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Desert Solitaire

Talking Stick takes its name from the traditional Pima calendar stick, an ornately carved wooden branch that the tribe uses to mark significant events in its history. The 7,133-yard par-seventy North course, designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, occupies what is literally one of the lowliest sites in the region. Camel-back Mountain, the McDowells and Pinnacle Peak loom in the distance. But you have none of the gorgeous overlooks or the vertiginous elevation changes that you find at Troon North. The surrounding landscape is pure desert, tabletop-flat hardpan sprouting with nothing taller than a couple of paloverde and some clumps of creosote and mesquite.

That's precisely what makes Talking Stick's North course such a marvel.

At Talking Stick North, you know right away that you really are in the de sert, not merely surrounded by it or viewing it from afar. Except for the barbed wire fencing on the edges of the property, there a re no boundaries between man and nature, nothing to insulate you from the forbidding wasteland that lies beyond the end of the roads, where you can see herds of wild mustangs gamboling through low-flying coveys of cactus wren.

Although they are all man-made, Talking Stick's brilliantly crafted bunkers have ragged edges that appear to have been formed by nature. The greens are seldom more than marginally elevated, offering you the choice of an aerial assault or a bump-and-run attack. But most of the putting surfaces have crowned midsections and slyly contoured rims and ridges. You have to do as much thinking to get your ball into the hole as you did to get it on the green.

When I finished my round at Talking Stick North, I marked it on my own calendar stick as one of the most impressive achievements in the history of postmodern golf architecture. Working against all odds at an unelevated site, Crenshaw and Coore have managed to imbue the course with the au ra of a classic championship venue.

Oh, and by the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Talking Stick North also brought out the best in my golf game. I fired a nifty one-under par sixty-nine from the back tees. That was my lowest round in the desert so far, and like a spring rain or an after-dinner shot of añejo, it was a bravura booster that couldn't have come at a better time. The next day, I had to compete against more than two hundred other players for only two available qualifying spots in the Phoenix Open.

Papago Park Municipal Golf course squats just east of downtown Phoenix at the base of some bean-red rocky outcroppings known as the Papago Buttes. Its designer, William F. Bell, is a second-generation architect who laid out the Torrey Pines muni courses in California. This track measures a stout 7,068 yards. Laced with hills and lined with oak, pine and eucalyptus trees that give it a traditional parkland feel, Pa pago is infamous for a series of alternating dogleg par fours and par fives that require you to be able to draw or fade your ball at will. But the sneakiest hole on the course is the seventeenth, a 227-yard par three where you have to hit a half-blind tee shot to a sunken green.

Just imagine a game of Russian roulette played with an eighteen-hole revolver instead of a six-shooter, and you'll get a pretty fair picture of what Papago's annual Monday qualifiers for the Phoenix Open are all about. Because the outcome is decided by just one round of golf, you face a life-or-death dilemma every time you pull the trigger. A single bogey can cripple you; if you make a double bogey, you're done for. But you can't just sit back and play safe because you're competing against a platoon of low-ranking but highly skilled PGA Tour veterans like Robert Gamez, Curt Byrum, Jay Delsing and R. W. Eaks. If you're really serious about wanting to qualify, you've got to take it deep—very deep.

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