2005: Diamonds in the desert
From the East Coast, it’s six anxious hours high above Middle America to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Waiting, wondering, eating complimentary peanuts, all the while trying to picture a place called the Valley of the Sun, which may as well be on the sun for many golfers.
To the uninitiated, Scottsdale golf is what television and the most detailed Internet searches make of it. Emerald patches of fairway zigzagging their way through the harsh desert. Cactus. Raucous crowds lining the 16th hole at TPC of Scottsdale. More cactus.
However, as is often the case in our sound-bite, fast-food, fast-forward world, Scottsdale is so much more.
Away from the airport, north on U.S. 101, the sprawl of Phoenix quickly gives way to sweeping views of surrounding mountains that seem to change colors by the hour and cozy enclaves nestled against rolling foothills.
Golf courses by the dozen dot the landscape, and the unobtrusive nature of endless neighborhoods – set back from main thoroughfares with an abundance of trees and green expanses – makes you wonder
if this is where city planners come to die.
Scottsdale, it seems, is a frontier waiting to be scouted. A place on the very edge of modern advances, but a place that clings to its past.
The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa – an elegant plaza with cozy rooms and 27 manicured holes – has its own museum filled with historical artifacts and native American art. We-Ko-Pa Golf Club’s name translates
to “four peaks” in Yavapai in honor of the towering mountain that frames so many of its holes.
“We’re very in tune with the history of this land,” says Mike Champagne, Kierland’s director of golf.
Champagne and his fellow golf administrators also are in tune with what makes for good golf. Two things Scottsdale isn’t lacking: saguaros and quality courses.
The TPC of Scottsdale perhaps is the area’s most recognizable layout. Longtime home to the PGA Tour’s FBR Open, in recent years its images of beer-swilling crowds and movable boulders have been burned into the country’s golf conscience. (Flash back to 1999, when Tiger Woods got a helping hand from the gallery to move what had to be the game’s largest loose impediment.)
But the Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish-designed TPC layout is but one course in the Scottsdale feast.
“There are four or five courses in Scottsdale that could easily host Tour events,” says Sean Murphy, a Nationwide Tour player and longtime resident who plays out of the newly opened Golf Club of Scottsdale. “Depending on what you want – desert golf, links golf – there are a lot of places to play and a lot of different conditions.”
Grayhawk Golf Club is a Scottsdale staple. The Raptor layout successfully hosted the first Tommy Bahama Challenge in 2004, a Silly Season event featuring young guns from the United States against
their International counterparts. A recent upgrade to a hybrid Bermudagrass will give the course what may be the area’s truest putting surfaces.
The Raptor’s sister course, the spirited Talon layout, includes an island-green 17th (sound familiar?) and a truly inspired short par 4, the 346-yard second, that seems all reward and little risk even to the shortest of hitters.
Troon North – another relatively new, no-nonsense addition to the Scottsdale scene – has what many consider the area’s best ball-strikers layout (Monument Course). At 7,028 yards, the Monument is tight, saguaro-lined and regularly rated among the state’s best (No. 4 in Arizona on Golfweek’s America’s Best Modern list).
Yet no trip to Scottsdale would be complete without a round at We-Ko-Pa, architect Scott Miller’s desert gem on the northern edge of town. The 7,225-yard layout has more angles than a geometry lesson
and seems almost as challenging from the middle tees as it is from the tips.
“It’s a phenomenal vista-type golf course,” says Jon Levy, the men’s golf coach at Scottsdale Community College and a longtime mini-tour player. “If you’re a guy coming in from Pennsylvania and you want to play a great Arizona course, you’re going to love We-Ko-Pa.”
Opened in 2001 on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, the course soon will include a Radisson Resort, which is scheduled to open later this year, and a second layout that will be designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.
Golf isn’t the only mental mold broken once you’ve arrived in Scottsdale. Although it’s not likely to ever be confused with your traditional culinary epicenters – New York, New Orleans and San Francisco – the
New Mexican cuisine served here is varied and vibrant. The fare is best described as Cal-Mex with a kick.
“What a lot of people don’t understand about New Mexican food is it’s spicy,” Murphy says. “The stuff you get in California is Tex-Mex. They call it an enchilada, but it’s just a cheeseburger.”
There’s also the perception that in Scottsdale, which must be a Native American word for affluent, perfection comes with a hefty price tag.
Green fees at Scottsdale’s highest-profile courses easily exceed $200 in season (January-March), but with a little searching a round of golf can be had without the need for a second mortgage.
Vistal Golf Club is a blue-light boon with green fees ranging from $89 during peak season to $34 during the heat of summer. An added bonus: Vistal – a regular U.S. Open qualifying site and favorite among locals – is across the street from one of the area’s best out-of-the-way eateries, Los Dos Molinos.
If you’re not bothered by a searing sun and temperatures that approach 115 degrees in July, rates – and crowds – drop dramatically in the summer. Copious amounts of bottled water help battle the blaze, and some courses, like Kierland, have taken keeping cool to extremes.
Golf carts at Kierland are fitted with portable air conditioners that blow cool, dry air on guests. The resort also has installed a moveable cover on its practice range to provide shade and industrial-sized
AC units to chill players while they warm up.
“The biggest excuse for not playing golf (in the summer) is because it’s too hot, and we’re trying to eliminate that,” says Ryan Eckroat, Kierland’s head pro.
After a few days basking in the Valley of the Sun, it’s obvious the biggest reason to come to Scottsdale is all those things you can’t imagine at 20,000 feet.