Imagine a cactus. There are nearly 2,000 different kinds of catci around the globe, but odds are very good that the one you are picturing is the saguaro, tall and green with curving arms raised towards the sky—the stuff of Road Runner cartoons. It is the quintessential cactus, yet surprisingly it is only found in one ecosystem, the Sonoran Desert, a relatively tiny chunk of the earth’s real estate. The Sonoran Desert also happens to be the ideal setting for desert golf, a dramatic landscape that resembles the ocean floor, with a tumultuous, boulder-strewn rocky surface that is never quite flat, filled with fissures in the form of arroyos, and crowned with myriad types of cacti that eerily mirror varieties of coral, such as branch, brain and reef. It is gorgeous and scary at the same time.
When golf was born in the coastal dunes of Scotland more than 500 years ago, there was just one style of design, links golf. As the game gained popularity it quickly grew inland, and heathland and parkland styles have existed for centuries. But a fourth major design style would not be added until 1962, when accomplished designer Red Lawrence carved out the private Desert Forest Club course in Carefree, just north of Scottsdale, Arizona. He left nearly two-thirds of the course in its innate wasteland state, minimizing grass and following the natural contours, creating a risk and reward strategic gem that has remained ranked in the nation’s Top 100 ever since.
Desert Forest created the mold for superior desert golf. Often called target golf, this type of course can require hitting from one patch of green to the next while braving beautiful but harshly penal surroundings. The best desert courses look as if an artist painted islands of green onto a khaki background, and then crumbled up the canvas to form jagged peaks and valleys. “The appeal of golf in the desert has to do with the sharp contrast of playing surfaces,” says Bradley Klein, the longtime former Architecture Editor for Golfweek magazine. “The contrast of textures is especially strong when you have lush, soft green courses seemingly helicoptered in to these harsh, forbidding surrounds. There’s a lot of plant life on the desert floor, and it’s of such strange beauty—saguaro cacti, prickly pear, cholla—that you can’t get it out of your mind while you’re playing.”
The Sonoran Desert has been proven to be the very best setting for desert golf design on the planet, and its epicenter is where the style was born, the greater Scottsdale area, known in golf travel parlance as the “Valley of the Sun.” Every top course architect alive has eagerly made the pilgrimage here to lay out fairways and greens in this spectacular setting.
Today, Scottsdale has quality courses and natural beauty in spades, but it also has several other assets that make it one of the world’s favorite golf vacation destinations. “Scottsdale is one of the few of the country’s major golf destinations where you don’t have to make any compromises,” says longtime local Tom Lehman, U.S. Open champ and former Ryder Cup captain. “It’s easy to reach from anywhere in the country. The weather is great. The courses and resorts are world-class, and you’ll never run out of things to do off the course.” Because of the great weather, flight access and dense concentration of top-tier courses, many other golf stars live here, including Phil Mickelson, Tom Weiskopf, Cristie Kerr, Kirk Triplett, Hale Irwin, Billy Mayfair and many others. But for visitors coming on vacation Scottsdale offers even more: many of the best designs are anchored to five-star luxury resorts. It’s also one of the nation’s more cigar-friendly golf destinations.
While most come for the region’s signature desert golf, you’ll find every kind of layout here, even courses with wall-to-wall grass. “Designers have long known that the world’s best environment for building desert courses is the Sonoran Desert, and this is its heart and soul,” says golf writer Michael Patrick Shiels. Despite the overwhelming number of choices, the city layout makes planning a golf vacation here surprisingly easy. The biggest choice is where to stay, with luxury resorts featuring very different styles and character, and the rest a short drive away. These are the best options for your trip.
Fairmont Scottsdale Princess & TPC Scottsdale
The longest-running AAA Five-Diamond resort in Arizona (27 straight years), the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess is the fullest of the full-service luxury resorts in town. The sprawling 750-room complex has multiple restaurants, bars, pools, one of the largest and most lavish spas in the Southwest and two exceptional golf courses. The lodging highlight is a Fairmont Gold boutique hotel-within-the-hotel, with just 69 superior rooms and private lounge. There is also a casita section of the resort with 119 larger and more residential style suites. The latest addition is the Sunset Beach pool complex, which features a sparkling white-sand beach.
The resort is home to two celebrity chefs. Michael Mina has an outpost of his popular Bourbon Steak here, with an extensive whiskey list, and Richard Sandoval operates a fine dining Mexican eatery in the hotel and restaurant, and has a rum and cigar bar at the golf clubhouse. The Princess is especially popular with golfers playing the TPC courses, which are immediately adjacent to and operated by the hotel, but is also frequented by those playing elsewhere who want the full, high-energy resort experience, though this can also come with a convention feel as the property hosts many corporate events and outings.
The TPC has two courses, and both were recently and extensively renovated with new bunkers, greens and tees. The most popular by far is the Stadium Course (Rating: A-), originally designed by Jay Morrish and Tom Weiskopf, and home to the annual Waste Management Phoenix Open. This is the most-attended golf tournament on earth, “the Greatest Show on Grass,” a combination sports spectacle and giant outdoor party held each January.
Golf fans will instantly recognize its par-3 16th, which sits in a stadium, an enclosed amphitheater the size of a Major League Baseball field. It can hold 16,000 fans. Tiger Woods once wowed the thunderous crowds here with a magical hole in one. The structure is dismantled after each tournament, so only visitors in the weeks before and after the event can experience it just like the pros, but recently the idea has been floated of leaving the stadium up year round. The par-5 13th is also well-known for another Woods moment. This is where his 1999 tee shot came to rest near an enormous boulder, and a group of spectators moved the one-ton rock to allow him to play his shot. (Don’t expect that type of help if you end up in the same predicament.) After the 2016 renovation by Weiskopf, the course is better than ever, with significant strategic improvements to every hole.
The TPC Scottsdale’s Championship Course (rating: B) has appreciably less water than its more famous sibling, and significantly more exposed desert waste area, but it’s not in the same league as the Stadium course. Designed by Randy Heckenkemper, the Championship course is a bit squeezed in at the edge of the property, some holes are marred by highway traffic in the sight lines and one is even set between office buildings and the perimeter. Its main appeal is as a warm up, or as a second round when playing the Stadium layout.
The Fairmont has plenty of options for cigar lovers. Chef Sandoval’s Toro Latin Restaurant & Rum Bar has more than 150 rums, a good-sized cigar list and a large, outdoor patio where you can smoke, eat and drink. There are a few other smoking patios around the clubhouse, and they sell cigars on the beverage carts, as well as at the Midway Grille and at the Champions Grille. It’s an impressive array including Ashton, Cohiba, Macanudo, Montecristo, Punch, Rocky Patel and Romeo y Julieta.
Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North
The Monument course at Troon North, famous for its namesake towering boulder in the middle of the third fairway, is the design that put desert courses and Scottsdale on the world golf radar and is considered the prototype of the region’s many highly acclaimed layouts. It also ushered in the high-end daily fee, or “member for a day” public experience when it opened in 1989. Troon North Golf Club has two 18s, Monument (Rating: A-) and Pinnacle (A-), both known for showcasing giant granite boulders and eerie rock formations with frequently elevated tee boxes that overlook the fairways, and a surprising amount of elevation change and contour.
Both courses are visually stunning, and both are ranked in the Top 100 You Can Play by Golf Magazine, but this comes with a caveat. Monument, the original course by Jay Morrish and Tom Weiskopf, was long the region’s highest-ranked design. But when the second course here opened, called Pinnacle, and designed by Weiskopf as a solo project, it didn’t live up to its older sibling’s lofty reputation. It had a nearly half-mile gap between holes at one point, making it unwalkable. So, a decade later, the two courses were rerouted, creating two walkable layouts. It improved the quality of Pinnacle, but lowered that of Monument, leaving two very good courses instead of a stunner and a good one.
Most guests who never played the original Monument don’t really notice, and enjoy these two quite memorable desert golf experiences, which are augmented by the state’s only Four Seasons hotel, a luxury resort hidden among the rocky canyons of Scottsdale’s northern suburbia, giving it an escapist vibe. The hotel just underwent a $13 million renovation that included new contemporary decor, furnishings and artwork in all 210 casitas and suites. Its casita-style, low-rise adobe wings feature large rooms with gas fireplaces and Southwestern flair. For cigar lovers, the hotel has a pronounced indoor/outdoor emphasis, with all accommodations featuring large balconies or ground floor patios, some with outdoor firepits, while half now include 60-inch outdoor televisions. The culinary options are more fun than the sometimes staid luxury brand’s typical offerings, with a fine-dining Spanish steakhouse, Talavera, and a bit of Old West flair at Proof, which specializes in American comfort foods and boasts a deep Bourbon list. There is also an upscale craft cocktail bar, Onyx, and second watering hole poolside, along with 18 private cabanas. The Onyx Bar and Lounge has a humidor with about a dozen top-name choices, and guests are permitted to smoke on the patio.
Many of Scottsdale’s top courses are clustered in the northern suburbs, and here in aptly named Carefree is one of the region’s longest running luxury resorts, the Boulders, which went through a massive, multimillion-dollar renovation in 2017. The Boulders embraces the rocky, rugged desert setting, most famously in its 160 freestanding casitas—there are no conventional hotel “rooms” here. These irregularly shaped individual units look like they were dropped in from “The Flintstones.” They are spacious, boast wood-burning fireplaces and private patios, and have all-new interiors.
The spa was also redone, and is huge relative to the size of the resort.Stretching over 1,300-acres, the resort has hiking, tennis and other outdoor activities, including its own gorgeous 36-hole desert golf facility, with a clubhouse so extensively renovated it is essentially new, with a bar, outdoor cocktail patio and a new restaurant.
There are humidors in the main lobby bar and golf clubhouse, with a dozen brands including such rarities as Fuente Fuente OpusX and Liga Privada. All guest casitas and villas have private patios for smoking, and there are numerous outdoor fireplaces with seating at the restaurants.
The Boulders Golf Club is sometimes overlooked by visitors not staying here, but should not be missed. It has two classic Jay Morrish desert layouts, North (B+) and South (B+). Both are beautiful, strategically challenging and extremely well maintained, often with the area’s best conditions. Each course showcases the 12-million-year-old rock formations on the site, with stacks of boulders behind greens framing approaches, and many holes require careful shot placement due to ravines. The putting surfaces are bentgrass, expensive to maintain but better for play. You’ll find more water on the South course, but it is a little bit shorter. The resort has a stellar practice facility, and almost everyone who stays or visits plays both. You should too.
Talking Stick Casino Resort
Markedly different from the other top lodging choices in town, Talking Stick is a full-blown casino hotel, with all the 24/7 excitement, lights, sounds and cocktails that go with it—it’s either your style or it is not. But the 36-holes here, designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw and managed by Troon Golf, are absolutely for everyone. The resort is closer to downtown Scottsdale than its rivals to the North, and the terrain is radically different. Instead of target-style designs that require you to hit from one patch of green to the next, these feature wall-to-wall turf with almost no trees. The risk/reward choices are subtle but constant, with almost every hole offering a tighter driving line that pays off with a much easier approach shot. This requires real consideration on the tee, and is especially poignant when playing it a second time. You can make easy bogies by playing it safe and seize birdies by taking risks.
The challenging O’odham course (A-) has heavily bunkered greens, thick, penal brush, and is considered the marquee layout, but in many ways the Piipaash course (A-) is more scenic, varied and fun. They complement each other.
Even though it’s just off the highway and a more urban location, Talking Stick has an oasis feel, with no homes visible from the courses and little around it, with expansive vistas of the McDowell mountains. The hotel has a wide range of rooms and suites, as well as the broadest array of dining options of any top resort here. The casino is notably home to Shadows Lounge, a hidden and considerably large indoor and outdoor cigar bar. It has an impressive drink list, with around 50 single malts. You’ll also find cigars at the golf club (Fuente, Macanudo, Punch, Romeo y Julieta) and you can smoke on the patio around a large fire pit overlooking the courses.
We-Ko-Pa Golf Club
Of all the great 36-hole facilities in Scottsdale, We-Ko-Pa is the best, and worth the trip wherever you are staying. You can stay on site at the We-Ko-Pa Resort, but it is somewhat remote and not on par in terms of the luxury available in the area. The casino here is 34 years old, with plans for a new one scheduled for 2020.
But you must come for the golf, for We-Ko-Pa has the two highest-ranked Scottsdale courses by Golf Magazine. Cholla (rating: A), designed by Scott Miller in 2002, came first, and was followed by Saguaro (A) in 2007 by Coore and Crenshaw. All 100-plus bunkers on Saguaro were redone as part of a course upgrade at the end of 2018. The minimalist courses combine the best of the local desert beauty and dramatic landscape with risk/reward decision making. On almost every hole (other than the par 3s) the golfer has a wide range of choices of clubs to hit, and you might tee off with everything from a low iron to a fairway wood in addition to a driver during a round.
The courses at We-Ko-Pa are among the most walkable in the region. Both are so good it is hard to choose between them, so many visitors play both in the same day. They sell cigars in the clubhouse and on beverage carts and have three different smoking areas, including a very large covered patio between the pro shop and main restaurant, the We-Ko-Pa Grille. There is also a cigar-friendly patio at the smaller Saguaro Grill satellite restaurant.
Grayhawk Golf Club
The club championship boards at Grayhawk are filled with famous names. The two layouts have hosted a number of high-profile events, and have long served as a pro-am venue for the Waste Management Phoenix Open. From 2020 to 2022 it will host the NCAA Men’s and Women’s National Championships.
The Raptor course (B+) was designed by Tom Fazio and stretches just over 7,000 yards, with generous fairways and large greens, but plenty of protection in the form of deep greenside bunkers, harsh desert waste and water. Talon (B+) was done by David Graham and Gary Panks. It is known for its large, multitiered greens, confidence inspiring to the eye but reducing their effective size, and unlike its neighbor, has little penalty for missing the greens, encouraging a lot of up and down heroics.
Both courses throw a little bit of everything at the visitor—if it’s your first stop you might feel shock and awe. There is plenty of desert, plus creeks, ravines, elevation changes, mountain vistas, do-or-die heroics, deep, railroad-tie-faced bunkers, an island green and even a five-tiered waterfall next to the final hole on Talon. In terms of design, Talon and Raptor are not held in as high esteem as We-Ko-Pa and Troon North, but they are plenty of fun.
Grayhawk, which has no on-site lodging, has a long affiliation with Phil Mickelson. Phil’s Grill is named after him, and the restaurant has a humidor with offerings from Macanudo, Ashton, Romeo y Julieta, Punch, and a cigar-friendly patio.
Most visitors enjoy lunch at Phil’s Grille between rounds. Then again, most visitors to Scottsdale enjoy everything about their golf trip.