If you want follow the little white ball down the fairways less traveled, it will take you here.
Golf in Arizona has long been known for its tip-top conditioning and jaw-dropping views. That’s especially true in well-known bastions of the sport like Scottsdale, Phoenix and Tucson, where the best public golf has a country club-like feel to it.
Yet from cowboy towns like Wickenburg and Prescott to artisan communities such as Sedona and Tubac to river cities like Parker and Laughlin to mountain-top settings such as Rio Rico and Williams, Arizona offers a gold mine of nuggets that are not always easy to find, but invariably worth the trip.
1. Wickenburg Ranch Golf & Social Club, Wickenburg
Located on the outskirts of Wickenburg, smack dab on what once was Merv Griffith’s dude ranch, it’s hard not to “Tell The Truth” about Wickenburg Ranch. The brainchild of two amateur architects—Wendell Pickett and William Brownlee—the Ranch took seven years to build and groom to perfection. No wonder it opened to rave reviews in 2015 (Golf Digest ranked it sixth among Best New Courses). And no wonder the club was sold out for its first 100 straight days. “The Price is Right,” too, as you will pay about half what it costs in Scottsdale for a similar round. Plus, it’s good stuff right from the get-go, as Wickenburg Ranch boasts a panoramic practice range with big-time views, an amenity that earned it the honor of being the No. 3 most interesting range in America in a recent poll by golf.com.
The club, which plans to go private in the near future, currently has no restaurant. Solid in-town choices include the Spurs and Horseshoe cafes, but you’ll find the best cuisine in Wickenburg at the other golf course, Los Caballeros. Same with lodging, as nobody does it better than Los Caballeros.
2. Sedona Golf Resort, Oak Creek
Golf on the red rocks doesn’t get any better than this, which is why the best shot you might take on your next Arizona golf vacation will come with your iPhone at Sedona Golf Resort. This Gary Panks-designed links plays gracefully up and then down the mountain with views that are to die for in every direction. In fact, you won’t get any better “ohs and ah’s” on a Pink Jeep Tour. The best of the bunch is the 200-yard, par-3 10th hole, where several iconic landmarks come into play including Cathedral Rock. Just be sure and save a half-hour for the 19th hole and yet a final gawk at Bell Rock out its mammoth picture window.
Oh, yes, Sedona Golf Resort is not really in Sedona; it’s in the wee town of Oak Creek, which is on your way into Sedona from Interstate 17. Sedona abounds in great eateries and retreats, but the Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock at the course is solid. Or relax at Los Abrigados Resort and Spa (losabrigados.com) and eat at its Steak and Sticks. The best Mexican fare—although you’ll wait an hour to get in—is Elote (elotecafe.com).
3. Los Caballeros Golf Club, Wickenburg
Yet another course in Wickenburg that will knock your golf socks off, Los Caballeros is—believe it or not!—the former site of another dude ranch that moved into the golf arena with aplomb. Arizona architects Greg Nash and Jeff Hardin were just young apprentices with a heavy influence from their master, Red Lawrence, when they built this incredible roller coaster of a golf course under the nearby landmark known as Vulture’s Peak. Lawrence, nicknamed “the Desert Fox” for his earlier efforts at fabled Desert Forest, taught his pupils well. Certainly you will never forget the 598-yard, par-5 13th hole that takes you over three distinct hilltops on your way to the green. It’s a backbreaker of a hole that will certainly get the vultures swirling! Plus, play at Los Cab, stay at Los Cab. Rancho de los Caballeros (ranchodeloscaballeros.com; 800-684-5030) is fabulous right down to the home-style service
4. OakCreek Country Club, Oak Creek
Located in the little suburb of Sedona with the same name, OakCreek CC is the work of celebrated architect Robert Trent Jones and his son, Junior. Who designed the front nine and who designed the back has always been up for debate, although the elongated tee boxes, dogleg fairways and elevated, well-bunkered greens exude all of Senior’s trademarks. And the holes also reflect his “hard par or an easy bogey” approach. Not as scenic as Sedona Golf Resort, but definitely more strategic, OakCreek makes for a great one-two punch as the two layouts are within a mile of each other. The closest retreat is the Bell Rock Inn (diamondresorts.com/Bell-Rock-Inn), with Javelina Cantina and Barking Frog right in the ’hood. Hey, there is a good chance you’ll want to play this classic again.
5. Antelope Hills (North and South Courses), Prescott
The address says Prescott but Antelope Hills is out there in the hinterland near an Arizona landmark called the Granite Dells. When you do find it, the North and South courses are both “must play” opportunities that sit side by side. The North, which was built in 1956 by legendary architect Lawrence Hughes (the same guy who did Paradise Valley Country Club) is old-fashioned, tree-lined golf with small greens and ribbon-like fairways that play up and down the hills. The Gary Panks-designed South is the modern version that sports big, bluegrass fairways and greens. If you only have time to play one (what a shame!), opt for the North. Stay downtown on the square at any of the historic retreats—Grand Highland (grandhighlandhotel.com), St. Michael (stmichaelhotel.com) or the Hassayampa Inn (hassayampainn.com), which supposedly is haunted. Prescott Brewing Company (prescottbrewingcompany.com) is good for lunch, and Hassayampa’s Peacock Room is best for dinner.
6. Rio Rico Country Club, Rio Rico
Robert Trent Jones carved Rio Rico Country Club out of the Santa Cruz River Valley way back in 1971, and it remains one of the best-kept secrets in Arizona, only about 20 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border. The layout has some incredible par 3s and par 5s, and is challenging enough that PGA Tour qualifying was held there. It has undergone some hard times in recent years, condition-wise, but the RTJ’s layout is so darn good that it’s worthy of taking the gamble.
The sixth (an uphill par 3), seventh (a rambling, downhill par 5) and eighth holes (dogleg, downhill par 4 over water) are one of the best stretches of golf in all of Arizona. There are no easy pars, which is just the way Jones liked it. Best place to crash is the nearby Esplendor Resort (esplendor-resort.com), which also has an excellent dining room although most of the locals head for San Cayetano or Las Trankas de Rio Rico, the real deals in Mexican cuisine.
7. Tubac Golf Resort, Tubac
Located less than 10 miles from Rio Rico, Tubac Golf Resort is where part of the movie Tin Cup was filmed. Another course built by Red Lawrence, Tubac Golf Resort weaves its way through the mesquite groves between the Tumacacori and Santa Rita mountain ranges with a river running through it. While Lawrence did the original 18 in 1960, Arizona architect Ken Kavanaugh added nine more holes in the 21st Century. Coupled with the regal resort of the same name and the eclectic local art community of Tubac, you can spend a week down there like Kevin Costner and Cheech Marin once did. Best of all, you’re already at the place you “must stay,” as Tubac Resort’s rooms and cuisine are the best of the best, although two small cafes—Elvira’s (elvirasrestaurant.com) and Shelby’s (shelbysbistro.com)—are quite good.
8. Emerald Canyon Golf Course, Parker
Another treasure is Emerald Canyon, which runs through a series of Old West-looking canyons on the edge of the Colorado River near Parker. Guaranteed, you will never forget it. Raw and rugged with steep canyon walls and craggy cliffs, it is appropriate that Emerald Canyon sits in the shadow of the Buckskin Mountains because it can, literally, tan your hide. It’s Ricochet Rabbit-style golf where you can bounce the ball off canyon walls and still have a shot. No wonder they sell T-shirts in the pro shop that proclaim: “I Survived Emerald Canyon!” But you’ll be fine if you decide to stay and dine after your round at the nearby Bluewater Resort and Casino (bluewaterfun.com).
9. Laughlin Ranch Golf Club, Bullhead City
Just upriver from Emerald Canyon is another course that features lots of elevation; Laughlin Ranch drops over 600 feet from top to bottom. Modern-day architect David Druzisky carved out this desert oasis by conquering the ubiquitous arroyos and cliffs, not to mention the 120-degree heat that nearby Bullhead City sometimes emanates. The course’s covered bridges and rustic, ranch-style clubhouse bring everything together for a “Wild, Wild West” persona. Even though Laughlin Ranch is closer to Bullhead City, drive the 10 minutes to Laughlin across the Colorado River in Nevada, where any riverfront hotel is pretty good. Bumbleberry Flats at the Pioneer Hotel (pioneerlaughlin.com) is best for breakfast. Try Saltgrass Steak House (saltgrass.com) for dinner.
10. Elephant Rocks Golf Course, Williams
Located in the cool Ponderosa pines near the sleepy high-country town of Williams, Elephant Rocks originally resulted from the effort of 1920s railroad workers. Those first nine holes were very special, and then 75 years later, Gary Panks added nine more interesting characters to what the locals call “the Rocks.” The pristine layout sits 7,000 feet above sea level and brims with history as well as some gorgeous bentgrass greens. Adding to the lore are the namesake pachyderms—elephant-shaped rocks that guard the course’s entrance, the gift of those railroad workers from yesteryear who brought them there from all over the country. And, yes, the 19th hole sells Elephant Beer, although you’ll want to dine at either the Red Raven (redravenrestaurant.com) or Kicks on Route 66 (williamsazrestaurant.com). Should you decide to stay in Williams (and not in nearby Flagstaff or closer to the Grand Canyon), two excellent choices are the historic Grand Canyon Hotel (thegrandcanyonhotel.com) and the Sheridan House Inn (grandcanyonbedandbreakfast.com).
Bill Huffman is the editor of the Arizona Golf Insider.