Hidden Gems — 10 March 2013 by Jim Street
Hidden Gem: Golf Club of Estrella

GOODYEAR, Az. — The nine-mile drive on Estrella Parkway from I-10 to the scenic Golf Club of Estrella takes you up a little hill, through some desert terrain, past some businesses and finally to one terrific golf course.

This is the utmost when it comes to destination golf.

As golferswest.com continues its two-year-old pursuit of playing some of the finest courses in the western region of the country, I had the pleasure of chasing a little white ball around the 13-year-old course designed by Jackie Nicklaus, the eldest son of the legendary Jack Nicklaus.

Jackie did his father proud with this 7,139 par-72 gem of a layout.

The landing areas are wide enough so that even a slightly errant tee ball will find green grass, rather than brown desert. There are numerous bunkers with this amazing magnetic ability to attract a golf ball, and the pin placements on this day made the players use their noggins when firing at the pins.

Wide-open spaces emerge after tee-shot

That 7,139 yardage is from the tips. Being a close-20-handicap golfer, and playing with similar players, three of us, me, Rick and retired Air Force Colonel Bob, wisely decided to play the jade tees, giving us 6,249 yards to navigate through the desert. Bob wife, LaDonna played the forward tees, giving her a 5,124 yard course.

The view from tee to fairway can be daunting, as evidenced by this picture (right) on the 366-yard, par 4 second hole.

The key: Tee it high and let it fly!

“It’s a true desert layout,” said Trevor Finton, the head golf professional. “You will find a lot of the characteristics of a Nicklaus-designed course: many deep-faced bunkers, well-placed bunkers, and the fairways actually are a lot wider than they might look from the tee.”

The Golf Club of Estrella, which opened in February 1999, has been part of the renowned Troon Golf management family since 2002. Finton has been the head pro there since ’05 and his best round — from the championship (black)  tees no less — is a 5 under 67.

The weather was dead-solid perfect on this Wednesday afternoon. The sun was out from start to finish, reaching the 83-degree mark by mid-afternoon.

Water comes in to play on the fifth and sixth holes and I was forunate to stay dry on both of them. Rick wasn’t so fortunate.

From left, Bob, LaDonna and Rick

Any golf course off the beaten path, such as this one, needs to make a good first impression.

“When people leave here after playing a round, we want them to go away feeling the course is in great shape and the staff was extremely friendly,” Finton said. “We’re not in Scottsdale and I think it’s very worth while to take that 45-minute drive.”

For one thing, the green fees are lower.

Whereas a high-end course in Scottsdale would cost close to $150 at this time of year, you can play The Golf Club of Estrella for as little as $85. The club currently is running a special where you can play 27 holes, have lunch, and get a dozen Titleist ProV1 balls for $125. The special is in its fifth year “and we get calls as early as November and December asking us if we’re having it again,” Finton said.

You might even run into some Major League Baseball players. The Indians and Reds share a spring training facility in Goodyear and the complex is less than five miles away from the golf course. On off days, many of the ballplayers will tee it up, as will players from the White Sox, Dodgers and Mariners.

Jason Vargas, a left-handed pitcher acquired by the Angels from the Mariners this past off-season, has a home in the planned community and is a passholder at the course.

Our round was featured by two birdies. Rick, who is visiting from Western Canada, birdied the 505-yard eighth hole while I birdied No. 18, hitting a 142-yard 8-iron within a foot of the hole.

A tap-in birdie at No. 18

Oscar, a young employee watching the action from a golf cart, said he has worked at the course for three years and never seen a better shot.

Of course, his comment could have something to do with the friendly staff that works there — including Tony the marshal, who kept the pace of play as fast as possible. He felt so bad that we kept getting held up by the Molasses foursome in front of us that Tony arranged for us to get a post-round beverage on the house.

The birdie removed all the agony remaining from No. 17, the course’s signature hole — a par 3, 168 yard slightly uphill gem, although that is not the word I used when my lousy tee shot went about 75 yards into the cactus and gravel short of the green. Four shots later, my scuffed ball finally went into the cup.

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Jim Street

Jim’s 40-year sportswriting career started with the San Jose Mercury-News in 1970 and ended on a full-time basis on October 31, 2010 following a 10-year stint with MLB.com. He grew up in Dorris, Calif., several long drives from the nearest golf course. His first tee shot was a week before being inducted into the Army in 1968. Upon his return from Vietnam, where he was a war correspondent for the 9th Infantry Division, Jim took up golf semi-seriously while working for the Mercury-News and covered numerous tournaments, including the U.S. Open in 1982, when Tom Watson made the shot of his life on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach. Jim also covered several Bing Crosby Pro-Am tournaments, the women’s U.S. Open, and other golfing events in the San Francisco area. He has a 17-handicap, never had a hole-in-one, although once he came within two inches of an ace, and witnessed the first round Ken Griffey Jr. ever played – at Arizona State during Spring Training in 1990. Pebble Beach Golf Links, the Kapalua Plantation Course, Pinehurst No. 2, Spyglass Hill, Winged Foot, Torrey Pines, Medinah, Chambers Bay, North Berwick in Scotland, and Princeville are among the courses he has had the pleasure of playing. Hitting the ball down the middle of the fairway is not a strong part of Jim’s game, but he is known (in his own mind) as the best putter not on tour. Most of Jim’s writing career was spent covering Major League baseball, a tenure that started with the Oakland Athletics, who won 101 games in 1971, and ended with the Seattle Mariners, who lost 101 games in 2010. Symmetry is a wonderful thing. He currently lives in Seattle and vacations in Arizona (and other warm climates) as much as possible.

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