Exploring the other side of a global golf mecca. While wearing a kilt. And riding a Segway.
Author Jeff Wallach
THE MERE FACT THAT I’m wearing a kilt and white kneesocks isn’t what’s making today’s round at The Westin Kierland Resort feel a bit unusual. It’s that I’m dressed in a kilt and I’m about to ride out to my first tee shot on a Segway like some kind of Scottish charioteer.
Having hit my opening drive, I mount the scooter and lean forward. The manicured grass beneath me flies past in a green blur as I teeter, trying to maintain both balance and dignity. Following a successful (if inelegant) dismount, I grab a 5-wood and hit just short of the first putting surface into a sloping, tightly mown collection area. From here I get up and down, thanks to a beautiful rolling pitch shot.
I’d bow, but given my outfit, it might be safer if I curtsied.
Golfers who’ve been to Scotland more than once know that the most satisfying golf experiences are often found away from the trophy courses. So it is here in Scottsdale, Ariz., where—beyond bucket-list venues like Champions and Stadium at TPC, We-Ko-Pa and Grayhawk—you’ll discover a wealth of lesser-known spots offering unusual new programs, unexpected quality, smaller crowds and lower green fees. Kierland’s Scottish-themed package, for instance, includes a loan of formal Scottish attire and a bagpiper calling you in at the 18th green to sip Johnnie Walker at the Caledonian-influenced gastropub Brittlebush.
Kierland’s three nine-hole golf loops, designed by Scott Miller, feature golden desert grasses, elevation changes, dry washes and more than 300 bunkers of every shape and size filled with gleaming white sand. Ribbons of sandy waste areas and dun-colored dormant grasses frame many holes and accentuate the targets. Gently rolling mounds may reward slightly errant shots or create sidehill lies that will challenge your iron game. They will also challenge your Segway skills (though you can opt for a cart with an air-cooled mister, which comes in handy when the mercury soars into triple digits).
While the name of five-diamond resort The Phoenician suggests a leap back in history, the property is in fact a paean to modern luxury. One morning I roamed the cactus garden across from the lobby, admiring barrel cacti, smooth-barked palo verde trees and other local flora while sipping my coffee. In the evening, we sat by a fire pit and watched the sky turn purple and the stars pop out above Camelback Mountain, just behind the sprawling wings of the hotel.
The Phoenician proves that a course doesn’t have to be long and difficult to be, well, difficult. These 27 holes are all about subtlety—and they’re also about Camelback Mountain, which the golf course meanders around and sometimes nearly over and back down. Camelback quietly influences not just putts, but also club selection, stance and maybe even your mood. At times during my round, I lost track of the mountain, focusing instead on the task at hand (i.e., getting the golf ball to land somewhere near the pin). But then I’d leave a 3-foot putt a foot short on a seemingly flat green, look up to see the mountain lurking and realize that the green was practically straight uphill.
The Desert/Canyon routing commences amid a tranquil setting of flower beds, palms and mesquite, winds past resort facilities and stately Spanish-style houses, then transitions into a wilder terrain of rock and brush. As we were deciding what club to hit for our tee shots on the Desert’s par-3 sixth, which drops 100 feet to a glimmering island of green, some hikers stopped to watch—and we suddenly realized that laughter, particularly the derisive kind, echoes here (in other words: choose carefully). The Canyon has even more elevation changes and, at the seventh and eighth holes, back-to-back par-3s decorated with streams, gardens and waterfalls.
Fountain Hills’ SunRidge Canyon Golf Club is home to the Jim McLean Golf School, which is convenient, as you’ll need an improved short game to master 18 holes that blend into the land as if they were carved by the movement of water and wind over millennia. Architect Keith Foster sited the holes in red rock canyons and atop boulder-strewn ridges—creating distinctly different canvases of gorgeously rendered golf features.
The opening salvo descends gradually before doubling back to climb on the way in. Don’t forget this, as you’ll want to make your pars and birdies early. Ravine crossings are often required, but always present themselves clearly (so you’ll have only yourself to blame if you duff it, as when I landed in a dry arroyo after stubbing a 3-wood on the 12th). No. 13 kicks off the so-called Wicked Six, which plays mostly uphill into the wind, and encompasses water, steep drops around elevated greens, and other features that are maddening and entertaining by turns.
The Native American-owned Talking Stick Resort boasts two golf layouts designed by Coore & Crenshaw. I ventured out on the North Course, which opens with a couple of wide, welcoming fairways that seem impossible to miss off the tee (note: seem) before narrowing toward the first few greens. The latter reside awfully close to rough desert scrub, where we actually saw a herd of wild horses grazing. By the third hole, bunker pods and waste areas grow increasingly prevalent and closer to the fields of play.
No. 12 proved to be one of my favorites: a 392-yard dogleg called Red Mountain Gambler. Golfers choosing to take a chance must carry 204 yards of sandy waste area with their drives. Less adventuresome players can bail out to the right—or, like me, opt to carry the sand but hit it to the right anyway, by accident, leaving a long approach that must carry an arroyo in front of the green. And the greens themselves (newly rebuilt, lovely to look at, completely unforgiving) have a way of trampolining good shots to the back of, or clean over, the putting surfaces.
Six thousand Georgia pines distinguish Raven Golf Club—formerly known as The Raven at South Mountain—from the area golf courses that accentuate their Sonoran cred. In addition to the new name, the Phoenix facility spotlights a new trend in golf: a set of family tees shrunk down to 4,100 yards.
Gary Panks and David Graham, designers known for their desert golf architecture, let the cacti and rattlesnakes remain in the background on a lush, expansive layout. Subtleties abound, such as the sloped embankments lining the first hole that work to guide slightly mis-hit shots back to the fairway. Also at work is a design that requires strategy to ensure the best “leaves,” as in billiards. Angles of attack matter here, so proficient players will want to think a shot or two ahead. No. 5 is the signature hole—a super-short par-4 where wise golfers will hit an iron to the left off the tee and then avoid both the false front before the green and the deep retention area behind it (wiser golfers than I, who experienced both). The back nine plays a few shots easier than the front. Stadium-size putting surfaces may affect the yardages on many holes, so check pin positions before firing.
When you’ve finished with golf, refuel at any number of great clubhouse and resort restaurants close by the courses, such as Relish Burger Bistro at The Phoenician (I recommend the Kobe beef burger in particular) and Deseo at The Westin Kierland, whose spicy Nuevo Latino cuisine is the perfect counterpoint to a breeze blowing up your kilt.
JEFF WALLACH is executive editor of the websites The A Position and Golf Road Warriors.