What’s most distinctive about desert golf is the way the vistas can inspire the eye and mind, while the course beats your game to a bloody pulp, especially when shots stray more than 12 inches off of a fairway. Rough? It ain’t just taller and thicker grass in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert around Scottsdale, Fountain Hills and Fort McDowell. Here, rough means gravel, sand, rocks, spiny cactus that will shoot needles at anyone stepping too close to its root system, and bushes that botanists have named unplayabilis lieus.
However, one of the best public courses in the area provides vistas stretching 50 miles, seductive elevation changes, enchanting natural box canyons, washes that cross fairways, and yet is a pleasure to play. Designed by Scott Miller, an architect with a penchant for creating delightful courses, Eagle Mountain is most certainly a desert-style layout. But unlike several other nearby courses, it very seldom makes players stand on a tee box and contemplate a 200 yard forced carry over a wasteland that’s a known habitat of venomous snakes.
A par 71 with four sets of tees that range from 5,065 to 6,800 yards, Eagle Mountain features rather wide fairways, many of which are funnel-shaped and feed slight off-line shots back down to level playing ground. The course starts out softy, with a par five that’s downhill all the way, and reachable in two for those who hit it long. The second hole has that mounding that directs tees shots to the middle of the fairway. But on this green is where one starts running into the defenses Miller built into the course, a double tiered putting surface that is fast, steep and tricky as Richard Nixon.
Some of the greens, in fact, have three tiers, explains Eagle Mountain pro Derek Nannen, and several have ridges and significant slopes. “The course is very generous off the tee, but with the way Scott Miller designed it, you’ve got more to deal with on the greens, says Nannen. “So as you work from tee to green, you go from easy to hard.”
On a number of holes the greens are set against hillsides, which enables a player to go long, knowing the ball will roll back to the pin. The first time we played the course in the early 2000s, I didn’t know enough to take advantage of this feature. But when we played again during the 2006 and 2009 Xona Resort Suites Scottsdale Media Golf Classic, I knew precisely where I should try to go and where I should not. The tenth, for example, is one of only two on the course with a water hazard. A 535-yard par five from the tips, it offers a wide and danger free landing area off the tee. Stay to the right on your second shot, so that you avoid the lake on the left and have a spot from which to play a high approach shot that comes in over a cluster of bunkers on the left front of the green. High is important, as a thin boring approach the rolls will go off the green and into water.
The 18th is almost a reverse image of ten, except that it’s a par four and most of the lake on the right has bunkers separating the fairway from the water. It’s downhill all the way and this tee is the highest vantage point on the course. If you happen to be here near dusk when the light changes, the hills – – like many others in this part of Arizona – – change colors from brown to red in dramatic fashion. But back to golf: Stay to the left on the closing hole and again, come in high and soft and favor the left side of the green, which has a hill to feed bailouts back to safety.
While many of Eagle Mountain’s fairways are flanked by houses, most are in the appealing Southwestern desert style, and nearly all are offset far enough from the course as to not be distracting. While one can go miss fairways, the roughage in this desert is simply not as menacing or as non-negotiable as at many other Arizona courses. To borrow a riff from the Grateful Dead, any friend in the desert is a friend of mine.
Back in 2006, one rating organization ranked Eagle Mountain as the top public golf course in the state. A quick look at websites where golfers leave feedback confirms that players are effusive with compliments for the course, and aren’t much inclined to offer criticism. “This is one of those courses that really grows on you,” says my friend Wayne Freedman. “The first time around you might not appreciate it, but the next time around it’s pretty clear you’re on a quality course that’s also a good deal.”
Indeed, as with many courses in the region, rates vary greatly depending on the time of year, the day of the week, whether you book in advance, walk up or schedule ahead as a foursome. At times you’ll pay as much as $195 for an Eagle Mountain round, and in other circumstances as low as $56, which is a downright remarkable bargain given the excellent grooming that goes along with the challenging and yet manageable architecture.