Big Club, Small Balls

Golfing at Coral Canyon

Steve Toronto let loose on a golf ball like a bullet from a small caliber pistol that arced up over hole 12 at Coral Canyon, over swaths of mini-canyons and paloverde and even Joshua trees, over patches of slickrock, and higher now into the air swept over towards the snowy Pine Valley Mountains and the sharp citadels of Zion National Park before settling down a couple hundred yards later on a rough patch of grass that seemed to be the antithesis of the red rock desert that surrounded the course. The ball took two big bounces before settling down. We drove towards it.

The second shot was a sort of line drive with a six-iron that settled closer into the green, within striking distance of the hole. 'The two hardest things you can do in sports,' he had said earlier, 'is to hit a baseball and hit a basketball.' A telemark skier, I was not ready to agree with the statement yet but would give this assessment of the sport of golf: harder than it looks. On hole 13, a 229-yard par 3 that noodled amongst black volcanic rock and spiny cactus, I hit and hit and hit the ball, the good hits connecting with a vibration that tingled my fingers, the not-good hits connecting only with the side of the club and skipping like a stone a few yards into the desert sands. And in between swings I rememberd something Gary White, Coral Canyon's director of golf, had told me earlier that morning: 'Swing hard in case you hit the ball.' Golf: tougher than it looks.

Coral Canyon, situated in a bugeoning master-planned community just off Interstate 15 a few miles north of St. George, is the newest public course in Utah and one of only a handful that can call themselves true destination courses. Though the resort and hotel at Coral Canyon has yet to be built it is being planned, said White, and once open will serve what has already been called one of the best new courses in America.

And one of the most beautiful? Like the best of courses, Coral Canyon's emerald green fairways and blue ponds and streams cut appealing swaths, but here they contrast sharply with red rock outcrops, cliffs and peaks, and a pan back from the greens reveals the Pine Valley and Markagunt high country to the north, and the austere ranges of the Mojave Desert to the south. But more than simply an appealing mix of rock and grass, like the very best of courses, Coral Canyon is beautiful because it is an interpretation of the landscape it borrows from.

Keith Foster-designed Coral Canyon is a 7,029-yard par 72 course owned and operated by SunCor Golf, which owns a smattering of renowned courses, mostly in Arizona. The course sits at 2,800 feet above sea level and is tucked into the very northern finger of the Mojave, close to where it unravels into the Colorado Plateau, just to the northeast, and the Great Basin, to the north. The relatively low elevation means winter and spring golf is king here - most playing is between January and May, said White. Even though it can be cool in January, he said, it rarely snows; Coloradoans and Minnesotans will be out playing in shorts, said White, on days when most locals might be wearing a sweater. Nearby St. George is Utah's warm weather playground. Close by are a handful of other courses, making the area a great destination for golf vacations, and near enough for day trips are the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Snow Canyon State Park. The ski slopes of Brian Head are about an hour and a half to the north.

White said that Coral Canyon was all the luxury of a high-end course you might find in Phoenix at half the price - tee fees cost $83, including a cart, with a special sunset tee fee deal. But luxury was not getting me through this first-ever day on the course. White had supplied us with Callaway Gold clubs, including the Big Bertha drivers, which Steve said was good stuff. I was trying hard to get everything together for the solid hit - swing, feet placement, follow through, whatever it's all called - but there always seemed to be something amiss. 'The fun of golf is just whacking the ball,' said Steve, apparently oblivious to the obvious double entendre. This was the last hole, and my first put had left me with a few hundred yards left to go. Steve was on ahead. I could see my dim reflection in the titanium driver. I could feel the crunch of my shoes on the close cropped grass. For the first time of the day, when I pulled back on the ball the first time it took off with real determination. It sailed. It soared. It was gone.

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