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Desert Solitaire

Happily I was made lightheaded enough by the Monument course's twelve-hundred-foot elevation to enjoy what are by far the most spectacular vistas in the entire metropolitan area. To the south I could see the burnt cliffs of the McDowell Mountains and the crumbled cubist profile of Pinnacle Peak, the highest point in the region. To the west I could see the dusty red suburbanized hardscrabble of th e Valley of the Sun stretching all the way from downtown Phoenix to the hamlet of Carefree. Closer by I could also see a twosome of pyramidal hillocks that, depending on my ever-changing mood swings, variously appeared to be a citadel and a Hershey's Kisses candy or a pair of stone-nippled breasts.

About the only thing not to like about the Monument course is what I began to call the "negative edge." Strictly speaking, the term denotes a postmodern fountain in which the water clings to the surface edges of a stone slab as it slides down rather than tumbling outward and down like a conventional waterfall. I found a perfect example of a negative edge in the backyard of a newly built mansion overlooking the seventeenth tee. It eventually came to symbolize the relentless residential development that is overrunning almost every golf property in Scottsdale.

The Sonoran Desert provides a habitat for scores of aviary species adapted to hot climates, from the diminutive species to the ominous turkey vulture, more commonly known as a buzzard. It is also the home of Grayhawk Golf Club and the 7,1 35-yard Raptor course hatched by Tom Fazio in December 1995. "Tom Fazio was in a bad mood when he designed this course," the Raptor course's starter informed me on the first tee. "You'll find bunkers in the landing areas on almost every hole, and the greens are like glass. I'd advise you to swing as hard as you can and go for it."

In retrospect, I might have been better advised to spend several weeks, if not a couple of years, honing my short game before I flew off on Grayhawk's winged predator. With a rating of 74 and a slope of 136, the Raptor continually forces you to scramble to save par unless you can strike the ball with the power and accuracy of David Duval. Duval fired a twenty-nine the first time he played the back nine in the company of his pal Phil Mickelson, who has made the Raptor his own favorite habitat. As it happened, I found a twenty-nine, too, but I was still somewhere on the sixth hole.

Thankfully I encountered several holes at the Raptor course that reinvigorated my spirits. One of the best was number eight, the so-called Aces & Eights, a breathtakingly beautiful 174-yard par three whose quadruple-bunkered green reposes in a high-banked, saguaro-studded valley with the McDowell Mountains visible in the background.

I left Grayhawk at the end of a multimulligan day feeling rather rapturous about the Raptor. Unlike so many other desert courses, it demands strategic thinking and offers plenty of shot-making options rather than tedious target golf, which explains why Mickelson, Duval and other pros like to practice here. My only quibble is that the holes are clustered around adjacent housing developments, forcing you to make long cart drives between greens and tees.

"Deserts are deceptive landscapes," warns Susan J. Tweit in her lyrical naturalist's notebook Seasons in the Desert. But I didn't fully appreciate the myriad ways deception, illusion and mirage can enhance golf archit ecture until I visited Talking Stick Golf Club, on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community just beyond the southeastern border of Scottsdale.

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