SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Troon North Golf Club set the bar for modern desert golf in the Valley of the Sun nearly 20 years ago with the Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish-designed Monument Course. Five years later, the Weiskopf solo-designed Pinnacle Course at Troon North set the bar even higher.
This 7,025-yard, par-71 brute, with a course rating of 73.0 and slope rating of 147 from the tips, is like the New York City of desert golf: If you can play well here, you can play well anywhere.
The good news for us average golfers, though, is that the Pinnacle Course is an outrageously fun, boulder-tossed, cactus-strewn, horned toad-inhabited ride that will mesmerize you with both the picturesque scenery and the amazing golf no matter how well (or badly) you play.
It is important to be perfectly honest here: The Pinnacle Course (and the Monument Course, for that matter) is plenty fair, with generous fairways and clearly defined, completely visible landing areas. The greens are firm and fast but not overly contoured; in fact, they are likely to be over-read by first-time players.
This said, there is also a downside: If you do not have your game working - and, specifically, if you cannot get your tee ball into the fairway - you are in for a long, and likely a very hot, day. Because of the desert-lined fairways, where scrub-brush, cacti, sharp rocks and more than a few rattlesnakes await stray shots, there is almost no chance of finding a stray golf ball, much less hitting it back into play.
Since we're sort of careening from bad to good here (much like my golf shots), let us return to the good aspects of the Pinnacle Course. Specifically, even if one is not playing well, the scenery (aside from a few house-lined holes) is like something off of a postcard.
Saguaro cacti stand sentinel behind greens, massive stones - some bearing ancient petroglyphs - dot the landscape and elevated tees provide breathtaking views of both the golf holes and the arid landscape from which they've been carved.
On the elevated tee of the very first hole, first-time visitors get a good feel of what they are in for. The 392-yard opener requires a drive over about 70 yards of scrub to a wide fairway punctuated by sprawling fairway bunkers. The fairway ends at about 125 yards from the green, and the hole doglegs sharply left for an approach shot over a wide, dry wash cross-hazard.
Weiskopf must be fond of cross-hazards, as half of the holes feature some form of waste area or dry wash. (The feature probably also allows fast drainage in the case of flash-floods during monsoon season.)
It's difficult to pick out favorite holes on the course, as every one of them is visually stunning. The 404-yard ninth presents perhaps the toughest tee shot, though, with one of the longest forced carries to one of the narrowest fairways. Both drive and approach are set up for a pronounced draw, which pose little problem for accomplished players but probably gives most average players fits.
The 609-yard 14th is a legitimate big-boy par 5, where you need to kick the dirt off your cowboy boots, tighten your chaps and blast a heroic tee shot past the bottle neck in the fairway where the hole doglegs to the right - or lay up short of it. However, if you execute the drive successfully, there is no more trouble on the hole unless you happen to find a greenside trap.
This is true desert golf in all of its prickly glory. In order to score at all here, players absolutely must get their tee shots into the fairways or at least keep them out of the deserts. It is impossible here to make up for poor drives with good iron play or a solid short game. (Take it from me. I carded 10 penalty strokes off the tee, but I only three-putted once.)
Happily, however, the layout is so lovely in its stark, rugged features that you almost don't mind losing some balls here and there. Aside from the few holes that have homes built alongside them, you almost feel like you're scouting through the desert wilderness.
And when you return from your trek, you find impeccable clubhouse facilities, including the Callaway Golf Performance Center, where players can have their swings analyzed and be fitted for clubs using the same technology as that used to fit Callaway's Tour pros.
Really, one would expect no less from a Troon Golf property.
Greens fees vary dramatically according to season, from as low as $45 during the summer to as high as $295 on the weekend during the winter (peak season).
However, if one divides even the highest rate by 18, it comes out to about $16.40 per hole. Troon North Golf Club can claim every single hole to be worth the price.
For local accommodations, the natural choice is another Troon Golf property, the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa. For the best Mexican restaurant in Phoenix, try the Barrio Cafe.
June 1, 2009