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All handicaps welcome at bargain McDowell Mountain Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Playing McDowell Mountain Golf Club in north Scottsdale requires a bit of mental gymnastics.

Generally, golf courses in that area come one of three ways: Tough, brutal or just-throw-the-scorecard-away-and-enjoy-the-scenery impossible.

But when PGA pro Phil Mickelson and Steve Loy, his former golf coach at Arizona State University, bought the Sanctuary Golf Course and renamed it the McDowell Mountain Golf Club, they went in a different direction.

"We wanted to make it more playable, enjoyable and visually stimulating," Mickelson said.

Mission accomplished.

Sanctuary was an odd course to begin with: short (6,624 yards) and with landing areas so narrow tee shots were hazardous to a golfer’s health.

But when original designer Randy Heckenkemper was given a second shot, he got it right. First, he lengthened McDowell Mountain to 7,072 yards, giving it more of a championship feel. Second, the turf acreage increased from 72 to 80 acres, bunkers were removed, and rock walls and waste bunkers were added to keep balls from rolling into the desert.

The result: a golf course that anyone can enjoy, particularly high handicappers.

"This is really the first time that we've ever had owners who emphasized the playability factors," Heckenkemper said. "The course is a lot easier to play and definitely a lot more fun. I told coach (Loy), I think the average round of golf will improve by at least 30 minutes."

The rates at McDowell Mountain reflect the changes in the course. Most north Scottsdale golf courses cost at least $150 to play in the peak winter months. Some are well over $200. McDowell Mountain's same-day rate in early December: $95. The highest rate will be $135, and in the summer, golfers can go 18 holes for as low as $69.

"We wanted to give families an affordable place to play golf," Mickelson said.

Playing the course is where the mind tricks come in. Unlike many Valley courses, McDowell Mountain doesn't have holes that take a golfer's breath away, either with their beauty or their difficulty.

But that's the point. McDowell Mountain isn't meant to be a good walk spoiled. It's not aiming to make any top-10 lists.

It's not your local municipal by any means -- for one thing, it's in far better shape -- but it's also not Troon North. An 18-handicapper can shoot in the low 80s at McDowell Mountain, and a low handicapper can go real low.

Most of the extra yardage on the course went for a back set of tees; but even from the tips, McDowell Mountain is more playable than most 7,000-yard tracks because the fairways are wide, the greens are generous and welcoming -- golfers won't see elevated greens on every hole -- and the desert has been cleaned out so even wayward balls can be found.

That doesn't mean every hole is a potential birdie. There are some traps at McDowell Mountain. Two of the par 3s -- No. 3 and No. 17 -- measure at least 225 yards from the tips, and the back nine opens with two longish par 4s. Also, washes meander throughout the course, requiring golfers to make wise decisions on their approaches, particularly whether to go for the par 5s in two.

All in all, though, McDowell Mountain is a welcome change of pace from its notorious brethren in north Scottsdale. It won't be the most memorable place golfers play, and they might not have any Kodak moments, but if the aim is to enjoy 18 holes and have a chance at a few birdies, McDowell Mountain is the place to be.

Sometimes, simple and easy is the way to go.

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