The Boulders – South Course in Carefree, AZ
Tee Time: September 9, 2012, 10:10, 91 F, Gusty
Designer: Jay Morrish (1991)
Playing Partners: Steve Walker
Tees: Blue/White, Par 71 (70.8 rating/136 slope/6,421 yards)
Course Handicap: 14 (11.7 index)
Stats: 89 (45-44); 26 putts; 6/13 fairways; 4/18 greens; 4 penalty strokes
The Boulders, a top 100 public golf course according to Golf Magazine, presents everything great about Arizona golf. Desert scenery (the version with soaring saguaros, wind-rounded rocks and colorful mesas, not the barren expanses of badlands only Les Stroud would enjoy), exciting target golf and numerous complimentary amenities. Set in the upper elevation of Carefree, about 45 minutes north of the Phoenix of airport, the whole course is secluded among the hills and winds throughout the villas and homes at The Boulders Resort, a Waldorf Astoria property. While nothing has yet matched the awesomeness of Troon North, The Boulders is very similar, like a Troon North for higher handicappers. Misses are not as devastating, the greens are easier to read and the fairways don’t roll balls into desert rock. That being said, the Boulders is a course that needs to be played smart, as I discovered after a great tee shot on the par-5 5th hole that left 240 yards to the green. It turned out ignoring the way the landing area to the green narrowed like the center of an hourglass brings ol’ #7 back onto the scorecard. This is one of several examples where the risks do not outweigh the potential glory of eagles.
The rest of the front nine required the same sort of risk/reward consideration and precision. While the actual desert is not in play too often, sand traps sit everywhere and between the two of us, at least 15 were landed in. Not 15 different ones, because a couple had our balls nearly touching… Driver is not even the play for the first few holes with plants and washes intercepting any long tee shots. It’s sad, because the fairways are all laid out in a way that promotes long rolls and turns long shots into extremely long shots. Assuming accuracy off the tee with fairway woods, mid-irons are key to getting any scores going on the course. The greens aren’t that big, but there’s not much break to them, and with the outstanding condition that they’re in (it is a Troon managed course, after all), you will make at least one long putt during the round. Adds to the fun. The par-3 2nd hole is short, at only 150 yards from the back tee box, but four sand traps dot the corners and a huge boulder blocks the view of the right side of the green which adds to the difficulty. The short par-4 6th hole, at 355 yards, is fun because a humongous 50-foot tall boulder looms over your shoulder. There really is no shortage of boulders on the course, a rock climber would have fun here too if play is slow. Much more exciting than another game of blocks. Another fun sight is the lonely cactus in the right bunker at the par-3 7th, enjoying his life in the finely groomed sand making all the surrounding cacti jealous.
Par 3’s are the theme on the back 9, a uniquely laid out group of holes to bring you back into the clubhouse. It opens with a par 3 and soon after waits back-to-back three-shotters. Maybe it’s common, though I’d never seen it until now. I usually like a par 5 after a tough par 3, to make up for the bogeys that most likely came on that prior hole. There are 3 par 5’s as well, the first two playing very long with the only real scoring chance coming on #18. The 198-yard 10th plays slightly uphill and into the winds that were leading the storm in from the east. The first par 5 features the same choked off approach of the front side and also fairway bunkers that swallow up the landing areas of the fairway. The 13th played up for this day, making it 321 yards off the tee instead of 369. So we decided to go for it, I lost it in the desert (thank God for those local rules stating: DESERT RULE – A ball into the desert may be placed as a lateral hazard without needing to be found), pitched one close and still made par. A straight-forward par-5 was next before the dual par 3’s of nos. 15 and 16. They both play the same direction, with the latter being 37-yards longer, making the incoming wind that much more of a factor as fairway woods need to be pulled out. The closing par-5, the 514-yard 18th, is a great way to close out the round with an easy par, possibly birdie, chance at eagle that would leave you wanting to come back again. Good strategy.
The Boulders deserves its high place on all those lists. The atmosphere alone makes it worth the price of admission. Except for Steve’s constant goading me into making stupid shots, I noticed no sounds at all, even the roadrunners seemed quiet and relaxed. The warmup range is quality, the clubhouse and restaurant are well built and the cart girl was friendly and pretty. Almost all 14 clubs are required to get around this place, and the doglegs that litter the scorecard really force thoughtful shot selection. Leave too long a shot in and the high winds of the northern Sonora desert start knocking balls all over the course. Still not sure how safe this course is, because there are a few boulders that physics cannot explain how they stay up.
#15, Par 3, 151 yards, 18-handicap, My Score: 3
The 15th hole, rated the easiest on the course (though I’d say 18 is), plays uphill into the east-to-west winds over sand and to a deep green. It isn’t terribly difficult, but I really liked the view from the tee, especially in the late afternoon light shining through the glowing limbs of the jumping cholla. It’s also the most enjoyable par 3, which is great to savor before the extreme difficulty of the much longer 16th. Take a second and enjoy the view. You’ll have time, since back-to-back par 3’s always back up play anyway.
Amenities: A; The Boulders has two things working in its favor for providing high-class amenities: being managed by Troon and sitting on a Waldorf Astoria property. Guaranteed to be treated like a king and have staffers laugh at your dumb jokes here.
Difficulty: B-; only as hard as you want to make it, as wide fairways and gentle greens should yield at least one decent par streak
Scenery: A; the only thing better than a round of golf winding through a few miles of scenic Arizona desert is a horseback ride through the back trails, but golf is way more fun
Value: B; at just $49 for a Top 100 course, it’s still a value at three times the price, according to other golfers who said it’s even more fun here in March.
Overall: 3.5 (B+); the Troon North for those who don’t feel like losing a dozen golf balls, take the opportunity to spend a day in Carefree and get a round in a secluded, serene 18 holes of great golf