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Golf in Technicolor

At the entrance to Zion National Park in Utah, St. George serves up a spectacular background for memorable high-desert golf

By: Scott Smith

Appeared in April 2008 LINKS

St. George has managed the neat trick of being both obscure and obvious as a golf destination. In fact, locals and visitors alike tend to talk up the town by describing what it’s not: It’s not as expensive as Scottsdale, not as crowded as Las Vegas. It’s neither as hot as Palm Springs in summer nor as cold as wherever you’re fleeing from in winter. It’s not as far as Naples, not as buggy as Myrtle Beach, not as remote as Bend.

Nestled among sage-covered valleys, rumpled bluffs of red rock and jagged outcrops of black lava in the high desert of southern Utah, St. George was long known chiefly as the off-ramp to Zion National Park. Called “Yosemite in Technicolor” for its dramatic cliffs and canyons carved from multi-hued sandstone, Zion is the second step on what’s known as the Grand Staircase, an epic layering of sedimentary rock that begins at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the south and marches up through geologic time to Bryce Canyon National Park to the north.

With mild winters, plenty of room for growth and enough water (for now) to nourish it, it’s no surprise St. George has been among the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas for two decades. Visitors and residents come for the same reasons that drew Mormon leader Brigham Young, who made his winter home in the town that got its start in the 1860s as a cotton-growing mission, hence the area’s nickname, “Dixie.” Long a second-home destination for Salt Lake City residents, St. George is beginning to attract notice throughout the West.

So here’s what St. George, Utah, is for golfers: a small, quiet, friendly burg with plenty of scenic, challenging holes—fitting for a town named after the patron saint of England. It’s open-range golf, too: Many courses feature sweeping vistas of what’s inadequately called “Color Country.”

Take Sky Mountain Golf Course, for starters. It’s the course closest to Zion, in proximity and viewscape, and serves nicely as a picturesque and player-friendly introduction. At 6,312 yards, the 1994 Jeff Hardin muni is hardly the area’s longest or toughest track. But yard for yard, it’s surely the most scenic. Located in Hurricane, 15 miles north of St. George, the course spreads across a furrowed bluff overlooking the Virgin
River, with views of red-rock outcrops crashing up against the slopes of Pine Valley Mountain beyond. You may find yourself taking more pictures than shots.

Sky Mountain has an ambitious, well-heeled new neighbor in Sand Hollow Resort, a master-planned community taking shape amid the sand dunes. In time will come homes, vacation villas, resort hotel, spa and water park. But first comes the golf, which arrives this spring in the form of an 18-hole Championship course and 9-hole Links, both by rising designer John Fought.

Taking into account the blustery winds that gave Hurricane its name, Fought has gone the minimalist route. The 7,316-yard Championship layout follows the lay of the land, with wide, rumpled fairways spreading across the sagebrush flats, and bentgrass greens surrounded by huge aprons. Fought worked straight out of the Royal Melbourne school of design until the 12th hole, where the course disappears down along the rim of a red-rock canyon.

It’s this chain of four cliffside perils, starting at the elevated tee on the 452-yard 12th, that golfers will remember. Hit to a ledge of a fairway perched between a red-rock cliff rising on the right and a sheer drop-off to the left. The 178-yard 15th plays over a chasm to a green tucked into the cliff.

Sand Hollow’s grand opening will be in the fall, but it is open on a preview basis for prospective real estate buyers.

St. George’s reigning golf resort is Entrada at Snow Canyon Country Club. Its 7,059-yard Johnny Miller design opened in 1996 and turned private two years ago; you can play the course, highlighted by the back nine’s Lava Triangle, a trio of difficult holes winding through black lava rocks, by staying in one of 40 luxurious casitas (ask for one that borders the 9th fairway). If you’re planning a trip with kids in tow, let it slip that the property was one of the settings for High School Musical 2.

Entrada is Spanish for “Entrance”—to Snow Canyon State Park. If you don’t have time to give Zion National Park the full day it warrants, drive thorough this pocket of a park on your way up to the Ledges of St. George, a 7,145-yard course by Matt Dye (nephew of Pete). A golf community in the making, the Ledges also sports the area’s only full-fledged golf school, a Jack Nicklaus Academy of Golf that has the best array of high-tech swing-analysis and fitting gear this side of Butch Harmon’s shop in Las Vegas.

The front nine of the Ledges is straightforward; the views—and the challenges—begin on the 10th green, which overlooks Snow Canyon. By the par-5 16th hole, Matt is fully channeling his uncle—a long carry off the tee, two-tiered fairway, tricky approach to a tiny green perched on a pedestal. When you eventually reach the putting surface, turn around and look back down the hole and to Snow Canyon beyond. Every stroke was worth the view—and that’s seems to be par for the course anywhere you tee it up in southern Utah. 

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