Golf Club Of Estrella Goodyear Arizona |
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To go low, avoid the sand at the Golf Club of Estrella in Goodyear, Arizona, just west of Phoenix

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- There is no truth to the rumor that several children were lost in the bunkers at the Golf Club of Estrella.

But it could have happened.

There are 83 bunkers on the 7,139-yard, par-72 course, which was designed by Jack Nicklaus Jr. and is located about 45 minutes south and west of Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. Of those 83, approximately 82 are so steep-faced the 14th club in a golfer's bag better be a ladder.

Okay, that's an exaggeration. Not all the bunkers require a forklift to get out of. But be forewarned: To score well on this underrated layout, stay out of the sand.

"You'll definitely be penalized by hitting in them," said head professional Trevor Finton.

The Golf Club of Estrella, which is a true desert course, doesn't immediately come to mind when talk turns to the best courses in the Valley. That's due in part to its location. Golfers who stay in north Scottsdale and play the top-notch courses in that area -- Troon North, We-Ko-Pa, etc. -- likely aren't going to get in their car and make the one-hour trek to Estrella.

That's their loss.

Golf Digest has given Estrella a four-and-a-half-star rating. In 2007, GolfWeek named it the seventh best golf course in Arizona. If it was more centrally located, it would be on everyone's must-play list.

"We get a lot of people that play it last when they come to Arizona on a golfing trip and say they really like it because there aren't a bunch of houses," General Manager Tom Cortabitarte said. "You feel like you're in Arizona."

The Nicklaus imprint is all over Estrella. Many of the greens are elevated, making it difficult to play bump-and-run shots. On some holes, like the 194-yard, par-3 17th, there's little bail-out area. Anything but a precisely hit shot will wind up in sand, desert or water.

Fortunately, the fairways are wide enough and the golf course isn't so long as to make it unplayable. The trick, though, is navigating the three constants at Estrella:

1. Fast greens. Anything above the hole requires the touch of a safe cracker. And yet, golfers putting from below the hole often come up short, not understanding they're putting into the base of a mountain. Correctly measuring the speed is imperative. Also, the greens don't break as much as they look like they might.

2. Wind. Because there's little around Estrella in terms of homes or businesses, the wind always blows. What golfers don't realize until they play the course a few times is that the currents are stronger than they think.

"It's sort of like Wrigley Field," Cortabitarte said. "It doesn't seem like it's blowing so hard but when you get out on some of the exposed holes, it can really affect the golf ball."

3. The bunkers. It's almost impossible to overstate how important it is to stay out of the sand. The best way to post a good score is to aim away from the bunkers, even if that leaves longer putts or approach shots. Better that than standing in a deep greenside bunker and not being able to see the flag just 15 feet away.

It's nearly impossible to pick out a "best hole" at Estrella because there are so many good ones, like the 386-yard, par-4 fifth, with water in front and bunkers behind a shallow green that slopes from back to front. Or the 605-yard, uphill, par-5, 16th with a ravine that comes into play on the third shot, and a green that is protected by -- what else? -- deep bunkers.

Or, there's the 174-yard, par-3, third hole, with a 50-yard bunker that snakes all the way up to the green.

It's not a short drive to get to Estrella. Golfers will want to pack a lunch.

But they'll be happy they made the trip -- as long as they stay out of the bunkers.

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