Two of the Best Courses in the Valley of the Sun

By: Steve Habel

There's little that compares to teeing it up in the Valley of the Sun, the huge area that encompasses Phoenix and its surrounding bedroom (and golf-obsessed) communities. This is desert golf (read: target golf) at its finest, but among the more than 100 courses in the region, some stand out, either for the land they occupy, their design, or - in the case of The Boulders and SunRidge Canyon - both.

Rosie the Rock on No. 7 at Boulders' South

The Boulders is set in Carefree in the far northeast corner of the Valley, while SunRidge Canyon lies in Fountain Hills on the eastern slopes of the mountains that divide that city from Scottsdale. Both courses are renowned for their routing through challenging terrain. But it's the quality of the overall experience that brings golfers back.

Early winter is the time of year - with snow covering the ground in most of the nation or rain in places where the temperatures are warm enough for golf - when the call of the desert is loudest. Getting in 18 holes (or more) on green grass and in a short-sleeved shirt or light sweater is a guilty pleasure in Arizona, and there are no finer courses to slake that yearning than The Boulders and SunRidge Canyon.

Between a Rock & a Hard Place at The Boulders' South Course

The combination of golf and related amenities at The Boulders Resort is second to none, beginning with its location amid granite rocks and, yes, boulders. The venue's eponymous rock formations and massive stones are the result of the cataclysmic geological upheaval of more than 12 million years ago that also led to the creation of the Grand Canyon.

A Feature at Boulders South is Undulating Greens

Part of the world-renowned Waldorf Astoria collection, The Boulders Resort is an intriguing combination of untamed desert and stylish luxury. Here the adobe villas and luxury homes are tucked within ancient boulders and sprawl across the resort's 1,300 acres on Arizona's Sonoran Desert. The Boulders is also the home to two Jay Morrish-designed golf courses - the North and the South; either might likely be the best desert track you will ever play.

North is longer and a bit more forgiving than the newer South, while South gets the most kudos, mainly because of its movement through, and on top of, the aforementioned rocks. From the opening hole on South, boulders enter play and are never far from consideration.

Par-71 South, which opened in 1983, is just 6,726 yards from its back set of five tees, but that's enough to produce a healthy rating of 71.9 and 140 Slope. It's manicured and rolling fairways venture off sculpted tee boxes to flawless bentgrass putting surfaces with compact green surrounds. There is plentiful bunkering, and the surrounding mountains, saguaro cacti, indigenous brush and desert wildflowers create postcard panoramas.

South has more than 70 bunkers near fairway landing zones or at greenside. Water enters play on four holes: about 90 yards short of the green on the 409-yard par-4 fourth; off the tee and right of the fairway at the 355-yard par-4 sixth; behind the green on the 221-yard par-3 10th; and, most menacingly, to the right of the green on the 514-yard par-5 finisher. (For a description of North, see

The 5th Hole at The Boulders' South Course

There are also elevated tees and some precipitous drops. Desert carries are frequent but reasonable in length; in fact, all four par-3s involve tee shots over landscaped desert areas.

From the tee on No. 1 - a 447-yard par-4 - the rocks consume the players' thoughts. Here, if you hit a drive too far down the left side of the fairway, you'll be blocked by a boulder.

The most talked-about hole on South is the 545-yard, par-5 fifth, where the drive is played off a box cut into the side of the giant boulder outcropping adjacent to the resort's main building. The player's drive actually flies over the driveway that leads to the reception area and down to the fairway before ascending to a green ringed on three sides by rocks as high as 200 feet above the putting surface.

Perhaps giving the fifth a run for its money in notoriety is the 187-yard par-3 seventh. Near the elevated tee rests "Rosie," a seven-story-high boulder that seems as if it's ready to roll down the hill with the merest of shoves. It reminds golfers of the cartoon boulders seen on the old Roadrunner cartoons; the ones that always seem to flatten the hapless Coyote.

Many other formations don't enter play, but all of them make one feel small, given their sheer size and that they've been here for eons. With these rocks acting as sentinels, the course provides a great test, demanding accuracy off the tee, precise shots to large and wavy greens and, once home, prowess with the flat stick.

The back nine sports a 3-3-3 routing of par-3s, -4s and -5s and includes two Morrish trademarks: the long, but narrow par-5 and a drivable par-4. The former is represented by the 601-yard 11th, which moves left to right to a pinched landing area and then goes uphill to a putting surface guarded all four sides by sand. The latter is found on the 321-yard 12th, where the desert encroaches along the right and the green is the smallest of any of the course's two-shot holes.

The Boulders has garnered Golf Magazine's "Platinum Medal," as well as recognition as one of Golf Digest's "Top 25 U.S. Resorts" and Links Magazine's "Top Five - Best of the West." There is no place on Earth like The Boulders; expect your world to be rocked as much as your golf at this resort.

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Mountains are a Key Feature at SunRidge Canyon

Up & Down the Canyons at Fountain Hills

Located about 20 minutes east of Phoenix, SunRidge Canyon has staked a claim as one of the Valley's top daily-fee facilities. Playing on the rolling, often-narrow course allows players to use every club in the bag and proves worthy of the accolades.

The Keith Foster-designed 6,823-yard, par-71 gem winds in and out of the ridges and canyons at the foothills of the McDowell Mountains on land widely considered one of the Southwest's most picturesque and dramatic stretches of natural terra firma. It carries a rating of 72.6 and a slope of 142 from its back set of five tees.

Views of Red Mountain, Four Peaks and the Superstitions are in the near distance. The course gradually descends to the canyon floor before doubling back to climb the slope on the way in. This subtle elevation change lies at the heart of the golf experience at SunRidge Canyon and allows golfers to see how Foster was able to utilize the land's natural contours while taking advantage of canyons formed over millions of years by wind-blown sand and water erosion.

The Well-Protected 18th Green at SunRidge Canyon

The fairways are narrow, and the desert - full of cacti, brush, boulders and wildflowers - creeps close to the fairways at many points. Danger also lurks among the arroyos, sand and grass bunkers, and an unforgiving desert wash woven through the inward nine. The course asks players to avoid its four man-made lakes, one of which sports a 19-foot-high waterfall.

SunRidge Canyon is an in-your-face experience and asks a lot, especially when nearing greens. Its fairway and green-side bunkers are positioned to force golfers to consider risks and the rewards and proper club selection as trouble lurks around every corner.

The desert and nearby mountains are always on display, and carries over desert areas are frequent from the back tees, though most are quite short. Sizable landing areas are the rule rather than the exception.

The layout at SunRidge Canyon unfolds slowly and increases in drama as the round unfolds. The closing holes present remarkable panoramas as the fairways meander into box canyons and over and around arroyos en route to greens defined by ages-old stands of mesquite, ironwood and Palo trees.

SunRidge Canyon

The last half-dozen holes are as fine a closing stretch as found anywhere. Collectively called the "Wicked Six" for their difficult climb up the canyon and the powerful wind that normally blows into golfers, the finish will have players on their heels, but happy for the experience.

The six-pack features a pair of uphill par-5s (the 578-yard 13th and the 533-yard 16th), two demanding two-shotters (the 457-yard 15th and the 432-yard closing hole, where the approach plays straight uphill, with considerable bunkering around the green), and two all-or-nothing par-3s, the toughest of which is the 209-yard 17th - a beast that starts at a wind-swept elevated tee and is almost all carry over a canyon to an extremely undulating green.

Foster's layout is true to his minimalist philosophy as it gently leads you down into the natural canyons before bringing you back up and out on the back.

SunRidge Canyon Golf Club was selected No. 42 on Golf Magazine's list of "The Top 100 Courses You Can Play in the United States," and has been ranked as high as No. 26 on Golf Digest's list of the top public courses in the U.S.

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Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's world correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports, covers the Longhorns for CBS Sports, is regional editor for Texas Golfer magazine and files stories for Golf Oklahoma magazine, Texas Links magazines and Golfers Guide. Habel's main blog ( features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another ( his many travels, on which he has played more than 350 golf courses since 2009. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.