Golf in the desert areas of the Southwest USA makes for a truly different experience. The contrast between brown hostile terrain and finely manicured green grass areas makes for a striking contrast. The area especially comes to life during the winter months when much of America’s golf population is eagerly looking forward to getting back onto the golf course. I have been coming to the Phoenix / Scottsdale area for over 30+ years and I marvel at how the overall expansion of the greater Valley of the Sun area has developed in such a compressed time frame. As late as 1960 the population of Phoenix equaled Albuquerque, NM. Now, Phoenix is now among the top five cities in total population in America and still growing.
The golf side of the equation has also clearly made major strides as well. In its earliest days the golf product was centered in Phoenix proper. That situation changed noticeably during the mid-1980’s as one facility emerged after another — real estate development driving the agenda. Much of the target base happened in Scottsdale — the bedroom community just northeast of Phoenix that has become one of the major destinations in all of golf.
There are now 200+ courses are in the immediate Valley of the Sun area and Scottsdale reigns as ground zero for much of the attention from outsiders coming to the area. The golf agenda was humming along quite nicely until The Great Recession hit in late ’07. With much of the golf expansion tied to real estate speculation the impact experienced here was significant and is still playing out. In short — the old rules in doing business have completely changed and a new paradigm that is still sorting itself out is now in play.
Golf facilities in the Scottsdale area are now competing in a different setting. The overall base of golfers is now 20-25% less than what it was roughly a decade ago. Many courses in the Scottsdale area no longer new and pristine but more mature and, as a result, in need of various upgrades to keep themselves current and attractive. However, not all facilities have seen fit to make the needed investments. In years past — the real estate side could easily be tapped into as a source of revenue. No longer. As anyone who has ever been to the desert areas of the USA knows — the cost to sustain quality golf courses is not an easy proposition given the escalating demands placed on water usage to combat the extreme high temperatures during summer months. There’s also the reality of the calendar — an entire year’s budget is predicated on how well a course performs in the key 3-4 months when the monopoly to play centers in the sunbelt locations.
Getting and keeping golf customers is far different than such a short time ago. The overall base of players is less as previously cited — and those still playing don’t play at the frequency as years past. Customer retention and service efforts have to be magnified and few facilities are able to financially induce players on this front. In short — what was once a seller’s market is now a buyer’s one in a big time way.
During the winter months Scottsdale is a location that gets plenty of attention. The reasons are simple. The area provides top quality elements — weather, gastronomy and a range of outside activities with golf a big time element for many. Each year the Waste Management Phoenix Open on the PGA Tour provides a powerful visual image — the world’s best golfers playing on a finely manicured desert stage.
The broader Valley of the Sun area has taken clear steps in rebounding from the aftermath of The Great Recession but the pace of such efforts varies. Facilities that have stayed the course — no pun intended — face a particular quandary. Do they make key upgrades for the total facility and, if so, what role does golf play in such decisions? Do facilities then opt for functional golf — where the game is a part of a package of various offerings — but no longer the headliner – or do they make the financial commitment in providing the kind of course architecture that takes what they have and propels it ahead to attract core players who want much more than just basic golf? Financial investments are
now shaping the Valley of the Sun area and this can be most clearly seen in the lodging side of the equation. Nearly all of the key resorts have made major investments towards 21st century upgrades. Tired looking buildings don’t motivate people to book rooms and spend money. However, keeping golf in a competitive capacity requires clear dedication of limited financial resources battling with other needs. There’s also the growing clamor of just how much water should golf courses use when consistent drought conditions are becoming a steady reality.
The landscape for the Scottsdale area in years past was a simple one — just keep doing what had been done for years. That’s not the case now. Scottsdale is no longer immune from the impact major forces are now exerting. Change is already happening — facilities that assess accurately their role will, in all likelihood, reap the benefits for the goals they wish to attain. Tough times can often sow the seeds for long overdue innovation. Given the sheer dollars involved the Scottsdale golf scene is one that know firsthand that remaining with status quo will not suffice.
My visit this past December to the locations mentioned below indicates a mixed bag of golf outcomes. Like a game of musical chairs it is hard to say with certainty which facilities will find a seat when the music indeed stops playing. Preparation for the future through the recognition of core customer needs is the driving force. Those in the vanguard will most certainly reap the dividends of such attention.
* COURSES IN ORDER OF PREFERENCE *
36-holes – Tom Weiskopf & Jay Moorish
Monument — 7,070 Yds, Par-72; 72.9 CR / 147 Slope
Pinnacle — 7,025 Yds, Par-71; 73.0 CR / 149 Slope
When Troon North entered the scene in 1991 — the explosion of daily fee, or more aptly named “country club for a day,” courses was only in its infancy. Troon North was a game changer and in so doing — transformed the greater Scottsdale area into the big time golf area it is today. Troon North’s original 18 comes from the former design duo of Jay Moorish and PGA Tour star Tom Weiskopf.
Troon North used the same name as the more noted famous links in Scotland — Royal Troon. There’s little similarity between the two facilities. Several years after opening the layout expanded to two 18-hole courses — Monument and Pinnacle with Weiskopf adding the additional 18. Between the two — the Pinnacle is the more intense layout — calling upon rigorous testing in getting tee shots in the right position. If you are wild — Pinnacle will swallow you whole. The course is not excessively long — just under 7,100 yards from the championship markers. The pressure comes from the constantly undulating fairways — often times you get the feeling on being on an ocean liner in the midst of stormy seas. Psychological terror can easily impact any golfer not completely sure on what one is doing at all times.
The Monument is a bit less on the rigorous side of things. But don’t confuse less rigorous with a walk in the park. Hardly. There are just more scoring opportunities than big brother next door. Generally, both courses are in very good condition and when the usual stellar desert weather is at-hand — it’s a real treat with the juxtaposition of the stark desert adjoining the verdant green manicured areas. Even though a number of pure desert courses have opened since Troon North — the 36-hole layout here remains a showcase. The only downside is the vast proliferation of housing that has expanded greatly since the early days when none existed. Most are set far enough back but there are times when the positioning clearly is impactful. Bear in mind the high slope numbers for both courses should send a clear and unmistakable message – you miss at either Troon North course and the penalties are severe. Playability is not on the dance card — so choose one’s tee with some careful and smart thinking or be prepared to provide continual donations to the Troon North ball fund.
TPC / Scottsdale
36-holes – Stadium designed by Tom Weiskopf; Champions by Randy Heckenkemper
Stadium – 7,261 Yds / Par-71; 74.7 CR / 142 SL
Champions – 7,115 Yds / Par-71; 73.7 CR / 133 SL
Each January the PGA Tour comes to the Valley of the Sun area and it is Scottsdale serving as ground zero with TPC / Scottsdale and its noted Stadium Course the yearly venue. The Stadium Course has garnered much attention over the years with its noted amphitheater par-3 16th hole — where roughly 20,000 people ring the entire hole in skyboxes. Amazingly, over 500,000 have attended at least one day of the event making the most attended golf event on earth. The behavior is also assisted with plenty of libations and pity the pro who fails to hit a quality shot when playing #16. The Stadium is situated on flat nondescript land but architect and former PGA Tour star Tom Weiskopf recently renovated the course so that there’s always some sort of obstacle you need to skillfully maneuver around or over. The first four holes are meant to get you ready for the more demanding shots you”ll need to hit as the round
progresses. No question the final four holes are high on the list of attention given the amount of attention they have collectively received with each telecast. A solid layout — but lacks the visual appeal found with a few others nearby.
Champions — which was completely renovated in ’07 from a lackluster 6,423 yards par-70 is a much more rigorous course. Kudos to original architect Randy Heckenkemper for bringing into play a series of strong holes — especially when tackled from the championship tees. Like its big brother next door the terrain at Champions is fairly uneventful. The ending trio of holes is exceptional. It’s a combination of a par-3, par-5 and par-4 holes and each requires careful thought because golf rounds can easily get hi-jacked and end poorly.
Verde River Golf & Social Club
18-holes – Ken Kavanaugh
7,229 Yds / Par-72; 73.8 CR / 144 SL
Although technically not in Scottsdale proper — Verde River Golf & Social Club is less than a five minute drive from Troon North. The greater Scottsdale area is loaded with facilities that provide stellar clubhouses and often featuring a range of different creature comforts from spas, workout areas, practice facilities, etc, etc. The key missing ingredient is that the actual golf product — the one that exists between the 1st tee and 18th green — can be lacking in terms of thought-provoking architecture. To use a well known Texas expression — all hat no cattle.
However, there are other instance worthy of simply enjoying to the max what the core golf provides. Such is the case with Verde River Golf & Social Club — formerly known as Vista Verde. The facility came into being just as The Great Recession ramped up. A range of plans – tied to on-site housing — was simply derailed at that time. The layout is the handiwork of Ken Kavanaugh — an underrated course designer of several noteworthy courses. There are plans to tweak the course through the involvement of PGA Tour start now designer Tom Lehman.
One of the most demanding aspects in desert golf is achieving playability because of the harshness of the desert and the limitations on irrigated terrain. Verde River is more than able to handle the wide range of handicap types and the intersection with the desert is done smartly so that the course doesn’t work against the setting — but actually blends in rather well. Verde River doesn’t have a mega marketing outreach and many visitors may not know much about what it clearly provides. Anyone visiting the area should make it a point to schedule a game there – you will be most pleasantly surprised.
Talking Stick Resort
36-holes – Designed by Ben Crenshaw & Bill Coore
North – 7,133 Yds / Par-72; 72.7 CR / 125 SL
South – 6,833 Yds / Par-71; 72.1 / 127 SL
Located just off Highway 101, Talking Stick Resort is an active vibrant getaway — roughly six miles from downtown Scottsdale — clearly making its presence felt in a range of ways. The hotel, overall entertainment options in tandem with its casino vibe is clearly an inducement for many visitors. Owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Talking Stick also provides 36-holes of golf created by golf’s stellar architectural twosome — Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. Unlike other desert-based courses — Talking Stick is more low-key. There’s less of the “do-or-die” design elements that one sees with a number of other courses in the immediate vicinity.
A common characteristic at both courses is the ample width of the fairways. In some cases — 50 yards or even more are provided for the player to find. The key is realizing many of the holes have a preferred side to approach the putting surfaces.
The North Course is the better of the two layouts because it more consistently tests the player to get to the better positions in order to likely improve one’s chances at attaining the lowest score possible. The par-5 2nd is a great example — out-of-bounds tugs the entire left side and it pays to be on that side when getting nearer to the green. The key is being able to place your ball accordingly without crossing over the boundary on that side. Be sure to score low on the outward nine because the final nine holes is even more intense. The North doesn’t bludgeon you as some of the harsher desert courses but it will peel away strokes for those who are not fully in control of one’s golf ball. Often times you’ll encounter putting surfaces slightly elevated with fall-offs on different sides. Being able to score effectively is a constant factor when playing so all types of short chips and pitches along with a deft putting stroke is a must.
The South is junior league version of the North. The shot differentiation are not as rigorous but there are times when you’ll need to be clearly aware of what’s required. You face that kind of situation early on with the par-4 2nd. The best angle to the green is on the left side — so are a series of bunkers to avoid. There are also four good long two-shot par-4’s and the par-3 13th is a delicious hole of just 152 yards but will not reward anything but the best of approaches. The South also concludes well with a risky short par-4 that plays just under 325 yards. Water angles in closer from the right so for those wishing to bang driver to the green be mindful — the slightest push awaits a meeting with Davey Jones locker.
Talking Stick is complimented by a solid practice area and top tier pro shop. Rates are quite competitive and the general turf quality is good. The thing about Talking Stick is that many people who seek out the abruptness of desert terrain and closely mown green areas may find the two courses as being somewhat dull. What makes Talking Stick work is giving the allusion of easiness while still picking one’s pocket for the slightest of misjudgments made.
Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort
Course architects: Billy Johnson & Forrest Richardson
6,515 Yds / Par-72; 70.0 CR / 130 SL
Located 18 miles from Sky Harbor Airport – the resort has forthcoming plans to upgrade all of its rooms and that’s a much needed element since a number of competitors have already upgraded their lodging offerings. The resort can be a bit confusing for first time visitors as rooms are spread apart and there’s a bit of negotiating the internal hills on property. Be sure to book at least one dinner reservation at Different Point of View. As the name states you will most certainly enjoy the superb vistas provided of downtown Phoenix and the surrounding Valley area. There’s an outdoor and indoor element and it clearly ends the day in fine fashion.
The golf side is a good bit different. Lookout Mountain Golf Course is routed in and around a number of housing sites and the course is shoe-horned in through these spots. On top of that — the layout can only be negotiated through the usage of a power cart. In fact, the cart rides are overly long at different times. You get this immediately in making the trek from the staging area by the pro shop to the 1st tee area. There were plans to buy an adjoining ranch that cuts off the property between the clubhouse area and 1st tee and practice range location. The deal fell through, and, as a result, the continuity of the golf round is impacted.
Lookout Mountain has a few holes of note — the downhill par-5 7th is a risk/reward beauty which provides scenic views of the surrounding area. The same holds true for the par-4 10th plunging from a high tee point. But, the cramped feeling of the golf course often overwhelms the desire most golfers have in getting away from the day-to-day clutter that invades our lives.
The green sites are, for the most part, well situated and often require pinpoint approach play. The short 1st hole is a good example of what you find throughout the round. Lookout Mountain has its moments but the incessant cart rides only serve to intrude on the golf portion. Unfortunately, when you have housing pushed that close to the actual course you get forced situations in which too many holes are acting as connectors instead of quality holes that can stand on their own. A reassessment on the golf front is certainly in order because the product provided is simply forced in and cannot fully flourish.
36-holes – Designed by Desmond Muirhead
Palm – 7,044 Yds / Par-72; 73.7 / 137 SL
Pine – 7, 187 Yds / Par-72; 74.4 CR / 125 SL
The biggest plus for McCormick Ranch is its ideal location and overall property size — smack dab in the heart of Scottsdale with over 400 acres of land. Despite the clear advantages McCormick Ranch is much older facility than many of its nearby competitors and staying competitive is central for any golf facility in today’s buyers market. Two courses are on the property — Pine and Palm. The distinction between the two is fairly straightforward — the former provides basically tree-lined golf and the latter has 10 holes where avoiding water is a major consideration.
The late Desmond Muirhead designed both layouts which opened in 1972. The main issue is that, with few exceptions, both courses are in need of a makeover to update key elements. That’s not to mean there aren’t solid holes there. The 8th and 9th holes on the Palm are two of the very best you can experience. The nearly 200-yard par-3 8th is well crafted with a reverse “C” green fronted by water. The putting surface slopes hard from back-to-front so being mindful of your approach pays huge dividends. The 9th provides a split fairway — the left side is the ideal spot superbly bracketed by water on both sides. The green opens up when approaching from the more demanding left side.
The major handicap is that the property is essentially devoid of any meaningful character. One of the hardest things for an architect to overcome is dealing with land that has little in terms of natural features. In order to inject some “life” into a site the architect must create challenges that blend in – rather than stand apart. This is far from easy and often times can be overdone to excess and thereby failing in a big time way.
McCormick Ranch benefits from having a rather large acreage footprint so doing something of meaning is possible. The key rests with the putting surfaces in crafting a range of different shapes and contours — including a re-positioning of bunkers — greenside and fairway — so that angles of attack are emphasized when teeing off. McCormick Ranch provides a wide array of solid amenities. The practice area is quite good complimented by a clubhouse that’s more than adequate on a host of fronts. Having a Scottsdale address means a steady stream of players and the fees charged are reasonable given the local market. But when one is located in a very competitive arena it’s critical to stay relevant as the competition bar rises from other facilities nearby. McCormick Ranch provides functional golf — the potential for much more is certainly there. Will that happen remains to be seen.
Arroyo – 3,424 Yds / Par-36
Lakes – 3,376 Yds / Par-36
Dunes – 3,238 Yds / Par-36
Designed by J. Michael Poellot and Brad Benz
Average CR = 71 / SL = 127 for any combinations played
Gainey Ranch provides a fine setting — beautifully landscaped showing the property in fine fashion. The issue is that the 27-holes are devoid of compelling architecture. In sum — it’s resort / membership type golf — formulaic in character. Clearly, the aim is to provide enjoyment for members and those who are guests at the nearby Hyatt. Gainey Ranch is well managed by Club Corporation of America and the general turf quality is very good. But, for those who want their golf to be more than a scenic postcard there’s little meat on the bone here. In sum — those who happen to play golf will find a visit worthwhile. Those who call themselves golfers — will be looking for something much more.
Fortunately, the connection to the adjoining Hyatt provides a payoff that’s truly memorable. The facility has the capacity to handle big time events and meetings. Yet, there’s enough of a connection for those who want to be pampered individually. There are a range of activities for guests and its wonderfully complimented by a clear attention to customer service and bolstered by a commitment to top tier food and drink. The golf serves as a supporting actor — it’s just not the primary star. A desire to provide at least one stellar nine holes could be a real plus.
Overall Golf Assessment — Exceptional
The golf offerings I sampled in Scottsdale and those played just outside its border presents a range of golf options — some clearly improved — others believing that remaining in place suffices. Golf course architecture in a desert setting is never an easy task since irrigated land can only be at a maximum of 90 acres. Architects have to choose routings that get the most out of as site but also be conscious that playability requirements are also factored in at all times. The quality of several of the courses I visited show how well such a concept can be applied — Verde River and Talking Stick / North, the two courses at TPC Scottsdae are two good examples of this.
Even those courses which are in close vicinity to the desert such as Troon North — are blessed with a range of holes and ground movements. Often times it’s the mental “terror” induced by the architect that causes the panic when playing. The landing areas are there but often times they may not be so easily recognized from the tee.
There are courses I played which have solid routings but need to be updated.. McCormick Ranch is a good case in point. The Pine and Palm courses are different than one another but the layouts are simply tired and need refreshing.
Scottsdale has had a clear golf agenda for many years and until The Great Recession hit with full force — it was easy to simply keep doing what had been done. The former approach is now in the rear view mirror. A number of the facilities have rightly seen the opportunity to upgrade what they provide on a range of fronts — with the corresponding golf offerings receiving no less special attention and dollars. The dilemma for many facilities — not alone in Scottsdale but throughout America — is understanding how to keep core golfers interested. There needs to be a clear emphasis on details — turf quality, compelling architecture, food, servicing in all areas. If the golf is simply ho-hum and only barely beyond top quality across the board — core golfers will look elsewhere. Particularly so for courses that charge triple digit fees during peak times — a not uncommon approach in the broader Valley of the Sun area.
Nothing can be worse for any golf facility to simply hold on to distant memories and be defined as the place where grand dad played. The other dynamic facing Scottsdale is on the pricing side. During the high times prior to the ’07 real estate collapse — the sky was the limit on what various courses charged. Now, the pipeline for future players is questionable — certainly not at the same numbers that existed during previous peak times. Compelling and thought provoking golf course architecture is a necessity in demonstrating that appropriate investments are made on core ingredients — not just simply on whether the food and beverage service provides high quality table linens and fluffy shower towels. The balancing act is a most challenging one. Desert architecture can attain higher levels but the deeper question is whether the various ownership entities will take the necessary steps to do so. Some have — others have not.
Ratings Guide —
*World Class – Among the elite golfing areas on the planet – go now.
*Outstanding – Few lulls, extraordinary — never a dull moment.
*Exceptional – Clear qualities throughout but missing one or two central elements.
*Good – Roughly half and half in terms of quality offerings versus pedestrian golf offerings.
*Fair – Fleeting moments of quality — not worth a special trip.
*Poor – Save your time and money — utterly forgettable.
Although the golf courses shows a mixed bag in terms of level of progress since The Great Recession — the immediate Scottsdale area has clearly made major strides in upgrading the range of lodging options. When you desire to charge top dollar during peak times it’s critically important
to clearly demonstrate to customers that all elements — from customer service — to décor — to quality of the rooms and various amenities associated with them — are top tier. As someone in the industry said to me — lodging is much more than being in the sleep business.
Leading the way is the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale —Located just minutes from Troon North and has preferred tee times available in playing there. The resort is simply stellar in all aspects. The facility excels in getting the details right and customer service awareness is impeccable. One of the more interesting lodging options is
Talking Stick Resort — For those with a gaming need — it’s hard to beat what the facility provides. Conveniently located off Highway 101 — Talking Stick provides top quality
rooms and engaging entertainment options. Be sure to head up to the 14th floor — mix of live entertainment, great dancing, and picturesque views of the Valley. There’s an expanded dance floor plus a renovated bar perfect for sampling a plethora of fanciful cocktails and specialty drinks.
If you’re looking for a location in the heart of Scottsdale consider the Hotel Valley Ho — Built in 1956 — Valley Ho is themed with a modern twist and it’s furnishings are a celebration of modern architecture. The hotel emphasizes “comfortable and contemporary” and excels in doing so.
Looking for a lodging location near enough to the hustle and bustle but just far enough away — head to either Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch –
Hyatt Gainey Ranch showcases a profile capable in attracting large groups and business meetings while at the same time providing a real connection to individuals and families desiring a more personal touch with various creature comforts to match. The Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch — — had slowly faded from the stage until its recent purchase by Destination Hotels brought a
renewed sense of purpose and a clear desire to turn a tired looking facility into one with renewed vigor.
One of the more sought after locations is the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess –Provides access to the adjoining 36-hole TPC courses and has recently
upgraded the property in several noteworthy ways. Food options are among the best with a golf-related connection. Be sure to book a reservation for La Hacienda by Richard Sandoval as well as Toro Latin Restaurant & Rum Bar. The facility is generally busy during the high season of the winter months and is able to host larger-sized functions as well as for those who want a break from the workweek.
When Are You Thinking of Traveling to the Southwest?