Going for the Green at Arizona’s Rio Verde Country Club

Thirty-six holes of redesigned golf and an energetic, civic-minded membership make for one sustainable community.

One more spin around the sun and I’ll qualify for “active adult” living. Will I soon find myself humming that silly jingle from The Villages commercial? Probably not, but I’d be whistling a different tune if The Verdes—specifically Rio Verde—had one. About 150 Coloradans currently live there at least part-time, and having recently visited, I completely understand why they do.

“AN OASIS”

Although it’s a 45-minute drive from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport and Fashion Square, you can’t beat the location. The oldest of The Verdes developments, Rio Verde occupies 735 acres of stunning desert terrain eight miles north of Fountain Hills.  

Protected lands encircle it. Directly east spread the 2.9 million acres of Tonto National Forest, a pine-studded hiker’s paradise that includes Four Peaks Wilderness and large parts of the Superstition and Mazatzal Mountain ranges. Adjacent to the west is the 21,000-acre recreation mecca of McDowell Mountain Regional Park. The groves of pecan trees on Rio Verde’s southern border belong to the 24,000-acre Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. The other Verdes developments—the gated Tonto Verde and recently rebranded Trilogy at Verde River—lie directly north. 

“It’s an oasis that’s protected,” says Rio Verde Community Association president Gary Holcomb, who arrived with his wife Michelle 13 years ago. “Development will never encroach.”

MIDWESTERN VALUES

With no present or future development possible, Rio Verde also remains an anomaly among private golf communities in that no gates or security booth bar the entrance. “We’ve never felt the need for gates,” Holcomb’s wife, Michelle, says during a tour of the neighborhood. “They send the wrong message about who we are.”

Who are they? Although Rio Verde counts highly accomplished individuals among its residents, they are not the types to ask, “Do you know who I am?” when demanding a table at a crowded restaurant.

“There’s an unwritten rule here that you don’t talk about what you did,” members Helen Heele and Ann Lewis—Coloradans both—explain over coffee in Rio Verde’s 27,000-square-foot clubhouse. “We have very Midwestern values. The members all prefer the staff to call them by their first names. It’s very easygoing and welcoming.”

Rio Verde owes its Midwestern openness and informality directly to the group of Minnesota businessmen—Ken Glaser, John Mooty, Rudy Luther and Ray King—who developed it as a snowbird community in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They, their wives and friends cultivated the membership. Friends would invite friends, and enfold them into the community. John and Jane Mooty, for example, would host weeklong tours of folks from Minnesota, Wisconsin and other Midwest locations. They would have new members over for dinner when they arrived.

“I’ve met more people in two months here than I did in 15 years at Colorado Springs Country Club,” says retired software executive Kelly Lipp, who learned about Rio Verde through the Private Club Network—a reciprocal-play affiliation comprised of approximately 200 clubs (including 12 in Colorado).

“Less than six months after we arrived, I attended a town hall meeting,” Gary Holcomb remembers. “I counted 93 people I already knew on a first-name basis.”

The easy familiarity extends to the Rio Verde staff. “They have your drink in front of you before you order it,” says Iowan Elisa Verhille, who moved in with her father at Rio Verde five years ago. She tells me this over a perfectly portioned Chicken Scallopine served by Jane, who has worked there 13 years and has a son named Christian. “A lot of the members went to his high-school basketball games,” Verhille says.

ACTIVE ADULTS

Far from just spectators, Rio Verde members stay active on the property’s six tennis courts, two pickleball courts, bocce pitch and swimming pool. The community center houses an art studio, library, fitness studio and a state-of-the-art gym. Kirsten Sundahl directs a full slate of fitness classes including strength training, body sculpting, water and chair aerobics, yoga, Zumba, tai chi and dancing.

Mountain and road biking are natural draws, and hiking the tangle of trails in the surrounding wilderness rates as the most popular activity. “I love walking in the desert,” says Nancy Werner, a retired economist and banker who recently climbed to the base camp at Mount Everest. “The only reason I like golf is because I can walk.”

GOLF AND MORE

Far from flat, both Rio Verde courses—White Wing and Quail Run—are eminently walkable. Both are tree-lined parkland layouts, not target-golf desert tracks, and both underwent major renovations by Tom Lehman in 2007 and 2008.

I play White Wing first with Lipp, Holcomb and Jake Leinenkugel, the retired brewing magnate behind the popular Summer Shandy—as well as the Snowdrift Vanilla Porter I would down at the 19th hole.

Measuring 6,535 yards, the course plays tough, with grabby Bermuda in the rough, deep, grass-faced bunkers and tight lies on the mounds surrounding the ample, breaking greens.

Putts become more decipherable when you learn they break towards the Four Peaks and not away from the mountain as they traditionally do in Colorado. Even with that knowledge, the back nine presents more challenge than the front, starting with the uphill par-5 10th and continuing through some treacherous water holes and a pair of testy par 3s on 14 and 16.

“The par 3s are as tough as those at Pine Valley and Pinehurst,” says Holcomb, a 4, from beneath the brim of a cap bearing the logo of the venerable New Jersey club. “I honestly enjoy playing here as much as the nicest course I’ve played.” 

The following day, Head PGA Professional Darryl Janisse joins Werner, member Patti Rogers and me on Quail Run. Janisse recently celebrated his 22-year anniversary with the club, which, given his boyish mien, means he must have started while in middle school. 

I’m suddenly reminded of what Lipp told me a day earlier: “When I guess people’s age here, I’m always off by 10 years. If I think a guy’s 60, he’s usually 70. This place keeps you young. We had a member’s 100th birthday party the other day. Hazel Peterson. She’s amazing. She still drives!”

No matter their age, 55 percent of Rio Verde’s 460 country club members prefer Quail Run to White Wing, perhaps because the greens have less movement. Quail’s narrow, meandering fairways (Rogers, who lives off the first green, finds Srixon “Easter eggs” in her yard every morning) lead to fringed greens surrounded by rough. Sand extends to the top of the faces of bunkers that drop deeper than those on White Wing.  

Adding to the charm of Quail Run are the far-forward tees on holes 10-18 that create the 1,350- yard par-3 RoadRunner nine.

Small wonder, then, that Ranking Arizona rated Rio Verde 2015’s #1 Active Adult Community and #1 Private Golf Course in Arizona. The club also won the Arizona Women’s Golf Association’s GEM (Golf Endorsed by Members) Award in 2013, 2014 and 2015.  

TOURNAMENT TESTED

In 2011, the year after Lehman completed his renovation, Quail Run hosted the 22nd National Amputee Tournament, and this February both courses will welcome players from the 17 top NCAA Division II women’s college golf teams as they compete in the 13th Annual Rio Verde Invitational hosted by Western Michigan University.

Showing their reputation for hospitality, residents and club members open their homes to the players, their parents and coaches. “For a week Rio Verde is young again,” says Michelle Holcomb. “They’re bubbly, talented young girls. We’ve hosted the same girl three years in a row.”

Receptions and parties take place at the clubhouse and at the property’s Box Bar Ranch, a working ranch on the Verde River that regularly stages member cookouts and also serves as base camp for the horses of members in the Rio Verde Saddle Club.

Even more impressive than staging Rio Verde Invitational is the manner in which the “retirement” community retired the debt for the $6 million in renovations to the courses.

In 2010, in the midst of the Recession, instead of assessing members and paying crippling interest, the board instituted a “Patron Program,” in which members and non-members voluntarily contributed anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 in exchange for seven years of as much as $1,400 per year in prepaid club credits towards everything but member dues.

By the end of the campaign, thanks to the generosity of 140 Patrons and other residents, the bank note went up in flames at a celebration on the driving range.

“I was so impressed that people put their money where their mouth was,” says Nancy Werner. “It just speaks volumes about the incredible community spirit and the love of the club.”

COMMUNITY AND SUSTAINABILITY

Rio Verde’s many other activities speak volumes about the community’s values.

During the last 19 years, the club has built 20 Habitat for Humanity homes in the Phoenix area without a dime of corporate sponsorship. A Rio Verde Santa annually provides presents for underprivileged local children on Christmas Eve.

More than three tons of the grapefruit, oranges and other citrus that grows in residents’ yards get donated to local Food Banks. There’s also VerdeCares, a trained volunteer service that provides area residents non-medical companion care, resource assistance (driving to appointments, picking up prescriptions), educational programs and professional support forums.

Environmentally, the club installed solar panels on the community center, resulting in annual savings of more than 250,000 kWh and $28,000. It restored to desert 15 acres of turf on the golf courses, and created a native-plant landscaping palette for the club and community. The club also conducts regular seminars on living green, and it recently diminished greatly its energy consumption by converting to all-LED lighting in and around the clubhouse.

For these and other continued efforts in long-term sustainability, Rio Verde became the first Audubon International Certified Sustainable Community west of the Mississippi River, and only the fifth in the country. “Our focus on preservation, conservation and sustainability will certainly benefit our current residents as well as those who will follow in their footsteps,” Gary Holcomb (below, far left) said upon receiving the award on behalf of the Community Association.

The 980 homes in the Rio Verde development range in price from $250,000 to well over $1 million, with the average home occupying 2,500 square feet and costing $450,000. The comfortable one in which I stayed is part of the Discovery Package, which costs $500 to $750 per couple for a four-night stay, includes a round of golf on each course, lunch at the clubhouse and a realtor tour.

Like its residents and golf courses, Rio Verde’s real estate doesn’t look its age. The 40-year-old development’s homes are cheery, offer ample outdoor living spaces and upgraded floor plans, finishes and appliances.

Approximately half the residents are members of the country club, though all homeowners have social-member privileges. New homeowners have 90 days from time of purchase to join the country club without paying the $25,000 initiation. Monthly golf dues run $700 and association dues are $3,200 per year. 

“It’s not uncommon for people to buy three or four houses in Rio Verde,” Michelle Holcomb says as we tour a home for sale. “They upsize, they downsize. We call it the Rio Verde Shuffle.”

I may not be chronologically or financially ready to shuffle into Rio Verde, but the golf is fabulous, and its friendly, energetic, community-minded and green values certainly align with mine. Good neighbors don’t need gates.

Jon Rizzi is the editor of Colorado AvidGolfer. For more on Rio Verde Country Club and community, visit rioverdearizona.com or call 877-746-8373.

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Colorado AvidGolfer is the state’s leading resource for golf and the lifestyle that surrounds it. It publishes eight issues annually and proudly delivers daily content via www.coloradoavidgolfer.com.

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