North Course

6,510 yards, 120 slope from the Golds (basically the Blues)

Course:  The first round of 2013 came much earlier than expected, when I ended up with a free afternoon while in Phoenix.  Mind you, it was just as cold there as it was in Philly at the time, but the sun was up and it was warm enough for me, so it was a no brainer.

Deciding on what single course to play out here is tough.  There are almost too many great places to play, so narrowing it down is always an exercise for me.  What makes it easier is I would be playing with rental clubs, so didn’t feel like having at the pricier places when I couldn’t bring my best game out there.  I needed a course some what close to downtown, since I had limited daylight and couldn’t spend a ton of time driving to the place.  I also wanted some where well known.  Talking Stick fit my criteria and was also some where I’ve been interested in playing for a while.

The team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw designed Talking Stick in 1998, which consists of 2 courses, the North and South.  Coore and Crenshaw are known to walk each site millions of times until they get a sense of the best 18 holes already on the land.  They are  focused on providing traditional, strategic golf with a minimalist approach to design.  It’s almost as if they want you to feel like you’ve just brought your clubs out to hit around for a few hours and are creating the holes yourself.  The Coore/Crenshaw team is a big part of the reinvigoration of course design and they have built a number of outstanding courses, including Sand Hills, Kapalua Plantation, Friar’s Head, Bandon Trails, We-Ko- Pa’s Saguaro course and the much anticipated Streamsong, which opens this season down in Florida.  When I played Kapalua Plantation, I remember feeling like I was hiking up and down the coastal mountainside for the views and just happened to be hitting a golf ball in the direction I felt like walking.  The experience there felt natural and effortless, which made for a very good round even though the highlight scoring wise was a bogey at the Eighteenth.  I love the emphasis on the surrounding land and environment and similar to Rustic Canyon, relying on the surroundings to present the strategic play gives you a unique experience that can’t be replicated.

Coore and Crenshaw describe the differences between the two courses and their approach at Talking Stick in general, “Whichever course one chooses or prefers, it was our desire to portray golf in a traditional sense, which quietly merges with its tranquil desert surroundings… Talking Stick’s North course, with its broad, angular holes rewards thoughtful play through the rise of its many options according to one’s level of skill. Its low-profile, slightly crowned greens and close-cropped approaches encourage running as well as aerial assaults… The South course, with its tree-lined fairways and raised greens defended at the sides offers a more straightforward style of play.”

The clubhouse, subdued and consistent with its surroundings. 

Based on what I knew, I was more interested in the North than the South course.  The South course is probably a little more indicative of what I’ve seen in desert resort courses; lots of water, lush greens and ample trees, while the North course seemed to be a little more in tune with the concepts I like about Coore/Crenshaw courses.  The North course consisted of large portions of untouched desert with fairways strategically placed amongst that land while the greens were set at various angles and usually guarded by mounds and bunkers on all sides except the front (for the most part).  There were no water hazards and little rough; most of the hazards were bunkers, hardpan, OB desert, and very quick greens.  At the Thirteenth green after one of my all time best up and downs, I took my ball out of the hole and realized just how isolated and quiet it was.  Looking in all directions (except back at the fairway), was vast desert with mountains rising in the far distance and wild horses grazing nearby.  Although I was ecstatic about my first birdie of the year, I was more intrigued with how I was able to get a very real sense of the surroundings as they likely existed before this course, or Phoenix for that matter.  To me, that’s part of what Coore and Crenshaw are trying to achieve and at that point, it didn’t matter how the rest of the round went; Talking Stick North turned out to be an ideal starting round experience for 2013.  

I called as I was about half an hour away from the course and was able to get a tee time for the North course relatively easily.  Apparently the South course was pretty booked, so it worked out for me.  I arrived at the course and right away noticed the tranquility.  After checking in, getting a set of rental clubs and taking one of the great looking bag tags and yardage guides, I was on the First tee ready to kick off 2013 golf in the desert.

The First is a 379 yard par 4.  The tee shot must carry desert ground to a fairway that’s set at about a 2:00 angle from the tee.  The green is slightly elevated with bunkers protecting the front of the green and a slope surrounding the entire green that will roll any wayward balls away from the pin.  The strategy on this hole is subtle, but the risk reward decision off the tee is how far left you aim your tee shot.  There is a bunker on the left side of the fairway, so a very well struck tee shot carries the bunker and gives you a clear path to the green.  My rental club set were Callaway Razr X, irons and woods.  I already have the 3 wood, so was pretty happy with teeing off with that to get things started.  It’s a nice opening hole with a good looking green.  

First tee.  The desert melding with the course is a theme than can be seen from the beginning.
The First green and one of the defensive bunkers.

The Second is a 509 yard par 5.  The fairway is a sea of smaller mounds that ripple towards the hole. There are two bunkers along the right side of the green and OB runs along the entire side of the fairway, with the green set between the bunkers and OB.  So, teeing of to the right side is safer, but toughens the approach shot, as the bunkers comes into play and anything too far is OB.  You can go up the left side, but you’re tempting OB on each shot as well.  Again, subtle strategies and options that don’t really hurt you either way.  

The Second 

Approach shot at the Second (pin is left center of photo)

The Third is a 417 yard par 4.  All of the holes have names and this one is, “Sand Hills.”  Hopefully, it’s not the closest I come to playing THE Sand Hills.  OB runs along the entire left side of the fairway while an array of bunkers cut into the right side.  The green is somewhat elevated, so par here gets difficult if either your tee or approach shots aren’t accurate. The hole is goading you to hit something short and conservative off the tee to avoid the trouble on either side, which leaves you with a longer approach and a few nicely placed bunkers to deal with.  The longer your tee shot, the easier the approach.  There is a bail out area towards the right of the hole (which you can’t see), which helps.

Tee shot at the Third

Approach shot towards the right side of the fairway of the Third

The Fourth is a 390 yard par 4 and is really where the course starts getting serious.  It’s the number one handicapped hole and also presents a few options to the green.  The tee shot must clear a pretty large desert area to an elevated fairway that is fronted by a large chasm bunker in the center.  The fairway is wide, but you need a healthy tee shot to carry the desert, the chasm bunker and get the ball onto the elevated fairway.  Anything to the right gets swallowed by other bunkers while there is room left if you want a safer option off the tee.  The green has bunkers on the left and right and is some what narrow, so your approach has to be on the precise side.  Obviously taking the safer tee shot towards the left leaves you with a tough and long approach shot.  I was starting to get along rather well with the driver and belted it out in the center of the fairway.  The approach also looked good, but was still learning distances with the irons and was caught a little short, into the green side bunker on the right.  Messed up what would have been a nice birdie attempt.

Tee shot at the Fourth.  Fairway is straight ahead and you can make out the safer route to the left.

Approach shot at the Fourth.  

The Fifth is a 356 yard par 4.  I found it to be a mini version of the Fourth, as your tee shot has to carry a smaller desert area to a wider fairway with only one fairway bunker near  the center to contend with.  The approach is a little tougher, as bunkers force a carry approach to the green.  I drilled my drive straight center and had a short approach shot, which turned out to be the first par of the year for me.  

Tee shot at the Fifth

The Sixth is the first par 3, at 187 yards.  The name of this hole is, “Draw,” and that’s probably because a draw (for righties) is the best tee shot, considering the large bunkers placed short, long left and right of the green.  The green is on the larger side, so it should be easy to hit, so long as you stay some what straight.  The hole brings you back to the clubhouse, but you also come back after the Ninth.  

The Sixth

The Seventh is 427 yard par 4.  The hole reminded me a lift of the Second, as there’s hardpan running along both sides of the fairway, but the green on this hole is set more towards the center of the hole, instead of off towards the left.  The tee shot must carry a modest desert area and there are a couple bunkers off towards the left that shouldn’t come into play all that much.  There’s a bunker green side on the left and a shelf on the right where approach shots could end up, complicating chip shots from that area.  It also complicates shots from the left side of the hole that need to carry the bunker; anything too far ends up down the shelf as well.  

Tee shot at the Seventh
Approach shot at the Seventh

The Eighth is a 143 yard par 3.  Aside from the massive bunkers that reside in front of the green, this hole gives you a nice birdie opportunity, so long as the visuals on the tee don’t get to you.  Very much a vertically demanding hole; hit it high and make it sit.  

The Eighth

The Ninth is a 412 yard par 4.  The fairway proceeds slightly uphill to the green and as the first half of the hole is at about a 2:00 angle, it then shifts to 11:00 towards the green.  Although there are a number of fairway bunkers in the tee shot landing area, the green is pretty unobstructed, except for a sole bunker on the right.  There is a large desert hardpan area along the right of the hole, which can be hit out of.  I ended up in that area and actually enjoyed the challenge of hitting on the hardpan back on the fairway.  We just don’t get those kind of shots back east.  

Tee shot at the Ninth

The front 9 was enjoyable, with a good routing and some nice par 3’s and short to mid par 4’s.  Ranking  of the front 9 would be 4, 3, 9, 5, 2, 1, 8, 6, 7.    

The Tenth runs parallel to the Seventh and is a 390 yard par 4.  The tee landing area is on the narrow side and constrained by bunkers on both sides, but the green is large and is very punch bowl-esque, making this one of the easier approach shots on the course.  

Tee shot at the Tenth
The Tenth green, surrounded by mounds for the punchbowl effect

The Eleventh was my favorite par 3 on the course, at 217 yards.  Quite honestly, the the next series of holes is what moved this from a good to great course in my opinion.  The hole actually dog legs from the tee to the green, so you can bail out to the right if the tee shot looks too risky.  If you decide to go for the green, it is set to the right of the tee area and you must deal with an instructing tree line, along with a large bunker you must carry.  Anything too far or too right is done and anything ending up in the bunker is pretty much bogey at best.  I ended up caring the bunker, but ended up just off in hardpan and was able to bump and run it up to the stick for a par.  Not the best approach, but can’t complain.  

The Eleventh.  The pin is towards the right.  

Another look at the Eleventh

The Twelfth is a 356 yard par 4.  It’s short, but one of my favorite holes on the course, as a large dry river bed is used to bisect the fairway and create two different paths to the green.  The left side of the fairway is small, but straight off the tee and leaves you with a short and unobstructed path to the green for a chance at eagle.  Obviously the risk is any shot not hit squarely in that direction will end up OB left or in the river bed, with about 180 yards to go.  I guess that’s why they call this hole, “Red Mountain Gambler.”  The right side of the fairway is much larger and safer, even letting you get pin high before crossing back over the river bed.  The approach from the right fairway is also much tougher, as there is a small area to work with; anything too short goes in the bed and too long is OB.  I went the safe route this time, but next time I’m here, I plan on having my clubs and will take the gamble!

The Twelfth tee shot.  The red mountain is in the background and the gamble here is going left.  
Another look at the Twelfth and river bed bisecting the fairway

The Thirteenth is a 356 yard par 4.  The hole goes slightly uphill and is a dog leg right to an elevated green.  There is desert and bunkers along the right side of the hole to prevent you from cutting too much of the dog leg.  It doesn’t show from the tee, but the fairway is pretty wide and anything center or left of center is good for a clear approach shot.  I flirted with the dog leg, which turned into a weak push slice and ended up bouncing into one of the fairway bunkers.  It was sitting up, but I had 185 yards to the pin.  Taking the hybrid they gave me in the rental set and swinging it for the second time ever, I took no time and hit a beauty to the green, about 10 feet past the hole, but a downhill putt that looked like it broke right.  I ended up putting it in for the first birdie of the year and one of the better up and downs I can remember.  That’s the point in the round I realized how quite and tranquil everything was, as it was completely silent, wild horses were grazing nearby and the red mountains were visible in the background.  Golf takes you to places you wouldn’t normally go and this was one I certainly appreciated.  

Tee shot at the Thirteenth

The edge of the bunker from whence I hit my second shot.  Pretty wide fairway otherwise.
Horses, desert and mountains.  Tranquil and relaxing for sure.

The Fourteenth is a 410 yard par 4.  The tee shot must carry more desert and there are a group of bunkers on the left side, yet the right side is safe and anything center or right is probably where you want to be anyways.  The fairway features ripples that affects the way the ball bounces.  The green is set on the left side of the fairway, with bunkers left and right.  It’s a fairly easy hole, but its difficulty is how well you pull off your tee shot.  

Tee shot at the Fourteenth

Further up the fairway of the Fourteenth

The Fifteenth is a 461 yard par 4.  The hole has a Z shape to it, with the tee being at the bottom right of the Z.  A straight tee shot ends up in hardpan off the left side of the fairway, so you either have to line up at a 2:00 angle and carry desert and bunkers to reach the fairway.  Otherwise, a nice power fade will get you there.  The green is set to the left of the fairway, with the green sloping severely from back to front.  It’s another good example of a very well done hole using virtually all of the surroundings and not moving any land.  

Tee shot at the Fifteenth
Approach shot at the Fifteenth

The Sixteenth is the last par 3 at 161 yards.  It’s the easiest hole on the course, with a very large green and nothing to really worry about unless you really mis hit your tee shot.  The sun started to go down, so there are shade and lighting issues in a lot of the remaining photos, although I was able to get in all 18 with no trouble.  

The Sixteenth

The Seventeenth is a 534 yard par 5.  It’s a nice par 5, that is S shaped.  We’re going through the whole alphabet here.  I guess that’s why this hole is named, “Sidewinder.”  The fairway is on the narrow side  and either a fade or something in the 1:00 range will be well off.  The second shot will likely flirt with the right side of the fairway and long hitters will be able to carry a bunker along the right side for an unobstructed short approach shot.  There is plenty of lay up room at the final dog leg, which leaves you a little more than 100 yard in for your third shot.  Well struck shots are almost inevitably rewarded here.  

Tee shot at the Seventeenth
Further up the Seventeenth
To give a sense of what is off to the sides of the fairways; all desert.

The Eighteenth is a 439 yard par 4 closing hole.  It’s similar to the Fourteenth as the fairway proceeds at a 2:00 angle, but then the fairway dips downhill before coming back up to the elevated green.  The approach shot is tougher than the Fourteenth as well because the left side cuts into the fairway more, meaning most approach shots will have to carry a pretty large bunker and desert area to the green.  Those that are able to blast their tee shots towards the right side will have a better look at the green.  

Tee shot at the Eighteenth

Approach shot at the Eighteenth

I liked the back 9 a little bit more than the front, mainly because there was a little more character in the holes, yet the course in general was a great play.  Some of the par 4’s really stole the show while the par 3 Eleventh was a great hole.  Ranking them, I’d go 12, 11, 13, 15, 18, 17, 10, 14, 16.  There wasn’t a bad one in the bunch.  

Generally, this course was a relaxing and interesting round.  The land was used creatively to place a value on course management, while getting an opportunity to enjoy the surrounding natural environment.  It was fitting that the round before this was Rustic Canyon, as both courses fit in the minimalist category and take full advantage of the land for its character.  Talking Stick North probably didn’t have as much diversity to work with in terms of land, making it pretty remarkable that they were able to turn flat desert into such a good course by adding grass and a few bunkers.  As I mentioned before, a lot of desert courses try to ignore the fact they’re located in the desert and feature numerous lakes, lush fairways and greens and trees you’d probably find in Oregon.  It’s rare you run into a course that embraces its otherwise dull landscape and is able to highlight its advantages, such as its tranquility. You’re able to see more of the existing landscape than golf course in many of the holes, because so much of it is actually part of the course itself.  

At the time this course was built, these concepts were pretty forward thinking.  Nevertheless, Talking Stick North has maintained its intrigue and still receives its due accolades.  It’s currently ranked 22nd on Golf Magazine’s list of best Arizona public courses.  Based on the competition, that’s nothing to take lightly. 

The staff was friendly and accommodating and the cart girl came around enough.  Conditions were superb.  I was able to get through 18 holes in just under 3 hours.  The rental clubs were great and the carts were top notch.  This place does things very well, all to compliment its original design.  

Driving away in the sunset.

Gripes:  It’s usually tough to find much wrong with a course when you visit on a weekday afternoon and everything is well done.  I’ve said in the past that many courses either shine or fail when they start to get crowded.  At any rate, I can’t think of anything to complain about here.  I guess in general, these clubhouses close so early; I thought it was supposed to be peak time around here; can’t you keep these places open so I can grab a beer?  

Bar/grill:  I peeked inside and it’s very nice.  The course is part of a larger resort, so I think it’s in line with what you’d find at most golf resorts.  

Clubhouse:  Very big and lots of interesting stuff.  Also good deals on Callaway clubs.

Practice area:  Large and nice, with a separate chipping green.

Getting there:  Off 101 loop, about 30 minutes from downtown Phoenix.