West side story: Golf is cheap and plentiful outside of Phoenix

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

PHOENIX, Ariz. - Flying into Phoenix you can see from your airplane window that the western fringes of the Valley of the Sun are loaded with golf courses. It's a sort of undiscovered, unexplored destination for traveling golfers, because most of them are headed for Scottsdale and other East Valley locations.

A trickle of new golf developments started about 10 years ago producing courses located only about 20 minutes to half an hour from Sky Harbor Airport. Many of these courses, which often serve as the centerpiece of housing developments, are just as good as the East Valley destinations and furthermore they have more reasonable green fees. "We have the same quality of courses," said Shannon Letcher, the director of golf for Palm Valley Golf Club in Litchfield Park. "We just don't have the Scottsdale address or the Scottsdale prices."

Why has the golfing industry expanded to the west side? Mainly, it's because undeveloped land there is cheap and plentiful. "Let's face it," said Greg Ellis, director of golf for Sundance, a brand new course in the town of Buckeye, "development has gone as far north as it can go in the Valley of the Sun, and they overpopulated things as far east as they can go. The value of property for what you have to pay is so much more phenomenal in the west than what you can get in the rest of the valley."

According to Ellis, there are at least a dozen more courses planned for building on the east side of the White Tank Mountains. Among those planning developments in and near Buckeye, for example are DMB Corp., which also developed DC Ranch in Scottsdale, Lyle Anderson, the developer of Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, and Jerry Colangelo, owner of the Diamondbacks, who is part of a development called Douglas Ranch in the White Tank Mountain area.

What you find on the west side is a varied mixture - from the older, somewhat dated courses of the Sun City area to newer courses with more challenging layouts where developments are planned.

On the plus side the prices are attractive with green fees at some courses in the $35 to $45 range even in the high season.

On the minus side, the scenery here often lacks the drama and lush desert plants you so often see to the north and east of Phoenix in places like Scottsdale. You'll find many of the courses are flatter, drier, windier. Luxury resorts are rare; instead you'll find chain motels and restaurants.

The west side, however, is a happening place in the sports world. A new Phoenix Coyotes ice arena is being built in Glendale; a brand-new stadium is also being planned there for the Phoenix Cardinal football team. Two new spring training stadiums have just been built as well: a Rangers-Royals park in Surprise and a Padres-Mariners stadium in Peoria.

Here's a rundown on golf courses you'll find west of the Valley of the Sun, most of them located off exits of I-10 about 10 to 20 miles out of the center of Phoenix:

Estrella Mountain Ranch

Despite all the building of new courses going on, the premiere location is definitely going to be Estrella Mountain Ranch for some time to come. This high-end, daily fee course with its target-style layout and mountain scenery was built in 1999 and still commands the highest green fees - about $129 on weekends in high season - and with good reason. Still, those $100-plus green fees don't compare to the $200 level fees charged in the East Valley at equivalent courses.

Once you reach the far west side in the Goodyear-Buckeye area, you drive about five miles south into the Estrella Mountains to reach the course. Quite a trip to get there, but the course draws a lot of tourist traffic even so. "We're a Troon-managed course," says Laura Scrivner, general manager of Estrella Mountain, "and that has really impacted our business. Troon has a real global marketing perspective. We get players from all over."

She also attributes the popularity of the course to the fact that it was designed by Jack "Jackie" Nicklaus II, eldest son of the Golden Bear, and it has a "true desert design," something that's a bit rare among westside courses. "There are not a lot of them in the immediate area," she says. "There are great views of the mountains surrounding you here and a lot of elevation."

Every hole here is a challenge with lots of huge carries over brushy washes. Some of our favorites:

The par-3 No. 3 - the Bear Trap - has a giant bear paw of a sand bunker that protects the elevated green. Use enough club from the back tees (174 yards). Better to be long than short of this green.

The par-5 No. 16 - the Arroyo - has mammoth length (605 yards from the back tees and 436 from the forward). On top of that you have to fire your approach shot across a ravine to get to the green.

The par-3 No. 17 - Grand Consequence - forces you to fire over a huge arroyo filled with trees and brush and then uphill to the green. It's easy to shoot your ball into a deep saucer of a bunker just in front of the green. This hole is 194 yards from the back tees and 113 from the forward.

This is a superbly maintained course with very few houses to be seen from the fairways. The course plays at 7,116 yards from the back tees with a rating of 73.6 and a slope of 136. It's 5,124 yards from the forward tees with a rating of 68.2 and a slope of 115. Green fees in high season are $109 Monday through Thursday and $129 on weekends. Prices will drop by $30 on April 7. Estrella Mountain Ranch is located at 11800 S. Golf Club Drive in Goodyear. Call 800-767-3574.

Wigwam Resort

In nearby Litchfield Park, you'll find the Wigwam Resort, 75 acres with a sprawling main lodge and 331 rooms, three golf courses, nine tennis courts, two swimming pools and a health club and spa. Once upon a time, the resort was a virtual oasis by the roadside; now housing developments, shopping centers and motels and restaurants are springing up as neighbors.

It all got started back in 1916 when Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. of Akron, Ohio, bought 24,000 acres of land in the area to grow cotton for use in producing tires for automobiles and for airplanes. In 1918, Goodyear built a private company lodge for executives visiting the area. The lodge soon expanded to take 24 guests and became a luxurious vacation spot called the Wigwam that was opened up to the public in 1929.

Today's there's a beautiful lodge building here with great restaurants and villa-style accommodations that have recently been restored and updated. There are also three very long, championship-length golf courses - the Gold and Blue courses were both done by Robert Trent Jones Senior and the Red Course by Robert "Red" Lawrence, known for his work in Arizona.

The Gold Course offers the biggest challenge at Wigwam, and it's the course that experienced golfers usually play first. Designed in 1964 by Jones Senior, known for his love of long fairways and elevated greens, this course is a traditional classic with a rich history. "If you're only going to play one course at Wigwam, I'd recommend playing the Gold without a doubt," said director of golf Craig Allen. "That's because of the way that Robert Trent Jones designed it. It's the kind of course that will have you playing every club in your golf bag before you're finished."

All three courses are fairly flat and traditional with wide open fairways and a fair splash of water and sand. These are well-maintained courses you could find anywhere in the country with little of the flavor of desert golf that has made Arizona famous. But the resort is certainly a great place to stay if you're playing on the West side. Green fees range from $34 in summer to $130 in winter. The twilight rate which begins at 1 p.m. is $65.

The Gold Course measures 7,074 yards from the back tees with a rating/slope of 74.1/133 and 5,663 from the forward with a rating/slope of 72.1/125. The Red Course measures 6,865 yards from the back tees with a rating/slope of 72.4/126 and 5,808 from the forward tees with a rating/slope of 71.8/118. The Blue Course measures 6,085 yards from the back tees with a rating/slope of 69.1/122 and 5,178 from the forward tees with a rating/slope of 72.4/118.

The Wigwam is located at 451 N. Litchfield Road in Litchfield Park. Call the resort at (800) 327-0396 or 623-935-3811 or call for tee times at (800) 909-4224. Web site: www.wigwamresort.com.

Sundance Golf Club

One of the newest courses on the west side is Sundance Golf Club, a target-style course in the town of Buckeye, designed by Greg Nash of Tucson, who also designed the Anthem Golf Club north of Phoenix and a number of other courses that are part of Sun City "active adult" developments on the west side. Sundance is the centerpiece of a development being done by Hancock Homes that will be selling to families as well as seniors.

Nash took a rather flat piece of land here and created a rolling terrain of golf holes framed by the White Tank Mountains. There are lots of interesting holes, like Nos. 2, 5, 12 and 15, that require crossing desert washes. We played the course just a few weeks after it opened and it was very busy with golfers coming from all over the valley, perhaps attracted by the $35 to $45 green fees.

Not all the landscaping had been planted yet and lots of bulldozers were still moving earth around for home sites, so the course still had a rather raw, unfinished feeling. But the course has great potential once the surrounding areas are completed.

The layout plays at 6,944 yards from the back tees. There are four sets of tees with the length from the forward tees playing at 5,272 yards. Ratings and slopes have not been published yet. Green fees are $35 Monday through Thursday and $45 Friday through Sunday and will drop April 1 to $25 and $35. For tee times, call (623) 328-0400.

Palm Valley Golf Club

Close to Wigwam in Goodyear is the Palm Valley Golf Club that has two very different courses. "We have a par-72 Arthur Hills course that has a desert layout that is not as punishing as some you'll find in the East Valley," says director of golf Shannon Letcher.

The club also offers a shorter course designed by Hale Irwin that is known as the Lakes Course. "It's not an executive course (it's 4,764 yards from the tips). We like to call it a mid-length course. It's the same as a regulation course but with no par-5s. There are 10 par-3s and 8 par-4s. Six of the holes are over 400 yards in length. You can still get to use all your clubs," Letcher says.

The regulation course at Palm Valley measures 7,015 yards from the back tees with a rating of 73.4 and a slope of 133 and 5,300 yards from the forward tees with a rating of 65.0 and a slope of 109. The Lakes course measures 4,764 yards from the back tees with a rating of 62.4 and a slope of 100 and 4,122 yards from the forward tees with a rating of 58.9 and a slope of 93.

Palm Valley is located at 2211 N. Litchfield Road in Goodyear. Green fees are $78 and $45 for the two courses; they drop April 1 to $59 and $35. Call (623) 935-2500 for reservations.

Sun City Grand

If you're interested in venturing into the Sun City area to try some of the courses, be forewarned that many of them are classic traditional layouts that offer few of the intriguing challenges you can find elsewhere in the Phoenix area. However, you might want to give a try at the brand-new Cimarron Golf Club at Sun City Grand, a desert-style course designed by Greg Nash as part of a home development. The course plays at 6,800 yards with water in play on nine holes. The club is located at 17100 W. Clearview Blvd., Surprise. Call (623) 975-5654.

Two other courses, also designed by Nash are nearby. Desert Springs Golf Club is located at 19900 N. Remington Drive. Call (623) 546-7400. And Granite Falls Golf Club is located at 15949 W. Clearview Blvd. Call (623) 546-7575. All three have reasonable green fees, even during the high season.

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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