I already wrote about my warm-up and cool-down rounds at Tres Rios and Coldwater respectively, but the main course for my recent day trip to Phoenix’s westside was Golf Club of Estrella in Goodyear, AZ.
This is one that has been high on my wish list and I knew it would probably be one of the next notable courses I would play when I made it back out to the Phoenix area. It’s about a 3.5-hour drive from my home in the Coachella Valley, so it’s right on the edge of being an easy day trip for me. Obviously, the deeper I get into Phoenix/Scottsdale and the east valley, the more commitment it will take to plan my visits.
I’ve always heard good things about Estrella, so I was excited to check it out and I found a good deal for an in-season tee time. I booked through TeeOff.com with a 20% off promo code on a pre-paid deal time, so it ended up being about $67 total (including AZ taxes) for a prime 9:50 tee time.
A funny story about that tee time is that I didn’t realize until later it had coincidentally perfect significance. You see, Golf Club of Estrella represented the 950th course I have played. I might not have even noticed this, but the starter put a hand-written tee time placard on my cart and oddly didn’t put the colon in the time. So, it just said “950” and I happened to notice right before I was headed to the first tee. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself and take a picture. And yes, the countdown to 1,000 is officially underway!
I arrived quite early after such a quick round at Tres Rios, but the course was busy and the tee sheet was full. Still, the staff here was very organized and everything was on time. I was paired with a twosome and we rarely pushed the group ahead. The group behind never pushed us at all either, so it was a nice relaxed four-hour pace. The weather was not ideal for pictures as clouds kept covering up the sun at inopportune times. It was also tough for golf as this is a demanding course and it was really windy all round.
Both nines of Golf Club of Estrella loop out and back from the clubhouse and the first half of each nine was playing directly into the wind. That made these holes play extremely long and tough. Many of the other holes had crosswinds and there were only a few that actually had straight downwind conditions.
Golf Club of Estrella opened in 1999 and was designed by Nicklaus Design. Jack Nicklaus, Jr. (sometimes listed as Jack Nicklaus II) is noted as the primary architect, so I get the sense pops had nothing to do with this one. It was originally called Estrella Mountain Ranch Golf Club.
Though I really liked Golf Club of Estrella and would easily recommend it to anyone, I wanted to like it a little more than I did. The course layout is nice, but not quite as dramatic as I was expecting overall. I think I was expecting more changes in elevation for some reason. There are a few cool spots as I will note in a bit, but mostly the course doesn’t have many big rises or drops. However, it is not without its dramatic moments.
The bunkering throughout this course is quite something. When you see a bunker, you want to avoid it at all costs because some of the sand complexes are downright evil. Holes 3, 7 and 11 all come to mind with scary groups of humongous twisted and tangled bunkers guarding the greens.
The greens themselves are relatively small and not really as undulated as you’ll find at most courses with the Nicklaus name attached. However, they all have funky shapes and awkward angles. The pins are arranged with a simple 1-2-3 front-middle-back pin sheet. However, each third of the green is fairly small and you want to be in the right section if you can. There isn’t always much room to work with on approach shots if you want to get it tight. This is a common Nicklaus design feature. Fortunately, the greens are not too crazy to read once you are on the surface, so even if you have a long putt you’ll have a chance to lag it up there nicely.
The highlight holes of the course come at the end of each nine. The 9th is a demanding uphill par-4 dubbed “The Island” as it requires a forced carry over a ravine on the approach, though there is plenty of bail-out room short.
The real fun comes at the very end of the round. To me, holes 16-18 were by far the most memorable part of the course. The 16th is a long par-5 (especially long if you play one of the back sets of tees) that also has an uphill approach over a patch of desert. The elevated green is tricky to get at, but good strategy and execution can net you a good score here.
The 17th is the signature hole of Golf Club of Estrella. It is a stunning par-3. The back tees are elevated and so is the green. The further you move up in tee boxes, the more uphill your tee shot will be, so it’s an interesting trade-off. It is just a great-looking hole that is as beautiful as it is fun.
The 18th offers your most elevated tee shot of the day to a pretty wide fairway with a set of bunkers in the middle that you’ll need to avoid. The hole doglegs right and downhill, so it allows for some really aggressive tee shots if you can carry the canyon and ride the slopes. Of course, anyone playing the tips will really be pushed back on this hole. We were playing the silver tees and the black tee box was located way behind us perched atop a narrow ridge.
The golf course was in good overall shape, though maybe not quite as nice as I would have expected for March in Arizona. The tee boxes were great. The overseeded fairways were excellent and easily the highlight of the conditions. I always had very nice lies. The rough was semi-dormant bermuda. It was cut down, but just enough to grab your clubs, especially on touch shots around the greens. I was in a few bunkers. The sand was raked and well-maintained, but most of the bunkers had plenty of pebbles in the mix. I’ll just never get Arizona bunkers and why even some of the nicest courses will have this type of sand. It’s an epidemic in Nevada, as well.
I was also a little disappointed in the greens. They were fairly soft/receptive and rolling well at medium speeds. However, many were pretty pock-marked with old ball marks and every previous hole cut from probably the past month or two was overwhelmingly visible. It’s hard to describe and the old holes didn’t really affect anything (old ball marks did sometimes bump putts offline), but there were circles everywhere and it was to the point of distraction at times. The old holes were so much more noticeable than any other course I’ve ever played on, so I can’t help but note that in my review.
Golf Club of Estrella lives up to its reputation as one of the best courses on the westside of the valley. As I said, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone, especially if you get a good rate. At the same time, I would rank it behind Wickenburg Ranch, Quintero and both Verrado courses when comparing other top west valley courses.
Some pictures from Golf Club of Estrella (3/15/18):
(Click on any photo below to pull up a gallery slideshow.)