Travelin’ Joe’s Guide to Phoenix, Scottsdale Golf Courses

July 12, 2012

Travelin' Joe's home turf is smack in the throes of the same real estate slump and economic malaise that everybody else is experiencing these days. But if you're a glass is half-full sort of guy, that means better bargains and more course availability in one of America's great golf meccas.

Heat seekers have long zeroed in on the more than 200 golf courses that dot the Phoenix metropolitan landscape — and for good reason. Valley of the Sun resident Tom Weiskopf, architect of many of the region's best courses, explains the attraction. "Thirty years ago when you thought about a vacation to the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, you thought about three things: images of the Wild West — mountains and cactus and horses and such — the Grand Canyon up north, and the good weather. Championship courses weren't part of the package. Today we can compete against any market in the country in terms of the quality of the golf courses and golf experiences.

"Desert golf courses are different," continues Weiskopf. "The golfer has to bear with the fact that we respect our water resources out here. By law, we can only irrigate 90 acres of turf; consequently, most of the newer courses are target-oriented. On the plus side, this makes for a unique, dramatic look, the striking contrasts of green formality against the rugged desert backdrop. We've got finely maintained courses, beautiful mountain vistas, and the sunsets are spectacular. It's just a very fine place to play golf."

What's New in Town
Brand new 18s in the Phoenix/Scottsdale corridor are in short supply — nearly three years have passed since one has opened — but the good news is that plenty of new opportunities exist even for frequent visitors. The best new course you can play in Phoenix isn't new, but it is newly public. Southern Dunes Golf Club in Maricopa, 25 minutes south of Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport, was a private men's club for its first six years of existence, where members included major championship winners Mark Calcavecchia and Steve Jones. Unfortunately, it's an hour from Scottsdale, on the "wrong" side of town, so the business model didn't hold up, but the course sure did. This big, bold, 7,300-yard layout might be the very best work that Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley have done (Fred Couples consulting), with broad, sweeping, fescue-framed fairways, deep, artfully contoured and strategically placed bunkers and masterfully crafted undulating greens. Toss in unobstructed mountain and desert vistas, Troon Golf management and a green fee that's less than half of some of Scottsdale's trophy courses and you have one of Arizona's best values.

Two classic bargain tracks are fighting it out for the Phoenix area's most improved: The TPC Scottsdale (Champions) and Papago Municipal. From the partying hordes that descend on the TPC Scottsdale every January for the FBR Open, virtually every golf fan on earth knows about the facility's Stadium course. For 20 years, however, the Stadium's little brother was a 6,400-yard sad sack (if affordable) sibling called the Desert course. Designed by the Stadium's architects, Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish, it filled a void, but was hardly memorable. In November of 2007, that all changed. Tulsa-based architect Randy Heckenkemper, who designed the original land plan for the TPC Scottsdale, crafted an extreme makeover, adding 700 yards, new contouring, new greens and new hazards. Its new name, Champions, boasts a new back tee slope of 140, versus the old one of 119. Combined with its stirring views of the McDowell Mountains to the east, the Champions is now a Phoenix-area must-play.

A transformation of more recent vintage took place at Phoenix's venerable Papago Park, a city-owned muni dating to 1963 that was carved from rolling desert terrain by Billy Bell Jr., the same fellow who rang up another public winner at California's Torrey Pines six years earlier. By the mid-1980s, Papago was as tough for an out-of-towner to get a tee time as it was to get onto Scottsdale's snootiest clubs. Then it all went wrong, a victim of inattention and lack of funds.

Eventually, however, Phoenix took a cue from similar rescue missions in San Diego, San Francisco and New York. Following an eight-month shut-down and renovation, Papago re-opened in December 2008 — and while it may never host a U.S. Open or Presidents Cup, it did prove a splendid, if youthful site in March 2009 to an LPGA event, captured by Hall-of-Famer Karrie Webb.

In consort with the Arizona Golf Association, architect Billy Fuller, formerly the superintendent at Augusta National, replaced the tired turf, added 30 bunkers, restored green sizes and contours and yanked out trees that otherwise obscured the views of local landmarks such as Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak. He also added 300 yards to the tips, so that it now checks in at 7,333 beefy yards. The superb 386-yard, par-4 2nd, its elevated green backdropped by the reddish-tinged Papago Buttes rock formation, is an early photo op — and potential card-wrecker. At the maximum high-season rate of $109 for tourists ($84 to walk during the week and just $44 for locals — and $20-$58 in summer), this isn't a deal — it's a steal.

The Trophy Collection
Troon North is still king of the Scottsdale public "must-plays" thanks to a pair of courses that dish out cacti, arroyos, rock outcroppings and stunning vistas of Pinnacle Peak and the surrounding mountains. Late in 2007, Troon North pulled the old switcheroo, or something to that effect, by breaking up its two old courses. The result is the "new" Pinnacle course, which joins the old Pinnacle back nine with the old Monument back nine. The "new" Monument course features the old front nines of the two tracks. Monument might be the more scenic of the two, but Pinnacle is the more cohesive test — and is walkable, a rarity among modern real estate-oriented desert courses.

Many regulars now place We-Ko-Pa Golf Club's two layouts as the equal of any in the Valley of the Sun and it's easy to see why. Named for the Yavapai word for "Four Peaks Mountain," a jagged rock formation that looms over the course, We-Ko-Pa lies on tribal land owned by the Fort McDowell Yavapai nation just east of Scottsdale. Since opening in 2001, We-Ko-Pa's Cholla course, a Scott Miller design has catapulted to "can't-miss" status thanks to its incomparable scenery and holes that zigzag artfully through canyons, over ridges and down mountain slopes. That there are no homes or roads intruding on the views only adds to the charm here.

In December 2006, We-Ko-Pa's Saguaro course debuted, and in short order, this Coore/Crenshaw effort has become the first choice of many who touch down in the desert. It's wide enough that a spray hitter will still find his tee shot, and there are few forced carries, so a golfer who struggles getting it airborne can also enjoy. Yet, strong players will bask in the challenge of strategic bunkers, superb risk/reward decisions and cleverly contoured greens. Add elevation changes, mountain vistas and a forest of cacti to the mix and you've got an unbeatable combination.

Grayhawk Golf Club didn't invent "country club for a day," but it may have perfected it in the 1990s, when Phil's Grill (named for Phil Mickelson) was a beehive for tour pros. Lefty moved back to San Diego seven years ago, but the 'Hawk still brims with ambiance, from the Kostis-McCord (as in, Peter and Gary) Golf School to the classic rock tunes piped to the practice range via faux-rock speakers. The Tom Fazio-designed Raptor course hosts most of the big events, including the PGA Tour's Open, but the David Graham/Gary Panks-crafted Talon course offers more drama, as at the par-3 11th, where golfers traverse a swinging bridge to reach the back tee and at the island-green, par-3 17th, that's rimmed with colorful flowers.

Home to the FBR Open, the best-attended (and rowdiest) stop on the PGA Tour, the TPC Scottsdale Stadium course is nobody's idea of a beauty queen, but what it lacks in looks, it makes up for in thrills. With the installation of a caddie program late in 2006, tourists can now imagine being in Vijay or Phil's footsteps as they stride across the desert-pinched fairways. The island-green, par-5 15th and driveable par-4 17th are two water-tinged, risk/reward greats. For trivia fans, note that the 17th is the site of the only ace on a par-4 in PGA Tour history (Andrew Magee, 2001), while the loudest hole in golf, the par-3 16th, reached its zenith in 1997 when Tiger Woods carded a memorable hole-in-one. Tiger fans should also check out the one-ton boulder on the par-5 13th that onlookers helped move for him — perhaps the heaviest loose impediment in golf history.

At the Boulders Resort, Jay Morrish sculpted two superb courses from the prehistoric rocks that define this property in the charmingly named town of Carefree. While some contend that the North course is the stronger, better balanced of the two, it's undeniable that the South has the more spectacular holes, including the par-4 1st and the par-5 sixth, with greensites tucked into six-story boulder complexes and the par-4 6th, which tees off atop the rocks.

Forty-five minutes east of Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport is Gold Canyon Golf Resort's Dinosaur Mountain course, a Ken Kavanaugh design that may very be the equal of anything in Scottsdale. True, home construction in the last 10 years has detracted from the aesthetics, but even so, the elevation changes, sheer variety of holes and in-your-face encounters with the Superstition Mountains make this worth the drive, no matter where in town you're staying.

Best of the Rest
Drive five minutes in any direction and you're bound to dent a fender running into an excellent Phoenix/Scottsdale golf experience. Here are a few favorites.

Coming straight off the airplane after a cold winter — or do you have a playing partner who values beauty over brawn? Check out the three nines at The Phoenician. The Oasis loop offers a touch of Florida, thanks to the landscaping and lakes, while the Desert and Canyon nines embrace cactus and mountain themes. All three nines are short, but eye-catching. Don't miss the Desert nine, whose drop-shot par-3 6th and 8th holes are superb photo ops — provided you don't get vertigo.

Your gang will have nothing but fun at Longbow, a Ken Kavanaugh design in Mesa, a short drive from where the Chicago Cubs train in the spring. The Redan-style par-3 8th, a nifty set of risk/reward par-5s, superbly sculpted bunkers and camera-worthy views of Red Mountain and the Superstitions — plus a player-friendly price tag — make it worth the half-hour journey from North Scottsdale.

Though their flat fairways provide less drama than many Valley courses, you won't find a more artfully crafted set of bunkers in town than at Talking Stick, which sports a pair of Troon-managed Scottsdale tracks on tribal land, complete with mountain views, wild horses and no houses. The North is the more strategic of the two, but the South features more trees, making it the better summer course.

Marriott's Wildfire Golf Club, on the grounds of the state's largest resort, the JW Marriott Desert Ridge, is often overlooked, but its two courses, one designed by Arnold Palmer, the other by Nick Faldo/Schmidt-Curley, offer tremendous variety. The Palmer more closely hews to its natural desert setting, while the Faldo sports wider fairways and gigantic bunkers. Both bask in mountain views and enjoy a convenient northeast Phoenix location.

SunRidge Canyon Golf Club in Fountain Hills is a 1995 Keith Foster creation that sports a roller-coaster back nine full of wildly exciting holes, most notably the 209-yard, par-3 17th. Two sets of tees, located 300 yards apart and used on alternating days, approach the horseshoe-shaped green from two different angles. They are both spectacular shots from elevated tees amid rock- and cactus-covered slopes.