S. Clubhouse Drive, Chandler. Phone: Web site: If you're staying in Scottsdale, visiting Ocotillo is a snap. Take 101 South until it becomes Price Road. Turn right on Dobson, left on Ocotillo until you hit Clubhouse Drive.

Get Your Sand Wedge Ready for Camelback

Camelback Golf Club in midtown Scottsdale resembles a quiet park of mature eucalyptus and pines. On many holes, you'll see Camelback and Mummy mountains. There are two courses here - the Resort Course, built in 1970 and redesigned in 1999, and the Club Course, a 7,014-yard, par-72, links-style course designed in 1978 by Arthur Jack Snyder, who also did the Wailea Blue on Maui.

We played the par-72, 6,903-yard Resort Course, formerly called the Padre. Three years ago, the Marriott Corp. poured $16 million into the Padre and renamed it. Arthur Hills of Ohio, known for Mirasol in Palm Beach, did the redesign. A rambling 36,000 square-foot, pueblo-style clubhouse was also built then.

On the Resort Course, wide fairways make you feel like firing away at will on the par 4s and 5s - forget that slice or hook. The challenge here is the bunkers that pop up everywhere, often slicing fairways in two. Be ready with your sand wedge if you don't concentrate on accuracy as well as distance. The par 3s are not terribly imaginative but are all a distance contest; No. 17 for example is 220 yards from the back tees and 134 yards from the forward.

Just when you've figured out all that, around hole No. 8, you start encountering water trouble that persists through the rest of the course. All this makes the par 5s seem longer than they really are - especially after you read their names on the tee boxes, like "Big Ben" and "Long Rifle." Long Rifle, the 9th, is 547 yards from the back tees and 431 yards from the forward. There is water on the left, so you'll want to stay right, but not too right because there are loads of big bunkers there. But if you're willing to risk an approach shot over the water to the green, you won't have to worry about bunkers.

Resort Course distance: 6,903 yards from the back tees (72.8/132); 5,132 yards from the forward (68.6/114). Club Course distance: 7,014 yards from the back tees (72.6/122); 5,808 yards from the forward (71.5/118). Green fees range from about $40 in summer to $145 in winter. Address: 7847 N. Mockingbird Lane, Scottsdale. Phone: 800-767-3574. Web site: The nearby Camelback Inn is at 5402 E. Lincoln Drive, Scottsdale; phone:

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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