Each of us does three things alone in this world. We are born alone. We die alone. We golf alone. It doesn't matter how many other people happen to be observing us during those activities. In birth, in death and in golf, we play an existential game of solitaire.
These brain-addling thoughts came to me in a hallucination borne on the early-morning dew as I surveyed the Sonoran Desert landscape from one of the back tees at Troon North Golf Club, in Scottsdale, Arizona. I was standing there alone, surrounded by a swath of the natural grandeur the region's journalist laureate Edward Abbey describes in Desert Solitaire as "the center of the world, God's navel," a seemingly infinite expanse composed of "the red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky—all that which lies beyond the end of the roads."
I had come to Scottsdale seeking two very different kinds of solitaire from Abbey's. One was the sparkling diamond of fame and fortune. After a self-imposed layoff from golf of nearly a quarter century, I had spent the past three years recovering my lost youth and my scratch handicap with the help of Tiger Woods's coach, Butch Harmon; sports shrink Dr. Bob Rotella; the Dave Pelz Scoring Game school; and others who shall remain blameless. At age forty-seven, I still longed to fulfill my dream of playing in a PGA Tour tournament. My next chance would come in the Phoenix Open qualifier on the last full day of my week in the desert.
In the meantime, I aimed to shake off the rust accumulated over a winter in New York by checking out the designer desert courses of Scottsdale. Driven by a golf-crazed development boom, the Valley of the Sun has become Paradise Valley for hookers, slicers and their enablers, golf course architects. There are already more than 120 co urses in the metropolitan area, and new ones are being built every day, each claiming to offer more amenities and better golfing than the next. And in sharp contrast to the Northeast, where virtually all the first-rate championship tracks are at exclusive private clubs, at least seventy-five percent of Arizona's courses are open to the public.
My choices about where to play presented me with an embarrassment of riches, but in order to whip my game into shape for the Phoenix Open qualifier, I decided to limit my golf to the four courses reputed to be the most difficult. They were the Monument course at Troon North Golf Club; the Raptor course at Grayhawk Golf Club; the North course at Talking Stick Golf Club; and Papago Park Municipal Golf course, site of the Phoenix Open qualifier.
All four of the designer desert courses I sampled run more than seven thousand yards from the back tees, and each presents a uniquely formidable set of challenges, including st eeply tiered greens that roll twelve on the stimpmeter and daunting carries over boulder fields. Ranging in elevation from mountaintop to lowland plain, they offer extraordinary contrasts in setting, in style of play and in the way their respective architects have incorporated the desert into these golfing adventures. Not incidentally, the green fees also range just as widely—from $28 per round to more than $240. Inspired by Abbey, I invented my own game of desert solitaire in a desperate attempt to maintain some semblance of psychic balance as I headed into the heat of professional competition. The basic idea was to treat the crown jewels of desert golf like a gemologist. Rather than evaluating them by the same old boring conventional architectural criteria, I would grade each course, as one might grade real diamonds, according to the so-called Four Cs—color, cut, clarity and carat weight—and try to sort out what the hell, if anything, it all meant as I went along.