SCOTTSDALE, AZ - You get the feel of the rugged, wide-open Old West when you're playing at Sanctuary at Westworld in Scottsdale, even though the course is only about two years old. You almost expect a herd of cattle to come ambling down the cart path.
Maybe it's because you can go long stretches on this course without ever seeing a house or a car. Maybe it's because you're in the foothills of the stony, brush-spotted McDowell Mountains. Or maybe it's because the course was specifically designed to leave a light touch on the land. Even the name - Sanctuary - is a strong reminder that the course is an Audubon International signature course, meaning that it's kind to coyotes and roadrunners, stingy about watering turf and careful about saving saguaros.
Seasoned golfers should remember that at Sanctuary, the length of their drive is not as important as accuracy. From the championship tees, the distance is 6,624 yards (par 71), but the slope is still 135. "Distance is not a factor here," says John Patzwald, the director of golf. "You need to get into the fairways, which are not all that wide."
One advantage at Sanctuary is that you can make the course as hard or as easy as you want it to be. There are five sets of tees. The forward, traditional women's tees are 4,926 yards (slope 118) and offer the chance to avoid firing over the many rocky rills and brushy draws that probably swallow dozens of golf balls a day.
Patzwald is also proud that the course has a set of junior tees (4,096 yards/slope 104) and offers all-girl-only golf classes for youngsters. "Lots of people bring their grandkids out here to play," he said.
The first hole on this course gives you sweeping views of the homes and businesses of Phoenix and Scottsdale set against a backdrop of Camelback and Squaw Peak. Behind you rise the McDowell Mountains, sage, beige and charcoal slopes against a purple sky. At some points on this course, you will be as much as 600 feet above the valley floor. It's not a flat course, like those below in the valley; it's an up-and-down experience with elevated tees ringed by brittlebush, lots of knolls and bumps on the fairways, and tilted, undulating greens, protected by deep bunkers.
No. 1 is a relatively easy par 4 (418 yards fromthe tips), probably designed to build your confidence and soften you up for the rugged landscape ahead. Next you drive down through a little gully; signs note that you are traveling through the ruins of the Rio Verde Canal, part of a failed irrigation scheme that someone in the 1890s had hoped would provide water and hydroelectric power from the Salt River for 400,000 acres worth of homes and farms in Scottsdale and Paradise Valley.
Then bang, you're on the second hole - the toughest on the course - and the real struggle begins. No. 2 is a par 4 that seems as if it would be a cinch if you have the distance (438 yards from the back tees). But you have to get your ball over a series of rough spots to reach a split fairway with a sandtrap in-between. The fairways seem to amble around up and down, round and round like a spool of spilled ribbon. Adding to the difficulty, holes 2, 3, 4 and 5 all have large, stony draws off to the left that are "environmentally protected." Play is forbidden from these brushy gullies that probably hold running water at various times of the year and serve as a shelter for mourning doves, cactus wrens and other birds. So once your ball hits the gravel, it's gone.
The first par 5, hole No. 4, is not very long - 497 yards from the tips - but it has a thin, narrow fairway that sits on a plateau and narrows to a bottleneck in the middle. If you're not careful, about 150 yards from the hole, you can hit your ball a smidgen too far to the right and watch it roll down to a lower plateau.
Over and over again, you realize that the main rule on this course is less club and more accuracy. You must constantly fight to strategically place your ball in the right position for the next shot.
That's the advice we also got from 29-year-old Travis Long, the assistant golf pro at Sanctuary, who claims the "unofficial" lowest score on the course - 66 - that he shot in April 2001. "The main thing to remember at Sanctuary," Long said, "is to keep your ball in play off the tee. I only hit my driver here eight times in 18 holes. I can hit a 2-iron or a 3-wood on my first shot and then use a semi-short iron to get on the green on most holes."
Both Long and Patzwald, the director of golf, say that their favorite hole on the course is No. 14, a par-4, dogleg left (402 yards from the championship tees), where on the right day with the right amount of heat and sunshine, a golfer with distance can think about a birdie and cut the dogleg. "Sometimes I like to play it safe, and go to the right," Long said. "But if you feel you can go for it, you can bust your ball over the corner." You have to hit your ball at least 250 yards to reach the fairway this way.
Sanctuary has lots of these risk-reward opportunities, including its signature hole, No. 18, another dogleg left with an uphill, split fairway. This is a par 5 that is 516 yards from the back tees to a green protected by a bunker on one side and a treacherous wash on the other. Shoot across the dogleg to a birdie or a double-bogey, which will it be?
Sanctuary is the design of golf-course architect Randall Heckenkemper, an Oklahoma State grad who worked previously for firms owned by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf. The course is owned and operated by Suncor Golf, which also operates Sedona Golf Resort and Palm Valley Golf Club in Phoenix. Sanctuary started out as a joint venture that also involved the city of Scottsdale and the Bureau of Land Reclamation. Most of the course lies on federally regulated land set aside for recreation only. There are only 71 acres of watered turf and the course uses a mere 400 acre feet of water per year.
Some of the course follows the path of the high-tension electrical towers that bring power to Phoenix. But these massive structures won't detract from your golfing experience.
Be sure to play a round at Sanctuary in the afternoon, so that you can watch the setting sun paint the skies over Phoenix.
10690 East Sheena Drive
Scottsdale, Arizona 85259
Web: Sanctuary Golf Course
Director of Golf: John Patzwald
Head Golf Professional: Ryan Stemsrud
Designer: Randall Heckenkemper
Year Built: 1999
Turf: Greens - Tif dwarf, with Poe trivealis; fairways, roughs and tees - 419 Bermuda, overseeded with rye
Slope/Ratings: 71.7/135, 69.1/125, 67.2/115, 68.1/118, 61.5/104
Yardage: 6624, 6050, 5573, 4926, 4189
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: A-
Pace of Play: A-
Overall rating: A-
December 17, 2001