St. George pacesetter Entrada every bit as demanding as Johnny Miller

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

ST. GEORGE, Utah - Approaching the third tee, well aware there are a few Entrada first timers in the group, Larry Anderson tries to play a little prevent defense.

"The thing to avoid here," Anderson deadpans, "is hitting the mother-in-law's house."

Anderson points the sacred cow out for good measure, a one-story earth-toned stucco condo. It is just on the right of the fairway approaching the green. Right in prime smacking zone. And you can bet Larry's the one receiving the distressed phone call whenever it gets caught in Titleist crossfire.

Still, from here it looks awfully far away and off course. It seems like Larry, a retired PHD with plenty of time for golf and the grandkids now, is being mighty cautious.

Then you start swinging and realize just how narrow this par 4 approach is. The house is very dingable after all. This is what the Johnny Miller-designed Entrada does. It keeps the golfer off guard all round long, lulling into a false sense of slight security before dropping in a zinger. Come to think of it, it is much like the irreverent, Hootie Johnson-hated color commentator himself.

And the erratic playhouse fun begins right from the get go. No. 1 is a 444-yard par 4 that plays shorter than that with a downhill approach. It is very possible for the average bogey golfer to get onto the green in two on a good day. Then the fun starts. This is a slopping, speeding green, a harsh introduction to Miller's PGA Tour-take on putting surfaces.

"Johnny went a little wild on some of these greens," said Anderson, a member who lives on the course (about eight holes from the mother-in-law) and knows it as well as anybody. "You'd think he was expecting the pros out here."

While it is hard to imagine Tiger Woods and company ever making a Tour stop in this Mormon-living-values town of Holiday Inns and Best Westerns two hours from Las Vegas in Southern Utah, plenty of cost and quality conscious golfers are. St. George has long attracted Vegas residents sick of Sin City greens fees that can routinely approach three bills and now it's becoming more and more well known outside of the West. Entrada stands at the center of those expanding profile plans and it is about as modest about its skills as a carefully-choreographed Terrell Owens touchdown routine.

There is little question Entrada considers itself the class of St. George's 11 course options.

"In must plays if we're No. 1 -- and we think we are -- Coral Canyon is a close second," Entrada head pro David Hall said.

Miller's course backs up those boasts by using the Snow Canyon's natural scenery to full advantage. Everyone talks about the huge lava expanses on No. 15, 16 and 17. While those can create wonder, it is the views of the red rock ridges in the Snow Canyon background of many holes that truly wow. It almost feels like you've stumbled upon your own red planet, awash in the kind of colors most mere mortals haven't seen before.

Miller plays up the scenery in his design by keeping the holes spread apart, enforcing a sense of seclusion. You don't see a lot of groups bumping into each other like you do at many courses. Even on a beautiful, sunny Saturday, our group moved along virtually unaware that they were foursomes right in front and back of us.

Of course, this isolation also extends to the beer cart girl. There were no cart sightings throughout the day either.

You're truly on your own.

This is never more apparent than when you reach 16. This starts a brutal closing stretch consisting of the No. 3, No. 1 and No. 5 handicap holes on the course respectively. No. 16 is the rare par 5 that's actually interesting as well as arduous. Sixteen does not just test with distance. It requires extreme accuracy. This twisting, turning fairway is one of the most narrow ones on a narrow course and if your ball strays you're in the lava rocks, hoping for a fortuitous ricochet out.

Typical of Entrada, one of the most visually stimulating holes is also one of the most mentally taxing.

"We've got this tough course set amongst all this great scenery distracting you," Hall said, without the trace of a smile. It was easy to imagine a sadistic twinkle in his eye behind his wraparound shades however.

Hall is almost reverential toward Entrada's lava. He crows that Hawaii is the only other place he's seen lava like this. The huge black lava rocks, remains that came out of a fissure rather than down a mountain, are visually arresting and bountiful. While St. George's city operated Sunbrook course complex also includes three lava holes, Entrada's measure in on a much grander scale. The fields are expansive and it really looks like there was a serious war on the Earth waged here.

"I've played all over the U.S., in large parts of Europe, and I've never seen anything like this lava," Anderson said.

Still, surrounded by intimidating lava rocks almost calling out to your ball, the No. 1 handicap 17th's greatest challenge is actually its fairway design. This par 4 takes a sharp dogleg left about 300 yards past the back tees, right into a sometimes whipping wind. Once you navigate the dogleg, you are facing two bunkers pinching the green into an opening that resembles the size of a supermodel's throat.

It is the tried and true obstacles rather than the unique lava that really confound.

"The lava's not a horrible challenge," said Mark Hundley of Vegas, a Entrada rookie. "You've just got to be on your game and take your normal shots."

In fact, Hundley didn't lose a shot to the lava. He did lose a wayward blast into the gaping open basement of one of the many condos being built along the front nine. This is the danger in St. George's new habitat booming retirement town: avoiding the constant construction.

Kind of makes it hard for nature to seize the entire day. Still...

"I can see where (the lava) can be intimidating though," Hundley's buddy and semi-frequent Entrada player Scott Ford said.

With long forced carries off several tees, including No. 15, No. 17 and No. 18, Miller makes no apologies to weak-kneed duffers. You'd better have confidence in your swing, confidence in your club selection.

Johnny Miller always shows a lot of guts on the air and he expects the same from your game.

The Verdict

A trip to St. George almost requires a round at Entrada. It might not be the most relaxing day, but it will be memorable. There are many unexpected pleasures/agonies like the 410-yard, par-4 second hole that snakes around two lakes in the middle of the desert.

Miller isn't much for sticking with convention. The par 3s are all gone by the 14th, leaving that taxing par 5, par 4, par 4 closing. Johnny's not easing you into or out of anything.

The biggest quibble with Entrada is its facilities. For a high-end course, its clubhouse/pro shop is the size of some Manhattan studio apartments. There is no room to hang out before or after a round. The food service consists of a little window that's little more than a glorified hot dog stand. Construction's going supersonic speed on the course's condos, making it clear the slow pace of golf amenities building is a choice. It is apparent this is a course that was somewhat rushed into play, the better to push the surrounding housing development.

Entrada might not turn into your favorite course -- Miller's too tough and atmosphere's too formal -- but it is a great day's play.

Places to eat

Judd's Store ((435) 628-2596) harkens back to a simpler time (maybe Tuesday here) with its vintage soda pop in glass bottles and old malt shop style shakes. The Fairway Grill ((435) 656-4448) sounds like it is place brought in by the golf boom, but it is actually a favorite shooting the breeze spot for locals. Scaldoni's ((435) 674-1300) received "Best Dining in Dixie" honors from Salt Lake City Magazine and is known for its very generously portioned Italian dishes.

Places to stay

The Howard Johnson Express ((435) 628-8000) is family owned and it shows with touches like fresh, warm cookies served every night from 5 to 7 in the lobby. The Ramada Inn ((435) 628-2828) is a quick walk from the Factory Outlet Stores and is also now touting a new honeymoon suite. Golf and hotel combination packages are also available at discounted rates through the Red Rock Golf Trail (1-888-345-2550).

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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