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January 20, 2011

A sampling of Scottsdale's top courses (and wildlife)

Posted at 3:27 PM by Gary Van Sickle | Categories: Scottsdale

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Add killer bees to the list of occupational hazards for golf writers.

Superstition_mtn All right, I'm no bee expert, so I can't swear these were killer bees, but they looked and acted the way I'd always imagined killer bees would. It happened at Southern Dunes, a pretty good golf course in Maricopa, Ariz., in the wide open spaces south of Phoenix, on the other side of South Mountain. I was playing in the Xona Media Classic, an annual event in which media types tee it up in a tournament whose real purpose is to showcase the golf courses. Like I needed an excuse to visit Scottsdale to golf and stay at Xona Resort Suites, a sweet spot nestled next to the TPC at Scottsdale and the ultra-swank Fairmont Princess hotel? I'm an admitted golf course junkie, having played more than 1,000 so far.

It was early on the back nine and I had just teed off. I was staring the ball down when somebody in my foursome said urgently, "Step back, Gary — move back here!" I was playing with Sports Illustrated colleague John Garrity, Milwaukee radio host Chuck Garbedian and Ocotillo Golf Club's Mark Gurnow.

The reason for the urgency in their voices quickly became apparent. A loud buzzing noise, like electricity crackling in an overhead powerline, was audible as an odd, shifting cloud drifted across the front of the tee. It was a swarm of bees, circling angrily (it seemed to me) in a buzzing formation maybe 10 feet across and 15 feet high. It wasn't a huge swarm, but more like a bee reconnaissance patrol, perhaps.

Whatever they were, I didn't want any part of them. They were loud, big and aggressive. Within 30 seconds, the bee cloud floated past and was gone from sight, a flukey anomaly that I'm sure Al Gore could explain.

The insect sighting put an exclamation point on a memorable visit to Southern Dunes. It's a pretty good golf experience. The Dunes is lengthy — feel free to move up one set of tees — and strong enough to host a Gateway Tour event. It's also a course you need to play a few times to get comfortable because all you can see from the tees are unending arrays of fairway and greenside bunkers. They're not all in play, but they look like they are, and it's visually intimidating. Now that I know where not to hit it on a few holes, I can't wait to play it again. Consider it recommended.

Here's a brief rundown on the rest of my Scottsdale-area itinerary:

We-Ko-Pa. At the risk of sounding like Marlin Perkins, I spotted a bobcat while playing at the Cholla Course here. My group — media czar Mike Petty, New Orleans-based golf writer Dave Lagarde and We-Ko-Pa pro Ed Francese — caught its attention as we waited on a tee box somewhere on the back nine. Coyotes, quail, deer and roadrunners are common desert sightings, but I'd never seen a bobcat out in the open before. The cat, probably deciding after our off-balance follow-throughs that we weren't potentially delicious, slinked into the desert after we teed off.

We-Ko-Pa ranks among the best golf stops in Scottsdale. It's a public course on reservation land, which means the local watering restrictions don't apply, so there's plenty of green grass and room to play, which can't be said of every desert track. The Cholla Course is the original We-Ko-Pa track. There's a second 18, the Saguaro, that may be even better. What's not to like? Thirty-six holes, great conditioning, interesting routing and slight elevation changes, a pretty good practice range and good greens.

Superstition Mountain. I covered the Tradition, one of the Champions Tour's designated major championships, for SI at this track after the tournament moved south from Desert Highlands. Superstition is a little remote, some 25 miles east of Phoenix. Just head east on Highway 60 until the road narrows. When you start thinking you're lost, you're almost there. I'd forgotten just how beautiful the course was. My main memory of the Tradition was of following Jack Nicklaus, who had a hot round one day, and walking alongside him toward the clubhouse. Going up a steep slope that was filled with loose gravel, Jack lost his footing and I grabbed his forearm to help him navigate. Yeah, he probably owes me his life, but I don't want to make a big deal out of it.

We played the Prospector Course. (Two of the three layouts are now open to the public.) Visiting the clubhouse, a luxurious and sprawling Tuscan-style mansion, is worth the price of admission alone. Plus, this was the best-groomed course I played all week, and every course I played was really good.

Our shotgun start began at the 18th hole, a par 5 that looks like it goes forever, slightly uphill, with a lake on the left and large, gaping bunkers guarding the green. It's a lot of golf hole, but not so bad in a scramble format after my son, Mike, a minitour pro, hit a monster drive so far down the fairway that even I had a shot to reach the green in two. (I missed, of course, but we did salvage birdie.)

If you didn't realize Superstition Mountain was no longer super-private, you need to check it out. The recession's loss is our gain. It's an eye-opener.

Desert Forest. This place is private, but it's worth a mention. It was built in the early 1960s by Red Lawrence, and almost no dirt was moved to build it. It's everything I love about old-school golf design — no tricks, no waterfalls, no gimmicks — just subtle design elements that made me feel like it was the desert version of Pinehurst. I whined about hitting some good tees shots down the middle of the fairways only to have them wind up on the edge of the desert. Some fairways are contoured so even though they look wide, you have to know to play away from the slope. The greens were firm and fast enough that you wanted to be below the hole whenever possible, but as a first-time visitor, I couldn't always tell where that was on the green, and even if I did, I couldn't necessarily hit it there. Desert Forest is one of the cleverest desert tracks I have played.

Golf Club Scottsdale. This wasn't part of the Xona Classic, but it's where I went for a practice round. It's an isolated spot on Scottsdale's northwest side, surrounded by nothing but desert. It's got a small, tasteful ranch clubhouse, an excellent practice area, and from the tips this course is stronger than dirt. It's always in excellent condition and doesn't get a ton of play. Like many high-end luxury clubs struggling with membership numbers, the price of joining here has come down dramatically since the first of the year, maybe even close to a tax bracket near you.

Gainey Ranch. Also not in the Xona Classic rotation, but it's in Scottsdale, Gainey Ranch has 27 holes adjacent to a Hyatt and is a great place for that first round after four hours of hell on a US Airways flight. It's a little on the short side but has some seriously strong par-3 holes. The course is bordered by homes, has a lot of trees and flowers and grass, and doesn't feel at all like desert golf. Also, play moves along here, maybe because it's not difficult to find your ball. I teed off at 1 p.m. and had to play the Dunes nine twice because an outing was using the other two nines. I was stacked up behind several couples but they moved along nicely and dropped out after nine holes so I ended up breezing through 18 holes in just over three hours. Nothing beats playing golf unimpeded.

More Arizona Travel: Travelin' Joe's Guide to Phoenix | Photos | Top-Rated Courses

(Photo: Superstition Mountain)

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