The Desert Mountain Club, located less than an hour’s drive north of Scottsdale in the foothills of the Apache and Lone Mountains, is one of the biggest and best golf and residential developments in the United States.
The first 18-hole layout at Desert Mountain opened in 1987 and, when the Chiricahua course debuted twelve years later, it became the fifth Nicklaus-designed track to be laid out by the Golden Bear and his associate Phil Smith within an absolutely massive 8,000-acre property.
Routed over the hillier sections of the estate, a number of dramatic elevation changes have been integrated into the design and, as a consequence, eight of the holes play downhill and nine play uphill – overall the fairways rise and fall more than 600 feet during a round.The toughest hole on the card is undoubtedly the 482-yard 10th, where the green sits above a dry wash, but the most memorable hole may well be the 159-yard 14th, inspired by Riviera’s 6th hole, which George C. Thomas Jnr. designed with a bunker in the middle of the green.
I had wanted to play the Chiricahua course at Desert Mountain for about fifteen years. Designed by Jack Nicklaus, it has usually been considered to be the best of the seven courses at this massive residential gol course community. This course is on the highest ground of the golf courses and known for its near 100 mile views. I also knew that it is the one course at Desert Mountain that would be a difficult walk. Indeed, to get to the first tee from the clubhouse it’s itself a tough walk, both long, first up then down a steep hill.
My only comparison would be the Geronimo course, which I did like although it is not a great course. The Geronimo course reminded me of a fine golf course at a high end resort hotel.
My overall assessment is that I prefer the Geronimo course although the views at Chiricahua are exceptional despite the intrusiveness on several holes where there seems to be denser housing. The reasons are primarily due to three reasons. First, Chiricahua is often too hilly which diminishes the quality of the holes. The most extreme example is the short second playing slightly uphill followed by a a steep rise of a completely blind approach shot. Second, the greens are one dimensional with basically no inner movement as the contours are typically a slope, devoid of the use of tiers, knobs, plateaus, mounds and depressions. Third, there is a lack of interesting green surrounds as it is either a green side bunker or a small, smooth fall-off.
There are several holes I liked. The downhill par 5 third is longest on the course at 656 yards playing as a dogleg right downhill where one dares to cut the corner to get increased distance. If you do not make it you are in the desert. The green sits on higher ground after a sizable wash with the green’s left side protected by what looks like a string of bunkers except it is only one long bunker. The short par 3 eighth plays over the desert to one of the more tilted greens. The long ninth has a good placement of bunkers.
On the back nine, the par 3 twelfth plays to a slightly uphill green wrapped around a bunker with an internal bunker. The par 3 fourteenth has another internal bunker plus the rare higher second tier on its left/back half.
Yet there are no world class or truly memorable holes. The course has six holes where the green is separated by a wash/arroyo. Although others might favor these holes, other than the third, these were the holes I favored the least. These are the first, fourth, tenth, thirteenth and seventeenth. They just seemed redundant even if their settings are different.
The views are outstanding from Chiricahua. You see one mountain range with another one behind it, then another mountain range, then another. I think I counted six that I could see even though the day was slightly hazy. As to the course, I favor Geronimo as the green complexes are more interesting and the routing is on land more suited for a golf course.
I've never been the biggest fan of desert golf due to the penal nature of missing the fairway. Chirc is a really cool place with awesome views being the highest course on the property, but its hard to enjoy when you're hitting balls into 10,000ft crevices. I don't think I can give the most unbiased review until the driver straightens out, and since I tore the ST Joint in my back on the ninth tee, so I only saw the back nine from the cart. The front nine that I actually played had some unique features, including the tee shot on three and the downhill second on the first. The second is one of the goofiest holes I've ever seen and I think I'd like it more had I not seen "287" on the scorecard thinking I could easily get there, not realizing its straight up the mountain. However, it's a cool drive and pitch hole.
I have been visiting the Valley of the Sun area for over 30+ years and one of my favorite places to play is Desert Mountain Golf Club -- a truly magnificent facility that includes no less than six (6) courses at one location all by the same designer -- Jack Nicklaus.
The architecture varies considerably -- and leading the way with its total cumulative efforts is the Chiricahua Course. The course is pushed up alongside some of the most demanding and beautiful terrain at Desert Mountain.
The starting series of holes is especially well done. The first is a long par-4 that slides gently downhill as a dog-leg right. Bunkers protect the inside portion of the hole and must be respected. There's ample fairway and strong players can leave themselves a short approach to a green isolated in a circular area of native desert. Be sure to avoid the frontal right bunker when the pin is cut tight to that side.
Nicklaus is not especially noted for outstanding short par-4's but the 2nd at Chiricahua is superlative. You face an uphill shot on the 287-yard par-4 that cuts off with a native desert area that angles in at roughly 240 yards -- two bunkers guard the right side for those thinking on avoiding the danger on the left. For those intent on going for the green the back portion of the fairway narrows considerably. Being straight is a prerequisite because the pinching in of desert on both sides can certainly impact the reckless play. The putting surface is especially sloped from back-to-front. Just a fun hole that comes early in the round and can play a huge role on how the rest of your round proceeds.
At the long par-5 3rd you have to decide how much of the right side do you wish to flirt with off the tee as the hole keeps moving in that direction -- ultimately ending with a green on its own separate island of grass and sand. Just a first rate transition hole from the 2nd and followed-up with a solid par-4 at the 4th highlighted by a center-placed fairway bunker that's well-positioned and ends with a well done contoured green.
The rest of the front nine features a diverse range of holes but is a bit less than the quality quartet of holes you get at the start.
Things change noticeable with the inward nine.
The 10th is one of the best holes in the entire area. A long par-4 of 482 yards that moves slightly downhill. The key is getting the tee shot as close to the right side for the easier angle into a green placed on the other side of a desert wash and is both elevated and appropriately contoured. Just when you conclude the 10th you face another quality par-4 at the 11th. The tee shot is even more testing -- a solitary bunker hugs the favored right side but if you overcook your tee shot to the left it's possible your ball can scamper into native desert area that is closer than you might imagine.
The par-3 12th provides a good change of pace hole. The green quite narrow -- especially on the more difficult right side.
When you start the final six hole stretch you gradually ascend in elevation. The 13th is a mid-length par-4 with a quality green that's fiercely protected on the right side by a bunker. The par-3 14th pays homage to the 6th green at Riviera with a center-placed bunker on the green. Given the length of the hole -- just 159 yards - the inclusion works well.
Two of the final four holes are par-5's and each is done quite well. Scoring opportunities are present -- but neither of the holes simply surrenders without a fight. The 15th features two fairways -- separated by a desert wash area. A smartly placed fairway bunker which is roughly 75 yards short of the green is to be avoided at all costs. The 16th is a fairly basic par-4 and likely the weakest of the group on the back nine.
At the par-5 17th you climb uphill -- a series of bunkers forms a diagonal threat for the tee shot. The green is placed on the opposite side over another desert wash area. The decision is up to the player -- attempting to go for the green requires a well-played shot that factors in the elevation rise.
The concluding hole is well done - climbing slightly uphill and turning right in the drive zone. You have to determine how aggressive a line of play you wish to execute. The green is also contoured nicely so being in the right spot is crucial to avoid an ending three-putt.
Chiricahua is both fair and challenging. The issue for many desert courses is how to include the natural beauty of the desert without being excessively penal in the tee game. There's sufficient width when playing the course so no one need walk single file down a fairway. Nicklaus did well in learning from his earlier designs at Desert Mountain. Playability is present but those opting to play Chiricahua had best have some game because indifferent play is never going to be treated with kid gloves.
The most impressive element of Chiricahua is that while homes certainly line the fairways they are placed far enough away so players can enjoy the setting. Clearly, it helps when you have home sites which are quite large and avoid being clustered with much higher density.
The setting is what adds to the experience when playing the course. Best of all, Chiricahua is at a higher elevation than many of the courses in the greater Scottsdale area and the general high temperatures are somewhat mitigated when there. Desert golf is not everyone's favorite setting but the crafting of the holes, along with a quality routing, makes Chiricahua quite special and for those who can gain access will be a time well spent.
by M. James Ward