By David R. Holland
WICKENBURG, AZ – So when Hopalong Cassidy, Clark Gable and former President Richard Nixon visited Rancho de los Caballeros — a famous dude ranch dating back to 1948 — did they tee it up at Los Caballeros Golf Club?
Nope, but one might be surprised that dude ranches started thinking about golf as far back as the 1950s. Some have access to golf courses, but a list of the best has to include Los Caballeros Golf Club, the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Solvang, California, and the Flying L Ranch Golf Club in Bandera, Texas.
Van Batchelder, today’s Director of Golf and General Manager, perfectly embodies the spirit of a cowboy. He plays golf with cowboy hat and work boots, long-sleeved shirt and he won the 1994 Arizona Open. He’s the real deal and a perfect leader of this golf club.
“I work with colts and cattle horses, so I’m dressed to go from the golf course to the corral,” he says. The cowboy hat also keeps his swing “on plane”. That makes sense, maybe more should try it.
He spins tales of when he walked the fairways with former Vice President Dan Quayle (his parents owned a house here) and watched Secret Service guys scramble when a local pilot buzzed the golf course.
When the afternoon dash of the 80 guest ranch horses pass the 18th hole heading to the night pasture, Batchelder says with a grin: “You can’t see that at any other golf course.”
Golf on a Dude Ranch
Los Caballeros Golf Club was constructed in 1979 by Greg Nash and Jeff Hardin (Red Lawrence trainees), taking rugged Arizona land that features views of Vulture Peak, the Bradshaw Mountains, saguaros, chollo and palm trees.
Batchelder actually arrived at Los Cab back in 1988 taking his first head pro job after working at three golf courses in Denver. He went on to head up two award-winning Lake Tahoe area golf courses (Whitehawk Ranch and Grizzly Ranch) for 25 years before retiring in 2020.
“A new partnership bought the ranch and golf club and asked me to come on and I told them I’d help them out a little while and see how it goes. We’ve made tremendous progress,” he said.
Batchelder immediately surveyed agronomy issues and a new superintendent was hired to make the improvements.
The 7,020-yarder is situated 2,100 feet in altitude making it a tiny bit cooler in summer than Phoenix an hour away. The challenge comes in elevated, push-up fast greens with many bumps and humps in the fairways with a sprinkling of bunkers and lakes.
No. 13 is considered one of the most challenging par 5s in Arizona at 605 yards. It has a huge dip in elevation en route to a perched, small green sitting on a plateau. Only two golfers have reached this hole in two – John Daly and Dan Pohl.
Upon leaving the green the view of Vulture Peak makes Batchelder wish the panorama had included a par-3 hole as No. 14.
The Bradshaw Mountains are framed on the 536-yard No. 5 and the 578-yard seventh heads past a pond as it climbs to the green. Wrap up your day with a 561-yarder that plays downhill, downwind and down sun as Batchelder likes to say. You might even be treated to the passing horses.
Although the practice area at “Los Cab” is small it is right there as you exit the Clubhouse. It has a range, a short-game area, sand and a putting green.
The Los Caballeros Clubhouse is decorated in the tones of the desert with a Southwestern flair. In the summer the Club Chef provides lunch from a fresh grill menu daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and dining is available inside the Clubhouse or on the patio overlooking the practice area and the Bradshaw mountain range.
The pro shop is also stocked with western clothes and boots as Batchelder has done in past jobs.
Rancho de los Caballeros: Stay awhile for adventure
It is hard to believe that Rancho de los Caballeros, which included the Remuda Ranch at one time, was so rustic it didn’t even have TVs or telephones.
The swimming pool was hand dug in 1947, was the first non-rectangular shaped pool in Arizona and is heated to 78 degrees. Its pearl shape caused concern among architects who thought the shape was too daring. Over the years, the critics have been disproved, and the pool remains an example of sturdy construction, undergoing only its second resurfacing in 1990.
An airstrip was built in 1951 to accommodate the private planes of early guests. The runway was 2,600 feet long and 120 feet wide and was once used by a DC3.
The corral holds a string of 80 horses, each with a different temperament and personality. It doesn’t matter if you’re an old hand at riding, or you’ve only been on a carousel horse before, ranch hands can give you the guidance you need and a friendly and gentle equine companion to make your horseback riding vacation in Arizona unforgettable.
Play tennis, cool off in the pool or perfect your shooting skills with trap and skeet. Tennis is offered at no charge, and balls and rackets are available at the front desk. Other activities include spa, nature horseback riding, team penning, jeep tours, ATV tours, saloon adventures, yoga, cook outs by campfire, hay rides, desert nature hikes, hot air balloon rides and the Caballero Kids Program.
Dining includes a full American plan of breakfast, lunch and dinner you can add to your package.
Bunk down at Rancho de los Caballeros
Hand-crafted, Mexican-style furniture and an earthy palette of colors reflects the surroundings that make this Wickenburg ranch enjoyable. Each of the 67 casitas and 12 suites are appointed with comfort in mind. Panoramic views of the Sonora Desert await — along with a window seat, a private sun patio that invites relaxation in the cool of the evening and a pristine starry sky you won’t see in a big city.
Want even more? Schedule spa treatments, go bird watching at the Hassayampa River Preserve or visit the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in town. Some evenings one can go on a hay wagon ride to the south yucca flats for a cookout dinner.
Batchelder echoes what’s easy to understand once you have visited here. “Everybody gets in such a hurry these days. There’s a certain ambience that makes you relax, slow down and enjoy.”
My last daybreak at Rancho de los Caballeros was special. I arrived for breakfast at the main lodge, but just outside it was so peaceful. That’s when I heard a coyote serenade in the distance and two owls in a eucalyptus tree hooting before sunrise.
Cool deal as Batchelder likes to say.