Whisper Rock Golf Club is tucked away in the north Scottsdale desert. This private members facility is accessed via the guard-gated entrance to a residential community which just so happens to have two fine golf courses in their collection.
The Lower course (2001) was the first course to open on the Whisper Rock property and it was also the first course designed by Phil Mickelson. The second course, the Upper, was fashioned by Tom Fazio in 2005 and is the centrepiece of Whisper Rock. Billed as “the Pine Valley of the southwest”, the 7,118-yard Upper course certainly has a label to live up to and, while it will never be Pine Valley, Whisper Rock is about as good as desert golf gets.
Key to scoring well and maintaining a prickle free round is to keep the ball in play as rough desert and spiky cacti surround most holes. Once you have negotiated the forced carries, there’s plenty of generous fairway width to play with. Where the Upper course asks questions is at the approach shot which often requires pinpoint accuracy in order to avoid the desert and find the playing surfaces. It’s better to be in a greenside bunker than in the Arizona scrub with the cacti and lizards!
Membership to Whisper Rock is by invitation only and there are only around 300 members and 20 of these are golf professionals including tour pros Phil Mickelson (who clearly enjoys playing on his own creation), Tim Herron and Billy Mayfair. Apparently the average handicap at Whisper Rock Golf Club is a very respectable 8.
At probably the best club in the greater Phoenix/Scottsdale area, there is a debate as to whether the Upper or the Lower course is better at Whisper Rock. The Upper course offers more change in terrain, better views, and the more dramatic tee shots. While the Upper course has some difficult greens and surrounds, many of the members say that the Lower course is superior in these two areas.
Designed by Tom Fazio the Upper at Whisper Rock is a gem to play, offering a reasonable chance of getting to most of the greens. The challenge comes on and around the greens as they are tricky in spots. Knowledge of the greens is important at the Upper course, although even more so on the Lower.
I had played both courses before but on this trip only had time for the Upper course. I do think the Upper is slightly better than the Lower course, but if a member said he had it the other way around, I would understand it. Having two courses of this caliber puts Whisper Rock in the top five in the USA of private clubs with two courses, obviously behind Winged Foot and Baltusrol.
Both courses are kept in superb condition and both require straight tee shots as well as a very good short game, otherwise it will likely result in high scores. The Upper course features four very good par 5’s and a good design in the number of doglegs.
The Upper course does not have any holes that are as good as the best holes on some nearby courses, but most of them are very solid. Some might mention the eighteenth as one of the best in the area as it is the best hole on the Upper course.
It is a very playable golf course but if you find the desert it will be a 50-50 proposition as to whether you can advance the ball significantly towards the hole The fairways have appropriate width to them and there are some holes with preferred lines to the green, but more often as long as you avoid a fairway bunker you will have a good look into the green. Going off the fairway can often result in being blocked by a tree or cacti, possibly a small native plant. The bunkering is good both in placement, shape, and number. I did not see any bunkers I questioned as to whether there were irrelevant nor did I see any bunkers that were too penal. Mr. Fazio usually is good with his bunkers on his designs and he did well on the Upper.
The only reason the course is not ranked higher in Arizona is because it does not have as much change in elevation as some other courses, with only a few holes in the higher ground. It does not have as many “heroic” shots as some other courses and there is a less asked here in regards to decisions/strategy. However, as mentioned, the greens and their surrounds would hold their own to nearly every top-ranked course in the area.
From the Rock tees the course is a whopping 7550 yards, par 72, rated 75.2/144. The Championship tees are 7230 yards rated 73.8/140. The member tees are 6809 yards, rated 71.3/134. There are two sets of lesser tees. We picked up the separate scorecard for the combination tees at 6493 yards, rated 70.1/128. I will list the Rock/Member/combo tees for yardages.
1 Par 4 – 449/416/358. The Upper kicks off with a dogleg left with an inner bunker and two outer bunkers squeezing the size of the fairway. There is a small central bunker about 100 yards from the green placed on the right. The green offers two bunkers on the left with the green angled left consistent with the dogleg. The green is tilted with a small false front but is very quick. One immediately realizes they are going to play a good set of greens. It is a nice starting hole.
2 Par 4 – 412/374. The hole offers a broad fairway but there are three bunkers on the left and two down the right for those trying to play to one side. About 30 yards from the green on the left is a long bunker. The green is narrow and tilted a bit right which is similar to the shape of the hole. The green has a defined false front and a significant back to front tilt and side tilt. You do not want to go over this green. The first green is good and this one is even better.
3 Par 3 – 210/188. This hole features a front right bunker and a left side bunker to a green angled to the left. I did not find much unique about the hole but it is another challenging green surface.
4 Par 4 – 394/356. This is a fun, snaky double dogleg where one wants to challenge the left side of the fairway to get a better angle to the green and avoid the right side bunker and trees. The green sits as a fish hook tucked back to the right behind a central bunker and a right side bunker. I liked the shape of the hole and the green where that right side bunker eats into the green. There is also a small left side middle bunker that catches a lot of balls that will run-off into it.
5 Par 5 – 581/546. This is a nice par 5 angled to the left before coming back to the right. There are two long bunkers on the right side along with scattered trees. Trees also come in from the left so a center tee shot is exactly the correct line. More trees await one up on the right opposite two bunkers on the left. Another center-line bunker is placed 20 yards short of the green. The green has a comma shaped bunker to its right with the ground sloped to have balls land there if they do not reach the green. There is another bunker at the rear. The green has fall-offs and some inner movement. It is a strong par 5.
6 Par 4 – 487/441/410. This is another good hole, rated the hardest on the front nine not due to its length but more so due to the green surface. The tee shot offers a wide fairway but bigger hitters will want to avoid the bunker on the left. The fairway pinches a bit but widens at the green where a bunker is placed on the left about 15 yards short of the green along with a right side bunker. There is a stand of trees along the left side of the green. The green has a lot of breaks in multiple directions.
7 Par 4 – 411/372. This hole has five perfectly placed bunkers with one on the right. The fairway bends a bit to the right with two left side bunkers becoming more central. The green sits off to the right with a front bunker and a left side bunker that makes the green a bit “lima bean” shaped.
8 Par 3 – 250/208/187. The most difficult par 3 on the course both due to its length as well as the green angled away from you to the left similar to a redan. There is a single right side bunker and two bunkers on the left that block the access to the green.
9 Par 5 – 608/537/509. The outer nine ends on a hole that is another double dogleg, first going right before coming back to the left. Bigger hitters will have to be very precise to navigate the two bunkers left and one on the right that cut the size of the fairway to less than half. The approach shot will need to play out to the right to avoid two left bunkers and to get an angle to the green that is a tucked away to the left. The green has a bunker right and two on the left with the right side bunker being the more difficult given the tilt of the green. It is hard to say which par 5 on the outer nine is better as both are very good.
10 Par 4 – 479/437/410. Mr. Fazio incorporates a lot of doglegs into many of his designs and that is the case on the Upper course. The back nine kicks off with a hole that bends to the left with a right side bunker more in reach than the left side bunker which is angled to cut the fairway width by two-thirds. The green has a bunker left and one at the back right. This is listed as the second hardest hole on the back nine more from those back tees although the raised green adds to the difficulty.
11 Par 3 – 179/164. You play over a wash/waste area that finishes with a three fingered bunker fronting a green angled left to right. Trees go down the right side with a single one on the left. Although this hole seems simple, it will bite you if you hit a poor tee shot which I did as I had my ball end up dead against the trunk of the tree on the left. The green is raised slightly but with fall-offs at the edges.
12 Par 5 – 603/552/515. After we played this hole, I remarked to our host that the par 5’s are terrific. Mr. Fazio again utilizes a slight bend to the right for this hole which climbs slightly uphill. There is a large bunker left that should be easily avoided. The problem is going to the right where trees and a bunker farther up block the line for the second shot. The second shot should climb a slight rise but needs to avoid a “c” shaped bunker on the left that cuts into half of the fairway about 90 yards from the green. The green is an island green as there is very little fairway left before it. Trees surround the green but there are no bunkers. It is a really fun hole requiring precision.
13 Par 4 – 322/297. You finally arrive at the holes that give the Upper course its name versus the Lower. From an elevated tee you hit downhill to a green that is placed at the bottom of a rock hill. It is a lovely view. The fairway is fairly wide and one can swing almost any club they want. There is a slight tilt to the fairway to the left and balls hit down the right can disappear from view depending on the tee location. The green has two bunkers about 75 yards short on the left and a long one on the right beginning about 40 yards short of the green. There is a final bunker on the left. Longer hitters might have a go at this green but those bunkers and the rear rock wall are strong deterrents. For average length players, it should be a good chance for birdie.
14 Par 3 – 169/150. Playing again from an elevated tee across a valley on high ground, one wants to come in from the right side of the green given its tilt to the left. Anything hit short of the green has a chance of falling back down the hill as much as 30 yards leaving a blind recovery shot. The green is long and angled to the left with a long and deep left side bunker and a smaller right side bunker. There is another bunker placed at the rear. This is easily the visually most appealing par 3 on the course and likely the second most photographed hole on the course. The green is excellent.
15 Par 4 – 512/440/410. Playing from the final elevated tee as you work your way back to flatter ground, this hole is another slight dogleg to the left but with the green placed and angled to the right. The inner corner fairway bunker protects the preferred line to the green. This is rated the number one index on the inner nine but mainly from the Rock tee.
16 Par 5 – 561/500. The final par 5 is another strong hole, working its way back uphill adding to the length. This dogleg right has a left side fairway bunker followed by flanking bunkers. Those trying to reach the green in two will need to avoid the three bunkers beginning 70 yards short of the green on the right followed by flanking bunkers on the corners of the green. The “nastiest” bunker is the rear one which is small and one has to face a green running away from you if you are in it.
17 Par 4 – 422/399. Mr. Fazio uses bunkers more here than many of his other courses to shrink the fairway for the longer hitters. On this hole, the opposing bunkers cut the size of the fairway in half. There is no real reason to take them on given the green is perhaps more accessible here than on any other hole on the course. Another center bunker is used fifteen yards short of the green followed by two scattered bunkers on the right side.
18 Par 4 – 501/432/377. For the first and only time, water comes into play on the final hole where a long pond is on the right side that is angled to cut the fairway size in half. Two bunkers are placed on the left side, the second on a mound. The pond continues to the front right of the green. Those trying to play it safe will have to avoid two bunkers placed on the left. If one goes into the second of these bunkers they will be hitting to a green placed slightly above them towards the water. There is a final bunker at the rear of the green. The green feels like it should slope towards the water but it does not, it is merely a back to front slope.
Whisper Rock Upper features very good par 5’s as there is not a weak one in the bunch. The higher ground begins on the twelfth green reaching its peak on thirteen-fourteen coming back a bit on sixteen. There is a good mixture of long and short par 4’s. The green surrounds and green surfaces are excellent. My favorite feature of the course is the use of doglegs/bends and the several tucked/angled greens that make the flatter holes more compelling.
For some reason, courses in Arizona have a tough time cracking the top 100 or 200 course ratings. That always seemed puzzling to me as I think they are totally underrated. On my last trip, I had the lucky chance to play some of the nicer private tracks in Scottsdale but Whisper Rock (Upper) stood at as the best golf course I played.
It is what you would expect from a higher end club, beautiful range, great food, top notch service. What was beyond expectations was how great the course flows.
Every par 3 was a photo opportunity but where the course really stands out is on the back 9.
Holes that stood out,
9 - Par 5 that is surprisingly reachable with a good tee shot
13 - Terrific risk/reward par 4 with a very tough green
14 - Gorgeous par 3 that favours keeping the ball to the right
18 - Tough hole where water gets into your psyche
If you get the invite to "The Rock", take it immediately, you will not be disappointed.
If the Upper course at Whisper Rock stood out as the best golf course the reviewer played in N.Scottsdale, he apparently didn't play Desert Highlands!