Lush greens set amid black lava rocks and red sandstone cliffs make St. George one of the more scenic desert golf destinations in the country. But there's another equally alluring draw: the value.
The economic downturn and an abundance of high-quality courses within a 20-minute radius of this southern Utah community have helped make it an increasingly popular and affordable golfing getaway.
"There is a lot of competition for golfers," said Farrell Petersen, president of the Utah Senior Golf Assn., who lives in St. George. "They want our business and are willing to make a lot of concessions."
Green fees that include unlimited rounds, range balls and a cart can be had for about $40 in the hot off-season months, which for most courses lasts through September. Some courses throw in lunch packages and have cheaper "twilight rates" starting as early as 10 a.m.
Even during the peak golfing season — roughly October to May — the fees range from about $50 to $125 and are less than many comparable courses in Las Vegas, Palm Springs and Scottsdale, Ariz.
St. George, a two-hour drive east of Las Vegas, has seen a tremendous surge in growth in the last decade, with about 72,000 people now living there.
Many newcomers are retirees. That growth, in part, led to the construction of the city's nicer courses, which anchor upscale housing developments. Several of those courses, including Sand Hollow and Coral Canyon, apparently have aspirations of becoming private clubs someday, according to local golfers. One such course, the Ledges at St. George, is a beautiful 7,200-yard championship course that has struggled financially and recently changed owners.
The Ledges was virtually deserted during an early morning, midweek round that cost $40, including range balls and a GPS-equipped golf cart that lets golfers know precisely how far their ball is from the pin.
The uncertain economy has also put a crimp in the play of local residents. Some of the city's many retirees, who live on fixed incomes and used to play golf four or five times a week, have cut back on their rounds, city officials say.
As a result, golf managers are increasingly looking to attract players from outside the city's limits. Besides golf, there are other outdoor activities to entice visitors, including mountain biking, hiking and excursions to nearby state and national parks. St. George is just a 35-minute drive to Zion National Park.
"We get a lot of golfers from California," said Joyce Kelly of the St. George Convention and Tourism Office, which operates a stay-and-play website (http://www.redrockgolftrail.com) that helps golfers book hotel rooms and tee times. "This is a place for outdoor people."
Within the greater St. George area, which includes the cities of Washington and Hurricane, there are a dozen courses, including six municipal ones. Most of them have challenging designs with well-maintained greens and fairways. It is fair to say that nearly every course has stunning desert views.
St. George has two private courses, Bloomington and Entrada. Entrada, considered by many to be the state's best golf course, can be played if one stays at the Entrada Inn.
Golfers also can drive about 30 minutes from St. George to Mesquite, Nev., and play other good quality courses and gamble afterward in one of several casinos.
TravelGolf.com has dubbed St. George a "secret golf mecca." But the secret seems to be getting out.
The deals and the desert beauty attracted Dale and Steve Ferguson of Lakewood to golf in St. George recently. Booking a hotel and golf package through the Internet, the couple spent about $240 for a two-night stay at a La Quinta hotel, which included breakfasts and one round of golf at Coral Canyon Golf Course, one of the area's best courses.
"We loved the course, very scenic. I'd definitely like to it play again," Dale said. "It was an excellent value for the dollar," Steve added.