A Golf Vacation in Scottsdale

In the winter of 1888, army chaplain and Civil War hero Winfield Scott paid $1,600 for a 640-acre tract east of Phoenix in the Salt River Valley. The same year, nearly a continent away in Yonkers, just north of New York City, Scotsman John Reid established Saint Andrew’s Golf Club, generally acknowledged as the birthplace of golf in America. More than a century later, Scott’s foreboding landscape and Reid’s transplanted game have come together in a way neither man possibly could have imagined.

Today, the challenging desert layouts, beautiful scenery and fabulous weather of Scottsdale, Arizona, the city that bears Winfield’s name, attract more than two million golfers a year. They stay at newly refurbished resorts like the Fairmont Princess and Four Seasons, along with iconic mainstays like the Boulders, Phoenician and Camelback Inn. They flock to play new courses like the Saguaro course at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club, redesigned ones like the Champions course at TPC Scottsdale and the reconfigured Troon North layouts, as well as longtime favorites like Grayhawk and Legend Trail.

But as good as the golf is, there is a lot more to the town than little white balls arcing against cobalt skies and landing on pristinely maintained emerald turf framed perfectly against the stark desert terrain. No doubt you caught some of the star-studded Super Bowl celebrations or the “Greatest Party on Grass,” a.k.a. the FBR Open—the final round took place on the same day as football’s biggest game. Clearly, the Wild West is alive and well in Scottsdale.

Princess of Scottsdale
If the town is a golf mecca, the spiritual center is the Fairmont Princess, home to TPC Scottsdale, host of the FBR Open. While the pros play the Stadium course, the Randy Heckenkemper-redesigned Champions course is a tremendous improvement over the former Desert course that used to occupy the site, a low-lying floodplain.

Strategic bunkers, rippled fairways and an interesting mix of holes, including five par 3s, distinguish the layout. It’s a tough but fair test: Hole locations tucked behind bunkers, for instance, always seem to have a backstop. The best part: cushiony “shade sand” in the waste areas that makes hitting shots from it a lot easier than the hardpan desert floor.

The Spanish colonial-style Princess has also undergone a remodeling, including the addition of Fairmont Gold, 66 secluded rooms and three parlor suites with highly personalized service. There’s also a new restaurant, Bourbon Steak, by acclaimed chef Michael Mina, to join La Hacienda, which has some of the best tequila drinks in town. For sheer entertainment value, order one of La Hacienda’s postprandial coffee drinks like Café Acapulco. Watch the fireworks ensue after a waiter lights the 151-proof rum and sprinkles cinnamon and sugar into the flames to caramelize the thick glass goblet before mixing in Bailey’s, Frangelico, Grand Marnier and, of course, a little java.

The hotel also offers 119 luxury casitas, and the grounds are gorgeous, especially at night with the palm trees lit and the sweet scent of juniper in the air from one of the five outdoor fireplaces. But the hotel’s highlight is the 44,000-square-foot Willow Stream spa, an elegant fusion of glass, stone, water and wood. (It took two workers a year to lay the dry-stacked blond rock wall in the reception area.) The Golf Performance Treatment, a combination of massage, stretching and acupressure, and Fit to a Tee, a golf-specific strength and flexibility program, do a wonderful job of alleviating the worries of spa-phobic men.

The spa’s architecture is reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright, which is appropriate since the Wisconsin native lived in Scottsdale during the winters starting in 1937. His home, Taliesin West, which also served as his studio and architectural laboratory, is set on a 600-acre compound in central Scottsdale, and showcases Wright’s theory of organic architecture and his brilliant ability to blend outdoor and indoor spaces. As a working design school, Taliesin is no staid museum and is definitely worth a visit.

Monument updated
Integrating buildings with the natural surroundings is one of the hallmarks of the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North. Nestled in the foothills of Pinnacle Peak in the higher-elevated north end of town, the hotel’s intimate grouping of adobe-style casitas blends effortlessly into the backdrop of balancing rock formations. In between is some of the most beautifully landscaped desert flora you’ve ever seen. At night, fire-crackling chimineas spring to life around the grounds.

A new restaurant, Talavera, and lounge, Onyx, were part of a $15 million enhancement that also included updating of the spacious rooms, which come with fireplaces, 42-inch flat-screen TVs and overstuffed coziness. The suites have telescopes and custom constellation charts for stargazing, while all rooms have private balconies that offer terrific views of the distant city and nearby Pinnacle Peak, which has a comfortably pitched hiking trail easily accessible from the property.

The two outstanding Troon North layouts, which also have been refurbished, are a short shuttle ride away; the hotel doesn’t own the courses, but guests receive priority access. Tom Weiskopf, the architect of the original Pinnacle and co-designer of Monument,
reconfigured the two 18s by blending the holes from each course and changing the sequence to improve playability and reduce distances between holes. He also rebuilt the greens and removed or added bunkers.

The “new” Pinnacle and Monument courses remain classic desert layouts with velvet ribbons of fairway bordered and bisected by strikingly rugged terrain with the iconic saguaro cacti standing sentry. The tee times are generously spaced, so you never feel hemmed in. If you’re lucky, you might even see a bobcat stalking a rabbit.

Nights and days in Scottsdale
The downtown area, a two-mile swath currently undergoing a $3.4 billion revitalization, is located on the south end of town. Who knew Scottsdale had a waterfront? OK, it’s a gussied-up irrigation ditch, but it’s home to a great restaurant and bar scene, with establishments like Pink Taco and Olive & Ivy. As befits its outlaw heritage, the city still has an independent streak. Notably absent from the high-end retail section are any national chains, a welcome relief from the homogenization of American shopping. There is also a thriving downtown art scene, the highlight of which is the Thursday night ArtWalk, a 35-year-old tradition of slipping (in and out of galleries) and sipping (fine wine).

One word of caution: Appoint a designated driver, since Arizona has some of the strictest DUI laws in the country.

Since the 1980s, water restrictions have limited new courses to 90 acres of irrigated turf; architects often have used much less to design exacting, target-style layouts. But the landing areas at We-Ko-Pa’s Saguaro course are very generous. The course is meant to be played as much along the ground as through the air. A perfect example is the downhill 255-yard 15th, which looks intimidating from the tee. But a well-judged tee shot landing short and right will carom off a slope and roll onto the green for a chance at birdie.

With wonderful views of the Four Peaks Wilderness Area, the setting couldn’t be more natural or serene. While the holes roll with the undulating topography, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw built a walkable layout, with chipping areas that continue seamlessly onto the next tee. Coore and Crenshaw have done more work in Scottsdale than anywhere else, also having designed 36 holes at Talking Stick Golf Club, another strategic test that’s also located on a Native American reservation.

For a more parkland-like experience, try Kierland Golf Club at the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in the heart of Scottsdale. Scott Miller, who also designed We-Ko-Pa’s Cholla course, built a lush 27-hole facility, which was renovated in 2002 when the hotel opened. The club is full of extra amenities, like an air-conditioned canopy on the range. And in lieu of climate-controlled carts, guests can rent Segways that make getting around the course a lot more fun—and faster. If shaving a few strokes off your game is a priority, Kierland offers two top instructors, Mike and Sandy LaBauve, a husband-wife tandem who come with some serious lineage: Sandy is the daughter of legendary teacher Jack Lumpkin.

The family-friendly resort is a stylishly modern hotel with an elaborate water park, kids club and teen lounge. But there’s plenty for adults, too, like the 15,000-square-foot spa that specializes in native and Far East treatments and Kierland Commons, a trendy, pedestrian-friendly, 38-acre shopping and dining area just a short walk away.

Clearly, Scottsdale has a lot to offer these days to golfers and non-golfers alike. Winfield Scott would hardly recognize it.