SCOTTSDALE, Arizona – Now that the 2018-19 snowy, cold, and wet winter of our golf discontent has finally evaporated, it should be time for all avid New England golfers to anticipate a temperate return to our favorite layouts.
But, unfortunately, after April’s reneged promise of clemency—“the cruelest month” according to T. S. Elliot—and during the following cold-blooded moments that May also can entail, perhaps one last golf sojourn is in order. Call it the final week of spring training before the halcyon golf days of summer finally arrive.
And I have a highly recommended golf destination for you — Scottsdale, Arizona — the 2019 North American Golf Destination of the Year, according to the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO). This city in the Valley of the Sun boasts more than 50 championship courses, about 70 resorts/hotels, myriad dining experiences, boutique shopping, and incomparable fair weather. Because Scottsdale offers so many options for so much enjoyment, the visiting golfer needs a little advice, both for a base of operations and then for an itinerary. Just as important, all this advice will embrace five facilities and/or layouts that have undergone recent extensive metamorphoses and are primed to provide the best golf experiences possible.
Enlightenment at Mountain Shadows
I would suggest the base of operations should be Mountain Shadows, a favorite destination for decades and located in the heart of the appropriately named Paradise Valley. It’s only 15 minutes from Sky Harbor and easy to access. The benchmark for desert luxury and design since it opened in 1959, Mountain Shadows first catered to Hollywood stars, socialites, international travelers, and tourist families. Nestled between the iconic Camelback Mountain—a can’t miss spectacle to the north of Sky Harbor International as your plane descends—and Mummy Mountain—resembling a prone Egyptian mummy—the resort basks in the sun and the changing shadows throughout the day.
From 2014-2017, Westroc Hospitality and Woodbine Development bought, re-envisioned, and revitalized the property for the 21st Century. The resort’s contemporary, upscale setup, with its 183 totally renovated and spacious rooms, exhibits the original style, class, service, and lavish amenities of the 1959 model. With view-framed pools, a fully equipped fitness facility, the Hearth ’61 Restaurant & Patio & Bar, Rusty’s Patio Restaurant & Lounge, surrounding green areas, and spectacular views, Mountain Shadows offers a vacation milieu that is unsurpassed.
The Short Course Is Long on Fun
In addition, and most importantly for the golfers among us, the resort’s guests get to play one of the country’s most admired executive golf courses and the only one in Arizona. The Short Course, with its seclusion and imposing desert backdrop, was designed in 1961 by Arthur Jack Snyder and totally refashioned by his mentee Forrest Richardson in 2015. When Richardson refurbished and modernized the course, a par 54, his redesign, which is easily walkable, was meant to emphasize the concept of “fun.”
Each hole has its own moniker that highlights that par 3’s personality, and the three tees from 1735 to 2310 yards present the potential for a hole-in-one anywhere with a carry of 50 to 193 yards. “Plunge,” naturally, is the first hole, and “Climb,” the second gets you moving toward Camelback. Others such as “Biarritz,” “Halo,” “Punchbowl,” “Oasis,” “Mummy,” and “High Bar” give you a sense of the obstacle or view that you’ll be facing. The greens are most exacting with their undulations, buried elephants, and different levels adding greatly to the “fun.” You’ll be able to replay the course in your mind afterwards because the par 3’s are most memorable. The Short Course is the perfect appetizer to whet your iron game before heading off to the main courses. www.mountainshadows.com
The Feast at Papago, a Municipal Treat
Let’s begin the feast at Papago GC, owned by the City of Phoenix and only a long par 5 from Sky Harbor. Always considered one of the finest public golf courses in the state and in the Top 100 nationally, Papago was created in 1963 by Billy Bell of Torrey Pines fame and then totally overhauled and updated to the tune of $5.8 M in 2008 by Billy Fuller, who maintained Bell’s initial design integrity. The gently rolling terrain showcases the imposing views of the Papago Buttes, Camelback and South mountains, and the downtown Phoenix skyline.
The extensive restoration project included the re-turfing of all greens and fairways and rough, the installation of a new irrigation system, the removal of many trees to improve sight lines and views, and the reshaping and adding of bunkers. The par-72 layout is long—from 5,404 to 7,333 yards (with a CR of 74.8 and Slope of 129 from the back tees)—is extremely well bunkered, and has tough, undulated greens. The home of the Arizona State University golf teams, Papago sports a singular practice facility planned by ASU alum Phil Mickelson. And Lou’s Bar and Grill is a major part of the Papago scene in the upscale clubhouse. www.papagogolfcourse.net
The New Track at the Venerable Phoenician
Just a scant nine miles from Sky Harbor and situated at the base of Camelback Mountain is The Phoenician, a Scottsdale premier player since 1988 and a AAA Five Diamond luxury resort. The Phoenician is in the final phase of a massive, three-year innovation project. Nearly every aspect of the resort has been rejuvenated, especially the golf course, managed by Troon Golf, that architect Phil Smith has transformed from the first-opened 27 holes into the now superb and formidable 18-holes. The golf shop, locker rooms, and 19th Hole have also been updated, as well as the new Club Car fleet that has been outfitted not only with GPS but also with other high tech goodies, including Bluetooth connectivity, streaming music, and live sports and news.
Smith’s previous renovations have included TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course, Desert Mountain, and other Troon Golf courses, most notably Troon North. At The Phoenician, Smith re-contoured the fairways and rebuilt and resurfaced every green with new TifEagle grass. Tees, fairways, and rough are 419 Bermudagrass. He kept the beauty of the Sonoran Desert inherent in each hole as he re-routed the course and provided the par-71 with five sets of tees that range from 4,594 to 6,518 yards.
Phil Smith said, “Our goal with the course redesign and renovation was to give each player the opportunity to make an informed decision before every shot by employing fundamental design strategies to create a great golf experience for resort guests and daily-fee golfers. Everything is now right there in front of the golfer, as there are no blind shots or blind hazards. We’re thrilled with how the golf course looks and plays.” www.thephoenician.com
The Sweet Ambiente and Padre Courses at Camelback Golf Club
Just down the street from Mountain Shadows are the two scenic and challenging Camelback championship courses, part of the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa. First opened in 1936, Camelback Inn was then purchased by Marriott in 1967 and became the corporation’s first all-inclusive golf resort. Ambiente has a distinctive desert links-style appearance without the ubiquitous rock outcroppings and cacti while Padre enjoys an exceptional parkland setting. However, both offer elevation changes, native grasses, lakes with outstanding water holes, lofty trees, and the “de rigueur” mountain views.
Ambiente, née Indian Bend in 1970, received both the full attention of architect Jason Straka for two years starting in 2013 and almost $10 M in Marriott financing. Straka created a superlative eco-friendly and sustainable 18-hole “oeuvre d’art.” The renamed Ambiente reflects his purpose and goal, for the Spanish word means “existing in the surrounding environment.” Straka added 100 acres of native desert and grass areas that are not only striking but also require a third less water. The five sets of tees for the par 72 from 4,978 to 7,225 yards give ample opportunity to find the proper length for your game.
Padre opened in 1966, but it wasn’t until 1999 with Arthur Hills’ total redesign that required strategy and finesse that Padre garnered critical acclaim. Within its lush context, the Padre is always well manicured with its flawless rolling greens, fairways, and rough. Hills’ use of multiple lakes and well-placed fairway and greenside bunkers will also force you to play position golf. In fact, the par-5 18th hole was voted the “Best Water Hole” in the state by Arizona Golfer. Not as long as Ambiente, the par-72 Padre has four sets of tees from 5,023 to 6,868 yards. When you play Padre, “Vaya con Dios, mi amigo.” https://www.marriott.com/golf-hotels/phxcb-jw-marriott-scottsdale-camelback-inn-resort-and-spa/camelback-golf-club/5256759/home-page.mi
A Taste of the Wickenburg Ranch Lifestyle
If the appetizer is the Short Course and the entrees are Papago, The Phoenician, and Camelback, then dessert must be Wickenburg Ranch, although it’s not in Scottsdale. No, it’s an hour up the road in cowboy country, where the town of Wickenburg is a well-known rodeo haunt. Opened in 2015, Wickenburg Ranch is a 5-star resort and residential Trilogy community with unsurpassed amenities such as four signature restaurants and bars, four tennis courts and six pickleball courts and three bocce courts, a huge heated pool, a spa, a Lunar Lounge for telescoping the galaxy, and hiking.
However, what makes Wickenburg Ranch most savory is its two golf courses managed by Troon Golf: Big Wick and Li’l Wick, both with immaculate Bentgrass greens. Big Wick was seven years in the making and continuously groomed and refined until that first official tee shot. A par 71 with six tees that range from 4,487 to 7,059 yards, its combination of holes—six par 3’s, five par 5’s, and seven par 4’s—is certainly unusual but is also certainly appreciated. Arizona Golfer wrote this about the Ranch when it opened in 2015: “Its artfully designed holes showcase vistas of Vulture Peak and the Prescott National Forest, each [hole is] a chapter in a larger story, with varying distances, compass directions, and skill requirements woven into the experience.” Big Wick has been one of the “Top Five Best Courses” to play in Arizona according to Golfweek, and Golf Advisor has listed it as #9 in the “Top U.S. Courses” and as #1 in the U.S. for “Course Conditions.”
Li’l Wick mixes golf with entertainment in a unique format. The 9-hole, par-3 layout maintains the same exceptional standards as Big Wick, and its comfortable length from 663 to 1,240 yards is an enjoyable test for everyone from beginners to low handicappers. The Watering Hole is Li’l Wick’s lakeside sports bar and grill that is centrally located so that golfers can stop for a quick bite or a cold one in between holes. Players can also swing to the music that is streamed around the course, walk around in flip flops and with a relaxed dress code, and get in nine casual holes as they see fit. When the “see fit” spills over into the evening, the final four holes are lighted for extended play. www.wickenburgranch.com
Scottsdale extends open invitations to all players who would like to escape their current golf doldrums for whatever reason. For a week’s getaway, few places can provide the pleasure and satisfaction that you would get at Mountain Shadows, The Short Course, Papago, The Phoenician, Camelback, and Wickenburg Ranch.
It’s time to put these Arizona venues high-up on your golf destination travel plans.
(All photography by Vicky MacKay except for Mountain Shadows Resort photo courtesy of Mountain Shadows Resort)