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Desert Solitaire

I figured from the outset that my little diversion would at least be entertaining and that playing the toughest track s in town would be an enlightening learning experience, if an inevitably humbling one. But I had no way of predicting where I would be or how I would feel when I came to all that lies past the end of my golfing roads.

The Aztecs believed that the Sonoran Desert was created by Quetzalcoatl, the god of wind and rain. According to tribal folklore, Quetzalcoatl first appeared in human form and taught the Aztecs a variety of handy survival skills, such as how to build stone houses, weave fabrics and mold clay pottery. But when the priests refused his demand to do away with human sacrifice, Quetzalcoatl threw a hissy fit. He made the land arid and transformed the cacao trees into fruitless mesquite. Then he disappeared into the Pacific Ocean, never to return again.

I got a feel for what it was like to have been a victim of an Aztec sacrifice during Quetzalcoatl's meteorological vendetta when I played the Monument course at Troon North Golf Club. Nestled atop the rugged highlands of northern Scottsdale, this 7,028-yard Gila monster, perennially ranked the best course in the state, was built in 1990 by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish, the deans of desert-golf architecture. As its rating of 73.3 and slope of 147 forewarn, your skills at target golf are put to the kind of test usually sponsored by the National Rifle Association. To score even close to par, you have to drive the ball with dead-eye accuracy and preferably a long way, and you must be able to hit laserlike long irons and fairway woods on your approaches.

The Monument course immediately slaps you upside the head with a 444-yard par-four first hole that has six bunkers and two intervening wastelands wide enough to swallow a twenty-mule team, Borax and all. If the first doesn't wake you up, you'd best grab an eye-opener from the refreshment wagon because you're fixing to tussle with six more par fours more than 410 yards, including a 464-yarder. Weiskopf and Moorish duly offer one of their trademark drivable par fours in Gamble, the 306-yard sixth hole, but before you know it, they whap you with a 604-yard par five that plays uphill against the wind.

For all the Monument's inherent difficulty, I couldn't help admiring the way the architects have utilized the topography in their design. The desert not only frames the holes, it also serves as a hazard off the tees, in front of the greens and on the edges of the fairways. You have to shoot over fantastical balancing rock formations, cliffs, chasms, canyons, arroyos, playas and piedras, as well as jumping chollas, prickly pear, bear grass, horse cripplers and a whole bunch of other sharp-needled stuff that you wouldn't want to find in your burrito. Even the dang saguaros, the tumescent pitchfork-shaped cacti stamped on every Arizona license plate, come into play.

Native American desert dwellers rely on saguaros to make everything from magic potions to salads and sweeteners, bu t on the Monument's namesake third hole, some golfers have evidently mistaken them for shag bags or shooting-range targets. A 564-yard par five, the third doglegs to the right around an ancient hourglass rock in the middle of the landing area. When I arrived at the corner of the dogleg, I spied a three-armed saguaro on the right and a cucumber-shaped specimen farther down on the left that appeared to be shot up with bullet holes. On closer inspection, I realized that the holes had been created by errant golf balls, several of which remained lodged in the trunks of the cacti.

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