Scottsdale combines lavish living with priceless golf

No. 10 on Troon North's Pinnacle Course.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Prediction: Someday soon, Hollywood is going to make a television series about this town. In truth, it’s surprising it hasn’t happened already.

Some hotshot producer will fly his private plane into The Airpark on North Scottsdale Road to decompress for a few days. He’ll steal away at the Fairmont Princess or up at The Boulders, play some sun-splashed golf and pamper himself at the spas. And at some point, maybe when he’s getting the Up to Par massage or Gentleman’s Facial at Willow Stream Spa, it will hit him: This city has all of the elements of a hit show.

Maybe it will be a reality spinoff. Try “Million Dollar Listing: Scottsdale,” starring three deeply self-absorbed twentysomethings who peddle North Scottsdale mansions in a down economy. Or perhaps it will be a twist on a proven formula: “Real Golf Pros of Scottsdale,” in which pros from Troon North, We-Ko-Pa, The Boulders, Talking Stick and TPC Scottsdale engage in cutthroat competition for the lucrative tourist business by day, then spend their nights socializing in Old Town Scottsdale. 

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No. 5 at The Boulders' South Course

Or maybe our producer will eschew the reality genre in favor of fiction. Try this story pitch on for size: “Scottsdale”: It’s the “Dallas” of the 21st century, sans J.R., though no one will bat an eye if you show up at the Princess’ Crown P Corral wearing a 10-gallon hat.

We’ll leave it to others to hash out the weekly plots. But suffice it to say, Scottsdale has star quality. 

It has money, ranking as one of the country’s most affluent cities. The wealthy who don’t live here at the very least want to visit often, which explains why Scottsdale has more Five Diamond hotels than Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Miami or Philadelphia. And it has a hopping nightlife scene that prompted The New York Times to call Scottsdale “a desert version of Miami’s South Beach.” 

More pertinently, Scottsdale bills itself as “the world’s finest golf destination.” The folks in Scotland and Ireland might raise their putters in objection, but it’s not a claim that’s easily dismissed. If desert golf is your thing, few, if any, destinations can put up a fight against Scottsdale’s deep roster of courses. 

All of those assets – the rich and prominent, the tanned and attractive, the golf coterie and the casual fans – famously come together each year in early February when the PGA Tour visits TPC Scottsdale, creating the most entertaining non-major tournament on the calendar. Brisk temperatures somewhat chilled this year’s festivities, but the show went on at the Stadium Course.

Next door during tournament week, Jonathan Byrd, who won the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions, could be found filming a commercial for a training aid on the back tee at No. 15 of the TPC Champions Course, seemingly oblivious to the chill or the brilliance that was about to unfold in front of him.

My playing partner, a middle-aged rock star who now spends more time on the tee than on stage, ripped a driver dead into a biting, 20-mph wind and onto the green of the short par 4, setting up an eagle attempt. The feat escaped the notice of Byrd, who maintained Hoganesque focus on his task. 

Technically, the two TPC courses are municipal tracks, and they’re commonly affiliated with the Fairmont Princess, which is anything but muni-quality. The sprawling Five Diamond property backs up against the fourth tee of the Stadium Course, smack dab in the heart of Scottsdale.

Those who favor a more remote setting often head north of Loop 101 to The Boulders and its two Jay Morrish-designed courses. The resort also is convenient to Troon North and Grayhawk, each of which, like The Boulders, has two courses among Arizona’s top 25 on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list.

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No. 12 on Talking Stick's South Course

The concept for The Boulders’ distinctive design originated with a local artist named Bob Baker, who spent 15 months living onsite in the mid-1980s, studying how the light played on the rocks and sketching early designs of the signature adobe casitas that seem almost a part of the enormous rock formations. Perhaps for that reason, the casitas’ exteriors still seem fresh. Inside, the casitas are in the midst of a floor-to-ceiling makeover – new rugs, bedding, paint, bathrooms, electronics and fireplaces – that will be finished by July. 

There’s a palpable Old West/New Age dichotomy happening at The Boulders’ Golden Door Spa, where the menu ranges from endemic tribal treatments to Eastern remedies such as the Ashiatsu massage, in which the masseuse hangs from parallel bars attached to the ceiling and uses her feet to work out the customer’s kinks.

Afterward, Nancy, my therapist, sternly reminded me not to do anything strenuous for the next two days. 

“Can I play golf this afternoon?” I asked.

“Oh, of course,” she said.

It seems pretty clear where Nancy stands on the age-old debate as to whether golfers are athletes.

While The Boulders has a calming vibe, there’s plenty of commotion on the east side of Scottsdale at Talking Stick Resort, owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. The resort’s two courses, both designed by the architectural tag team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, now have a proper home with the recent opening of a 15-story, 497-room hotel just behind the range. 

The casino gaming that used to be held in glorified tents near the North Course has been moved into a flashy ground-floor casino. At midday on a recent Friday, there was hardly a seat to be found in the 50-table Poker Room. From Orange Sky, the panoramic restaurant on the hotel’s top floor, diners can see the tribe’s newest attraction, Salt River Fields, which opened this month just inside the Loop 101 and serves as the spring home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies.

The Salt River tribe had to aim big with this development. Just to the east of Scottsdale, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation set the bar mighty high with its two golf courses and casino resort at We-Ko-Pa, the Yavapai word for Four Peaks, the Mazatzal Mountain landmark that is the highest peak in Maricopa County. 

We-Ko-Pa’s original course, Cholla, is No. 4 in the Golfweek’s Best state rankings, but in scholarly golf circles, those who say they favor it over its top-ranked sister course, Saguaro, tend to be looked upon as dolts. Well, I’ve been called worse. 

The Coore-Crenshaw brand on Saguaro carries immense weight with the intelligentsia, which rightly holds it in high regard, but the excellent work done by local architect Scott Miller on Cholla too often is given short shrift. Both courses sit on some of the best land in the Phoenix-Scottsdale market, but otherwise have little in common.

Saguaro incorporates familiar Coore-Crenshaw themes: fairways nearly as wide as a football field and greens as unfathomable as a Brahms symphony. Cholla, in contrast, places more of a premium on the tee ball and makes excellent use of the washes and notches in the landscape for positioning of hazards and greens. It is a truer representation of desert golf and, for that reason, a must-play for those who come here to indulge their love of that style of architecture.

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