Scottsdale is quite a golfing Mecca with more than 30 clubs and an even greater number of golf courses located around the city (Desert Mountain has five 18-hole private layouts) so Whisper Rock is just one of many top end tracks vying for attention around The West’s Most Western Town.
Not that the owners of the development here are involved in a recruitment drive for members as they have already achieved their quota of invitees prepared to part with the six-figure joining fee. For the lucky 300 or so who can afford the membership cheque – and they include a couple of dozen professionals – their investment buys them into a couple of the most spectacular courses constructed in recent years.
The Lower opened for play in 2001 and it was the first foray into golf course design for Phil Mickelson. Owner Gregg Tryhus teamed Lefty up with Dallas-based architect Gary Stephenson to turn a boulder-strewn area in the Sonoran Desert into a very special golf venue. Incredibly, they would produce 43 different routings for the course before deciding on the one that would best fit the landscape.
Like Tom Fazio’s Upper course which appeared in 2005, the fairways on the Lower are very forgiving – once the tee shot has overcome the forced carry from many of the tees – and that concession to accuracy obviously keeps down the number of balls lost in the adjacent scrubland. Where it gets a lot tighter though is around the green sites as many of these are deep and narrow with waste areas and sand bunkers in close proximity. Here, golfers are encouraged to emulate the short game skills of the course’s debut designer in order to score well.
The finest club in the Scottsdale area for male golfers is Whisper Rock. While there are three clubs with a superior golf course, Whisper Rock is unparalleled in the area for having two very good golf courses. Desert Mountain has the benefit of seven courses, multiple practice areas and clubhouses, but none of the courses approach the quality of the two at Whisper Rock.
As to which course is better at Whisper Rock, the Upper is the slightly better course. Yet the Lower is more fun to play and the more enjoyable experience. The Lower is a bit below the Upper on both challenge and strategy yet I think the green complexes, particularly the use of fall-offs and short grass results in a higher level of interest on the Lower. In sum, the Upper course is more of a test to the green while the Lower is more of a test at the green. This is not to suggest that the Upper has weak greens or green surrounds, as they are good, but the Lower’s are better.
There are no outstanding holes on the Lower but there are also no holes that one will not enjoy. When you step on a tee and look at the hole before you, you feel excited to play it. In particular I liked the fifth, tenth and fifteenth as well as the par 5’s.
It seemed to me that the par 3’s were the least interesting holes on the course, but I would want a third look at the course to make that determination. The first three from the tees the members most likely play are of similar length, with the final one, the seventeenth playing the shortest at approximately 150 yards. They are visually not quite as interesting at the green complex as most of the other holes. Again, they are above average holes, just not quite as compelling as most of the rest of the course.
The fairways are generally wide but do blend it well with the desert surroundings. There is a minimal use of trees for defensive purposes.
The strength of the course are those run-off areas into short grass and fall-offs that can stop a shot from going onto the front of a green or making a ball go into a green side bunker. Once on the green I did not find the undulations and slopes too difficult to read or manage, but the course was still in the period of over-seeding and I am certain the greens are more treacherous when faster. Phil Mickelson and Gary Stephenson certainly focused their attention on the greens where a deft short game can recovery errant approach shots.
The members are blessed here with two very fine courses. As for me if I were a member, I would likely balance them 50-50.
That's good of you, Mark; evening out the genders 50-50 at any club is an admirable goal for any club...especially the ever progressive Whisper Rock.
The thing about Whisper Rock, from the minute you get onto the property, is that this is a player's club. Whisper Rock is front and center on catering to people who both love the game and have the capacity to play it do a fairly good level. The club is littered with tour professionals and frankly the club championship at Whisper Rock is akin to playing a regular tour event elsewhere.
The Phil Mickelson / Gary Stephenson design is not the usual desert type layout one experiences in the greater Scottsdale area. The sight lines off the tee are very challenging. One has to be very sure on what specific line you wish to play when starting from any tee -- especially for the par-4 holes. If one has doubt -- and it's quite easy to have such a fluttering feeling in one's stomach -- then the Lower Course will clearly have the mental edge during one's round. Being able to marry length and shaping of one's ball flight can reap huge dividends when playing. I'd venture to say that those who play the course the first time will certainly do better with a second time around given the knowledge of where holes go and how much of a side to favor.
The grandeur of the Lower is tied mainly in its desire to remain part and parcel a vintage desert experience. Too many others in the wider locale have completely pushed aside the native desert intersection and have them become simple bystanders to the time spent playing. There's no suffocating encroachment at the Lower but any hint of indecision and faulty execution will be dealt with -- quickly and severely as it should.
The most impressive element of the Lower deals with the various greensites and the perplexing puzzles they consistently provide. No doubt the Mickelson presence helped in providing ideas on this front. At the Lower the key -- at all times -- is don't short side yourself. Recoveries around the greens here require a deft touch at all times and those who are cavalier in executing approaches will need to account for their haphazard efforts.
One can easily make a very strong case that Whisper Rock is at the top in the USA as a 36-hole facility. And that includes the likes of such stalwarts as Winged Foot and Baltusrol. The lone knock on Whisper Rock comes from the degree of demands placed on those who may not be low handicap types. There's some justification but often those using that line of argument have played from tee boxes ill-suited for their handicaps.
The Lower Course is grand stuff -- plenty of key decisions have to be made on the tee boxes and you can't mail in it with one's approach play. When you think you've hit your stride in playing well -- head to the Lower Course. In four hours you'll find out if what you thought about your game is confirmed.
by M. James Ward
When it comes to 36 hole clubs in the USA at the top of the mountain, Mr. Ward has apparently forgotten about Monterey Peninsula CC.
Appreciate your feedback. If you read my review carefully -- I said "one can make a very strong case" that WR is the finest 36-hole facility in the USA. That doesn't mean it's a slam dunk given the competition that exists with the likes of Winged Foot, Baltusrol and your mentioning of Monterey Peninsula CC which is also spot on and was inadvertently left off by me.
I have been to each of the aforementioned including the recent updating of Winged Foot West and Baltusrol Lower by Gil Hanse. The Shore and Dunes are also exceptional, and, for a number of people, the Monterey-based courses may occupy the top spot for them.
One of the issues that might be in play for many people is gaining access to WR. For others the issues may boil down to what kind of setting one prefers. The competition is especially keen and makes for a fine 37th hole discussion.