Dabbling in the Desert

In December 2013 I had the opportunity to travel to Arizona with a handful of golf writers from around the world. That story appeared in Canadian Golf Magazine. You can read it in it’s entirety below. 

Please forgive my wide-eyed innocence, but I had never been somewhere warm during the winter until last year. But when I had a chance to visit Arizona, I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to trade my toque for a t-shirt, and escape to the desert. I was excited.

Perhaps it was the endless stretch of palm trees and cacti, or the fact I had ice cream on a patio while wearing shorts in early December, but I was quick to realize that Arizona is a fine destination to spend a few days in the winter, and my excitement was warranted.

For starters, it’s impossibly easy to get to. There are direct flights from most Canadian cities, and even a direct one from London, England that a few of my travelling companions took advantage of.

There’s much to visit in the Phoenix area. I played golf in the capital, and in Scottsdale and Mesa. I didn’t have a chance to venture to Tempe – where Phil Mickelson’s Alma matter Arizona State is – or Glendale (where the Phoenix Coyotes play; however, it seems not many people venture out that way regardless), or Tucson, which is less than two hours south.

A recent Golf Magazine columnist called the whole area the best for golf in the United States, and it’s easy to see why.

Beyond golf, local cuisine, craft beers, creative margaritas and beautiful weather there’s a town that’s eager to please its visitors and residents with 365 days worth of outdoor activities.

I’d liken the whole Arizona experience to a slogan that the province of Ontario used for so long to promote itself: “more to discover.”

Our first stop was a short drive from the airport, the Westin Kierland resort in North Scottsdale. It’s a sprawling property, and despite spending three nights there, there was still much more to see and do.

For example, the hotel just officially announced its incredible scotch collection. 130 bottles of the world’s finest scotches, including a north-of-$20,000 bottle of Glenfiddich, aged 50 years. If you’re hoping to be a bit more active – perhaps not after indulging in a dram (or three) – the hotel has a spa, multiple pools and the ForeMax golf fitness program (unique to the Westin Kierland and used by a multitude of professional and amateur golfers around the world).

The highlight – because I’m still just a big kid – was the Flowrider. In late 2012 the resort expanded it’s family-friendly water park to include the new board sport simulator that is a combination of boogie boarding, surfing, snowboarding and skateboarding. Two jets blast water at speeds of up to 30 mph. It was “totally gnarly” if I had to explain it in surf terminology.

I didn’t expect to come to the desert to surf, that’s for sure. What I did come to desert for, was golf.

I began at Lookout Mountain, north of Phoenix. It weaves through a local neighbourhood and the meandering desert up and down the mountainside. Dramatic elevation was a strong point of the course, and none more dramatic than that of the par-4 10th. It’s a mid-range par four, but it plays much shorter, as golfers tee off from nearly 100 feet in the air. The course sits along the North Phoenix Mountains and offers panorama views of the Arizona landscape.

After our round I enjoyed a meal at the on-site restaurant called Different Pointe of View. In a word, it’s fabulous.

You get shuttled to the top of one of the mountains, and have an unobstructed look all the way to downtown Phoenix. The meal was a detour from what I usually have after a round of golf – short ribs on a bed of risotto with white chocolate mousse is definitely not Doritos and a hot dog – but that certainly was not a complaint. It’s worth checking out.

The next day I teed it up at the Kierland Golf Club, adjacent to the hotel. The course itself is a fair layout that does its job as a resort golf course. There aren’t the sprawling desert vistas that you get at Lookout Mountain, but it was in immaculate shape and with 27 holes plus a practice area, there’s something for everyone.

For me, the highlight at Kierland Golf Club was how dedicated the staff is to making sure its guests have fun. For example, Kierland is the lone golf course in the U.S. that offers golfers a chance to ride a Segway while playing (it has four Segway units for its guests) – an option that I obviously took advantage of.

I can say unequivocally that it was the most fun I’ve had on a golf course.

It takes a little getting used to (you have a 20-minute training session prior to your round then you’re on your way) but you don’t really feel the weight of your bag and it’s such a detour from regular golf, how could I not have enjoyed myself?

The next day we visited Las Sendas Golf Course in Mesa. Las Sendas is a unique track, built in 1995 as Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s first foray into the Arizona golf scene. It’s a true desert-style layout that winds through the Usery Mountains. The course demands the most of your game as you navigate through rugged desert terrain approximately 1,800 feet above the floor, so choosing the right tees is essential. It’s owned by a group of Canadians (who gladly made me a spicy Caesar after my round) who were typically hospitable.

Up next was the newly designed Ambiente Golf Club, part of the Camelback golf family. Ambiente was well hyped prior to the trip, as it just received a $10 million renovation. It officially re-opened two weeks prior, and I’d be one of the first people, to experience it. And to me, it was indeed an experience.

It was unlike any other ‘desert’ course I played, and it was a fresh change – it’s not as though Arizona needed yet another ‘Arizona’ golf course. The course will only get better as it matures and areas on the course get better filled in. For now, it’s a complex and visually intriguing layout that deserves the attention it’s gotten so far.

Finally I had the opportunity to play at the fabulous We-Ko-Pa resort. I could have easily played 36 holes across both courses, but alas, I was only able to squeeze in 18. First up was the Cholla course, a pristine desert golf experience. It’s dramatic, and it’s a pure golf course with picturesque elevations. Unlike the aforementioned courses, We-Ko-Pa gives its players unobstructed views of the layout in front of them. No homes to be seen.

Opened in 2001, it’s matured enough to become one of the best courses in the State, but it’s up against stiff competition. Namely, it’s neighbour course, Saguaro.

The other layout on the We-Ko-Pa property is a fabulous Coore/Crenshaw design that was unveiled in 2006. The ‘pure’ golf experience continues on Saguaro and follows the designers’ tested philosophy of letting the lay of the land dictate the end result of the course. It’s a walkable layout as well, the first I played during my trip.

As the Valley of the Sun got dark, the sun began to set on both my round at We-Ko-Pa and my trip.

I left Arizona the same way I came in, wide-eyed.

It’s an exciting city rich in passionate sports fans, fine dining and drinking establishments, and golf-mad residents (and visitors, of course). Despite a full week’s itinerary there’s still much to explore.

When you’re going through your fourth month of knee-deep snow and frigid temperatures, an escape to the desert may be just what you need.

***********

Where to stay:

The Westin Kierland

Distance from airport: 21 minutes

Golf course on-site: Yes

Restaurants: Nine

Highlights: Family-friendly outdoor activities, huge scotch collection, incredible staff, Segway golf option, walking distance to large shopping mall

J.W. Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa

Distance from airport: 15 minutes

Golf course on-site: No (but 36 holes at Camelback is 10 minutes away)

Restaurants: Seven

Highlights: History, unique design, unbelievable spa, outdoor patios

Where to play:

Lookout Mountain Golf Club

Kierland Golf Club

Las Sendas Golf Club

Ambiente Golf Course

We-Ko-Pa

Troon North

Where to eat:

Different Pointe of View

Be sure to order: The citrus white chocolate mousse (if available). Best dessert I’ve ever had.

Aunt Chilada’s

Be sure to order: The fajitas and a house margarita

Rita’s Kitchen

Be sure to order: Tableside guacamole (made fresh), and the slow-cooked green chili pork

Cowboy Ciao

Be sure to order: The famous Stetson chopped salad

Brat Haus

Be sure to order: Belgian fries and a beer (or, “bier”)

Where to party:

The Yard – Grab a Pabst Blue Ribbon (presented elegantly in a paper bag), some house-made pretzels with cheese fondue dip and post up in front of a television, throw a few games of corn hole, or challenge your buddies to a game of table tennis. Packed on weekends, but just as fun whenever there is a game on.

Whiskey Row– The first bar concept from country singer Dierks Bentley, Whiskey Row is a typical bar for University-aged patrons. The band plays rocking country tunes on a platform above the crowd. Gets extremely busy after 10 p.m. Huge patio that spills onto the street.

What else to do:

Drink a scotch by the outdoor fire pit at the Westin Kierland, cruise the desert in a Tomcar, ride above the desert in a hot-air balloon, find a spa (not difficult) and get a hot stone massage (which originated in the area).

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