Quintero Golf: In the Wash, the Drink, and the Bramble

An elevated par three at the Quintero Golf Club, outside of Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Justin Hargett)

On the far outskirts of Phoenix—beyond even the endless, Applebees-pocked suburbs of Surprise and Peoria—nestled somewhere in the Sonoran ridges of the Hieroglyphic mountain range, the Quintero is a traveling golfer’s desert oasis.

Designed by Rees Jones, scion of the legendary golf architect Robert Trent Jones, the secluded track is challenging for the scratch golfer, the municipal hacker, and the novice alike, which is exactly the trio I arranged to play this highly-regarded public course last week.

I’m the muni-hacker. I spend my Friday afternoons lofting wedge shots at my local par three in Los Angeles, and have only recently started ironing out my slice of a drive. I invited Phil, my brother-in-law to be—who grew up playing Torrey Pines, no less—as well as Josh Baldwin, Eephus editor and novice golfer, for a two-day retreat at the club’s invitation and expense.

Lately, I’ve become enchanted with the idea of golf as tourist experience. It started when I bought a set of clubs at a garage sale in my neighborhood, and inside a pocket of the Callaway bag found a completed scorecard and booklet from Les Bordes, one of France’s most legendary courses. I’m a collector by nature—a genetically transmitted variant of hoarding, I’m sure—and when I travel I’ve always bought used books and records to add to my libraries. Then when I found that souvenir—a remnant of pure extravagance, of course—something else, something that must seem so obvious to even the average duffer, finally clicked for me too. I wanted to play as many tracks as possible, not just my local par three ad infinitum. I wanted to start collecting the courses of my life.

Last month, my fiancé and I flew to Thailand, and one of my few requests for the itinerary was to find a nice course, something that seemed representative of the country’s unique environments, and play a round on one of our leisure days. I chose Loch Palm in Phuket, which was noted as a local favorite with some amazing water features, but unfortunately a light monsoon (by California’s standards anyway) sequestered us in our resort the morning of my reservation. So when the opportunity to visit Quintero was presented, I jumped at the chance to add the track to my burgeoning collection, and make a road trip of it too.

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The first green and bunker at Quintero. (Photo by Justin Hargett)

The first thing you need to know is that the Quintero is 30 miles from nowhere, and 50 miles from anything interesting in Phoenix. Depending on who you are, this could be a great or terrible thing. For us—a set of young men with retirement nowhere in sight—it was a bit of a mixed bag, one filled with $40 Lyfts, wild burro crossings, and a surprisingly excellent suburban dive bar. (Thanks, Tony.) But ultimately, in its seclusion lies the Quintero’s best assets as a golf course.

I grew up playing the deeply wooded tracks of Appalachia, where the wilderness swallowed up my ball more often than not. If you were lucky enough to find it beyond the rough, you’d still have to play it out of a thicket of oak trees. High desert golf seems, to me, like the sport’s refined cousin, whose elevated sightlines are unobstructed by hanging branches, and a ball lost to the brush is simply unplayable. No need to call in a search party here, though Phil made a commendable attempt from the wash on the eighth.

The first three holes then are an excellent introduction to everything the Quintero has to offer. Starting from an elevated tee, as most tees here are, a wide fairway collects the opening drive after clearing a dangerous-looking brush. “Beware Poisonous Snakes,” the sign warns. Then, the first green is anchored by a small bunker on its left and a mountain of picturesque saguaro cacti behind, with plenty of fairway to miss right. I won’t call it easy—the starter informed us the greens were rolling at a 12 on the afternoon that we played—but it’s a lovely start that just teases the treachery yet to come.

(Sidebar: I thought the starter was joking with the number 12, before Phil informed me that the Stimpmeter is in fact a real device, and a 12 is basically U.S. Open quality fast. Damn.)

The next hole, the first of four long par fives, opens blind onto a wide double fairway nestled into a valley between two more cacti and succulent-studded ridges. It often feels like every hole, and every shot no matter where you’ve landed it, has its own spectacular view that ought to be appreciated in the moment just before you swing.

Since the Quintero is relatively isolated from the bustle of Phoenix and Scottsdale, and protected federal lands surround the course on all sides, each hole feels likes its own private paradise. I rarely felt the presence of the foursomes in front of or behind us, and the club’s condos were visible only on a couple of holes. Instead, the Quintero brings out the most meditative and relaxing aspects of the sport. The three of us were prepared to walk the course, and indeed looking forward to it, but by the time we found our second shots on this hole the carts felt like a relief if for no other reason than to keep the pace of play moving. If the conditions allowed, walking Quintero would be a Zen treat, but only if you also had a cart to ferry you between holes, which are often quite far apart and over a mountain or two.

There is very little water here, as it probably should be out in the Arizona desert, but what there is on the course is significant. The third fairway is lined with a large, intimidating pond along the left side, stretching all the way from the tee to the green of this par four. The drink is inviting, like a Looney Tunes mirage, but easily avoidable. The same could probably be said for the trench on nine that cuts off the par three’s green, as well as the pond in front of 13, although I managed to dunk mine in both.

The real trickery at Quintero then is found in its bunkers, a spidery network of sprawling traps that seem to suck up every errant mishit on the back nine. If they weren’t so damn frustrating, they’d be an enjoyable marvel of land engineering. In fact, they are, but I’m still bitter about it.

From there, the features (brush, wash, bunker, repeat) escalate in difficulty throughout the round, culminating in truly remarkable highlights on the sixth, eighth, 14th, and 16th holes. The course was challenging for all three of us, especially the quick greens, yet still beautiful enough to hold our attention and forgiving enough (at times) to keep our spirits elevated when we needed it.

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Treacherous bunkers surrounding the 16th green. (Photo by Justin Hargett)

Next month, golf’s professional set will swarm Arizona for the annual Waste Management Open, filling up TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium Course with a throng of booze-y fans. The PGA’s winter tournaments are a reprieve for the average, snow-stranded golf fan, offering an escape to perennial warm-weather locales like Mexico, Las Vegas, Southern California, and here in Arizona’s high desert.

The Quintero, then, is an excellent, championship-quality course for golfers no matter their handicap, whether they’re in Phoenix for the rowdy weekend at TPC, Major League Baseball’s Cactus League, or just in need of a pleasant escape from the buzz of Los Angeles. Just leave enough time for the replay, I’m sure you’ll want one.

Flora of the Hieroglyphic Mountains, part of the Sonoran Desert thirty miles outside Phoenix, AZ. (Photo by Justin Hargett)
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Justin Hargett is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Eephus, and the host of The Big Game podcast.