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 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