Now public, challenging Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club is worth the drive from Phoenix, Arizona

MARICOPA, Ariz. -- Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club always has had two strikes against it.

Strike one: It opened in 2002 as a private, men-only golf course, and a large portion of the golfing public still thinks that's the case, even though it went public and welcomed women in November of 2008. Strike two: It's located in Maricopa, Ariz., a small community 30 miles south of Phoenix, and some 50 to 60 miles from the golfing hub of the Valley, the north Scottsdale corridor.

"We have to continue to fight the idea that we're out in the middle of nowhere," said General Manager and Director of Golf Garrett Wallace. "Some people don't even know we're here."

Those two strikes explain why Ak-Chin Southern Dunes G.C., a Troon Property, is about to get its fifth owner in eight years.

But golfers who are unconcerned about its history -- and don't mind an easy 30- to 40-minute drive -- will discover something else once they play the par-72, 7,517-yard course: It's an absolute treasure, one of the best tracks in the Valley.

What makes Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club special?

For one thing, the Australian links layout gives it a completely different feel than most golf courses in Arizona. Designers Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley were true to links golf; Southern Dunes plays hard and fast and the putter can be used for chips around the greens.

But what truly distinguishes Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club is its versatility. It can be a monster: From the tips the golf course has a 76.2 rating, a 141 slope and five par-4s of at least 463 yards. But with five sets of tee boxes -- the whites come in at 6,074 yards -- weekend duffers also can enjoy the layout.

"I play out here a lot, and I've shot everywhere from 85 to 107," said Larry Taylor, a 17-handicapper from nearby Casa Grande.

Avoid the beach at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club

Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club can be summed up in two words: Sand traps. They're everywhere. Wallace said a typical course has two to three acres of sand. Ak-Chin Southern Dunes has 12. If you can't wrap your mind around that number, try this: There are 129 traps on the 18 holes, an average of just more than seven bunkers per hole.

It's pretty simple, really. Stay out of the traps, and you can post a low score. Find the beach, and your scorecard will explode.

"If you don't play out of the sand well, you don't want to play here," Taylor said.

No hole better exemplifies the golf course than No. 14. It's a short par-4, just 323 yards from the tips. But with 16 bunkers on it No. 14 has -- get this -- more sand than grass.

"There are a lot more sixes and sevens living on that hole than twos and threes," Wallace said. "We call it the dunes effect. You can play the entire hole and not leave the sand."

Hitting it in the fairway isn't an automatic ticket out of trouble because the greens -- which are small to begin with -- are well protected by bunkers. Often, it's advisable to play away from the pin and hope to get up and down for par.

"The golf course really bares its teeth around the greens," Wallace said. "You just can't fire at every pin."

Thank goodness, then, for fairways that are as wide as 70 yards, even though the views off the tee can be intimidating. If Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club ever narrowed the landing areas, the course would be virtually unplayable.

But the way it's set up now, it's one of the more demanding -- and enjoyable -- courses in the Valley.

Just stay out of the sand.

Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club: The verdict

A week after we played, Southern Dunes was hosting a U.S. Open sectional and altering the course to be a par-70 that played at 7,400 yards. Yeah, it's a bear.

But it's also a fair test because good shots will be rewarded and golfers who use their head instead of firing at sucker pins will have a good chance to make par from the shaved areas around the greens.

But be forewarned: The 129 bunkers can make Ak-Chin Southern Dunes anything but a walk on the beach.

Stay and play at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club

Ak-Chin Southern Dunes runs package deals with Harrah's Ak-Chin Casino just five miles away. One example: The total rewards package for $99 includes a round of golf, one dozen Titleist Pro V1 golf balls, lunch, two drinks and $25 of play at the casino.

Ak-Chin Southern Dunes offers private lessons and also features a double-ended practice range that stretches past 350 yards.

Scott Bordow is the golf columnist for the Arizona Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @sbordow.

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Now public, challenging Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club is worth the drive from Phoenix, Arizona