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This Arizona club has an ‘exclusive’ membership and sand greens

It’s peak golf season in Arizona, with tee sheets packed, prices maxed and putting surfaces in prime condition.

But you’d barely know the difference at Snakehole Golf Club, just east of Phoenix, where the crowds are scarce, the fees are fixed and the greens are pretty much the same as ever because they’re made of sand.

“Our attitude is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” says Snakehole club president Bob Lee. “We like to keep it low-key out here.”

Which doesn’t mean they let just anyone on. Snakehole, as Lee points out, “is very exclusive,” if not in the manner of most private clubs. Its membership is restricted to residents of Countryside RV Resort, a mobile-home park for seniors in the city of Apache Junction. Of the 500-plus lot-holders at Countryside, 55 have paid $30 in annual golf dues, which provide unlimited access to a rough-hewn, fenced-off nine-hole course, stitched into the desert-scape alongside U.S. Route 60. Most members are of the Matlock generation. The youngest is 58. The oldest is 84.

“We’re just a group of seniors who like to golf and have fun,” Lee says.

The course itself is middle-aged. Born in 1979, it was conceived by a golf-loving Countryside resident named Con Olson, on state land adjacent to the RV park that locals had been treating as an unofficial dump. With help from a Countryside neighbor, Olson cleared the site of bedsprings, hub caps and other junk to make room for a makeshift routing that earned its name in a literal way: one day, a snake was spotted, coiled under a bush.

Olson died in 1991, but the layout lives on largely as he designed it, with Astroturf tee boxes and hardpan fairways to go with its sand greens, and holes that range in length from 83 to 226 yards. The pro shop is a picnic bench. The membership office is the RV that Lee shares with his wife, Josie. When a new member enlists, they get a key to the gated chain-link entrance of the course and a yellow tag with a number on it.

“Kind of like what you get when you check your coat at a restaurant,” Lee says.

Like many of his Snakehole cohort, Lee, 66, is a snowbird. He and Josie spend their summers in Illinois, where Lee had a career in a chemical plant, “making every kind of plastic you can imagine,” until his retirement five years ago. They always figured they’d wind up in Florida. “But then we tried out Arizona and fell in love with it,” he says.

They’ve been wintering at Countryside ever since.

When they first rolled up in their RV, in 2019, Lee had dabbled in golf but had no intention of taking up the game. “But one of the guys here kept badgering me to try it and I did,” Lee says.

It’s an old story. He was hooked. (Josie, for her part, still hasn’t caught the bug.) Lee became club president three years ago, a formal title for a job with few rigid obligations, joining a six-person board that would never be mistaken for the membership committee at Augusta.

Every November, when he and Josie arrive in Arizona, Lee spearheads the effort to get the course in shape. Mostly, that involves preparing the greens, which are a mixture of sand from a home-and-garden store with leftover cooking oil from the local American Legion, raked into smooth circles, roughly 15-feet in diameter. Stationed at each green is a “green groomer” — a broom handle attached to a used piece of carpet — which golfers use to erase ball marks and footprints after they’ve putted out.

Beyond that, the only serious maintenance is uprooting desert grasses that sprout up in the fairways during the season, a task accomplished by dragging a harrow behind an ATV.

“It’s funny,” Lee says. “Most courses are trying to grow grass. We try to get rid of it.”

Snakehole is open seven days a week, but it’s busiest on Monday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, when the membership gathers for league play, featuring four-person teams in low-stake best-ball competitions. The basic rules of golf apply, up to a point. If a ball settles under a bush, for instance, the player is entitled to two club-lengths of free relief. The same would surely hold if a ball came to rest on a curled-up rattlesnake, though Lee says he’s never seen a rattler (or any other snake) on the property.

“Just coyotes, road runners and quail,” he says.

Given the less-than-manicured conditions, most members play with older, used clubs and tee up their ball on shots from the hardpan. There’s no penalty for that, either. At Snakehole, no one tends to sweat the small stuff.

They weren’t, anyway, this past Thursday morning. As serious play got underway 50 minutes up the road at the WM Phoenix Open, the Snakehole gang went for league play. Camaraderie and friendly competition. The air was clear and cold. Superstition Mountain loomed clearly in the backdrop. Handicaps aren’t kept. But everyone keeps score. Wearing layers to ward off the chill, Lee and his foursome shot a best-ball 27 to tie for first.

They split the pot.

“We won two bucks,” he says.

Snakehole’s greens are a mix of fine sand and leftover cooking oil.

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