Our December buddy trip has happened four years in a row so it’s now an annual thing! It’s scheduled near my friend Josh birthday. Josh has three kids so he needs the most reliable excuse to take off for a four day golf trip. The first two years we went to Bandon Dunes and while it’s an awesome place to go, in December it can be a bit of a slog. Walking 54 holes over three days with all the rain gear can be exhausting, especially if you have an affinity for expensive scotch in the evenings. So last year we went to Palm Springs where it was low 70’s. When we found out Bandon Dunes was completely sold out the weekend we were planning to go it was decided we were going to a sunny locale.
We found an Airbnb near old town Scottsdale with a three bedrooms, a podium hot tub in a gazebo, purple lounge lighting in the backyard, outdoor speakers and a pool with arc water fountains and bar seating built into the shallow end. It looked like a place we could enjoy ironically. We also made a tee time at the Phoenician resort but otherwise kept it open as to what courses we would play. On the night we arrived we went to the Wild Horse casino and ended up at a Spanish 21 table sitting next to a salesman, I’ll call him Randy, who wouldn’t stop talking. He was a good golfer, single digit he mentioned. He did a humblebrag about playing East Lake golf course in Atlanta but hated it, “Sucked,” as he put it. And then while I was getting cleaned out by some extremely hot dealer, he went on about some other ultra private course he played that I never heard of but according to him, they only allow 6 tee times a day or some really small number that was supposed to impress us. Amongst all that talking he did mention that we absolutely must play Ak-Chin Southern Dunes golf course. After we left the table, I tried to make a tee time there but they were booked up for the next three days.
The next morning, we picked up our third, our buddy Mark, at the Skyharbor airport and went straight to the Phoenician, minutes from Old Town Scottsdale. The temperature was high 60’s inching up to the low 70’s. The blue sky was brilliant against Camelback mountain and visibility was a hundred miles. The 18th green, surrounded by a lake, looked perfect. We got some pale ales and putted on the practice green, in no hurry.
Josh mentioned, ”It’s 48 and raining at Bandon right now.”
“Suckers,” I replied.
We decided to play the tips since it only goes about 6500 yards. They redesigned the course in 2018 converting the course from 27 holes to 18 holes, replacing much of the turf to make it more water efficient, tightened up the routing and remaking the greens to allow more pin placements. They also bought all new carts with leather seats and Bluetooth speakers. It’s good to see some resorts embrace music on the course. It’s a little tiring to hear “that guy” still complain about people playing music on the course. Golf is supposed to be fun and music makes things more fun! Unless it’s first thing in the morning and some white belted bro starts cranking Flo Rida on the first tee. I need to warm up to Flo Rida. On the 2nd hole I started streaming Bob Seger’s Ultimate Hits: Rock and Roll Never Forgets. It only took about 4 holes, right in the middle of “Someday Lady You’ll Accompany Me”, before Mark got annoyed and asked if I had any other shitty classic rock I could play. I opened the Sirius XM app on my phone and put on the No Shoes Radio station, just to annoy him more.
The back nine, although not as long as the front, is really where the course shines. Perched on the upslopes of Camelback mountain, you can see across the checkerboard expanse of the Valley of the Sun from almost every hole. There was also more strategy in terms of club selection from the tees with a few shortish par 4s that require actual thought about what you want to do: lay up short of traps with an eye towards having a good angle into the green or let it fly with the driver. You also need to think about where you want to miss in order to have any chance at recovery. The real drama in our round came on 16 when a series of carryovers led to Mark picking up 7 skins and 2 junk when he rolled in a 25 foot birdie putt. That totaled $9 dollars each from Josh and I that we likely would never pay.
But the signature 18th hole, a dogleg right par 5 to a peninsula green, is where I showed MY strong fiber. I teed off and what my high, cut drive didn’t have in pure ball striking it made up for in position. Except for being in some light rough and having all carry over a lake to get to the green, I was in the A position (which my playing partners mockingly made mention of anytime they could). I had about 200 yards to a tight flag placement, which for me is a perfect 3 hybrid distance. On the one hand, I could lay up and probably ensure my par but I am a fearless 50-ish white male from humble origins and I was absolutely meant to tell my story when this round was done. And that story was not going to include a part where I laid up. So I took the club back and struck the ball well and held the finish. The ball was high and slightly right of the pin, but holding the line. I may have twirled the club as I brought it down. I followed the ball intently, watching, watching as it splashed into the lake short of the green. Well, at least I was brave and fearless and those who know me know this about me.
After the round we stopped at a Circle K and bought what we thought was enough booze for the weekend. We checked into our very impressive Airbnb. The only thing missing was a cable connection to watch the Golf Channel. All TV content was streaming…so we could Netflix and chill! Instead we hot tubbed and Mark jumped in the very cold pool. He told us we could erase our debt to him if we also jumped in the very cold pool. Josh did a backflip like a 10 year old girl. I jumped in feet first like a 7 year old boy and just like that we satisfied a debt we were never going to pay.
We took an Uber to an early dinner in Old Town. We didn’t have reservations but were able to get into a place called The Second Story which had delicious food and a wonderful atmosphere, albeit too dark and romantic for a buddies golf trip dinner. I would like to point out that there are altogether too many beautiful people in Old Town Scottsdale. Six foot models can be so tiring to see over and around in a crowded bar. In order to get away from all the attractiveness we went to the aptly named Cold Beer and Cheeseburgers, where the clientele leaned more towards overweight and pasty Northern Plains and Canadian folk trying to get away from sub zero weather.
We still did not have a tee time for the next day and when we got back to the Airbnb I checked again for a tee time at Southern Dunes. There was still nothing available but when I woke up at around 6 AM the next morning (because I’m a 50-ish male and my bladder is small) I checked again and found there was an 8 AM tee time available! I locked the time in and knocked loudly on my trip mate’s bedroom doors, like Lassie alerting everyone there was a fire. “Wake up! There’s a time at Southern Dunes!” They were very appreciative although they didn’t show it immediately.
Ak-Chin Southern Dunes is a 45 minute drive south of Scottsdale, opposite of what looks like a really shitty commute for the people of the City of Maricopa going north to Phoenix. Arriving, we were greeted by the coldest weather I had experienced in the Valley of the Sun and the faint aroma of cow manure. The clubhouse looked first rate and recently built. Quite a few unsmiling golfing bros in their white belts and form fitting attire were on the range or putting greens waiting for their coveted tee times.
I got an IPA and smoked a cigarette while my playing partners ordered breakfast. And soon enough we teed off. The Fred Couples designed course is immaculate with a wonderful variety of holes. The second hole is particularly deceptive. The short par 4 looks like there is plenty of room in the fairway but the large waste bunker on the right gently swallowed my smooth cut hybrid. I then had to pick-clean a gap wedge about 95 yards to an elevated green. Which I did and made my par!
By the way, if you’re an elderly person who was sitting on the toilet by the 8th hole and a large redhead man barged in on you because “he really had to go”, I want to apologize. For some reason, elderly man who only half-latched the door, you didn’t have a golf cart and seemingly vanished into the surrounding desert, so no one [Mark] could reach out after the incident to apologize in person.
Southern Dunes was everything “Randy” had said it would be. Great shape, great design, the green complexes were wonderfully challenging with swales and dropoffs and backstops that would allow a variety of shots for the player familiar with the course. The only complaint I had is that the par 3’s were a little mundane. Usually there’s a signature par 3 that sears your memory and I’m thinking back and I can’t remember any of them. In fact it is always difficult to form an opinion about a golf course you’ve played once; it’s like watching Godfather Part 2 and grasping the whole plot and determining every character’s motivation the first time. A great golf course, like a great movie reveals more over a period of time. Sometimes it takes years before you really appreciate the nuance. A muni near where I work in San Jose, Spring Valley, is one of those courses. I never really thought much of it, not that I didn’t like it, it just didn’t wow me. But on that course there are 8 dogleg holes that really make club selection and shot placement important. It didn’t really strike me the first few times I played the course, now I consider it a hidden (and inexpensive) gem.
The next day in Phoenix we had a tee time at Gold Canyon Sidewinder course. We got paired up with a local guy, I’ll call him George because I’m a 50ish man who doesn’t remember names but he looked like a George. He told us he had company coming later so he wouldn’t be able to play all 18 but said he could join us for a bit. He asked us what tees we would be playing. I looked at the scorecard to see the yardages but Gold Canyon doesn’t provide the total yardage for the nines on their scorecards. They just show handicap guidelines for each of the tees. Apparently they don’t want people looking at the yardage and thinking they can handle the tips. I told George we would be playing the Gold tees, which were the second from the back tees. He asked our handicaps and when we told him (we range from 1 to 12) he whistled and said, “Oh boy, you really should play the tips”. We looked at each other and shrugged, “Sure.” So we were sort of shamed into playing the tips, even though we didn’t really feel like it.
The one hole where there was a big difference in yardage was the signature par 3 2nd. The tips stretch to 251 yards compared to 180 from the next tees up. The 251 yards are mostly over a lake too. It’s a beautiful hole but for some reason I don’t play well on signature holes. And this one was no exception, I hooked an easy driver left and lost a ball. On the other really good hole, the 8th , I blew my drive OB right, hit my third shot short but into the fairway. My approach hooked left and into the parking lot. I glumly sat in the cart while everyone else finished.
One other thing that was odd was they didn’t have turf seed containers on the carts. I asked George about it and he said, “Oh that’s just job security for the illegals.” “Wow,” said Josh when we were out of earshot. I guess it wasn’t surprising since we were in Arizona, which was the only state that actually rescinded the Martin Luther King holiday for a period of time in the early nineties.
I liked the front nine while the back nine was an unremarkable trek through resort housing. George quit after he played the 11th, the hole where he got his hole-in-one. This was predicted by Mark right after he told his hole-in-one story, “I’ll bet he quits after this hole.” And as we walked off the green he shook our hands and said he had to run.
On our last night in town, after dinner, we bought more booze and some Haagen Daz at the same Circle K. When we got back to the Airbnb we settled in to watch some Netflix. Somehow we ended up watching a Justin Timberlake concert. I guess it isn’t how most golf buddies trips end with everyone watching the greatest entertainer of our era on a couch with a bowl of ice cream and some whisky. But if you’re 50ish men, after three days of golfing and drinking, it was how ours ended.