Tee Off Amid the Tumbleweeds in Scottsdale

Tom Fazio, Pete Dye, Jay Morrish, Tom Weiskopf and other top architects have built courses unique in the golf world by embracing the natural drama and beauty of the Sonoran desert in Scottsdale-Phoenix.


The Boulders Club, Arizona (Image: The Boulders)

The Boulders Club features two Jay Morrish-designed layouts. (Image: The Boulders Club)

Rarely has adversity been turned to profit so quickly or innovatively as on the desert courses of Phoenix and Scottsdale in the starkly beautiful Valley of the Sun.

Beginning in the 1980s, local water restrictions forced golf architects to limit their use of turf fairways and instead embrace the natural drama of the Sonoran Desert. Tom Fazio, Robert Trent Jones Jr., Tom Weiskopf and other top designers responded by isolating the tee boxes at their desert courses in seas of sagebrush, cacti and sand. They used giant saguaros to frame landing areas edged by dusty gullies known as arroyos. And in their most radical innovation, they frequently made golfers fly their approach shots to greens protected by large and gnarly waste areas.

Like the great links of Scotland or the best mountain courses of Alberta and British Columbia, the desert layouts of Arizona are unique in the golf world. Mother Nature has provided a spectacular canvas of colourful mesas mixed with mountains and forest-like expanses of cactus, scrubby bushes and wildflowers.

Together with a population boom in Phoenix and the opening of a string of luxury resorts in neighbouring Scottsdale — a sprawling community of BMWs, galleries and boutiques known as the Beverley Hills of the desert — the popularity of this new style of desert golf sparked an explosion of local course construction.

Today, more than 200 of Arizona’s 300 courses are scattered throughout a region that also offers rock-climbing, hiking, horseback riding, river rafting, jeep tours and balloon rides. The Grand Canyon awaits, a four-hour drive to the north.

But for golfers, the big attraction is the acclaimed courses found amid the sagebrush and tumbleweeds under the welcoming desert sun.


TPC Scottsdale

Easily the most famous of all Arizona’s desert courses, the TPC’s Stadium Course illustrates the magic that can be worked by architects — in this case, the celebrated team of Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish — on even the most uninspiring patch of saguaro-dotted lowlands.

Restricted by state law to irrigating no more than 90 acres of turf fairways, the designers brilliantly blended large patches of natural desert with just 28 acres of green fairways to create a layout that annually challenges the world’s top players during the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open.


Grayhawk Talon course, Arizona (Image: Grayhawk Golf Club)

Grayhawk twists through the hills and natural washes of the Sonoran desert. (Image: Grayhawk Golf Club)

Grayhawk Golf Club

Stunning views of the nearby McDowell Mountains and the distant skylines of Phoenix and Scottsdale are highlights at a 36-hole facility regarded as a showpiece of desert golf.

Tom Fazio’s Raptor course is a tough brute that twists through the hills and natural washes that are typical of this corner of the vast Sonoran desert.

Just as good is Grayhawk’s Talon course, a David Graham-Gary Panks collaboration that features a thrilling back nine built around deep box canyons and thick stands of palo verde and ironwood trees.


We-ko-pa Saguero course (Image: We-ko-Pa Golf Club)

Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw designed the Saguaro course at We-ko-pa. (Image: We-ko-Pa Golf Club)

We-Ko-Pa Golf Club

Blessedly free of the fairway homes and condos often seen at Arizona courses, We-Ko-Pa’s two championship layouts offer desert golf at its unspoiled best.

Located east of Scottsdale on land owned by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, the Scott Miller-designed Cholla course features commanding views of the Four Peaks Wilderness Area as it snakes through the ridges and arroyos that criss-cross the property. The Saguaro course, designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, is a more traditional layout offering a unique mix of short and long par fours, including the drivable 316-yard second hole.


Troon North Golf Club

Another brilliant Jay Morrish-Tom Weiskopf collaboration, Troon North’s Monument course in north Scottsdale offers stunning views of famous Pinnacle Peak as it winds around rock outcroppings, over desert washes and through a forest of saguaro cactus.

The Pinnacle course, a Weiskopf solo design opened in 1995, is possibly an even tougher test of golf, with steep arroyos and fairways hidden from the tee by boulders.


The Boulders Resort Golf Course, Scottsdale, Arizona (Image: The Boulders Resort)

The Boulders Club rolls through stunning rock formations. (Image: The Boulders Resort)

The Boulders Club

Set in the high Sonoran foothills about 45 minutes north of Scottsdale, the two Jay Morrish-designed courses at The Boulders Resort wend through an astonishing Flintstones-like tumble of giant 12-million-year-old rock formations.

The luxury property’s North Course plays slightly longer, but the South Course is definitely more dramatic, playing closest to some of Arizona’s most stunning outcrops.



Wildfire Golf Club, Arizona (Image: Wildfire GC)

Wildfire is an acclaimed Nick Faldo design. (Image: Wildfire Golf Club)

Wildfire Golf Club

Once regarded as golf’s most skilled shot-maker, Nick Faldo’s meticulous nature is evident throughout his acclaimed Faldo Championship Course at Wildfire, a gorgeous property set in Phoenix’s northeast corridor. Course management is key on fairways booby-trapped by 106 visually striking sand bunkers.

Less dramatic, though still a premier resort course, is Wildfire’s original layout, the Palmer Signature Course, an Arnold Palmer design offering Camelback Mountain as a backdrop as it makes its way through comparatively tame desert terrain.


Raven Golf Club

Unusual for a desert course is the abundance of water that comes into play on this Gary Panks-David Graham design near Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport.

No fewer than five holes feature water hazards, including the 18th, where a waterfall tumbles beside the green. Also striking is the lushness of an always fair yet constantly challenging 7,078-yard layout where more than 6,000 Aleppo, Mondale and Canary Island pine trees were planted to frame panoramic views of the mountains and the Phoenix-Scottsdale skyline.


Dove Valley Ranch, Arizona (Image: Dove Valley Ranch)

Dove Valley is built on land once roamed by the Hohokam people. (Image: Dove Valley Ranch)

Dove Valley Ranch Golf Club

On land in north Phoenix roamed in ancient times by the Hohokam people, Robert Trent Jones Jr. built a challenging and graceful course where petroglyphs and rock-art figures are etched into the large granite boulders that serve as hole markers.

Like a symphony conductor, Jones Jr. builds momentum gradually, threading his opening nine through open desert before tightening his fairways as they play into the dense desert vegetation along Willow Wash, the site’s dominant natural feature.


Eagle Mountain Golf Club

Standing on the elevated eighteenth tee of this Scott Miller design late in the afternoon, when the setting sun turns nearby Red Mountain ablaze with colour, is one of the highlights of golf in the Valley of the Sun.

Indeed, panoramic views of Red Mountain, downtown Phoenix and Camelback Mountain unfold with almost every swing at a challenging yet forgiving course where many fairways are contoured to kick balls back into play. Especially unforgettable is the fourth hole, a par five that kicks and rolls 554 feet downhill like a windblown tumbleweed.


McDowell Mountain Golf Club

Stretched to 7,072-yards, this recently re-jigged Randy Heckenkemper design (formerly Sanctuary Golf Course) is nestled in the western slopes of Scottsdale’s McDowell Mountains.

Quails, roadrunners and jackrabbits are frequently seen at a course where playing corridors have been widened, waste bunkers added, and fairways artfully reshaped. Especially memorable is the par-three eighth hole, featuring two multi-tiered waterfalls.