Tee Off Where Arizona Golf Came of Age

aerial view of famous par-three golf hole at the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course. (Image: TPC Scottsdale)

Home of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course is an innovative Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish design that help popularize desert golf. (Image: TPC Scottsdale)

Marketed as the Valley of the Sun, the twin cities of Phoenix and Scottsdale are home to more than 200 of Arizona’s 300 golf courses, including the groundbreaking TPC Stadium Course, host of the famously raucous Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Golf is as essential to life in PhoenixScottsdale as ice cubes and air-conditioning.

Home to more than 200 of Arizona’s 300 golf courses, the twin cities marketed as the Valley of the Sun are the co-hosts every February of the famously raucous Waste Management Phoenix Open, the only PGA Tour event that actually encourages ear-drum shattering pandemonium.

Even locals who don’t golf feel obliged to make the scene at the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course. Young women in stiletto heels and skin-tight dresses stream through the gates to flirt with shirtless and inebriated face-painted young men. In the evening, the party—billed as the “Greatest Show on Grass”— refuels at the Coors Light Birds Nest, a temporary nightclub under a giant tent.

Wildest of all are the crowds that overflow the 20,000-seat grandstand surrounding the notorious par-three 16th hole. Players are variously greeted by cheers, boos and name-calling as they enter the stadium. Those unfortunate enough to make poor tee shots are berated mercilessly as they take their walk of shame to the green.

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

“Rosie’s Rock,” found on the South Course at Boulders Resort and Spa, is one of the most famous landmarks in Arizona. (Image: Boulders Resort and Spa)

Easily forgotten in the hoopla of a tourney that before the onset of the global pandemic consistently drew more than 700,000 fans (by far the PGA Tour’s largest attendance) is the Stadium Course’s prominence among the groundbreaking desert courses that have made Phoenix-Scottsdale one of the world’s top golf destinations. Designed by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish, the course masterfully blends large patches of natural desert landscape with just 11 hectares of green fairways.

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. They set tee boxes in isolated areas of sagebrush, cacti and sand. Giant saguaros were used to frame landing areas edged by dusty gullies known as arroyos. And in their most radical innovation, architects often made golfers fly their approach shots to greens protected by large and gnarly waste areas.

Like the Old Course, Prestwick, Carnoustie and the other original seaside links of Scotland, the desert layouts of Arizona are unique in the golf world.

Phoenix and Scottsdale each boast their special charms. Booming Phoenix—the fastest growing city in the United States in 2021—is home to a rejuvenated downtown core and a new light-rail system that spans the Valley. Phoenix is also a big-time sports centre, with major league football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey teams.

pool area at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in Arizona. (Image: Fairmont Scottsdale Princess)

Next door to the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course, Fairmont Scottsdale Princess is the preferred hotel of players and fans during tournament week. (Image: Fairmont Scottsdale Princess)

But many visitors prefer to stay in Scottsdale, the home of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. The pace of life is slower and generally more genteel in this easily navigable upscale community overflowing with luxury resorts, art galleries, stylish restaurants and boutiques.

Every year during tournament week, the Spanish colonial-style Fairmont Scottsdale Princess becomes the preferred hotel of PGA Tour stars and everyone else who can secure a reservation. Set on a lushly landscaped 24-hectare site overlooking the action on TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium Course, the 750-room resort offers outstanding Mexican cuisine (along with 240 brands of tequila), an award-winning steakhouse, and the sumptuous Well & Being Spa, one of the top-rated spas in the United States.

In heavy traffic, the region’s top golf courses can be an hour’s drive or more from hotels in downtown Phoenix and Scottsdale. Visitors intent on combining sightseeing with a daily tee off should definitely budget money for a rental car.

With so many standout courses by illustrious architects on offer, golfers are almost overwhelmed with choices.

View of We-Ko-Pa Golf Course green with mountains in the distance

The Cholla Course at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club is an acclaimed Scott Miller design that snakes through desert ridges and arroyos. (Image: We-Ko-Pa Golf Club)

Fans of the great Tom Fazio will want to play Grayhawk Golf Club, where Fazio’s evilly difficult Raptor Course affords stunning views of the nearby McDowell Mountains and the distant skylines of Phoenix and Scottsdale. Aficionados of the design work of Sir Nick Faldo should check out his evilly booby-trapped Faldo Championship Course at Wildfire Golf Club, in Phoenix’s northeast corner. And admirers of Robert Trent Jones Jr. won’t want to miss the excellent Dove Valley Ranch Golf Club, which occupies land in north Phoenix roamed in ancient times by the Hohokam people.

Of particular interest to golf architecture buffs are the acclaimed courses by Scott Miller and the red-hot design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw found at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club, a 40-minute trek east from Scottsdale.

Built on land owned by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, We-Ko-Pa is blessedly free of the fairway homes and condos often seen at Arizona’s courses. The original Scott Miller-designed Cholla Course twists like a rattlesnake through the ridges and arroyos that crisscross the property. Coore and Crenshaw’s Saguaro Course, meanwhile, is a walkable layout featuring an especially memorable mix of short and long par fours, including the drivable 316-yard second hole.

Mother Nature has gifted the Valley of the Sun with an arresting canvas of mountain vistas mixed with almost forest-like expanses of giant cacti, scrubby bushes and vibrant wildflowers. But nowhere is the scenery more breathtaking than at Boulders Resort and Spa.

Perched high in the Sonoran foothills north of Scottsdale, the iconic resort completed a multi-million dollar renovation several years ago that included everything from swank upgrades to the 160 guest rooms to an expanded outdoor terrace at the golf clubhouse. Best of all, the two Jay Morrish-designed courses, North and South, are set amidst a Flintstones-like tumble of massive 12-million-year-old rock formations. The South course is especially unforgettable. Morrish curled his layout around “Boulder Pile” and teetering “Rosie’s Rock,” two of the most surreally magnificent formations in all of Arizona.

A visit to the Boulders might well spur visitors to venture ever deeper into the desert for adventure. Off-road tours, river rafting and hiking are all on offer. The McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale is especially popular. The 12,140-hectare desert habitat features 130 kilometres of trails, including the panoramic 7.2-kilometre Gateway Trailhead loop.

The Valley of the Sun also serves up an apple pie slice of Americana as one of the two homes of Major League Baseball spring training (the other is Florida). From mid-February to late March during the height of the tourism season, 15 major league teams play pre-season Cactus League games in cozy stadiums that let spectators get close-up to the greatest baseball players in the world.

view of golf hole at Raven Golf Club near the Phoenix airport

Raven Golf Club is a Gary Panks and David Graham design near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. (Image: Raven Golf Club)

And having come all this way, why not budget time for a visit to Grand Canyon National Park, a four-hour drive to the northwest? Carved through the earth’s strata by the Colorado River over nearly two billion years, the Grand Canyon is 446 kilometres long, up to 29 kilometres wide, over 1.6 kilometres deep, and awe-inspiring in every imaginable way.

But the primary focus of this trip is golf. Happily, it’s almost always possible to combine a tee off with jaw-dropping sightseeing.

Scott Miller-designed Eagle Mountain Golf Club, for instance, offers stirring views of downtown Scottsdale with almost every swing. Indeed, one of the highlights of golf hereabouts is standing on the elevated eighteenth tee when the setting sun turns nearby Red Mountain aflame with colour.

Then there are the pine tree-framed views of the Phoenix-Scottsdale skyline from Raven Golf Club, a Gary Panks and David Graham co-design near Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport. And no golfer will want to miss the vistas of Pinnacle Peak from the Monument Course at Troon North Golf Club, which wends around rock outcroppings and through a forest of saguaro cactus in north Scottsdale.

Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish collaborated brilliantly on both Troon North’s Monument Course and the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course. But the now iconic home of the Waste Management Phoenix Open surely ranks as the greater achievement.

A view of a golf hole on the Eagle Mountain Golf course with desert vegetation and Eagle Mountain in the distance. (Image: Eagle Mountain Golf Club)

Fairways at Scott Miller-designed Eagle Mountain Golf Club are nestled in the ravines of the McDowell Mountains. (Image: Eagle Mountain Golf Club)

What the Stadium Course vividly illustrates is the magic that can be worked by gifted architects on even the most uninspiring patch of saguaro-dotted lowlands. Restricted by state law to irrigating no more than 36.4 hectares of turf fairways, the designers used less than a third of their turf allotment while exposing vast swathes of natural desert and artfully sculpting large spectator viewing mounds. In 2015, Weiskopf unveiled a US$12-million updating of the course that included the repositioning of several greens, the reshaping of bunkers and the planting of more than 250 trees.

Left untouched was the 162-yard 16th hole, a par three too infamous to alter. Every year spectators in the enclosed stadium, like their bloodthirsty forbears at the Coliseum in ancient Rome, grow louder, ruder and drunker. Players are mercilessly berated for even passably decent tee shots. Come up short or fly the green and the place erupts.

Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and other young stars enthusiastically embrace the insanity; many older players are less impressed. Tiger Woods, for instance, has only played the tournament three times.

To placate the braying throng, Padraig Harrington, who had never before thrown or kicked an American football, brilliantly hoofed one deep into the stands. Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnson once made like Santa Claus by arriving with a huge bag filled with gifts. And James Hahn famously broke into a thunderously appreciated Gagnam-style dance after sinking a birdie putt.

Just about anything can—and often does—happen at the Stadium Course’s 16th hole. At the 2020 tournament, a voluptuous young woman became an Internet sensation when she twice flashed her breasts at players just as they were preparing to putt.

Welcome to Phoenix-Scottsdale, home of the wildest party in golf.