When it's Hot in the Valley, Head for the Hills

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

PHOENIX - When it sizzles in the Valley of the Sun, golfers try lots of tactics to keep playing despite the weather. There's the relaxing tee-time-at-six-in-the-morning-and-we'd-better-finish-by-10 routine. Or the positive approach: "This doesn't bother me a bit; it's a dry heat."

One strategy that may make sense is to head for higher ground on the fringes of the Phoenix metro area where the elevation is slightly higher and temperatures can be five to 10 degrees cooler. We recommend six courses - three in the Cave Creek area, north of Scottsdale, and three in Fountain Hills, east of Scottsdale. All are less than 10 miles from the Phoenix city limits.

We also asked some golf directors if their "cooler"weather draws customers. According to Jay Haffner, director of golf at SunRidge Canyon in Fountain Hills, his course is probably only three or four degrees cooler than the valley below during the summer. "There's some difference in May and June, but it's still very hot in July and August. On the other hand, the McDowell Mountains are behind us; so they shade you in the afternoon. Being on the back side of the McDowells, you get a natural breeze all the time. That's why we get a lot of hot-air ballooners who like to take off from around here. But when it's 110 in the valley, it's probably not going to feel all that cool here either."

At the Golf Club at Eagle Mountain, also in Fountain Hills and just a couple of miles from SunRidge Canyon, director of golf Jay Pennypacker has a more positive attitude about the altitude. "It's definitely cooler here compared to being down in the valley," Pennypacker says. "We're at about 1,900 feet here. Last September for example, when they only had two days under 100 degrees down in the valley, we had only two that were over 100. There's a little breeze here, too, to keep things cool."

Mike Humphrey, the director of golf at Dove Valley Ranch in Cave Creek, says, "It's a few degrees cooler here because we're farther away from Phoenix which is down about 1,000 feet from us and has more asphalt. We have more breezes here to keep it a little cooler. It can be 6, 8, 10 degrees cooler depending on the day. Definitely, the mornings are cooler; although they're not 25 degrees cooler."

One tip about playing in hot weather is to start by 9 a.m. or after 4 p.m. Take lots of water and some spare towels to dip in the ice bucket on your cart. Watch the weather reports and make your tee time accordingly.

The big advantage of playing when it's hot is lower prices, of course. For example, at the Golf Club at Eagle Mountain in Fountain Hills, the summer green fees are $50 on weekdays and $60 on weekends. Compare that with $140 and $175 in the high season.

Cave Creek

How do you get to downtown Cave Creek? Take Scottsdale Road north until it turns into Tom Darlington Road. After a couple miles, you hit Cave Creek Highway. Turn left and you're there. The golf courses listed below, however, are located on various roads running off Scottsdale Road.

- Dove Valley Ranch, a meticulously maintained course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., has a bit of a split personality. On the first nine holes, the layout is panoramic and wide open. It's not traditional on the front nine in the classic sense, according to director of golf Mike Humphrey, "because in traditional you have the holes going back and forth with the fairways next to each other."

So you'll be breezing along, playing your best golf. Then you make the turn and almost everything is target-style, lots of forced carries over brush and desert.

Did the designer do it deliberately? "It wasn't his intention," Humphrey says. "It's just the way it turned out. It's the way the land was. For example, the desert is not as thick on the front 9, so it's more player-friendly. Yet there is still desert around the fairways. But on the back 9, you got a lot of wash going. The acreage of grass is half that of what's on the front."

The best risk-reward hole, according to Humphrey, is the par-4 No. 2 (447 yards from the back tees, 363 from the forward tees). It's a dogleg right, but you have to go over the water to go right for the reward. Unfortunately, it's 245 yards from the back tees to cross the water. "Your partner can avoid all that by going left," Humphrey says, "but it's a bit longer."

Humphrey calls the rather long par-4 No. 11, "The Wall." It's the first hole where there's more of a desert-style feeling. "It's 450 yards from the back tees," he says, "and has a tighter fairway. It's more difficult there to find the green complex. It's definitely the most difficult hole."

Dove Valley Ranch Golf Club is located at 33244 Black Mountain Road in Cave Creek, AZ 85331. Take Scottsdale Road to Carefree Highway and turn left. After a couple of miles, turn left on Cave Creek Road. You'll run into the golf course turnoff shortly after turning. For tee times, call 800-767-3574.

Ratings/slopes: 72.7/131; 69.6/120; 66.8/117; 70.5/114.

Distance: 7,011, 6,630, 6,138, 5,337 yards.

Legend Trail Golf Club

Legend Trail Golf Club is a desert course with open fairways that will remind you a bit of Grayhawk, about 10 miles south. There's a Western theme: The back tees are called "the long trail" and colored horseshoes are used to mark the tees.

Architect Rees Jones designed this course to appeal to all levels of players. In fact, Golf for Women magazine picked Legend Trail as one of the top 100 women-friendly courses in 2000. The fairways meander through the Sonora Desert and offer great views of landmarks like Pinnacle Peak. Although there's a bit of an up-and-down landscape, the course encourages walking - not something you'd like to do in mid-summer, however. A favorite hole is No. 3 (410 yards from the back tees; 350 from the forward tees). It's a par-4 called "Cactus Country" that has a magnificent stand of saguaros, candlestick chollas and prickly pear off to the right. You'll love the look of it, but slicers will grit their teeth. No. 5 is a great hole, too. It's a tricky par 3 (185 yards from the back tees, 95 yards from the forward tees) with an elevated tee and a green well-protected by bunkers. The trick is that from the tips, you have to make a forced carry over brush almost all the way to the green. If you want desert views and beautiful rolling landscape, you'll find the back nine more striking than the front.

Legend Trail is located at 9462 E. Legendary Lane, Scottsdale, AZ 85262. Legendary Trail is just off Pima Road, which runs parallel to Scottsdale Road. Phone, 480-488-7434. Although the club's address is Scottsdale, it lies very near Cave Creek. Web site: www.legendtrailgc.com. Also check out www.troongolf.com for other Troon properties.

Ratings/slopes: 72.3/135; 69.9/127; 68.2/120; 68.2/122

Distance: 6,845, 6,400, 6,035, 5,000 yards.

Rancho Mañana Golf Club

Rancho Mañana Golf Club offers a lot more than a game of golf. There are adjoining "casitas" where you can spend a night or more; a wildly painted spa that looks as if Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were the decorators; and one of the best restaurants in the Phoenix area, the Tonto Bar and Grill. The owners invested more than $4 million in improvements in this course since buying it in 1994.

From the first tee, you'll look out on a spectacular vista of saguaros and fairways that wind upward on plateaus on a little mountain. The front nine is more like target golf; the back nine is flatter and more open but still has narrow fairways and lots of water features that require precision shots.

This course is so high in elevation - about 2,700 feet at its base - that there are thick stands of quaking aspen growing naturally. Rancho Mañana is only a par 70 (6,004 yards from the tips and only 4,436 from the forward tees). But what it lacks in distance, it makes up for in drama. Promoters of the course like to call it "the most beautiful place you'll ever play." Along the way you'll see Elephant Butte, a big mountain that trails off into a white-striped elephant's "trunk," and Sugarloaf, a nearby smaller butte. Take a camera; you may need it as much as your putter, particularly to snap shots of cactus on No. 3 and the breathtaking panorama below from Nos. 4 and 5. Hopefully, all the photo-taking won't spoil your game.

There are good hints on the scorecard about how to play each hole, but lots of them advise you to downsize on your club length. That won't always work if your tee shots go awry. In fact, this is a short course that plays long, often because you're climbing your way up the fairways. No. 4 (a par 4 that is 379 yards from the back tees, 276 from the forward), for example, is a sharp dogleg right that is all uphill. You will need a big club off the tee to make it up the slope. And then you'll have to hit over a desert wash that splits the fairway in two. Insiders tipped us off to be wary of looking for your ball on holes 3 and 4, due to rattlesnakes. The par 3s are much more difficult than they look.

Rancho Mañana is located at 5734 E. Rancho Mañana Blvd. in Cave Creek, right off Cave Creek Boulevard; phone, 800-767-3574.

Ratings/slopes: 67.8/125; 64.8/115; 65.2/114.

Distance: 6,004, 5,407, 4,436 yards.

The Golf Club at Eagle Mountain

To get to Fountain Hills, a suburban area of mostly homes in the McDowell Mountains, take Shea Boulevard east from downtown Scottsdale about five miles into the hills. When you reach the top of the ridge, you're in Fountain Hills and all the golf courses are on side streets running off Shea.

The Golf Club at Eagle Mountain, a par-71 course, combines desert golf with very playable fairways and lots of ball-eating ravines. The day we played the ravines were a spectacular sight, filled with the pink-blossoming ironwood trees. Although you can drive carts on the fairways, you're still going to have to walk up and down quite a bit. If you miss the greens a lot, you're going to feel like a mountain goat.

Scott Miller designed this course which opened in 1996; it has remained a favorite with local golfers ever since. "We have very wide playable fairways," says Jay Pennypacker, the director of golf. "The greens are speedier here because we're on the side of a mountain."

Remember, balls will break on the green toward Phoenix to the west. "You have to keep your ball below the hole," Pennypacker says.

One great hole is the par 4 No. 14, called "the Chasm" on the scorecard (384 yards from the back tees and 294 from the forward). This uphill target hole forces you to make a desert carry off the tee and then another one from the fairway over a frightening canyon full of brittle bush, ironwood and cactus to the green. Another favorite hole is the lofty par-4 No. 18, the signature hole (420 from the back tees, 340 from the forward). "On the tee, you can see Red Mountain and the Superstition Mountains 60 miles away," Pennypacker says.

You'll also be driving on No. 18 onto a fairway 250 feet below you. A shimmering lake bordered by nine threatening bunkers is on the right while the clubhouse is off to the left. Make your first shot to the 150-yard marker; then either smash your ball over the water on the right or play it safe by going left.

This course was a stop on the Canadian Tour this spring, and the players scored very well. As your ball ricochets on the rocks and bounces back at you, you'll wonder how they did it.

The Golf Club at Eagle Mountain is located at 14915 E. Eagle Mountain Parkway, right off Shea Boulevard. For tee times, call 800-767-3574.

Ratings/slopes: 71.7/139, 69.5/129, 67.2/126, 68.2/118.

Distance: 6,763, 6,191, 5,825, 5,065 yards.

SunRidge Canyon

SunRidge Canyon is one of the most challenging courses on our list. It also was laid out by designer Keith Foster along some of the most naturally rugged terrain of any of these courses.

SunRidge nestles among beautiful canyons on the very top of Fountain Hills. Every cart has a very up-to-date, hand-held global positioning system that is almost a necessity in playing here because of the up-and-down fairways.

Typically, the front nine is a bit easier because you're going downhill with the wind at your back; on the back nine you head uphill with the wind in your face. However, both sides of the course have lots of canyons to cross.

On No. 5, a long par-4, (463 yards from the back tees; 362 yards from the forward), you have to drive through a narrow throat of fairway down a canyon to the green. The hole looks simple enough once you thread the needle, but then you have to gently ease your ball onto an elevated green that slopes every so slightly and dangerously toward the bunkers.

Director of golf Jay Haffner says SunRidge is not a target-style course. "There is desert on both sides of the fairways and there are some targets to hit. But the landing areas are not little pads of grass," he says. "You might have a green that's half-surrounded by water on a par-3. The fairways are generous. You can use your driver and mis-hit, but still not go into rough. But there's a premium on using your irons around the greens. This course is just a good desert-type course.

Scoring is based much more on placing the ball around the greens, he says. "You have to understand the breaks. You can't just pitch onto the green. The greens are not flat here."

The last few holes are known locally as the "wicked six." Among them is one of the most popular holes, No. 17, a par-3 that has two sets of tees - long and short. If you use the long-distance teeboxes, you have to shoot over a canyon for 209 yards from the back tees or 86 from the forward tees.

SunRidge Canyon is located at 13100 North SunRidge Drive in Fountain Hills, AZ 85268. Take Shea Boulevard in Scottsdale east to Fountain Hills. Turn left on Palisades and you'll run into Sunridge Drive. For tee times, phone 800-767-3574.

Ratings/slopes: 73.4/140, 70.8/133, 68.7/128, 70.1/123.

Distance: 6,823, 6,403, 6,004, 5,122 yards.

Desert Canyon

Desert Canyon is a par-71 course, designed in 1972 by John Allen. Because this course is 30 years old, the trees are bigger here and throw more shade.

Director of golf Riff Gibson says, "It's a friendly and challenging course, not overly long. We like to call it a traditional layout with lateral desert. There are a lot of elevated tees and greens and ups and downs, but the course doesn't force golfers to carry over the desert."

The fairways at this course are fairly open but play rather tight and feature a number of doglegs and water features. You'll see great views of Red Mountain and the Four Peaks from some holes.

Desert Canyon is located at 10440 Indian Wells Drive, Fountain Hills, AZ 85268. Take Saguaro Boulevard off Shea and then turn off on Indian Wells. For tee times, call 480-437-1173. Web site: www.desertcanyongolf.com.

Ratings/slopes: 69.9/123, 67.8/115, 68.4/114.

Distance: 6,415, 6,045, 5,352 yards.

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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