Given its penchant for warm, sunny days, its unique desert locale, and its proximity to around 200 golf courses, Scottsdale, Ariz., has rightfully earned its place among the country’s most sought after golf travel destinations. Throw in “The Greatest Show on Grass” at the PGA Tour’s annual Waste Management Phoenix Open and TPC Scottsdale Stadium’s legendary par-three 16th hole, “The Coliseum,” and you’ve got the makings of a bonafide bucket-list golf trip to the Grand Canyon State.
If you want to fork up the funds to play where the pros play, you’ll obviously have to look at visiting Scottsdale outside of Super Bowl week (when conditions are perfect, by the way). And if attending the tournament is part of your once-in-a-lifetime-trip plans, chances are you’ll want to compliment watching golf with playing it at one of the Valley’s top-tier public gems like Troon North, We-Ko-Pa, Quintero, Wickenburg Ranch, or Greyhawk. Regardless, it could cost you a pretty penny.
I also realize that you’ll want to have more than one round of golf on your agenda—something that’s still good but won’t break the bank after splurging on an A-lister. To help you plan the ultimate practical Scottsdale golf trip, here are five courses to add to your golf itinerary that should not be overlooked.
We-Ko-Pa Golf Club (Cholla)
Set on Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation land, We-Ko-Pa is a Sonoran Desert oasis with a spectacular view of the 7,000-plus-foot Four Peaks section of the Mazatzal Mountains (“We-Ko-Pa” means “Four Peaks Mountain”). Having just celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2021, We-Ko-Pa is blessed with a site free of houses or roads, showcasing the beauty of its two unique designs. Its Saguaro course, designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw and added in 2006, ranks No. 1 among courses you can play in Arizona by Golfweek and continues to impress with its natural charisma, flowing seamlessly between the tall native cacti for which it gets its name with open run-ups to greens uncommon to most desert-style courses.
Let’s not discount the original. Designed by Scott Miller, also well known for his design at Coeur d’Alene, Cholla (the “jumping cactus”) is No. 7 on the same Golfweek list and exemplifies the typical target style of play in the desert, jumping across the dirt from green to fairway to tee. The fun starts at the drivable par-four 1st, as players begin to understand there is plenty of room to play safe as they wrestle with risk/reward opportunities. Shot shaping is key around centerline obstacles like those at the 7th, 9th, 10th, and 13th. The relatively tame layout does defend itself with a brutish closing stretch from 16–18 with two 400-plus-yard par fours and the par-five 17th playing 578 from the tips.
While rates are still on the higher end, golfers can save and play both courses with the club’s 36-hole packages. And there’s plenty of ways to make back your greens fee across the street at the new We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort, which opened in 2020. wekopa.com
TPC Scottsdale (Champions)
While you may have obsessed with tackling Tom Weiskopf’s Stadium course, its sister course should not be overlooked. The original “Desert course” reemerged in 2007 after work led by Randy Heckenkemper, who was part of Weiskopf’s design team when the facility’s two courses were first built in 1987. The new course has eccentricities galore; its first few holes play next to a private airport with small passenger planes routinely making landings overhead, followed by a stretch that lines up next to a highway and an industrial park, and wrapping up the front nine with a par five green flanked by a water feature and the Champions Patio Bar (the perfect post-round hangout, by the way).
The best stretch of holes comes at the course’s close, starting with the signature 15th; this short par four asks players to safely play up the right side with a short iron or carry a desert gorge to a slightly perched-up green. What follows is a par three whose approach can be partially blind given the hole location; a par five pushing 600 yards; and the No. 1 handicap home hole needing two long, accurate shots into the wind and two good putts on a severely sloping green for a par.
Whether or not you’re staying on-site at the luxurious Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, book a reservation for dinner at Toro inside the TPC Scottsdale clubhouse overlooking the 18th hole at Stadium for a sunset (and plate of sushi) you won’t forget. tpc.com/scottsdale/champions-course
Talking Stick Golf Club (O’odham)
There aren’t many facilities in the country that can claim two Coore & Crenshaw designs, but Talking Stick is one of them. On a dead flat piece of land, the duo designed the O’odham and Piipaash courses (formerly North and South) to play markedly different from one another—the latter showcasing a more straightforward style of play through trees and over water. While 36-hole specials are available, you may only look to take one crack at Talking Stick, in which case I recommend O’odham.
A links-style design with virtually no elevation change, O’odham offers a round as true to the desert landscape as one can find with unobstructed views across multiple holes. In several cases, like at the par-five 2nd and par-four 3rd, a relatively straightforward fairway is guarded by parallel barbed wire fencing, giving players pause and cause for concern. The fence is also present at the short par-four 15th, where a smart shot is needed to also avoid the dried out barranca splitting the fairway. Crowned greens (not quite Pinehurst No. 2, but tough all the same) and tightly mowed grass surrounds promote short game creativity.
Like at We-Ko-Pa, the fun doesn’t have to stop at the 18th hole given the Talking Stick Resort and Casino’s proximity to the clubhouse. talkingstickgolfclub.com/oodham#
Camelback Golf Club (Ambiente)
Another Scottsdale golf club with two courses to offer is Camelback Golf Club—part of the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa—with its Padre (Arthur Hills) and Ambiente (Jason Straka) layouts. In 2013, Ambiente was updated as the new name for the former course known as “Indian Bend” as part of a seven-year, $12 million renovation that included making the course eco-friendlier (ambiente meaning “environment” in Spanish).
The result is a fun track with five sets of tee boxes that flows through an affluent Scottsdale neighborhood and on either side of the Indian Bend Wash, which acts as a lateral hazard. Ambiente plays in an out-and-back pattern, so the course’s major defense is situated on the player’s right (a slicer’s nightmare) for the bulk of the round. Cart paths dip under neighborhood roads from green to tee and the elevation changes around the course surprise you. As you head back toward the clubhouse, you also begin to play with Camelback Mountain as your backdrop which makes for a picturesque finish.
It’s worth stopping by the lovely Camelback Inn if for just strolling around or staying for dinner and a margarita at Rita’s Cantina & Bar. marriott.com/en-us/hotels/phxcb-jw-marriott-scottsdale-camelback-inn-resort-and-spa/golf
Papago Golf Club
This muni is perhaps the best value in the desert and just 15 minutes from the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Having opened in 1963, Papago has been a local favorite for generations and is known for hosting the 1971 U.S. Amateur Public Links National Championship as well as being a qualifying site for the Phoenix Open over the years. The Billy Bell layout spreads out in an idyllic setting in the middle of Papago Park (you’ll see trail walkers out and about) carved at the foot of the Papago Buttes with views of the Phoenix skyline beyond its flagsticks. Today, it’s also the home course of the Arizona State Sun Devils men’s and women’s golf teams.
Given its ability to stretch to more than 7,300 yards, Papago packs more punch than your average muni. The course winds back and forth from the red rock backdrop—its par-four 2nd hole playing directly at the Buttes—and has a third way crossing house where players can mingle multiple times in a round. Ultimately, one should end the day on the recently updated patio of Lou’s Bar and Grill sandwiched between the 18th green and the driving range. papagogolfclub.com
Have you played golf in Scottsdale? What are your favorite courses in the area?