Shea Homes and BlueStar Resort & Golf are at it again, this time with Wickenburg Ranch Golf & Social Club. BlueStar is the specialty division within (or subsidiary of) Shea Homes. BlueStar “provides services to a portfolio of golf experiences… from Orlando to Oahu.” In Arizona alone, BlueStar manages Trilogy Golf Club at Vistancia in Peoria, Verde River Golf & Social Club in Rio Verde, Encanterra Country Club in San Tan Valley, Mesa Country Club in Mesa, Trilogy Golf Club at Power Ranch in Gilbert and now Wickenburg Ranch Golf & Social Club.
When one of my former classmates asked me if I wanted to play in a two-person scramble as part of the Wasted Away in Bunkerville tournament series organized by Bunker to Bunker THE Golf Show, I wasn’t so sure. When he told me it was at Wickenburg Ranch, I couldn’t help but consider it. I had heard stories about the Ranch. Most of the courses I’ve reviewed lately have had a long, storied history. Wickenburg Ranch is different in that it’s a little more than a year old.
Since debuting in the heart of the Sonoran Desert in February of 2015, Wickenburg Ranch is already getting noticed. Golf Digest named it one of the “Top 10 Best New Courses in North America” (No. 6) and one of the “Best New Courses in the U.S.” (No. 4). Colorado Avid Golfer ranked it No. 1 among “Arizona’s Top 10 Hidden Golf Treasures,” and it’s never gotten less than a five-star review on golfadvisor.com. It’s really, really good.
The town of Wickenburg derives its name from that of prospector Henry Wickenburg, who during the gold rush of the 1800s spotted Vulture Mountain and struck the richest gold vein in the state. Wickenburg’s strike ignited an economic boom. A prospector theme is evident from the rusted iron and adobe buildings down to the yardage book and the scorecard, which looks like an old, leather-bound booklet. The course was designed and built by amateur architects William Brownlee and Wendell Pickett and took seven years to complete. You could argue that Brownlee and Pickett hit the mother lode with their first-ever collaboration!
The course plays 7,059 yards from the Black Tees to a Par of 71, a course rating of 72.4, and a slope of 139. Because it was a tournament, we played from the 2nd set of White Tees (6,002 yards). On many of the holes, there are two sets of White Tees and two sets of Red Tees. Why you wouldn’t just pick different colors for all the tees is beyond me, but it’s confusing. Here are some of the highlights of the round:
Holes Worth Writing Home About
Wickenburg Ranch is in pristine shape, and when I say pristine, I mean not a blade of grass is out of place. There were no divots out on the course that I could see. In fact, you’d almost be surprised to know that the golf course was even open for business. You can hardly tell that golf is even being played out here. Other than Augusta National, I’ve never played a course in better condition.
All of the fairways, fringes, and greens are bentgrass. If you live in Arizona, you know that bentgrass anywhere in the southern part of the state is a real rarity because of the heat and the cost of maintaining it. The only other course that grows bentgrass in the Phoenix area is Quintero Golf Club in Peoria, and it’s good too. In fact, I would call Wickenburg Ranch a little wider version of Quintero, a Quintero North if you will. It’s definitely not as tight.
About the only bermudagrass that I could see was in the grass surrounding all of the bunkers, which makes for a nice contrast. In the winter, you can just imagine how the dormant, yellowing bermuda looks up against the deep forest green of the bentgrass. All of the tee boxes were large, perfectly square, flat, and tightly mowed. The grass on all the fairways goes right up to the edge of the desert and is perfectly manicured.
All of the holes have names, but my favorite hole on the front side is Gutz. The Par 4 6th hole measures 343 yards from the Black Tees and plays over a pond to an elevated green. As long as you clear the water, rest assured there’s a saving bunker that will keep your ball from rolling back into the pond. It’s a great risk/reward hole in that you can go for the green or you can hit a long iron or fairway wood into the fairway on the left. There are bunkers waiting to collect any shots that run through the fairway, and a greenside bunker short and left if you come up a little short on your approach.
The best hole on the back nine, and the course’s signature hole is long, downhill Par 3 appropriately named Big Water. It’s plays 246 yards from the Black Tees and sits high above the valley below. The wind has to come into play on this hole more often than not. From the tee, it’s a really awkward visual. There’s a huge bunker short that butts right up to the edge of a massive lake. There’s about three inches of concrete edging that keeps the bunker from falling off into the water. To keep the lake from overflowing into the bunker, the water level is controlled by a series of retention water falls nearby, and the green is held in place by a beautiful stone wall.
If the pin is in the middle or even the front left of the green, it’s not too bad of a hole. But when it’s tucked back right over the bunker, it’s a very intimidating tee shot. If you play your shot just right, you can take advantage of the slope than runs down the back right portion of the complex. It will feed your ball right down to the hole once it gets rolling.
The only other thing I will say about Wickenburg Ranch is beware the Par 5s. There are five of them – three on the front and two on the back – and all of them are potentially reachable. With the exception of the 9th hole, Big Hill (No. 14, Yikes, has water you have to navigate on the left side), all of them have junk short of the green.
Usually, it’s just a dry wash or some native grass that you can play out of, but you’re just as likely to find your ball in a bush or right next to a rock, which can make for an impossible recovery. Because the greens are elevated, the mounds will reject any ball that comes up short of the green and kick it back into the desert landscape down below.
I really don’t have a problem with it. My beef is with the 18th hole, Last Chance. At the end of the fairway, there’s a large collection bunker that’s hidden from view by a large mound. Last chance? More like dirty trick if you ask me! About a foot past that bunker, there’s a rock wall and yet another wash that cuts diagonally across the fairway. Again, you can’t see any of this from the fairway, only the green when you look back to where you just played from.
When you’re standing on the 15th tee, be sure to take a peek over to your left. There you’ll see a lit short course (with wiring for speakers throughout) under construction. Every hole has three tee boxes because they’re going to take a pounding with all of the wedge shots. The course is really cool-looking. What a great idea!
If you did nothing but practice out at Wickenburg Ranch, it would still be worth your time and money. All of the range balls are Titleist NXT Tour Ss and there’s a large, kidney-shaped putting green on your way to the first tee that will really have you scratching your head. That’s how fast and undulating this green is. There are more than enough hole locations to accommodate a crowd.
Now through May 30th, you can play the course for $115, which includes a Travis Mathew golf polo ($90 without the shirt). The course is closed from May 31st through June 9th for summer aeration. Adding to the exclusivity of the place is the fact that there are fewer than 35 tees times per day and none later than 1:36p.
There’s a lot of dirt being moved around out here. The clubhouse is still under construction, but there are roads and homes being built left and right. Even on a Sunday, you could hear hammers striking nails in between golf shots.
When you check in at the temporary golf shop, be sure to check out the day’s course conditions. There you’ll find everything from the daily temperature to the speed of the greens. On this day, they were rolling an 11, which was in the “fast” category. Boy were they good. A member of the staff will shuttle you from there down to the driving range.
Here’s something I’ve never seen before: black-roofed golf carts. All of the carts were a dark, almost smoke gray, the color of iron ore.
This time I get a little credit for the best shot of the day. It didn’t come without a little help from my partner. We had about 12 feet left for birdie, and because we were below the hole, we could be a little more aggressive. What I didn’t see was all the break. I had to play the ball way outside left and let it work back. When I hit the putt, I knew I had hit it pure, but it looked like it was going to slide by just to the left. As it slowed up next to the hole, the ball appeared to wobble right, caught the left edge, and trickled in. Thank you gravity.
While We’re Young
We teed off a little after ten o’clock and didn’t get back until around 3:00p! That means it took us five hours to play a course that should take no more than 4:20 (according to the pace of play chart in every cart), which is also incredibly slow considering the scramble format and the yardage we were playing. We were playing a pure scramble, pick-up after bogey, all desert areas played as a lateral hazard format from the 2nd set of white tees measuring a little over 6,000 yards. The group two groups ahead of us was more than a hole behind. How does that happen? Ridiculous! If we went back and played, we could get around in 3:30 or less… easily.