Countdown Conquest in Arizona

If all goes as planned (knocking on wood as I write), I will be playing my 1,000th golf course on Tuesday, July 17. It will be somewhere pretty special, so stay tuned.

With that milestone in mind, I need to stay on pace with my new course count so that everything times out correctly with the countdown. Before yesterday, I was sitting at 993 courses. I was originally planning to play the remaining six courses up in Northern California on my upcoming trip, but the plans worked out in such a way that it made more sense to break things up a bit.

So where do I go when I need exactly two (no more, no less) new courses? Well, I hop in the car and drive east to Arizona! Summertime offers some affordable rates at the top courses. However, this week in particular offered some unique challenges that made a simple one-day/two-course quest somewhat more difficult to plan. First, you have summer maintenance that is happening at a majority of courses. Most places out there have very recently aerated their greens, and a lot of the most desirable courses I was looking at were punching this week. I wanted to avoid major maintenance if I could.

Second, and even more unpredictable, is the weather. I don’t mind suffering through the heat of Arizona in the summer, but then “monsoon season” rolls around and things get sketchy. Living in a desert myself, I know how difficult it can to forecast anything this time of year. We’ve gotten a few freak rain and thunderstorms this week in the Coachella Valley and I knew Arizona was getting even more crazy storm action.

I booked my tee times, but watched the weather carefully. The morning forecast in and around Phoenix was looking very nasty by the time I went to bed. I was close to cancelling, but still set my alarm as if I needed to leave at 2:00 am as planned. When I got up and checked the weather reports, things had cleared up significantly on the radar, so I decided to take the gamble. Even if I had to sprint around two cheap short courses, I was determined to get my two courses in to keep the countdown on track!

Fortunately, things worked out great. I didn’t encounter any bad weather on the drive out and it wasn’t more than cloudy by the time I reached my final destination. There were some ugly clouds hovering over the Superstition Mountain range nearby, but nothing threatening the course. It was hot and especially muggy in the morning, yet I was very happy it all worked out as hoped. I was just there to play some golf…

Gold Canyon Golf Resort & Spa (Dinosaur Mountain) • Gold Canyon, AZ • 7/12/18

Of all the most desirable courses I have left to play in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, a morning time here caught my attention. For starters, they get started a little earlier than a lot of the resort courses do (6:30 instead of 7:00). Plus, I knew Dinosaur Mountain hadn’t gone through its aerification of the greens yet. The Sidewinder Course was closed this week for its aeration, but Dinosaur Mountain doesn’t do it until the 23rd of this month. Many of the other top courses I was looking at had just punched this week and I didn’t want to deal with that.

I booked a 6:40 tee time at a decent summer rate of $55 (plus AZ tax, so $58 and change total). This course costs a whole lot more to play in season because it is widely regarded as one of the better public courses around and it is attached to a resort.

Being that it is a resort course, I was a little taken back when I pulled into the modest parking lot and saw what looked like kind of run-down facilities. There definitely wasn’t anything too fancy about the initial presentation, especially based on what I’ve experienced at Phoenix’s other top-rated resort courses. I hit a few rock-hard yellow balls on the range to warm-up as I waited for the call to the first tee.

They do have a nice 10-minute tee time system here to keep people properly spaced out. I was paired with a twosome and we went off second behind a foursome. They were done by the time we were sent to the first tee and we never pushed them at all. We enjoyed a nice overall pace of about 3 hours and 15 minutes.

As I pulled into the parking lot, I saw what was apparently the Sidewinder course down in the flat areas and I wasn’t all that impressed with what I could see. Things changed quickly when I got out to the first tee of Dinosaur Mountain and saw the type of course I had signed up for.

The first hole here is a relatively short, but uphill par-4 that takes you right toward the mountains. From there, it’s a fun roller coaster ride through the hills and desert canyon. There is a flatter stretch of holes in the middle that were just so/so, but most of the course is hilly and very entertaining. This is just the type of Arizona golf I love.

Both courses at Gold Canyon were designed by Ken Kavanaugh and it’s very clear that Dinosaur Mountain is the star of the two. It’s a dramatic and rarely uninteresting layout that actually presents some really good scoring opportunities depending on what tees you play. One interesting thing is that they purposely don’t list the course yardage totals on the scorecard. All the individual hole lengths are there, but they don’t put the totals for either nine or the full 18. Instead, they list the recommended player handicaps for each set of tees.

We ended up playing the blues, which the starter said play around 6,200-6,300 yards factoring in the elevation changes. I did the math afterward and found the blue tees to only be around 5,800 yards in actual total distance. Even with several steep uphill holes, I definitely never felt the course played very long (and I’m a very short hitter). The rating/slope (66.9/124) are also pretty low, so longer hitters may want to step back to the gold, black or blue/black combo tees to optimize the challenge. However, I should note that the course is a par-71 with six par-3s and five par-5s (most of which play on the short side), so that does skew the total yardage a bit.

From the blues, I thought Dinosaur Mountain offered a lot of scoring opportunities. The fairways are pretty forgiving, and as long as you avoid spraying your ball into the surrounding desert areas (which is easier said than done), there isn’t that much trouble to get into. There aren’t a ton of bunkers and the ones that are there aren’t too difficult to avoid. The greens are above average in size and the undulations aren’t too severe. I read them well as a first-time player and our group was draining putts left and right, so something fit our eyes.

Visually, one thing I really liked about Dinosaur Mountain is the distinctive mounding found leading up to and around many of the greens. It almost looks like some dinosaurs were buried underneath. For the most part, it only really appears on the uphill holes. I do wish more of it was used throughout the entire course because it offers a nice aesthetic. These mounds also provide some strategic qualities. Sometimes they can be very helpful, acting as bumpers to feed your ball onto the greens. However, when you hit the wrong side of a mound, it’s almost certainly a desert ball. And, there aren’t many opportunities to play recovery shots out of the desert areas here. In most cases it’s a lost ball or at least a lateral stroke penalty because there are so many thick bushes, steep drop-offs and very sharp rocks.

They told us to watch out for snakes, but my tussle was with a pesky jumping cholla that attached itself to the back of my leg and was extremely difficult to get off. I poked my left index finger pretty good trying to remove it, and I was finally able to identify with the Sore Finger Road overpass that’s in the middle of nowhere along the I-10 between LA and Phoenix. My leg got a bit bloodied up as I eventually used my clubs to remove the spiky ball of death, and I am still picking out some tiny barbs this morning. Interestingly enough, I stopped to grab a beverage at the gas station on the way home and I walked out with a Cactus Cooler. Coincidence? Probably.

Anyway, the point is that Dinosaur Mountain is a very fun golf course. I’m not sure which holes really stood out to me. I liked a lot of them. Probably my favorite par-3s were the 2nd, 5th and 14th, which are kind of similarly designed with elevated tee shots and great views. Another hole I enjoyed was the par-5 3rd. It is a dogleg left with a severe uphill approach. This one had some of the more pronounced mounding surrounding a kind of long, skinny two-tiered green.

The par-4 4th offers maybe the best tee view on the course with the Superstition Mountains in the distance.

Probably the signature hole here is the par-4 15th, which features a severely split fairway. You can either lay up to the right and play it as a dogleg left over the ravine, or you can try to cut the corner and shorten it significantly. I was able to easily cut the corner from the blue tees, if that give you any indication of things.

The course was in solid summer condition, looking pretty lush and green throughout (sure all that rain has helped). The tee boxes were good. Just a few of the blues on the back nine could use some leveling out. The fairways were generally good with a few thin spots here and there and a couple that had some aerated sections. The rough was good—cut low and easy to play from. The bunkers were not pebbly and they were well-maintained, but they have a very coarse desert sand that doesn’t provide much cushion. Most bunkers here have very firm sides, flat bottoms and not much in terms of lips, so you can actually have a putting option a lot of the time.

The greens were just okay. They were a bit bumpy in places and not terribly quick, though you did have to be careful on some downhill putts. The practice green was really ugly, but the ones on the course were better. They were pretty receptive as summer desert greens go, and I think they will benefit from the upcoming aeration.

Dinosaur Mountain lived up to its billing as one of the top 10-20 (even higher depending on what list you look at) public courses in the loaded Phoenix/Scottsdale area. I would easily recommend it for a dramatic setting and an entertaining layout.

Some pictures from Gold Canyon Golf Resort & Spa (Dinosaur Mountain) (7/12/18):

(Click on any picture below to pull up a gallery slideshow.)

The timing couldn’t have worked out better because I had made my second tee time all the way across town and there wasn’t a ton of time to spare in between…

Lookout Mountain Golf Club • Phoenix, AZ • 7/12/18

Even though Gold Canyon and Lookout Mountain is not the most convenient pairing in terms of geography, it was the most appealing combo in terms of price, available tee times and desirability. This is another course I’ve always been curious about and I knew they also hadn’t done any recent maintenance on their greens. Plus, I found a $28 hot deal for an 11:30 tee time to make it worth the visit. Lastly, I was not in any real rush as I only planned to play two courses as needed for my course count.

Lookout Mountain is part of the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort, and it’s important to know that. If you follow your GPS, it will take you straight to the course, which is about a half mile down the street from the resort itself. However, you actually need to park at the resort. There, you check in at the main pro shop and get your cart from the barn. Then, you cart down to the course and check in with the starter, who is based in the secondary pro shop shack. It’s a very weird set-up that I am sure confuses just about every first-time visitor.

It was reasonably busy out here, but it was mainly twosomes and threesomes going off in front of me. I was called to the first tee to join the Webb twosome. I waited a few minutes and they never showed up. Then, the starter announced it was me and the Miller single on the tee. He/she never showed up. A few more minutes passed and a single drove up to the tee box. I assumed it was Miller, but it was not. It was another guy who was originally at the 11:40 tee time. The starter then announced both of us with another twosome, who also never showed. Eventually, we just teed off as a twosome around 11:45.

The late start didn’t matter much because we quickly caught the groups ahead and waited on every shot after that. It was pretty hot in the afternoon without much breeze, so we did our best to find shade wherever we could in between swings. Still, the overall pace was adequate at just under 4 hours. Being that hot out, nobody ahead was dilly dallying too much.

I knew from reviews that Lookout Mountain has a couple different personalities. The first few holes (and last two holes, as well) are very bland down in the flatter section of the course by the street. These holes have the feeling of a low-end muni and are unimpressive, to say the least. As the course progresses and starts to get into the canyons and some residential areas, more character begins to show. By the end of the front nine, things get interesting. The holes tighten up, the setting gets more appealing and elevation changes begin coming into play.

The pinnacle of the course (literally) comes as you make the turn. After the short par-3 9th hole, you drive up the hill. The snack shack is perched atop the hill by the 10th tee boxes, which offer a great view and a dramatic elevated tee shot to the fairway below. This is the spot that puts the “Lookout” in Lookout Mountain, though this is a good time to note that this course was once known as The Pointe Golf Club or The Pointe Golf Club at Lookout Mountain.

After the signature 10th hole, you get a run of enjoyable target-oriented golf holes with a hillier desert canyon terrain that is more of the Arizona style I like. Eventually, things flatten back out as you finish with two more rather pedestrian holes in 17 and 18. It’s like a roller coaster with a slow build up and then kind of that cool-down section of flat track as you pull back into the station.

That description may be a bit generous, as I really didn’t find even the middle section of this course that wild (at least not as much as I expected). It’s pretty fun and interesting, but it honestly doesn’t compete with something like Dinosaur Mountain, Quintero, Wickenburg Ranch or some of the other local courses that come to mind when I think of dramatic and hilly desert canyon courses. Lookout Mountain has some quirky qualities that some will like and others will not. It’s one of those courses that kind of falls right on the line of being recommendable or not.

As for conditions, they were just okay. The tee boxes were fine. The fairways were very inconsistent. There were some overly fluffy/lush spots and a lot of thin/soft/muddy spots, as well, many of which were aerated. Kind of a bit of everything on the fairways. The rough I found to be more consistent, but it also had plenty of iffy spots to avoid. What I can say is it looks like they are putting in work to even things out, though they may want to mark some of the worst areas off as GUR. The bunkers were pretty firm with even coarser sand/gravel than Gold Canyon in the morning.

The greens showed signs of a verticut or something like that. However, they were very receptive. They provided a ton of bite, which I usually don’t anticipate on desert greens in the summer, and they rolled pretty well at medium speeds. They were just a tad bumpy here and there, but smoother than they looked.

I didn’t end up liking Lookout Mountain as much as I wanted to, and it will ultimately rank somewhere in the middle of the pack in Phoenix/Scottsdale for me. However, for the right price it’s probably still worth a “look” for most.

Some pictures from Lookout Mountain Golf Club (7/12/18):

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