SCOTTSDALE - I've been visiting the Valley of the Sun for more than a decade.
Every time I think I've done it all - attending the Waste Management Phoenix Open, competing in the Scottsdale Open, riding with Pink Jeep Tours to experience a real desert sunset - I find out there's more to see. That's especially true when it comes to the region's endless supply of nice restaurants and golf courses. I've played more than 25 different courses and still haven't come close to checking them all off.
My trip last December was no different. As much as I love what's offered at Troon North, Grayhawk or We-Ko-Pa, I wanted to taste something new. I played five courses new to me and never felt the twinge of regret that they might be ranked lower or considered not as good as the more famous courses. As the old saying goes, 'variety is the spice of life'.
Talking to a playing partner at Papago, I mentioned I was playing Wickenburg Ranch Golf & Social Club the next day. He said, 'I always play here. I've always wanted to play out there, but that's too far to drive'. What's the fun in that line of thinking? All who wander are not lost.
Golf on arrival day
If you're like me, playing on arrival day keeps the spirits up and makes dealing with today's airport hassles tolerable. Papago, a heralded city muni, is just 8 miles from the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
Papago's fortunes changed after a 2018 clubhouse renovation changed the whole vibe. Music pumped to the outdoor patio of Lou's Bar & Grill can be heard from the tees and greens nearby. As part of the project, a new home base and practice facility called the Thunderbird Golf Complex was created for Arizona State University's golf teams. The course itself might be the most walkable in the Valley of the Sun. That's a draw, as is its playability and mostly affordable green fees.
Although we're past the holiday season now, if you ever get the chance to stay at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess around Christmas time, do so to experience the "Christmas at the Princess". The elaborate decorations are striking and the ice-skating rink is quite the novelty for the desert. Whenever I'm on property, I always dine at La Hacienda for a taste of the Southwest.
On the road to Wickenburg
Wickenburg was once a sleepy ranching town 75 miles northwest of the airport. The ongoing development of Wickenburg Ranch has changed all that. The neighborhood is growing exponentially, which has added some urgency to booking a tee time. There's a distinct possibility Wickenburg Ranch could be private by 2023, so enjoy the access while it lasts.
Significant elevation changes make this round more inspiring than many of the flatter courses in the Valley of the Sun. It's kept in prime shape and many of the holes are still free of homes, showcasing only a rugged desert landscape.
Dining at The Mission Kierland on the way home might have been the best meal of the trip.
Pampering at The Phoenician
Moving from the Fairmont is never ideal, unless your destination is The Phoenician, A Luxury Collection Resort, Scottsdale – the only Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond hotel in the region. It's a bastion of luxury from the restaurants to the pools and the spa.
Like the resort, the Phoenician Golf Club has undergone a significant transformation over the past five years. I remember playing the 27-hole version and walking away disappointed with a few holes. The 2018 redesign by Phil Smith to 18 holes left no such issues. It's a solid resort course, climbing high onto rocky Camelback Mountain for some striking views of the valley.
That night, the menu at Mowry & Cotton centered around modern American cuisine prepared using the timeless cooking techniques of fire, coal and smoke. As spectacular as the food was, I was even more impressed by the service. I had casually told my waitress that I had forgotten my sunblock at home. When I returned to my room from golf the next day, she had delivered a handwritten note and a golf hat to help me avoid the rays and stay cool. It was a kind gesture, a chance to make a guest's day, something every resort staff member is trained to do. Bravo!
A private club you can play
The Sonoran desert is loaded with premier country clubs. I've been invited to sample the Desert Mountain Club (and am still waiting for that invite to Scottsdale National or Whisper Rock). There are a few you can play with a stay. Booking a room at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa unlocks the Gainey Ranch Golf Club, a 27-hole private club right out its back door. The routing is pretty straight forward. The Lakes nine spices it up with some really good holes guarded by ponds, streams and other water features. Its ninth hole ends at one of the biggest waterfalls I've seen in all my travels. Everybody in my group sank one into it.
I drowned my sorrows later that night in a drink or two at the Starlite BBQ and Whiskey Bar, a hole in the wall in a local strip mall that you'd never know was there if a local didn't tip you off to its great food. Life doesn't get any better than a cornbread pancake appetizer, followed by some killer brisket or ribs.
Grand finale at Camelback Golf Club
When in Scottsdale, forget the diet. The restaurant scene is as extravagant as the golf. Rita’s Cantina and Patio at the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn is a local institution and breakfast had to last me the rest of the day. I played as many holes as I could on Camelback Golf Club's Ambiente Course before dashing off to the airport.
It's another course that's been redone; this time by Jason Straka in 2013. A few holes on the front nine were affected by low-lying grasslands that had filled up with water thanks to a rare overnight deluge. I enjoyed my quick 12-hole jaunt, but since I couldn't play it all, I don't know if it's better than its sister Padre Course. I haven't played that one yet, either.
See? There are always more reasons to return to Scottsdale.
Which Phoenix/Scottsdale courses are on your wish list? Let us know in the comments below.