The Golf Club at Johnson Ranch in San Tan Valley was designed by Kenny Watkins and built in 1997. Watkins is a little-known golf course architect who also designed Golf Club at Oasis in Florence (AZ) in 1999. As you might imagine, San Tan Valley is about the last place I ever expected to be teeing up my golf ball, but there’s a backstory here.
My Financial Management instructor at the Golf Academy, Michael White, is one of nine general partners who purchased the club from a Scottsdale-based company back in 2004. Early in the semester, Michael told our class that if we ever wanted to play the course, all we had to do was ask. It’s only because of scheduling conflicts that it’s taken me this long to get out here.
Scheduling… and the distance. The Golf Club at Johnson Ranch is a good 40 minutes away from south Chandler. First, you have to head south to Riggs Road before heading east onto Ellsworth Road. Ellsworth turns into Hunt Highway, which takes you to Golf Club Drive and the entrance to the golf course.
If it’s not far enough away, it’s certainly slow enough. The speed limit is only 45 mph much of the way, and once you hit Hunt Highway, a one-lane road, you’re lucky if you don’t get stuck behind a delivery truck or landscape trailer. That last two miles feels like an eternity, but once you get off the main drag, the real fun begins.
The Golf Club at Johnson Ranch has done a great job of embracing a western theme – even down to the design of its web site. The entrance sign (the featured image of this story) looks like something you would cross on your way to a dude ranch, and the JR course logo is in the shape of a cattle brand. The buildings on the property resemble a ranch-style house, something you would expect to find in the Old West back in the 1800s, not in San Tan Valley.
The smell of barbecue from a large, nearby smoker filled the air. You could almost hear the country music playing and see the people sitting around picnic tables next to fire pits enjoying their slow-smoked brisket or pulled pork later that evening. I thought the chuckwagon was an especially nice touch, and it really enhanced the atmosphere – perfect for a meal, a banquet, or even to host a wedding. When you’re here, you can’t help but feel like a bit of a cowboy. A real dude.
The course plays 7,162 yards from the Black Tees to a Par of 72, a course rating of 72.7, and a slope of 130. On this day, the winds were blowing upwards of 25 mph, which thankfully, is a pretty rare occurrence out here, and the course felt like it was playing closer to 7,400 yards. In the wind, it’s a really good test of golf. Here are some of the highlights of the round:
Holes Worth Writing Home About
The two nines out at Johnson Ranch are vastly different from one another. The front nine is the Valley nine. It’s a relatively flat, almost uninteresting 3,757 yards that meanders through the homes of the surrounding neighborhood. You might think the best hole on the front side is the 606-yard Par 5 opening hole called J.R. 600, with its mesquite tree smack dab in the middle of the fairway at around 100 yards, but if you ask me, the best hole is actually the 212-yard Par 3 3rd, All or Nothin’.
I love how all the holes out here have names, and the name for this hole is perfect. There’s a small pond, one of only two water features on the entire layout (hole No. 18 is the other), that you can barely see guarding the green from the back tees, and it definitely comes into play.
Rest assured, if your ball happens to trickle into the pond, you won’t have any trouble finding it because the water is crystal clear. You probably know by now that I hate losing golf balls.
The greens are great! They’re firm but receptive if you know what I mean, and they’re incredibly undulating. The ryegrass will begin dying off sooner rather than later, but I think the best rule of thumb is to keep the ball below the hole whenever possible. Pay close attention to the pin placement chart on your golf cart, and don’t miss the proper quadrant. If you do, you’ll be faced with even more sticky ryegrass rough around the greens. For the time being, the rough around the greens is ryegrass, while it’s Bermudagrass along the fairways.
The back nine is why people come out to play Johnson Ranch. It’s called Mountain, and boy is it ever! There are fewer homes, and on a clear day, some breathtaking views to go along with the dramatic elevation changes and mostly elevated greens. On this day, we faced a three-club wind, which made things that much more difficult.
As we were standing in the middle of No. 10 fairway, Mountain Pass, I remarked how the hole reminded me of Vistal Golf Club at the base of South Mountain in Phoenix, which is now closed. The downhill Par 3 11th, Devil’s Drop, is a “Wow” hole for its views, but the best hole is No. 15, War Bonnet. Not only do I love the name, I love the distance: 372 yards slightly uphill to an elevated green guarded by a dry wash and man-made rock wall. You can hit 3-wood off the tee for placement on this Par 4, but you don’t want to miss left. There are signs warning of a rattlesnake habitat. My buddy walked away with a three, which was a great score on a beautiful hole.
If you catch the right wind direction, the Par 4 17th is drivable, but you could easily pay the price with an awkward length bunker shot if you miss too far short.
In all my years of playing golf (almost 17 now), there’s one thing I had never experienced until I played The Golf Club at Johnson Ranch. After checking-in with the starter, we headed over to the first tee, where we were met by Betty the Greeter.
I’ve never seen a greeter at the first tee at a golf course, but Betty was another great touch! She asked if we had ever played the course, and when we said “No,” she gave us a detailed description of what we could expect, including the pin position.
Then she surprised us both by saying, “Let’s see if you’re lucky,” and proceeded to hide Johnson Ranch logo ball markers for us in a game of Pick-a-Hand. When we unsheathed our drivers and made a beeline toward the Black Tees near her starter’s podium, Betty gave our egos a little boost by saying, “No one ever tees off from back here.” We both hit pretty good drives on the long Par 5 and were off and running.
All of the golf carts at Johnson Ranch have these primitive GPS systems called ProShot Golf. How old are they? If you’re old enough to remember the green and black LED screens of the popular Nintendo Game Boy (circa 1989), then you’re in the right ballpark. On the display, there are only words and numbers, and the thing juts out of the golf cart steering column like the black box flight recorder you might expect authorities to pull from the wreckage of an airplane crash site.
We did grab hot dogs and beers at the turn. I thought it was a great beer selection for a golf course, and the hot dogs were really good for golf course hot dogs. Plump and juicy! The service was fast enough that you won’t lose your place in line at the turn.
My buddy (and classmate) Brian Walley hit the best shot of the day from just off the green at the Par 4 5th, Coyote Run. With his ball nearly resting up against a tree, he had to split his stance, play the ball back, straddle the tree, and say a little prayer. The ball came out hot, and from my vantage point just off the green, I heard him say, “Hit the pin.”
Wouldn’t you know it? It hit the pin! It also stopped inches away from the hole. Birdies are great, and on this day, we made a few, but that was a great shot and a great up-and-down for par.
While We’re Young
We teed off promptly at 11:00a and were back saddling up our horses for the long ride home exactly four hours later. Pace of play is really important to the folks out at Johnson Ranch, something I not only really appreciate but can really get behind.
There are signs posted on all the carts reading that the pace of play should be four hours and 20 minutes… max! That shouldn’t be a problem if you’re playing the appropriate tees.