ST. GEORGE, Utah -- This just in: lava intimidates. And not even just the red, molten spew running down a mountain after a James Bond villain's island hideaway inevitably gets blown up in movie climax. No, this is the black encrusted volcanic remains that are about as dangerous to the touch as a sea shell.
Still for some golfers, it might as well be a young and angry Sonny Liston standing there, daring them to swing at him. Sometimes the anticipation of the punch is more nerve jangling than the punch itself and the lava at St. George's Sunbrook Golf Club fits that bill. Some of St. George's longtime residents, people who've grown up with the lava deposits practically in their backyards, are spooked enough by the stuff on a golf course to avoid playing the Black Rock nine at Sunbrook G.C.
"A lot of people don't like them," Sunbrook Head Professional Reed McArthur said of the three lava holes. "They're very intimidated by them. I guess they feel that if they were to hit it into a tree or another obstacle, they have a chance to hit a shot out of it."
Whereas with the lava -- not so much.
Awfully hard to find a playable lie amongst the lava chunks.
"Eighty percent of our play on Black Rock comes from out of towners," said David Terry, St. George's city marketing director and former golf manager. "Most golfers haven't had the chance to play through lava and they're intrigued by it. But the locals tend to stay away.''
Familiarity doesn't just breed contempt. Sometimes it breeds resignation. No more lava humblings for me!
All and all, this view is really unfair to the lava. It almost borders on character assassination.
For as much as it can confound, the lava also unexpectedly rewards. There is nothing quite like hitting a wayward tee shot straight off a lava chunk and watching it ricochet a good 100 yards, right into the center of the fairway. It's not justice, but lava luck is fun nevertheless.
And Black Rock is a good beginner course in lava ways. If you play Johnny Miller's nearby Entrada first, you'll probably be wondering what all the fuss is about. Lava? You call this a lava course. This is lava on training wheels! Then again, that's sort of the point of Sunbrook Golf Club. It is three distinct nine hole courses right next each other, packaged together. In essence it gives you a quick introduction to St. George's burgeoning golf scene in one stop for one reasonable greens fee (you can pick which two of the courses you want to make up your 18).
Most locals opt for the combination of The Pointe's hills and Woodbridge's distinct southern Utah holes. A better choice is the pairing of Woodbridge with Black Rock's lava. With Woodbridge's perfectly speeded greens (not too fast, not too slow) and Black Rock's surreal meld of ancient lava/modern day construction blitz, you get a true glimpse into St. George's two worlds.
St. George is a town of 62,000 just across the Utah border, 120 miles from Las Vegas, that's quietly turned itself into a low-cost alternative golf destination. The city-owned Sunbrook complex lies at the heart of this golf obsession, offering a glimpse into both St. George's rugged pioneer past and its building boom, carefully marketed future. On Black Rock's seventh hole, you can see part of a lava fence on the mountain that the pioneers built to keep their cattle from wandering into the volcano's path. You also see the encroaching construction on the seventh, house shells that abut the fairway and take away from much of the nature feel. This is St. George's dilemma: maintaining the unspoiled views that have long made it a favorite of Westerners in the know while keeping up with the modern demand for more and more vacation and retirement homes.
The sometimes awkward transition shows up in the golf. Just when you get comfortable with Woodbridge's generous fairways (even the most dubious duffer has to really work to find trouble here) and relatively serene setting, it is on to Black Rock's tighter lava tracks and bulldozers beep-beep beeping away.
There are moments of inspiration. Woodbridge's No. 4 offers an island green that's no sure landing path from the 200-yard back tees. It is a fun par 3 with a little dark side. The 441-yard, par-4 fifth hole forgoes the postcard cache of an island green for a tougher challenge. The little red bridge that gives the course its name is visible from the tee, but it is the virtually blind shot from around a bend that steals the show. Club selection is key here, forcing one of those mull-it-over moments. The first shot has to come close enough to the water dissecting the fairway to leave you with a reasonable approach shot. Be too water wary and you'll be facing a nasty 175 to 200 yard uphill stab at the green.
Survive this sequence and you're off and rolling towards Black Rock's whole new world. A stop in the clubhouse at the turn and everything's changed.
"The biggest thing with Sunbrook is the variety," Terry said. "It gives you a shot at so many different looks."
Sunbrook Golf Club is golf's version of that favorite meteorological saying, "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change." If you don't like the golf course, just wait five holes and it will probably change.
The Black Rock switch is a toughening one. There are six forced carries on the nine holes, though half of them are immediately right off the tee. It is the narrow approaches, like the lava-enclosed seventh fairway, that provide the true test. Stray too fair right or left on the 441-yard, par-4 seventh and your Pro V is bouncing along the black lava rocks. The space is further confined by some still young trees lining parts of the fairway. Once those grow, the lava surely won't be the only gripe producer.
"Black Rock is a tough course," said Jesse Barns, one local who embraces the challenge. "You might not think it's going to be that difficult, but once you get out there you realize it. That lava can play with people's minds."
That lava needs a good press agent.
Sunbrook Golf Club is the perfect course to play first on a St. George trip, offering a quick get-to-know-you on the area's various golf terrain options. There are some striking touches, from the natural red clay bunkers on Woodbridge to the much discussed lava on Black Rock. This is a good place to get yourself ready for the challenges that are to come. It is difficult enough to hold the average bogey golfer's interest, without being difficult enough to cause much consternation. It is essentially St. George Golf 101.
For a city-owned complex, it is fantastic shape, especially Woodbridge's greens. A lot of care goes into these courses and it is shows in the attitude of longtime employees like 15-year Sunbrook head pro Reed McArthur. They do not have the staff here to lug your bags to and from your car or clean your club heads, but they do have the friendly, laid-back approach to make your round a pleasure. There are no stern-faced pros in wraparound sunglasses here.
Add in the fact the greens fee value is impossible to beat in a two-hour radius and it is hard to come up with a reason not to play it if you're committed to a trip to St. George. These three nine holers are not the kind of courses you drive two hours just to play by themselves, but they are a worthy addition to an overall trip.
The condos going up all around the course are the biggest downer, taking away from some striking scenery, particularly on Black Rock where the bulldozers are much more active than the lava. Sunbrook is a victim of progress, but everyone's so unpretentious you almost don't mind.
December 18, 2004