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Two Great - and Very Different - Courses in the Valley of the Sun

By: Steve Habel


The Phoenix area of Arizona - known as "The Valley of The Sun" - is famous for its plethora of golf courses and its weather, both temperate (in winter and early spring when it is THE BEST place to be and play) and not-so-temperate (the dead of summer finds temperatures 110 degrees in the shade).

On a recent trip to the region, we opted to play two golf courses - one well-known and much trod and the other very much off the beaten track - and were able to sample a little bit of the desert and its surroundings. Given the sheer number of courses in the area (at last count there are more than 250), playing ONLY two courses was the real challenge, but we were in a bit of a time crunch.

A misconception about teeing it up in the Phoenix area is that every course is a target-style offering. But there's really a little bit of everything, and the two courses we played were at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

Los Caballeros Golf Club Makes Time Stand Still

About an hour's drive on the Carefree Highway north and west of Phoenix is the old gold-mining town of Wickenburg, named after Austrian prospector Henry Wickenburg. His quest for gold in the area was rewarded by the discovery of the Vulture Mine, where more than $30 million in gold has been taken from the ground over the past 150 years.

Throughout the foothills around Wickenburg are relics of other mines that stand as tribute to the pioneer miner and prospector. The town, which retains an Old West feel, is set amidst the northern reaches of the Great Southwest's Sonoran Desert and is noted for its clean air, Western hospitality and high quality of life.

It also has one of the finest dude ranches in the country and one of the most fun golf courses you'll ever play. Located just a few miles outside of town, Rancho de Los Caballeros is considered one of the top ranch resorts in the United States. Once an old-fashioned dude ranch, the resort has been up-scaled but you can still ride horses and pretend to be a cowboy while enjoying the rustic ambiance.

That's all fine and dandy (who among us didn't want to be a cowboy when we were growing up?), but our focus was on the stunning Los Caballeros Golf Club, a highly-rated semiprivate track. Designed by Greg Nash and Jeff Hardin, this jewel features ever-rolling terrain, a pair of lakes, bunkers that demand attention and a layout that calls for virtually every shot in your repertoire.

Set at an elevation of 2,100 feet, Los Caballeros Golf Club is surrounded by spectacular views of Vulture Peak to the south and the Bradshaw Mountains to the north - landmarks that can be used as target lines on many holes.

Los Caballeros - which plays to a par 72 and 7,014 from the back set of four tees - is bordered by desert areas and adobe-style homes. But the layout has a traditional feel with fairly generous landing areas and limited forced carries. The fairways are wide enough to be fair but contain rolls and depressions that require careful ball placement. And while many of the tees are elevated, you'll end up having to hit up to many elevated putting surfaces.

We enjoyed the routing at Los Caballeros and found the front side a bit easier than the back. On the outward nine, the first four holes allow you to get in a groove, and the test really starts on No. 5, a 536-yard par-5. Off the tee the hole heads downhill over mesquites, greasewood, cacti and sand before rising uphill past a bunker to the green, which slopes back to front.

The seventh - a 578-yard par-5 - is Los Caballeros' top handicap hole. After a relatively carefree tee shot, you must decide whether to carry the huge lake on the left on the approach. The lay-up space right of the lake must be precise as the fairway whittles down to about 25 yards. Take one more club that you think on the approach to a green guarded by sand fore and aft.

No. 8 is the track's toughest par-3, playing 213 yards uphill to a right-canted putting surface. The course really bares its teeth on the ninth, a 414-yard par-4 that ascends into the prevailing wind to a green that rebuffs long irons.

The back nine is a bit narrower than the front as more desert and rocks line the fairways and it plays about two shots tougher than the front. That, however, is not the case on Nos. 10, 11 and 12 - the easiest two par-4s on the course followed by the most accessible par-3. Take advantage of your chances on this trio because you'll need the cushion for what comes next.

The course's signature hole is the 13th. This 599-yarder, rated among the most challenging par-5s in Arizona, has numerous elevation changes and a small, well-protected and undulating green. Next is the deceptively difficult par-4 14th, which at just 368 yards can cause havoc with a hard dogleg-right fairway and a raised green.

The round ends with the toughest stretch at Los Caballeros. On the 448-yard par-4 16th, expect the wind in your face and trouble if you pull your drive right toward the lake. No. 17 is the longest par-4 on the course and, at 452 yards and playing into the prevailing wind, this slight left-bender will bump up your score if you don't hit an accurate approach.

The finishing hole is a long (561 yards) and right-bending par-5 with sand entering play on the second shot. Four bunkers ring the green, but the hole's real defense is its movement downhill, then uphill and the many uneven lies.

Los Caballeros Golf Club, with a course rating of 73.1 and slope of 137, is ranked as a 4˝-star - and a 2-Star medal winner for good service - in Golf Digest's "Places to Play" guide. The course can be aptly described as "serene but lethal," and is usually rated as one of the top 10 courses in the state.

The accommodations at Rancho de Los Caballeros are top-drawer; the room I stayed in had a wonderful working fireplace, a kitchenette with a separate dining room, a patio, and views of the desert and ranch from windows on both sides. The ranch, whose name translates to "ranch of the riding gentlemen," and the course are both must-plays for golfers and those with even a passing fancy of the cowboy life.

Opened for play in January 1979, Los Caballeros Golf Club is where a 20,000-acre dude ranch meets country club and you can swap spikes for spurs and a horseback ride through the Sonoran Desert. What a great combination.

For more information or a tee time, visit http://www.sunc.com.

Camelback's Indian Bend Offers Links Feel

Perhaps the most historic of all Phoenix-area resort courses is Camelback Golf Club, located north of Scottsdale in Paradise Valley. Situated 20 minutes from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, Marriott's Camelback Inn offers one of the finest golf experiences in the region and is a swank spot in the gorgeous valley between the Camelback and Mummy mountains.

Built on 125 acres in the mid-1930s, the resort features latilla (peeled-log) beamed buildings that ooze Southwestern charm, and the grounds are graced with stunning cacti and desert flowers. The resort's 453 rooms are spacious, and its seven suites have private swimming pools. Visit the spa for a "para-joba" body wrap and an adobe-mud purification treatment, or enjoy the resort's three swimming pools, six tennis courts and fitness center.

Set about three miles from the resort in a prestigious neighborhood, Camelback Golf Club boasts 36 holes of championship golf - the par-72 Indian Bend Course and the newly remodeled par-72 Padre Course.

We were lucky enough to tee it up at Indian Bend, a track originally designed by Jack Snyder in 1978 and redesigned by Arthur Hills in 2000. The course is a lot like the links in your neighborhood, incorporating secluded sand traps, gently rolling terrain, water holes and scenic mountain views as a backdrop. The 7,014-yard layout (with a course rating of 72.6 and 122 slope) is adorned with mature eucalyptus, desert pines and colorful flowering gardens - with none of the surrounding desert you might expect.

Indian Bend's first, a 432-yard par-4 that twists to the left, is its No. 1 handicap hole. Other highlights on the front nine include the 550-yard par-5 second, the 440-yard par-4 fifth, the tough 200-yard par-3 eighth and the 430-yard par-4 ninth (imperiled by a lake left of the landing area).

Inward-nine notables are the 570-yard par-5 13th, the 185-yard par-3 14th and the finisher, a dogleg-right, 530-yard par-5 that can be shortened by a brave shot over a tree at the corner. The final nine is considerably easier than the front, so keep your chin up if mistakes are made early on.

Indian Bend has a fabulous - if somewhat residential - setting with beautiful vistas toward the distant mountains. If you love the challenge of golf without too much to handle, you'll find the course to your liking.

We were not able to play Padre, but did drive around it. I heard lots of good things about the layout before my visit. Padre is a parkland-style track stretching 6,903 yards over gently rolling terrain. It offers beautiful views of the mountains, multiple lakes, towering trees, subtle landforms, square tees and scores of bunkers.

"When comparing this course to others in the area, Camelback Padre's park-style landscaping is one of the layout's great assets," architect Hills said. "Players can hit their drives without worrying about losing it in the desert. It's more like a traditional Midwestern layout - virtually the entire course is in play, and I think that's something people like a lot."

Hills's passion for classic architectural themes is in generous supply on this new and longer layout. Padre is known for its strategy and challenging water holes (its 18th was voted the best water hole in the state by Arizona Golf Magazine).

For additional information or a tee time, visit www.camelbackinn.com.  

Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the media coordinator for Bechtol Golf Design, the managing editor for Business District magazine in Austin and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns.