What is it about travel around the holidays that makes it so challenging? Last week my travel was impacted by a fire at the Atlanta airport. This week it was mechanical problems with the aircraft. I was schedule to depart Atlanta at 10:00 on Monday morning. After arriving at the airport, I got a notification that my flight was delayed by two and one-half hours due to a late arriving aircraft. The delay was going to cause me to miss my connection in Chicago for my flight to Phoenix. To provide an opportunity to make the connection, I was rebooked on a later flight that was now scheduled to depart before my delayed flight.
I arrived in Chicago with what I thought was just minutes to spare. As soon as I turned on my phone, I got a notification informing me that my connecting flight was delayed by two and a half hours. That was eerily similar to the delay on my original flight. A little research on my United app confirmed my suspicions. The aircraft that I was originally taking from Atlanta was the same aircraft that was scheduled to fly from Chicago to Phoenix. I now needed to await its arrival from Atlanta before I could depart Chicago for Phoenix. The only thing accomplished by taking the early flight was a shift in location of my waiting. I eventually arrived in Phoenix at 6:30pm; more than three hours late.
I was concerned about the time because I had been invited by Steve, my host for The Estancia Club to attend a barbecue in Scottsdale at the home of a friend of his Bruce on the evening before our round. Steve introduced Bruce as his broker. He told me that the longer he knew Bruce, the broker he got! The barbeque gave me a chance to not only meet Bruce, but to also meet Mike and his son Matt who would be joining Steve and I for the round at Estancia. I also met Steve’s, Bruce’s, and Mike’s wives -leJean, Jeanette, and Dana. After dinner I headed to my hotel to get a good night’s sleep.
At dawn I drove through the desert along the straight and narrow roads lined with the silhouettes of the cactus and mountains. It was a cool brisk morning as I arrive at the club house for The Estancia Club. The club house reminded me of the club houses at Dallas National and The Preserve. I met Steve, Mike, and Matt in the clubhouse for a quick breakfast. As they headed to the practice range I visited the Pro Shop where I meet Ben and Dane, two of the PGA Professionals. They informed me that the Alan Surges, the Director of Golf was out on the practice range preparing for a round with Martin Louvers. I told them that l’d have to, catch him after my round. I’ve tried to meet and chat with the Head Pro at each of the courses that I’ve played during my quest to play the top 100 courses as rated by Golf Digest for 2017-18.
I joined Steve, Mike, and Matt at the driving range where I met my caddie, Stephen. Stephen was from Virginia, just south of Richmond. He played professional golf on the mini tours. He has won several tournaments. During the round, I found out that he had shot a 28 on the front nine at Estancia. This was slightly better than what Bubba Watson shot on his way to setting the course record of 58. Bubba is a member at Estancia. His pink driver that he used when winning the Masters hangs on the wall in the clubhouse.
As we stood on the tee box of the first hole, we could see the hot air balloons rising over the desert for their morning tours. The beauty of Estancia starts on the very first hole. I was very impressed with the condition of the grass on the tee box and in the fairway. It looked as green and lush as the enhanced photos you see of golf courses in advertisements in magazines. It’s rumored that the course is watered with Evian. Whatever is done, it’s done well. The course was in excellent condition.
The first hole is a 410 par four. The course measured just over 6700 yards from the blue tees with a rating of 71.2 and a slope of 137. The fairway on the first hole is very generous before narrowing at the right fairway bunker at about 140 yards from the middle of the green. There is also a fairway bunker on the left that is 70 yards from the green. The fairways on most of the holes extend to the desert landscape that is filled with cactuses, rocks and native vegetation. I understand that in the summer its also filled with snakes and various other varmints.
I hit my drive 260 yards to the middle of the fairway, which left 165 yards to a back right pin. With a strong wind behind me, I hit a seven iron right at the flag. The ball hit 10 feet short of the flag and roll past the flag and off the back of the green.
I chipped on to 15 feet past the flag. I hit my first putt much too hard and it rolled 10 feet past the hole. I missed the comeback bogey putt and tapped in for a very disappointing double bogey. I’d hit a good drive, a good approach shot, and a good chip, but putted like crap.
The second hole plays 375 yards with a fairway that starts out narrow but widens as it makes a dogleg left toward the green. There are several bunkers on the left side of the fairway and one on the right side at about 100 yards from the green. The green is protected by bunkers along its left and right sides. I hit my drive 250 yards to the left side of the fairway leaving 125 yards to the pin.
I hit my approach shot a little fat and the ball landed short of the green. I chipped on to three feet below the hole.
I made the putt for my first par of the round.
The par three 180 yard third hole has a carry over the desert landscape to a green that is protected by a bunker at about 40 yards from the front of the green, two bunkers that line the left side of the green and one bunker to the right of the green.
I hit my tee shot to the right of the right green side bunker. I then hit what I thought was a perfect high flop that just cleared the bunker and landed on the edge of the green. I was very disappointed as I watched the ball roll past the flag, not stopping until it was 20 feet away. I two putted from there for a bogey.
The fourth hole is a 490 yard par five. The hole has water on the right that extends from the tee box to just past the beginning of one of the narrowest fairways on the course. There are bunkers on the left and right sides of the fairway near the landing zone. There are also bunkers on the left and right at about 80 to 100 yards out from the green.
I hit a short drive to about 290 yard out from the middle of the green. I laid up on my second shot to 108 yards from the flag. What was interesting is while the ball was in the air Stephen said that I would be 108 yards from the back pin position. When we got to my ball on the right side of the fairway, he shot the flag with his scope and measured 107 yards. I was impressed.
I hit my sand wedge fat on my third shot. I pitched onto the green to eight feet from the hole.
I made the putt for par.
The fifth hole is a long par four playing 435 yards. The fairway starts out generous but narrows considerably at about 260 yards from the tee box. There is a long 80 yard bunker on the right side of the fairway and a much smaller one on the left side of the fairway. The green has several bunkers on the right side and impinges against the desert landscape on the left. I hit my drive 235 yards to the long fairway bunker on the right.
The ball was far enough from the lip of the bunker for me to go for the green from 200 yards out. Stephen advised against it. He recommended that I lay up with a seven iron and try to make my par with a one putt. I took his advice and hit my seven iron to 50 yards from the flag.
I then pitched on to ten feet to the right of and below the flag.
I left my par putt just short of the cup and tapped in for a bogey. While I didn’t make par, it was still the right decision to lay up out of the bunker.
As we moved on to the short par four sixth hole, Steve pointed out a plaque that recognized a club member who made a hole in one on the hole. He took a short cut over the desert landscape for a direct shot to the green.
The fairway on this 350 yard hole is shifted way to the left of the tee box, but the green is directly in line with the tee box. There are also bunkers to the right of the fairway, in line with the green.
I popped my drive up to the left side of the fairway. I then sliced my approach shot which landed 45 yards short. I pitched on to the edge of the green and three putted for a double bogey.
The seventh hole is a beautiful par three that was playing 180 yards to a back middle pin position. The first 130 yards or so is over the desert landscape which gives way to about 25 yards of fairway in front of the green. The green is protected by a massive bunker on the left and a small bunker on the right. There are also bunkers behind the green. The only safe misses on the hole are short and right of the green or long and right of the green.
My tee shot did not take advantage of the safe misses. I missed to the left and got lucky when my ball rolled into an animal hole just slightly under a bush. Stephen told me that I got a free drop from the animal hole. My ball remained in the desert landscape, but my drop gave me a better lie. My chip from the dirt landed short of the green. I chipped on and made the putt for a bogey.
The eighth tee box is elevated and offers a great view of the Valley. Estancia is built around Pinnacle Peak. The views around the entire course are breathtaking, but I liked this particular view from this tee box very much. There was a certain calmness and serenity that came from gazing over the valley. It may have been at this point that I looked at my host Steve and said that I could get used to this.
The eighth hole is a long par four and is rated as the third hardest hole on the course. It plays close to 440 yards and has a fairway that necks down to a very narrow landing area. There are two bunkers along the left side of the fairway and one on the right side of the fairway. My drive landed just right of the bunker on the right side of the fairway. This left a blind shot to the green.
My approach shot missed to the right of the green. I had short sided myself to a back right pin position.
With very little room between the pin and the edge of the green, I tried a flop shot that landed a little short of the green. I then putted to four feet and sunk the next putt for a bogey.
The front nine closes with a 535 yard par five. The fairway bends slightly from right to left, is then fairly straight but starts to narrow as it turns slightly back to the right as it approaches the green. There are left and right fairway bunkers in the landing zone and bunkers on the left side of the fairway in the layup area. The green has a small bunker on the front left and a longer one along the right side of the green. I hit my drive to the right side of the fairway.
I hit a nice lay up to about 135 yards from the pin, leaving a supposedly easy approach shot to a front right pin. From my angle the pin was tucked just behind the right green side bunker.
I aimed left of the flag to avoid taking on the bunker. I pulled the ball and it landed to the right of the green. My pitch shot landed in the bunker. I then hit a really nice sand shot that almost went in. I made the short putt for a bogey to finish the front nine of my first desert golf experience with a 45.
The back nine at Estancia opens with a short par four. As with most of the holes on this desert course, the fairway is generous, especially for a short par four. This is one of the easiest holes on the course. The fairway does narrow as it approaches the green, but for a short par four there aren’t many dangers between the tee box and the green. There is a fairway bunker on the right about 200 yards from the tee box and one on the left about 250 yards from the tee box. The fairway also ends short of the green which has bunkers between it and the end of the fairway.
I popped my drive up and to the right. The ball landed just short of the bunker on the right leaving about 130 yards to the green.
My approach shot hit just short of the front of the green and rolled down the slope to a couple of yards short of the green.
The pin was at the back of the green on a second tier. My chip made it up the slop of the second tier but not fair enough to avoid rolling back down the slope to the first tier. I two putted from there for a bogey.
Following the 10th hole, on this my 57th course in my quest, I made the climb up the 57 steps to the tee box for the short par three eleventh hole.
The green on this hole is framed by the rocks at the base of Pinnacle Peak. There is one solitary bunker on the left front of green. That’s where I hit my tee shot end up. The ball started on an ok line but needed a couple of more yards of carry the bunker.
I hit my sand shot to 20 feet past the hole. I made a good putt. It broke hard at the hole, but didn’t drop, resulting in my second bogey on the back nine.
The next three holes were a classic case of good golf turned bad. I didn’t play poorly, I just ended up with breaks that all went against me. The first bad break occurred on the 12th hole.
The hole plays 400 yards. It is another one of those beautiful serene holes. It requires a carry of almost 200 yards to get over the cactus, rocks and brush to get to the fairway. But the fairway itself is very wide. There are two bunkers on the left side of the fairway.
I hit my drive to the far right side of the fairway. While I was in the short manicured Evian watered turf, I had an awkward angle to the green.
I took aim to the left side of the green expecting a fade. This is where a good shot turned bad when it didn’t fade. I made solid contact, the ball had a great ball flight, it just went straight rather than fading. To make matters worse, the ball hit a tree to the left of the green and we were unable to locate it. The local rule for ball hit into the desert is to play it as a lateral. I took a drop, pitched on and two putted for a double bogey.
The next case of good golf gone bad occurred on the 13th hole. Another hole that plays almost 400 yards. This is one of the few holes on the course that isn’t isolated from the other holes. On most holes, the hole you are playing is the only hole you can see. Also, there seems to be no two holes that look or play the same. The thirteenth hole has a long carry over the desert to get to the fairway. There are two fairway bunkers to the left of the fairway in the landing zone. I hit my drive to the right fairway, 150 yards from the middle of the green.
I missed my approach shot to the right of the green. It seemed like an innocent enough miss, but with the flag on the second on a green that was sloping from me, I was left with a tough chip.
Stephen recommended that I hit a high flop. I did but I missed my target mark on the green and the ball rolled down the slope away from the pin. I then three putted for that second double bogey.
The third good golf gone bad double bogey came on the fourteenth hole. At 570 yards, the hole is the longest par five on the course. It plays to a long and narrow fairway that slopes slightly right to left. There is a carry of slightly over 200 yards to reach the fairway from the blue tees. I hit my drive to the middle of the fairway.
Mind you I’d made two double bogeys in a row on hole where I drove the ball into the fairway. On this hole, even after a 250 yard drive, I was still 320 yards out. I chose to hit my driver off the deck for my second shot. I caught the ball just a little fat so it only traveled 190 yards leaving 150 yards to the pin.
All the trouble around the green was to the left. There was water and a large green side bunker. Given this configuration, I lined up to hit a draw. The ball stayed straight and hit the cart path, resulting in another good shot that turned bad. The ball bounced off the cart path into a bush. It stayed near the top of the bush.
I wanted to hit the ball out of the bush, but Stephen said that even if I got the club to the ball, the ball would like drop straight down and end up under the bush. Reluctantly, I took his advice and took an unplayable.
I pitched my fifth shot to the each of the green and then two putted for my third double bogey in row on three holes where I hit the fairway with my drives and made great contact with the ball on my approach shots. I had now dug a hole for myself and needed to play near perfect golf to avoid shooting over 90 on a day when I was swing the club and hitting the ball well. But golf isn’t just about how good the ball contact is. It’s about getting the little while ball into the cup with as few strokes as possible. I wasn’t doing that very well.
On the fifteenth tee box, I announced that I needed to par all remaining four holes to break 90. Steve said that it wasn’t going to be easy, especially on this hole which was the fourth toughest hole on the course. The hole was a 420 yard par four with a generous fairway that transitioned to a very narrow one in the landing zone with bunkers to the left and to the right at the transition from generous to skimpy. I hit my drive to the fairway short of the bunker on the right.
I hit my approach shot right at the flag, but it landed short of the green.
I pitched onto the green, but 15 feet past the hole.
This left a very fast putt which needed to die at the hole to drop into the cup. My putt looked good all the way. The line was good and the speed looked good, until it didn’t. The ball died just a couple of inches past the hole rather than at the hole. I tapped in for the bogey. So much for finishing with four pars in a row.
The sixteenth hole is the last of the par threes at Estancia. The hole was playing 180 yards to a back left pin. As I stood on the tee box looking toward a green with a cluster of bunkers to the right of the green and a single one to the left, I was determined to hit the green with my tee shot. I had missed the green to the right on the first par three, to the left on the second par three and to the left again on the third par three. I had tried fades that did fade and draws that didn’t draw. This time I decide to just take dead aim at the flag.
I swung the club and made solid contact. The ball was on a line just to the right of the flag. As it approaches the green it started to move slightly to the right. As I watched the ball, I held out hope that it would drop out of that beautiful blue cloudless sky and land on the green.
It did just that and after several bad bounces on previous hole, I finally got a good one. The ball hit on the green on the slope just left of the front right green side bunker and kick toward the hole. It stopped 25 feet from the hole.
I saw the line clearly. Stephen confirmed my read. I stood over the ball. With every part of my body frozen except my arms, I moved the putter back. I then pushed it forward toward the ball along the line of the putt. The ball moved straight toward the hole. I needed a birdie badly to counter that those three doubles bogeys on the 12th, 13th, and 14th holes. It looked like it was going to drop in the hole but right as it approached the cup it moved ever so slightly right and stopped just on the right edge of the cup.
Steve advised that I count to ten before picking of the ball. It was a good suggestion but a futile one, there was just two much space between the ball and the cup. I settled for a disappointing par.
The seventeenth hole is the final par five. It plays 530 yards. There is desert with several tall cacti between the tee box and the fairway. The first half of the fairway is of modest width, the second half snakes it way to the hole like a long narrow rattlesnake. There are two bunkers left of the first half of the fairway and two bunkers farther up and on the right. I aligned to hit my drive just to the right of one of the tall cactus.
It had a center stalk and three arms raised to the sky. There were several wounds in the stalk and the arms from golf balls that hit and imbedded themselves into the cactus. There were a few balls still imbedded and visible from the tee box. I swung the club; the ball came off the face just slightly left of the line I’d chosen. The ball was headed directly toward the cactus. With the narrowest of margins, it split the difference between the center stalk and one of the arms sticking up to the right like a perfect field goal on a football field.
After sliding through the uprights on the cactus the ball faded slightly and landed in the second of the two bunkers to the left of the fairway.
The ball came to rest close to the front of the bunker. I asked Stephen what he thought was the longest club that could clear the bunker. He recommended an eight iron. I kept my head down. I wanted to pick the ball cleanly. I caught it one groove up, it easily cleared the bunker and flew 160 yards to the left fairway, leaving 140 yards to a back right flag tucked behind the right green side bunker. After I hit the ball Steve immediately remarked that with that shot I had savaged the hole. Boy, was he ever right!
As I pondered my approach shot, I asked Stephen how much did I need to clear the bunker. He said I’d need 130 yards. I wanted to take dead aim at the flag. As I stood over the ball, I made a last minute decision to aim to the left of the flag and not challenge the bunker. It was a smart decision. I had chosen to hit my 130 yard club because the pin was at the back of the green and I didn’t want to go long. The ball landed on the green just left of the bunker leaving a putt of 55 feet to the hole.
As he had done all day, Stephen gave me a great read on the putt. I hit the putt on line with just enough speed for the ball to make it to the cup and drop in for an improbable goldilocks birdie. It was a through the cactus, into the bunker, out of the bunker to the fairway, from the fairway onto the green and into cup. It was all just right!
After the near birdie and par on the sixteenth hole and the improbable birdie on the seventeenth hole, I still had a chance to break 90 if I could par the final hole. The final hole is 420 yard par four and the fourth hardest hole on the course. If I was going to break 90, it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. The 18th hole is probably the most bunkered fairway on the course, but the fairway was wide in the landing zone.
I hit my last drive along the edge of the desert just to left of the fairway. The ball faded perfectly into the fairway. I had positioned myself well to attack the final green at Estancia. There 195 yards remaining to a back left pin on the second tier of a long green.
With several bunkers lining the left side of the fairway, I decided to try to hit a draw with my 5 hybrid. I started the ball along the right edge of the green. The ball stayed right and landed in the small bunker to the right of the green. The next shot reminded me of the shot I had on the 13th hole, but this time instead of a chip shot to a back pin positioned on the second tier, I had a sand shot to the same position.
I hit a good sand shot but left the ball below the hole on the first tier.
This left a very long putt for par. Stephen gave me another excellent read, but hit the ball a little too hard and it end up behind the hole. I ended my round with bogey and failed to break 90. My back nine score matched my front nine score of 45 for a total score of 90. It was a lot of fun playing with Steve, Mike and Matt. Steve and Mike kept things light and entertaining.
Following my round, I had the opportunity to briefly discuss my quest with the Alan Sturges, the Director of Golf at Estancia before joining Steve, Mike, and Matt for lunch. Before bidding me farewell, Steve showed me where the driver that Bubba Watson used to win the Masters was displayed. He donated it to the club and it hung on the clubhouse wall.
I would like thank Jeff for introducing me to Steve and Steve for his graciousness and generosity in hosting me at Estancia for my first desert golf experience. The Estancia Club has a beautiful golf course that was in immaculate condition, but Alan said that it gets even better during season. I can't imagine it looking more pristine as it did when I played it.
During the round while talking to Steve, I learned that he and I had worked with a least one common colleague, and that there were several others that we both knew. Another case of how small our world is.
This, the 57th course on my quest, was my last for 2017. I don't know if anyone else has played 57 of the top 100 courses in a calendar year or in my case six months, but it has been an amazing experience and adventure.
After playing at Estancia, I took a week and a half off for Christmas and New Year’s before heading to California to play a couple of more of the twelve top 100 courses there.