There are some private golf communities that whisper their virtues. Others shout them. Rio Verde Country Club falls into the former camp. Since 1972, Rio Verde has quietly occupied the highest rung as the Phoenix-Scottsdale area’s “Best-Kept Secret.” Truthfully, it’s going to be hard to hang onto that tag much longer, as Rio Verde Country Club serves up so many positives the curtain is about to be lifted once and for all.
“The number one reason why people come to Rio Verde and why they stay here, is the culture of the membership,” said Darryl Janisse, Rio Verde’s longtime director of golf. “We have a tagline we like: ‘Rio Verde — It’s a great place to live, work and play.’ We’re in a great area, we’ve got beautiful surroundings, and we’ve got 36 holes of golf. We have everything a private club needs. But at the end of the day, it’s all about the people. They’re very welcoming. They’re open-armed when it comes to getting new members involved. Obviously we have wonderful amenities, too, but it’s the people that make the community what it is.”
GOLF AS IT SHOULD BE
Why are Rio Verde members so welcoming? Start with the setting they wake up to every day. The stunning slice of nature on display would put anyone in a cheery mood. Rio Verde is located near the Verde River northeast of Scottsdale, in the foothills of the McDowell Mountains. The low-density community has just 993 custom homes (796 single-family homes and 197 townhomes) spread over 735 roomy acres, with a backdrop second to none. Its next door neighbor is the 2.9 million acres of the Tonto National Forest. Amid the pristine, protected desert land, ringed with mountains, Rio Verde is a virtual oasis. Janisse puts it more simply: “The views are unbelievable.”
Grins are ever-present on Rio Verde’s golf courses as well. Twenty-seven holes date to the early 1970s with a fourth nine added to form two courses in 1983. As with nearly all Arizona courses built 40 to 50 years ago, Rio Verde’s layouts embrace a graceful parkland style, carpeted in wall-to-wall grass, with desert accents on the perimeter.
Still, the two tracks didn’t truly acquire personalities of their own until Tom Lehman’s design ﬁrm renovated all 36 holes in 2007-2008. Quail Run, a par-72 of 6,602 yards, retains the most Midwestern ﬂair. It embodies traditional golf, with understated undulations on the quick greens, lush rough edging the collars of the putting surfaces and sand-faced bunkers that ﬂash an upsweep of sand for maximum visibility.
White Wing, on the other hand, sports many of the characteristics of a Scottish links. At 6,535 yards, par 72, White Wing’s slightly elevated greens feature more vexing contours and are shaved down at the sides to create myriad options when it comes to short-game recovery shots. Bunkers are grass-faced with sand bottoms, adding additional Old World ﬂavor. What the courses undeniably share are impeccably groomed Tifdwarf greens and those one-of-a-kind vistas of mountains and desert.
For extra golf, Quail Run’s back nine can be converted into a 1,350-yard par-3 layout. For sharpening skills, a full practice facility includes a large range, three practice greens, and a unique short-game area along the third hole of White Wing called “3 Flags.” It’s a self-serve setup: Bring your own shag bag and take aim at three targets set up at 50, 100, and 150 yards.
All told, Rio Verde golf is exactly what it should be. There’s plenty of challenge — and views — yet it ﬁts all the skill levels. The playability — and walkability — according to General Manager/COO Dave Ulm, ties right back to the culture of the membership. “People have fun playing golf with each other,” he said. “These are not stressful courses to play. People are able to relax and it leads into other social aspects and activities. Pretty soon, you’ve made a lot of new friends. And it starts with the golf.”
TOASTING THE GOOD LIFE
Having said that, Rio Verde Country Club didn’t get to achieve the status it enjoys by standing still. Always seeking to improve the member experience, the club undertook a $3.75 million clubhouse renovation in 2018. The doors re-opened in May 2019 to cheers all around.
“We updated the entire clubhouse,” said Food & Beverage Director Chris Mirza. “We have a brand new restaurant, new kitchen, new cosmetics. It has created a new type of energy.”
The old formal restaurant, the Copper Room, has been transformed into the Box Bar Grille. Named for the original property here, Box Bar Ranch, the new space is more casual, but cozier, and thus a more immersive experience, where members love to gather and toast to the good life. In addition, new private rooms offer ideal spots for special small dinners. For those celebrating an ace — or a double-bogey — a new drop-down bar melds the best of indoors and outdoors and yields glorious vistas of Four Peaks and the Mazatzal Mountains.
Aesthetic updates include lighter colors that invoke a warmer, more welcoming feeling and the addition of giant wine bottles to set the tone. Making an immediate splash is the most recent clubhouse addition, a three-tier waterfall near the entrance to the clubhouse. “It comes down into the cactus and it’s great looking,” said Janisse. “It also creates a great sound when you’re sitting up on the Box Bar Grille patio and you can actually hear it running through.”
With a more contemporary ambiance, plus better facilities and ﬂow, members no longer depart at 7 or 8 pm, or what was known as “Rio Verde Midnight.” Now the good times roll on.
An enviable roster of amenities and activities includes a community center with library, dance studio, and business center, hiking trails, pickleball, art classes, swimming, ﬁtness center, bocce, and much more. Chef Todd has unquestionably elevated the dining experience. Try the 11-ounce Walleye sandwich on a brioche bun at lunch, a nod to the club’s Minnesota roots and the hatch green chile meatloaf at dinner. Whatever you feast on, don’t miss munching on the addicting homemade potato chips. They’re thin, crispy, and exquisitely seasoned.
Golfers enjoy member leagues, member-member, and member-guest events that amplify the camaraderie. Added together, it’s clear why Rio Verdes considered is one of the best 36-hole private club experience in the Valley.
Darryl Janisse related a story of how colleagues were recently sitting in a board meeting and another Rio Verde tagline came up that they liked: “the Arizona you came to Arizona for.” If that sounds vaguely familiar, it should. That’s what co-founder Ray King wrote in 1973. If you crave stunning desert scenery, handsome, walkable golf courses, and the warmth that comes from friendly neighbors, Rio Verde is the Arizona you came to ﬁnd. ▪