Arizona Golf Weekend, Day 2: Contrast in the Desert

I told you all about the warm-up round on the drive out to Arizona and then the fun outing at Sun City West before heading back home. But as far as golf went, Saturday was really the marquee day with the two courses we were most looking forward to on the trip…

SunRidge Canyon Golf Club • Fountain Hills, AZ • 10/5/13

In October, most courses in Arizona are either closed for fall maintenance, getting ready to close or just reopening. With that in mind, we knew nothing out there would be in perfect shape. We did our research, compared every available tee time and considered how much we wanted to spend knowing conditions would be less-than-ideal wherever we played.

I played nearby Eagle Mountain earlier this year, so I knew the Fountain Hills community had some great golf and dynamic canyon terrain to work with. Because of that and the fact that nearby SunRidge Canyon was just reopening after overseeding, we made it our one big “splurge” for the trip.

In fact, SunRidge was closed this entire summer for some major maintenance. We were hopeful that meant it would really be in good shape compared to other courses that may have only been closed for a few weeks. As we rounded the corner and caught our first glimpse of the course in the early morning light, we were relieved and elated to see plenty of green grass out there.

We had booked a 7:35 time for $79 a player through GolfNow. It was a bit more than we wanted to spend, but we took the gamble. It ended up being a few dollars more because of Arizona tax. They space out the tee times here nicely. We were paired with another twosome and teed off on time. We never had to wait too much on the group ahead of us and we never saw any group behind us, so we were able to enjoy a comfortable 4.5-hour pace.

SunRidge Canyon is labeled as one of the toughest courses in the valley. Their claim to fame is what they call the “Wicked Six.” These are holes 13-18 on the course and are supposed to form one of the most difficult stretches of golf in the Phoenix area. They really promote this in their marketing. The bar/restaurant inside the clubhouse is named Wicked Six. The W6 logo is everywhere, including the flagsticks. On holes 1-12, they have the Sunridge Canyon logo big in the center of the green-checkered flags with the W6 logo small in the corner. On holes 13-18, they have the Wicked Six logo big in the center of the RED-checkered flags with the SunRidge Canyon logo small in the corner.

In other words, they really build up these final six holes. I get the appeal of having such a marketing gimmick, but I’m not sure it works. First, I think it unnecessarily devalues the challenge of holes 1-12. They are all plenty difficult in their own right. With a lot of hills, severe doglegs, canyon hazard areas, waste bunkers and elevated greens with significant undulation, it’s a pretty unforgiving layout all around.

By the time we got to the Wicked Six, the course had already kicked my butt, so I was expecting things to get even more painful. However, I never really felt like any of those last six holes were that dramatically more difficult or intimidating than anything else on the course. They were all great holes, though.

Hole 13 is a relatively long par-5 (544 yards from the gold tees) that plays uphill all the way, but there’s nothing too crazy about it. Hole 14 is a gorgeous downhill par-3 (156 yards) with water short and right. Hole 15 is long and tricky par-4 (439 yards) that doglegs left with a split fairway. Hole 16 is an average-length dogleg right par-5 (515 yards) with a barranca/wash cutting through the lay-up area and forcing some uncomfortable decisions.

Hole 17 is a wonderful par-3 with a unique quality. It has two tee box areas and a big, crazy boomerang-shaped green. From the left tee boxes, it’s a forced carry over the canyon and the hole plays 190 yards. From the right tees (where they had it set up Saturday), it’s a much less intimidating hole with less of a forced carry and a distance of only about 130 yards. Lastly, the 18th is a beast of a par-4. The card says 400 yards, but it plays uphill (severely uphill on the approach) with a ravine cutting across about 100 yards out from the green.

The Wicked Six is certainly a great collection of holes, but the entire course is worth checking out. I played so poorly that day, it was hard for me to fully appreciate the layout. But I do blame some of the poor play on the conditions, because coming out of the overseed, SunRidge Canyon was playing even tougher than I suspect it normally does.

The course was lush and green with only a few areas on the tee boxes, fairways and rough not having the new grass come in too great yet. However, things were extra shaggy. That’s no surprise because they like to let the grass mature before cutting it down to normal lengths, but man did it make things tough. There was no roll-out on the fairways, making long holes play even longer. And anything in the deep, thick rough was very difficult to hit with any consistent contact.

The rough was the biggest story because it was both gorgeous and brutal, especially around the greens. There were no tightly-mown run-up or run-off areas in front of or around any of the greens. We weren’t sure how things were normally cut and manicured, but shots that might normally be routine chips from nice clean lies were chunky, hard-to-control shots out of ultra-thick rough.

The greens were relatively firm, but good overall. They rolled smoother and faster than I would have expected for a course just coming out of the overseeding process.

The other factor that made SunRidge Canyon super difficult during this visit (our first time playing the course) was the GPS on the carts. The course was playing cart path only, which we were fully aware of. That meant a lot of extra walking, a number of somewhat blind shots and unknown distances to trouble areas (hazards, canyons, washes, bunkers, etc.). Local knowledge is definitely helpful on this course, so not having the full help of the GPS was certainly a disadvantage for us.

Also, their new GPS system had some glitches and our cart seemed to be worse than that of our playing partners. We always obeyed the cart path only restrictions, but our cart kept saying to “return to the path” and would automatically reduce the speed to a snail’s pace until it kicked back in. Oftentimes, our monitor would also say GPS not available, so we had no general idea of the distance before heading out to our balls.

Beyond those inconveniences, SunRidge is a cool course. I really would like to have a rematch with it someday when it’s in “normal” conditions. I’d like to think having full use of the GPS, being able to drive out to the ball and not having thick, shaggy grass to hit from on every lie would enhance my experience and hopefully improve my score!

Give the course a few more weeks and it should be in exceptional playing condition throughout the prime golf season in Arizona. It’s not the cheapest course around, but it’s not as expensive as some of the big resort courses either. Depending on your budget, it’s one that is worth the visit.

Some pictures from SunRidge Canyon Golf Club (10/5/13):

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For our afternoon round, we chose a course on the other end of the spectrum in a number of ways…

Longbow Golf Club • Mesa, AZ • 10/5/13

This was a convenient option because it was right across the street from where we were staying in Mesa and the price was reasonable enough ($40 plus tax). That was perhaps still a bit too much for what we got, though.

We booked a 2:08 tee time, but got there early. Knowing the sun goes down a little earlier than we’re used to in California, we wanted to get out as quickly as possible to ensure finishing before dark. Luckily, the place wasn’t crowded at all, so we were able to tee off early and finish with just enough daylight to spare.

On all levels, this was a very different experience than the morning round at SunRidge Canyon. On a positive note, I played much better and really had a strong back nine making putts from all over the place!

On a negative note, the conditions were dramatically different. Unlike SunRidge, which had just reopened after overseeding, Longbow was getting ready to close soon. When we called ahead to inquire about conditions, they said it would be a little dried out, but had good playability. They also said they weren’t planning to stop watering until a few days after we were there, so they weren’t letting it completely dry out just yet. That got our hopes up a little, but the expectations still weren’t super high.

The course was dry as a bone. The fairways were dormant, which provided plenty of extra roll-out. The lies were thin, but were still generally pretty decent to hit from. The rough was completely shaved down to almost bare dirt, so it did nothing to stop your ball from careening into the desert brush that lines every hole here. The greens were super firm and super fast, yet smooth on putts. After playing soft, shaggy conditions earlier, there was definitely an adjustment period at Longbow, but it was playable.

Even in peak conditions, I’m quite sure Longbow normally plays a bit firm and fast throughout. As a desert links style design, that’s kind of the idea. That said, I know the course definitely will look and play a whole lot better later in the year when they’ve brought some green back into the grass and the surfaces aren’t so extremely firm.

Regarding the layout, I actually enjoyed Longbow a lot. Another contrast between this course and SunRidge is the lack of elevation changes here. It is very flat terrain, but there is just enough contour and mounding around the fairways and greens to provide some visual appeal and challenge. Many of the greens are slightly elevated and well-protected by bunkers.

What Longbow lacks in dramatic elevated views, it makes up for a little with the 360-degree unobstructed views of the entire valley and a bevy of mountain ranges in the distance. With that backdrop and what would normally be much more contrast between the greenery of the course and the rugged desert brush all around, I know this can be a very nice looking track.

There aren’t many holes that really stick out in my memory, but I felt it was a solid and consistent layout all the way around. All the holes look similar, but none play the same. The tee shots on holes 1 and 10 look almost identical, though. We had to make sure we had made the right turn from the clubhouse when we got to the 10th tee!

One hole I thought was pretty distinctive was the par-4 13th. The green is very well-protected by a massive bunker that wraps all the way around from the front left to the back right. The bunker itself feeds off directly into a water hazard behind it, so it’s an intimidating approach knowing what nastiness back there if you go long.

Though I played pretty well, I’d still like a rematch with Longbow when I know it’s in really good shape. I realized I didn’t get it at its best, but still found it an enjoyable experience on a fun and challenging course.

Some pictures from Longbow Golf Club (10/5/13):

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