At first glance, the northwest corner of Idaho Road and U.S. Highway 60 on the outskirts of Apache Junction looks like any other god-forsaken parcel of desert: 40 acres of flat-as-a-table scrub with most of the vegetation brown or already dead.
Then those who pass by get a glimpse of yellow flags and old wooden benches spread throughout this desolate landscape. And, hey, what are those guys in golf carts doing out there?
Welcome to Snakehole Golf and Country Club, where a blade of grass never has been able to cut through the rock-hard dirt. Not like the members who reside in the nearby Countryside RV Resort really care about such tip-top conditions, mind you. Especially when their golf costs just pennies for a nine-hole round complete with sand greens.
"We really do enjoy it,'' said Dick Schmale, a retiree from Wisconsin who serves as president of the club. "Each member puts up $15 a year, and that allows them to play all the golf they want, any time they want.''
Schmale's demographic is typical of Snakehole's 175 to 200 members, a number that fluctuates depending on how many winter visitors from the Midwest and Canada show up for "the season.'' “I'm here for about four months a year, play three times a week (27 holes), and I'd say I'm one of the slackers,'' he said. "A lot of ’em play every day.''
The course is leased from the state at a rate of $1,200 per year. No one seems to know who the original "architects'' were, but some version of the Snakehole layout has been around since shortly after 1982, when the RV resort first opened its gates.
“It's really just an excellent opportunity to meet the other people in the park,'' Schmale said. "I guess you could say it's more of a social thing than a golf course.''
What's unique about the Snakehole nine is that this is the way golf was originally played in Arizona more than 100 years ago, when — believe it or not — cowboys first got wind of "barnyard pool.''
According to the Arizona Historical Society, the state's first course was Phoenix Golf Club on the corner of Central Avenue and Roosevelt Street, which debuted in 1901. But cowpokes around the border town of Bisbee already had set up their own version of a high-plains range, complete with branding irons that served as pins, according to photos dating to 1899.
In fact, Bisbee residents built Arizona's second course in 1908. It was called Turquoise Valley, and the following year Ingelside Golf Resort became the second course in Phoenix, near 56th Street and Thomas Road. In 1912, Dr. Alexander Chandler built San Marcos Resort in the town that still bears his name.
Just like Snakehole, all of those early entries were nine-hole dirt courses complete with sand greens. It was not until 1927 that the first grass greens sprouted at Phoenix Country Club, which had altered its name from Phoenix Golf Club while moving to its current home at Thomas and Seventh Street.
Snakehole also has gone through a metamorphosis, said one of its longtime members, Marv Christensen. "I first started coming here in 1989, and Idaho Road stopped right here, and there was nothing beyond it but a sand trail,'' said Christensen, a retiree from Michigan. "Why, (Highway 60) didn't go beyond Power Road at that time.
"But when the 60 was extended out here some time in the ’90s, it cut through part of the golf course, so we had to make a few changes. Nothing drastic, but it's a little different than it was in the beginning.''
Even though the corner seems ripe for a Circle K and a parking lot, it hasn't happened yet, Christensen added.
"We live with the possibility of losing it every year — all the state has to do is give us six months notice — but it hasn't happened yet, and so we play on at their mercy.''
Schmale said that, in a lot of ways, Snakehole is just like any other club in the East Valley. And despite its rather humble playing field, it is highly private and reserved only for residents of Countryside RV Park who decide to join.
"You can be a guest of a member out here one time, but that's it,'' said Schmale of the club's policy. "It's just our little club, run by the residents rather than folks at the RV park.''
Snakehole plays to a par of 29, and features two par-4s in the 240-yard range, and seven par-3s that go from 90 to 150 yards. The wind "is a big deal out here,'' Schmale said, but it's the rocks — "American'' and "Canadian'' — that go a long way in determining a player's score.
"It's the rocks and pebbles that keep you honest,'' he said. "If you hit an American rock, that's a good bounce, whereas you hit a Canadian rock, that's a bad one. If your ball gets behind a rock or a bush, you get two club lengths without penalty."
The sand greens are oiled and have a large piece of carpet on the end of a PVC pipe that serves as a "broom" to smooth the greens for the next group. Each green sports a "Canadian Eh Rock,'' as an obstacle, another playful jab at their fellow members from up north.
The pins that hold the yellow flags in place are basically iron fence posts, and the cups are a few feet away, as the greens are restricted to 300 to 500 square feet. And the only way to get onto Snakehole is to have a key that opens a big iron gate on the course's eastern border. As a rule, more players walk than ride carts.
How about snakes?
"You bet there are snakes!'' Schmale said. "There's rattlers, and when the temperature gets above 90 degrees, they start to come out.''
Of course, by then most of the members of Snakehole Golf and Country Club are "back home for the summer,'' teeing off at courses that might be in better condition but never will boast such a fanciful name.