Is Estancia the best desert golf course in the USA? Many think so although some mention Shadow Creek, a couple of courses near Palm Springs, Desert Forest, and Forest Highlands Canyon.
Estanica is a fabulous golf course with numerous commanding long 30-40 mile views wrapping itself around Pinnacle Peak (which has a lovely 90 minute easy hiking trail open to the public). Its eighteen holes offer variety, particularly with regards to the approach shots, and most of the holes are well above average.
Designed by Tom Fazio, with much of the work credited to Kevin Sutherland, the golf course is well routed to take advantage of its location next to Pinnacle Peak. It “feels” different than many other courses designed by Tom Fazio due to bunkers that are center-fairway, a few hidden bunkers, and some shots that are blind into pin locations.
The keys to playing Estancia begin with choosing the right tees which range from 7314 to as little as 5207. Most of the members generally play the “blue” tees at 6715 or the “copper” tees at 6336. The back nines are equally balanced in terms of difficulty and visual beauty with both sides being par 36. The course has generous fairways although many play at an angle on the dogleg holes. Because of the wider fairways, the real key to Estancia is the pin placement and the approach shot required. The greens surrounds are well-bunkered and they are deep but more importantly are the swales, tiers, and contours of the greens which can send a ball hit seemingly into the right spot more than 40 feet away. There are several banks and backstops on or bordering the green that sometimes one can take advantage of and others times it will become one’s peril. It can be either great fun or it can be maddening depending on one’s point of view regarding golf. Sometimes it can feel like it is overly done but a simple key thought to remember regarding the green is “which way is down the valley?”
I have a few complaints regarding the green surrounds. A few of the bunkers fronting the greens are so steeply banked that the ball can roll back in the bunker leaving a rescue shot requiring a downhill strike very close to the back edge of the bunker. It can be overly penal. Secondly, on the sixteenth hole on the left side if one misses just slightly in the desert there is a 5-6” straight cut of grass that is like a mini-wall and a ball struck will roll back into an area that gets wedged between a rock and that mini-wall. There is no where really to drop it or place it despite a local rule saying one can move it one scorecard away. It is a bit odd that is allowed to happen.
As to the course there are many noticeable holes. It begins with a downhill par 4 that the long hitters can nearly drive despite its length of 459/409 (I will reference the back (gold) tees and blue tees only). It is a slight dogleg left with a bunker pinching into the fairway to a green that is banked on the left side. Balls hit into the green too firmly can release off the back and continue down a slope over the cart path into the desert. It is a gentle but clever opening hole.
The second is a short 389/359 severe dogleg left where the fairway slopes left to right so the tee shot must be aimed inside the three bunkers on the left. There is a hidden bunker on the right side of the fairway as it runs out. The green is well defended with three bunkers of which the two on the left catch a lot of balls to that pin placement. There are a couple of spines in this green and it is very quick going at a putt back down the valley. From the elevated tee this begins the nice long views from the course.
The third hole is a par 3 of 240/206 and I think the weakest on the course despite the bunkering all down the left side and a single deep bunker on the right. This is one of the few holes where one can land short and run the ball onto the green that is sloped uphill away from you and a very tricky one to read given the spines and bowl in it. It has a nice view from the tee but visually is not exciting. This is a much better hole from the gold tees.
Four is a short par 5 of 504/491 that plays as a dogleg right with the only water on the front nine as a pond on the tee shot that should not be in play.
The wind is often left to right which can bring the pond into play if the wind switches slightly to be in your face. Yet there is ample room on the left side of the fairway. Bigger hitters will easily reach the green in two. One should try to come into the green from the center/right for the approach shot to have a full look at the green where the left side can be hidden by a fronting bunker. There is a large valley on the right that makes it difficult to get to a back right pin position but it is still a preferred side versus the left side. Once again there are large mounds defining the slopes and a down valley putt is very quick. It is a nice hole.
The fifth increases the challenge as a longer par 4 of 478/434 from an elevated tees with bunkers on either side of the fairway and a green that is well bunkered on the left with deep and wide bunkers. The green has a strong tilt to the right down the valley and is a sort of semi-punchbowl feel to it.. After the tee shot, the first comfort station is here filled with all sorts of snacks and drinks. This is another good golf hole.
Six is my favorite on the front side, a sharp uphill dogleg right that the brave hitter will take on as much carry to shorten the distance. However, I found that simply playing to the middle of the fairway to avoid the bunker on the corner is the safer play. For the longer hitter they will have to avoid the bunker in the center of the fairway. The green is one of the best ones on the golf course as it well protected with bunkers, has a back-stop, all sorts of swales and tiers. Placing one’s approach shot close is paramount as a two putt is no guarantee. One can look up on the hole and see the many hikers on the trail. On a calm day you will definitely hear the hikers talking.
Climbing to the seventh hole, a longer par 3 of 174/170 you have another great long view. I pointed out to my host the pond on the fourth hole that looks like it is a water-hole for an oasis in the desert as it looks far away even though it is only two holes ago. The hole has a nasty fall-off area on the left side. The green is banked right to left and one has to have courage to flight their ball as close as possible to the right-side bunker or even over it to the back-stop behind to get a ball close depending on the pin position. It is another good hole.
Eight is a strong driving hole playing from an elevated tee on a sharp dogleg right. A tee shot can bounce through the fairway or into the two bunkers on the left at the bottom of the hill. The approach shot usually needs to be as far right as possible, but avoiding the bunker on the right, as the green is sloped right to left and front to back. It is a very clever green and one that is easily under-estimated as to pace and break. This is another hole where one can roll their approach shot onto the green.
The front nine ends with a longer par 5 of 571/535 that doglegs right. It might appear the best shot is to cut the dogleg on the second shot yet that does not necessarily buy one the best angle to the green which is merely to play to the center of the fairway leaving one a mid to short iron into the green. One could argue this is the best green complex on the course with fronting bunkers, tiers, swales, mounds, and back-stops. If the pin is back left, one cannot come into the green from the left side even if one uses the back stop as the speed coming off the back stop could potentially take a ball all the way off the green some 75 feet from back to front. Even a sidehill putt will have a break in it from two feet. It is the second-best hole on the front nine.
Ten kicks off with a straight uphill par 4 of 341/325. The green is elevated above you leaving a blind shot usually requiring two-three clubs more. You must hit the long, skinny green fronted by two deep bunkers to a green that is sharply tilted at the back half. I do not think that highly of the hole, yet it is unique to the golf course. My host likes it a lot but opinion seems to be mixed.
Eleven is the prettiest hole on the golf course as a short par 3 of 137/133 that can play a club longer or more depending on the wind to the uphill green nestled between rocks. It is a visually exciting hole and my favorite par 3 on the golf course.
One can walk through an opening in the rock formation to get to the back tee of twelve. Even if one is not playing the back tee they should still do the walk to see the outstanding view from the twelfth tee, my favorite view on the golf course. This longer par 4 of 459/398 playing from an elevated tee is another dogleg right where it appears the line is to hug the right side of the fairway but the real line is right down the middle as the right side can both require a blind shot as well as the green is sharply sloped right to left. There are bunkers on the right side of the green that will have to be flown to the right side pin. It is nearly an impossible shot and one should not get too greedy. This is another speedy down valley green. It is one of my favorite holes on the back nine.
The thirteenth is a par 4 of 411/392 playing straight up the valley so it requires one-two more clubs into the green which has large fronting bunkers. For me this is one of the more difficult holes on the golf course when the wind is in your face as one has to carry those bunkers to a large green. The green has spines and swales in it. It is a challenging, but fair hole although the fronting bunkers need to be re-shaped at their bottoms.
Fourteen is a long par five of 631/567 where the elevated tee requires a tee shot preferably left or center as the right side can lead to a blind second. This is the second hole with water on it, although this time it is at the left side of the green. The bunker on the left is shaped such that a ball landing in it can release all the way into the water. The green is long and has little hollows and tiers in it. It is another nice hole although I think the ninth is the more challenging par 5. One can stop at another comfort station.
Fifteen is an uphill long par 4 of 453/414 and is the other hole where the approach shot can be played short to roll onto the green which is very heavily sloped and contoured. It is perhaps the third-best green on the golf course as only the front to middle right side of the green has little break in it. I like this hole.
The final par 3 is 195/173 and typically plays a club longer despite it appearing to be downhill. Bunkers left and right provide difficulty to a green that is sharply banked all sorts of ways. The safe shot goes for the center of the green. A shot hit to the left generally ends up in a three putt. Missing the green on the left is an almost certain bogey. This is hole where that rough edge of 5-6” should be cut inside a bit at the rock to allow a chance for recovery.
You pass the comfort stations one final time to get to seventeen which is a par 5 of 584/528 that plays as a sharp dogleg left. It also plays shorter than the yardage as the second shot will find the steep downhill and gain another 30-60 yards depending on the type of shot one hits. The green is a large kidney shape with a deep fronting bunker on the right. It is nearly impossible to get a shot close to the pin if you miss the green on the hill to the left. It is another well shaped green. Longer hitters have a chance to reach this in two shots even from the gold tee.
The finishing hole is a long par 4 of 462/418 with a final view of Pinnacle Peak from the elevated tee to this slight dogleg left. Bunkers push into the fairway creating more of a dogleg. The green is one of the more heavily contoured greens with a large swale on the left side that goes deeper than one thinks. The green is sloped back to front and left and right and is very quick. It is an outstanding green on which to finish a very fine golf course.
I have played most of the better courses in the desert but still have a few yet to go. This is certainly in the top three and perhaps is the top one in the USA. The elevation changes are amazing as well as the green complexes. If you do not have a good short game or a good caddie, one can have a high score here. But given those views and the comfort station, why should you care? This is a course that is provides the appropriate mix of delight and challenge. Is it Tom Fazio’s best work? I still believe Wade Hampton and Congaree are better but certainly an argument could be made for Estancia. I also believe it should be a strong consideration for a top 100 course in the USA.
Date: March 08, 2020