I’ve been travelling to Scottsdale, Ariz., and its neighbouring municipalities in the Valley of the Sun for more than a decade, mostly in early December just before the holiday rush, and mostly to play golf. With the area’s 330 days of sunshine a year and its desert setting, it’s always a safe bet there won’t be any rain to keep me indoors and off the course.
By returning year after year, I’ve developed a long list of courses that I’ve sampled – more than 40 by my rough count, which represents about a fifth of the total in the sprawling area that includes Phoenix. In Arizona, I’ve teed it up at budget courses and I’ve also visited other courses that cost as much to play 18 holes as the plane ride that took me there. My goal each year is to try some new ones, but also to return to one or two of my favourites. TPC Scottsdale, the two courses at Troon North Golf Club and the two layouts at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club, for example, have all given me great pleasure, and at least one of them is sure to be on my itinerary.
These frequent and repeat visits mean I’ve seen first-hand how these courses have changed over the years. And as good as these publicly accessible courses are, they keep getting better. That’s largely because the owners have been plowing money into them. Multimillion-dollar renovations over the past few years are not only pushing the aesthetics and playing conditions to another level, but also saving the environment some stress and making the game (hopefully) easier.
The courses are also trying to stay competitive in a hot golf market, and it’s all to the advantage of visiting golfers, whether they be vacationers who fly in for a week-long break from the cold back home or snowbirds who can linger longer.
The trend’s most recent example is Troon North, whose Pinnacle course had just officially reopened after a six-month, US$1-million facelift of its greens and bunkers when I visited last December. The grass on the greens, which had become thatchy over the years, and 15 centimetres of soil beneath them were peeled back. Then new soil, mixed with a porous ceramic material, was laid down, followed by sod. The process made the greens as pure and true as any in the state and in need of less water and fertilizer than before. The bunkers and their linings went through a similar excavation and replacement.
“If you have a great hotel, you still redo the rooms every now and then, put in new TVs, that sort of thing,” says Ron Despain, the senior vice-president of golf course development for parent company Troon. “It’s the same thing with a golf course. You’ve got to take care of the infrastructure.”
The Pinnacle renovation followed the exact same work on Troon North’s other 18-hole course, Monument, in 2017.
Troon North is not alone in its efforts to correct natural aging and stay fresh. We-Ko-Pa, in nearby Fort McDowell, also enhanced its bunkers and greens on its Cholla and Saguaro layouts and it removed about 250,000 square feet of turf in little-used areas, replacing it with Sonoran Desert vegetation, partly in a move to save water.
Grayhawk Golf Club’s Raptor course added new tees, a new hole and remodelled two other holes, upgrades that make it worthy to play host to the U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association’s golf championship in 2020. Regular golfers can enjoy the fruits of their labour in the meantime. Ak-Chin Southern Dunes in Maricopa spent US$2-million to renovate its bunkers, eliminate some of the desert patches over which golfers were required to fly their balls and shaved down a mound on the 17th hole that obscured a clear view of the green. It also built a new driving range that does double duty as a six-hole course, called Mini Dunes, for beginners and juniors.
Starfire Golf Club reworked the 27 holes on its property, creating an 18-hole King course, reflecting the nickname of the club’s original architect and golf legend Arnold Palmer, and a shorter nine-hole track called Mulligan 9.
Papago, in Phoenix and considered among the best municipal courses in Arizona, put its money into improved practice facilities and a new clubhouse last year, reasoning the time spent before and after a round are just as important as during. (It also constructed a swanky practice facility for the men’s and women’s golf teams at Arizona State University, designed by alumnus and golf superstar Phil Mickelson.)
The most expensive reno job took place in 2014 at TPC Scottsdale, the public course that stages the most heavily attended tournament on the PGA Tour, the Waste Management Phoenix Open. (The event’s 2019 edition begins on Jan 31.) In its first makeover since opening in 1986, at least US$12-million was pumped into Tom Weiskopf’s original design to bring about a bevy of changes, which included relocating four greens, replacing the cart path, reconfiguring the 13th fairway, updating the irrigation system, eliminating some bunkers that only weaker players would find themselves in and refilling the remaining bunkers with gleaming white sand.
But even TPC Scottsdale’s extensive makeover pales in comparison to the work done at a few clubs where the existing golf courses were essentially blown up and started over.
Verde River Golf and Social Club (formerly Tegavah) in Rio Verde was overhauled a couple of years ago, with all-new routing built atop the former course, and the Mountain Shadows resort in Paradise Valley transformed its executive-length track into Short Course, whose wildly sloping greens, set against the picturesque backdrop of Camelback Mountain, make it the most fun golf in Arizona.
On my most recent visit, I stopped at the Phoenician, the granddaddy of Scottsdale resorts, which had just unveiled its new 18-hole course. Under the direction of architect Phil Smith, the resort levelled its existing 27 holes, some of which were awkwardly squeezed around buildings and the base of Camelback Mountain, and replaced them with a less-cramped, more-open 18 holes.
Wider fairways and fewer penal bunkers are just a couple of ways in which the new layout is more user-friendly, a welcome change for those of us who felt the courses that sprung up in the golf construction boom of the 1980s and 1990s were just too tough. “If you feel comfortable on the tee you feel better about your shot and hit a better shot,” says Smith, who’s had his own architecture firm since 2012 after years working with Jack Nicklaus and Weiskopf. “Not every time but most of the time.”
Smith made the green complexes challenging in their slopes and run-off areas, however, to stimulate a better player’s imagination and skills.
The makeover was among the last projects in a massive, property-wide renovation that has given the Phoenician a more casual and less-formal feel without abandoning its reputation for luxury and elegance.
“All these courses that were built in the eighties, most of them in that phase of design were very severe,” Smith says. “At that time, severity was thought of as being good. Now we know how hard the game is. It needs to be more user-friendly, it needs to be quicker, you need to be able to get around and find your ball. So that’s where golf architecture has evolved. And that’s what we have here at the Phoenician.”
For that, the visiting golfer can rejoice.
These four resorts in Scottsdale and area have either long-term stay options or ownership opportunities in addition to nightly rates, plus close proximity to great golf:
Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale: A laid-back luxury retreat in remote North Scottsdale, with stunning views down the valley toward the distant city skyline of Phoenix and its surrounding suburbs. It is next door to hiker paradise Pinnacle Peak and just around the corner from Troon North Golf Club.
The Boulders Resort and Spa: Another remote retreat, surrounded by gigantic circular and oval boulders (hence the name of the resort) that seem to be delicately stacked atop each other, defying gravity. A natural marvel with two outstanding Jay Moorish-designed courses on property.
The Phoenician: The standard bearer of Scottsdale luxury was recently updated in a massive renovation over several years. Its on-site golf course has raised its game, too, following a complete overhaul.
Mountain Shadows: The original Mountain Shadows, once a Hollywood hangout, has been razed and replaced by a new resort, but still retains its mid-century modern, Rat Pack sense of style. Its new Short Course on property is long on fun.
The writer’s most recent visit to Troon North was covered by Experience Scottsdale. It did not review or approve this story.