Phoenix and Scottsdale: Seeking renovation in Arizona's Valley of the Sun

The Phoenician/Brian G. Oar

Phoenix and Scottsdale: Seeking renovation in Arizona's Valley of the Sun

Architecture

Phoenix and Scottsdale: Seeking renovation in Arizona's Valley of the Sun

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A good friend who moved to Arizona more than a decade ago lamented recently that he misses the color green. Most everything in the desert takes on some hue of brown, even the buildings. He spoke about how green everything appears when he heads back east.

He clearly isn’t a golfer.

The Valley of the Sun, better known as the Phoenix and Scottsdale metro area, is sprinkled with nearly 200 golf courses. Stand on many of the tees at higher elevation ringing the valley, and across the vast landscape you will see green pockets created by other tracks – it almost seems you could hop scotch across the rugged desert from course to course.

The region has a long history as a golf destination with numerous professional events, including the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open in Scottsdale each winter and its raucous par-3 16th hole. The busy golf season kicks off in the fall and reaches its peak in January and February with a flood of visiting players and snowbirds who come for the relatively warm winter weather and a predictable bounty of golf holes. 

But nothing remains still in the Arizona desert for long. Not even the golf courses, many of which received recent makeovers and facelifts in a constant battle to offer the best layouts and conditioning. A recent sampling of several courses around the valley highlights the need to keep moving forward.

. . .

No. 16 at The Phoenician (Courtesy of The Phoenician)

The Phoenician in Scottsdale has provided one of the highest levels of luxury in the valley since opening in 1988. The resort’s Canyon Suites boast a Forbes Five Star/AAA Five Diamond rating, and upgrades to the entire property in 2016 and ’17 only enhanced its draw.

There was just one problem: The Phoenician golf course didn’t fit. Literally. Many of the 27 holes were crammed into narrow corridors wrapped around the main hotel, and the golf experience didn’t match the opulence of the resort’s other offerings.

Enter course architect Phil Smith. The Scottsdale-based designer worked with Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf for decades before hanging out his own shingle, and he had toured the Phoenician several times.

“We always came back with the same conclusion: We really thought they should pare down to 18 holes,” said Smith, whose design contributions range geographically from California to China. “I was so happy to hear a few years ago when they came out and said, ‘Hey, we think we’re going to do this 18-hole project.’ I just jumped at the opportunity.”

By expanding existing corridors and moving a lot of earth, Smith reshaped the course into 18 holes that reopened in the fall of 2018 after a 10-month renovation. Gone are several elevated par 3s along

Camelback Mountain, and remaining are a much more open 6,518 yards that take a gentler approach to the side slopes with newly exposed views across the valley.

“It’s a brand-new golf course,” Smith said. “What I love about it, 18 holes has just such a better identity than 27 holes. It’s a five-star hotel … we had to do something that lives up to that standard.”

Nos. 8 and 9 approach the mountain to close out the front nine with a scenic flourish, and the course takes off as it moves west for Nos. 10-16. Smith widened the playing corridors and moderated the extreme side slopes that could deflect a ball out of a fairway while still utilizing more than 100 feet of elevation change. No. 13 at the highest point, a 297-yard par 4, dares a player to attack with ample room for a well-played drive, but forget about it if the tee shot sails sideways – great risk and reward among the cacti.

Smith created new green complexes that he said better fit the relatively shorter length of the course, with more movement than he would incorporate at a course stretching beyond 7,000 yards. That gives the staff an opportunity to select hole locations that are as difficult or as easy as needed.

“Golf course design is extremely subjective. Having fun isn’t,” Smith said. “The point was to up the fun factor and also to create a lot of design variety and to open up those views.”

. . .

Westin Kierland’s Acacia Course (Courtesy of the Westin Kierland)

The staff at the 27-hole Westin Kierland Golf Club in Scottsdale always has an eye on maintaining great conditions – director of golf Nancy Dickens has a long background in the agronomy side of the business. For example, almost 30 acres of turf in mostly out-of-play areas has been removed in recent years to save water, and the three nines are undergoing a bunker renovation that will wrap up next year.

“Condition of the course is probably No. 1 or 2 in most people’s minds on where and why they choose to play a course,” Dickens said. “It’s really important to reinvest in the asset, and if you let things go over time, you kind of dig yourself into a hole.”

But that’s not what all players have in mind when they choose the course, which is ranked No. 26 in the state among Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play and is adjacent to the 732-room Westin Kierland Resort and Spa. Some are there for a bit more exciting ride than found at most courses.

In keeping with the desert’s theme of successful courses trying new things and reinvesting, Kierland offers five interesting options in addition to walking or taking a normal golf cart. The resort introduced a fleet of golf Segways in 2002 and has expanded its alternative transportation to include Golf Bikes, GolfBoards, TurfRiders and, new this summer, Ellwees – basically a single-rider, four-wheel golf ATV. Dickens said all the options have been popular for a non-traditional golf experience.

“We just think golf should be fun,” she said. “A lot of people today just want to play for fun, some don’t keep score, others just want to go out with friends. We cater to the serious golfer too; if you want to play from the tips here, you can have a good, unique challenge. But we also just wanted there to be a different kind of experience available.

“It’s really just in conjunction with the attitude and the spirit over at the resort. … I’ve passed people coming in off their round on a GolfBoard, and they’ve said,

‘Oh my gosh, this was the most fun round of golf I’ve ever had.’ And that’s what we’re looking for.”

. . .

No. 2 at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club’s Cholla Course (Courtesy of We-Ko-Pa/Lonna Tucker)

As seen at Kierland, not all the recent changes around the Valley of the Sun involve green grass. The biggest renovation around two of the highest-rated courses near Scottsdale is the Fort McDowell Casino at We-Ko-Pa Resort and Conference Center. Ground was broken in 2018 on a 166,000-square-foot gambling hall that should be complete in the spring of 2020, but the golf at We-Ko-Pa doesn’t need much help in earning accolades.

We-Ko-Pa Golf Club’s Saguaro course by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw is rated No. 1 in Arizona on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list, and the Scott Miller-designed Cholla course is No. 8 on that list of public-access facilities. The Saguaro course had a bunker renovation in 2018, and the Cholla course underwent a major renovation with re-grassed greens, irrigation and design tweaks in 2016.

While much of the attention is focused on the wider, “lay of the land” Saguaro, which is rated among Golfweek’s Best 200 modern courses in the United States, the Cholla offers a more traditional target course within the desert washes.

The most indelible memory of We-Ko-Pa might be the wide-open spaces. With views of the surrounding mountains east of the valley and golf built upon Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation land with no residential development, We-Ko-Pa offers a stunning mix of golf in one of the most naturally compelling settings for the game in the state.

. . .

No. 1 on Troon North’s Monument Course (Courtesy of Troon North)

Renovation has been a theme at Troon North for the past several years. The mostly daily-fee facility is home to the Monument course, ranked No. 7 in Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Arizona, and the Pinnacle course, ranked No. 9 in the state.

Both courses have undergone major renovations by designer Weiskopf over the past two years, the Monument in 2017 and Pinnacle in 2018. Most notable among the improvements was the switch from Penlinks bent grass to an A1-A4 bent mix. Bent grass greens are rare at public facilities around the valley, and Troon North’s senior agronomist, Brad Anderson, said the smooth new surfaces are a significant advantage.

“It sets us apart,” Anderson said. “Bent grass is just consistently a better playing surface. … The A1-A4 is a newer variety, and it’s a much denser variety with a lot more plants per square inch. The color is better, the density is good, the wear tolerance is better. It’s just a really hardy grass.”

Troon North’s elevation, which reaches 2,700 feet above sea level with views of Pinnacle Peak, and the slightly cooler, drier conditions on the north side of Scottsdale allow the premium putting surfaces to thrive all year. General manager Brian Thorne said things get pretty busy at Troon North during the peak season, and he suggested golfers consider a trip in the shoulder seasons, as peak conditioning extends all the way into June.

. . .

No. 8 on Grayhawk’s Raptor course (Courtesy of Grayhawk)

It has been a few years since Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale redesigned and moved the 15th and 16th holes on its Raptor course, but the place is hardly standing still. The course will host the NCAA Championships in 2020 (May 22-27 for the women, May 29-June 3 for the men) and the following two seasons, and the Bermuda rough already is starting to grow in.

Grayhawk’s Raptor course is ranked 17th in Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list for the state, and the facility’s Talon Course is No. 19. The facility has a championship pedigree: It hosts the AJGA Thunderbird International each year and in 2007 through 2009 hosted the PGA Tour’s Frys.com Open, and numerous other championships have been held there. Even for the long-hitting college men, Raptor should provide plenty of challenge.

Built on gently rolling ground, the 7,090-yard Raptor features raised greens with frequently steep runoffs into deep bunkers or what will be heavy rough for the championships. Elite college players can handle any length of course, but they better be focused on fairways at Grayhawk.

“Those greens are tough – it’s a Tom Fazio-designed golf course,” said Grayhawk head professional Travis McCutchan. “They’re elevated, so you have to fly the ball into the right spot. When we have the rough up, it can make hitting fairways seem very important so you can hit and hold the green.”

And Scottsdale’s great weather that time of year – McCutchan said it typically ranges from the mid-80s to the low to mid-90s – will be a welcome change for players who have dealt with rain, cold and even tornado warnings in recent years. In a golf environment where so many things change, it should be nice to count on the spring weather as a constant.

. . .

Papago Golf Course (Courtesy of Papago)

Construction crews also have been busy in recent years at Papago Golf Course in Phoenix, a city-owned track that now serves as home base for Arizona State’s golf teams.

A new clubhouse with a booming restaurant (see 19th Hole feature, P74-75) was completed in 2018. ASU’s teams also received a state-of-the-art practice facility adjacent to Papago’s range, giving the school a recruiting boost with a Phil Mickelson-designed short-game area.

Designed by Billy Bell and opened in 1963, and having undergone a substantial renovation in 2008, the course is a favorite among locals and is ranked No. 22 in the state among Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play.

Bare desert terrain is in play on each hole but is largely clear of boulders or shrubs alongside the fairways, making recovery shots possible. But the course is no pushover of a muni, as it stretches to 7,333 yards and can challenge elite college players. Except for players who have earned the mascot logos on their golf bags, it’s best to play from a friendlier forward set of tees.

Papago’s recent upgrades, all in all, keep right in step with a larger theme around the Valley of the Sun. With so many courses, both public and private, things don’t stand still. If any course isn’t moving forward, it’s likely to be left in the desert dust.

Accommodations

There are plenty of hotels and resorts that cater to golfers around the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. For this five-day trip, Jason Lusk lived it up at the Phoenician and the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, both five-star properties.

The Phoenician hotel pool (Courtesy of The Phoenician)

The Phoenician offers 577 guest rooms and a wide range of luxury suites. Recent renovations include upgrades to the three-tier pool complex, spa and athletic club, as well as the 2018 redesign of its Phoenician Golf Club. Located next to Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, the resort is within a half-hour drive of all the courses on Lusk’s trip to the area.

The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess is home to two highly ranked golf courses: TPC Champions and TPC Stadium, which ranks No. 5 in the state among Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play. Many of the sprawling resort’s 750 rooms have undergone recent renovations. The resort, which offers plentiful family activities, also is within a half-hour drive of all the courses Lusk played.

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