By: Peter Ellegard
There I was, minding my own business when some no-good varmint threw down a challenge. “You’ve been buggin’ me for some time,” he drawled at me menacingly, “so let’s see how quick you are on the draw.”
There was just one response. “Well, punk,” I replied as I strapped on my six-shooter, “do you feel lucky?”
As we squared up to each other under the ink-black Sonoran Desert night sky, a gnarled old cowboy gave us our cue. My finger was already squeezing the trigger and on the word “draw” I pulled the gun from its holster, my left hand slamming the hammer back and releasing it to fire in a single fluid motion. My opponent didn’t stand a chance. Yet as the smoke cleared, he was still standing and hadn’t bitten the Arizona dust.
It was the best of three so we drew twice more. My cockiness proved my undoing, however. I was fastest on the draw both times, but in my haste I didn’t cock the hammer far enough to fire the gun and he got me each time.
Thankfully we were firing blanks – and separated by an acrylic screen. The varmint was also an old friend, Mike Gallagher, co-founder and co-chairman of CityPASS. So I didn’t mind being beaten.
We were taking part in an international travel industry golf tournament that mixed playing some of the finest courses in Scottsdale while enjoying attractions in and around the city.
The shootout was among options at desert activity center Fort McDowell Adventures that also included riding all-terrain Segways, wagon rides, tomahawk throwing and a performance of traditional Yavapai Nation dancing and singing.
Scottsdale is nirvana for golfers, boasting more than 200 courses. Together with neighboring Phoenix and other communities, it sits in the Valley of the Sun, so named because it enjoys 300 days of sunshine per year. Golf can be played year-round, from balmy December days like during my visit even into high summer when the mercury regularly tops 100°F, thanks to it being a dry heat.
We played three rounds in the tournament. Our first foray was on the North Course of Boulders Resort & Spa, one of two Jay Morrish courses at the luxurious desert sanctuary named for the huge granite rocks it is built around. The North is slightly longer than its sibling, at a touch over 8,000 yards but wide landing areas make it a fair challenge from all tees.
I also played the South Course, returning after the tournament to stay for a night and have a more leisurely experience at The Boulders, as it is known. Its 140 slope rating (against the North’s 137) means it is no pushover, the cacti-filled desert coming more into play. It is also the more visually striking, with its fairways playing right up to and around the eponymous boulders. Play the par-3 7th hole from the back tees and the impossibly-balanced Rosie’s Rock looms high above you, looking for all the world like it is about to topple. I enjoyed the South more, helped by having the first tee time with golf manager Brandon Christenson as the long shadows from the boulders and towering saguaro cacti spilled across the fairways and greens – and the fact that I shot a net par for my 23 handicap!
The Boulders, which is part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, recently completed a multi-million dollar renovation. Accommodation (I stayed in a beautiful hill-top casita) is sumptuous, service levels are exceptional and the spa, where I enjoyed a post-round golf massage, is to die for because it is so heavenly.
The tournament’s second round was just outside Scottsdale at SunRidge Canyon Golf Club, on its dramatic Fountain Hills course. A terrain rating rather than a slope rating would perhaps be more appropriate, as it cascades across rocky ridges and desert canyons. It isn’t fiendishly long, at 6,823 yards, but it packs a hell of a punch with its final six-hole stretch, which climbs back up the mountainside into the prevailing wind after dropping for the first 12 holes. Called the Wicked 6, it kicks off with the 578-yard, par-5 13th hole – the longest on the course – and also includes another par 5, two par 4s and two testing par 3s, the 17th offering two sets of tee boxes that alternate from day to day. You certainly needed to be a sharpshooter to take on some of SunRidge’s target golf shots over the desert flora.
The final competition round was at Talking Stick Golf Resort, where noted designers Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have carved two layouts from the flat desert. Perhaps my expectations were too high with such distinguished architects but I was left a little underwhelmed by the North Course, and few holes stood out other than for their mountain backdrops.
However, I had played steady golf throughout and helped my fellow travel writers beat off the opposition to win the team prize, at a dinner following a dolphin show at the newly-opened Dolphinaris Arizona attraction at Scottsdale’s Odysea in the Desert. A rare victory for me!
I stayed on to play another course in Scottsdale, Grayhawk Golf Club. Golfers can get into a rhythm on its Rock and Roll Range, swinging in time with rock classics such as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird and the Stones’ Honky Tonk Woman blasting out from speakers disguised as rocks.
Grayhawk’s Talon course, one of two Tom Fazio designs together with Raptor, really rocked me. Its narrow and undulating fairways, hemmed in by desert scrub, along with large, sculpted bunkers and expansive, fast greens demand constant thought and care. The 17th hole mirrors the game’s most notorious par 3, at TPC Sawgrass, with its island green.
On a previous visit I had also played the spectacular Pinnacle Course at Troon North (it also has the Boulders 18) and We-Ko-Pa’s Saguaro Course, lined by the tall, namesake cacti and one of two layouts there. Other options include TPC Scottsdale, host venue for the Waste Management Phoenix Open and famed for its intimidating, amphitheater 16th hole. The new Mountain Shadows Short Course, below Scottsdale landmark Camelback Mountain, is a challenging par 3 ideal for sharpening your short game or if you want to play 18 holes but are short on time. It forms part of a soon-to-open boutique resort. Another luxury option close to Downtown Scottsdale is the new Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Spa, which offers casita-style bungalow accommodation featuring décor and furnishings that are a throwback to the 50s and 60s. I enjoyed a night there and also stayed at The Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch, which offers hacienda-style accommodation with golf on the adjacent McCormick Ranch Golf Course.
Mosey on down to Downtown Scottsdale and discover the area’s Western heritage through its art galleries and shops, and at the recently-opened Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, which is well worth a visit.
Post-round, follow the Ale Trail through Old Town Scottsdale to try craft beers at hostelries including Craft 64 (its wood-fired pizzas go down a storm with the 30-plus local brews) and Goldwater Brewing Company, where beers are served directly from tanks behind the bar. You can also try Arizona wines at LDV Winery and Scottsdale Tasting Room, among other places, before dining in trendy restaurants such as FnB and sampling cocktails at popular bars including Counter Intuitive.
Arizona is far more than just Scottsdale if you are a golfer, though. I thoroughly recommend a two-center break with Tucson, where I spent a few days before the tournament playing a couple of its 40-plus courses.
The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa has three nine-hole layouts, all of them Signature Jack Nicklaus designs and each with its own character but all featuring doglegs galore and large, sloping greens protected by well-placed bunkers. Don’t be too macho, though. Canyon is well-named for the gaping chasms you need to fly from the tees or approaching the greens; anything short and the desert gobbles it up. The was my second visit and I vividly remember the saguaro cacti alongside tee boxes from my first visit, peppered with holes from errant drives and many with golf balls still lodged in them.
Dove Mountain, another 27-hole Signature Jack Nicklaus design, hosted the PGA TOUR’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship event from 2009 until 2014, and its three 18-hole combinations all stretch to around 7,250 yards from the back tees yet its wide landing areas ensure it is not too penal.
The course is surrounded by desert and wildlife is plentiful. A coyote loped across a fairway and a group of javelina – like wild pigs but members of the peccary family – were foraging by one green during my round.
On my previous visit I played Tubac Golf Resort & Spa, 45 minutes from Tucson. Its 27-hole course was where golf scenes in the Tin Cup movie, starring Kevin Costner, were filmed and markers on the course recount memorable scenes.
Tucson also has plenty of off-course attractions to merit a stay. Its foodie scene has been recognised by UNESCO, which recently designated the city as America’s first World City of Gastronomy in recognition of Southern Arizona’s food traditions and culinary innovations. Among noted Tucson restaurants is Downtown Kitchen, where creations include pork belly doughnuts. They sound bizarre but are amazing. Trust me.
A great way to explore the desert mountain scenery along the Arizona Trail is on a guided mountain bike, which I did with Southwest Trekking – a great experience, cycling along narrow trail paths edged by cacti amidst high desert mountains. But I almost ‘came a cropper’, barely avoiding the dangerous spikes of the notorious jumping cholla, or teddy bear cholla, when I hit soft sand and the bike tipped over.
You can enjoy Old West experiences at Old Tucson, which has Western movie sets, golf panning and mock shootouts, and an hour’s drive southwest of Tucson at Tombstone, site of the infamous OK Corrall gunfight and where daily re-enactments take place. I think I will leave it to the pros from now on…