The Scottsdale region is known as “The Valley of the Sun,” with precipitation on average just once every two weeks. But it might also be called The Valley of Golf, and not just because the weather is perfect for the game all year long. Greater Scottsdale has more than 50 courses – not counting all the others in and around neighboring Phoenix. This quantity is matched only by its very high quality, and Scottsdale is truly one of the world’s great golf vacation destinations. It is the capital of the unique architectural style known as desert golf, and home to the greatest such courses in the world, carved from the dramatic backdrop of the eye-popping Sonoran desert.
Scottsdale is also a very easy place for golfers to visit, thanks to a reliable major airport and almost embarrassing wealth of exceptional public 36-hole facilities. While the best courses of Scotland and Ireland are often hours apart, the best courses of Scottsdale are literally next to one another, sharing the same clubhouse. Because of this, many visitors routinely play two rounds per day on visits. For all these reasons, weather, quality, quantity and access, many PGA Tour golfers live here, including 5-time Major champion Phil Mickelson, 2-time Masters champ Bubba Watson, U.S. Open champ Geoff Oglivy, British Open champ Tom Lehman, and many others.
The showcase 36-hole example is Troon North, which put Scottsdale, desert golf, and luxury golf course management company Troon Golf on the map. It was one of the first and best “high end daily fee courses,” treating the public as treasured members for a day, with the same kind of facilities, welcome and course conditioning as the finest private clubs. Troon North has long been ranked among the top public facilities in the world. It has two courses, Monument, the marquee, and Pinnacle, nearly as desirable. Both are known for showcasing giant granite boulders and eerie rock formations in the course design
The same can be said of the aptly named Boulders, another exquisite and high-end 36-hole facility just down the road from Troon North. Not coincidentally, both Boulders layouts were done by architect and desert golf master Jay Morrish, who also co-designed Troon North Monument with British Open Champion Tom Weiskopf. Weiskopf returned to design the Pinnacle course, and all four have a lot of similarities in the use of rock, arroyo dry washes, and stunning desert beauty.
Among its many other unique attributes, Scottsdale is also the epicenter of “Bettor Golf,” or high quality golf tied to casinos. Unlike traditional real estate developers, most Native American casino resorts have no private homes, allowing them to use the best possible sites for golf holes, coupled with big budgets, and for these reasons, casinos have produced some of the best public courses, with many ranked in the Top 100 in the US. Several standout casino courses are in Scottsdale, and again, typically appear two at a time in user-friendly 36-hole couplets.
The standout is We-Ko-Pa, two simply stellar courses next to one another, operated by the Fort McDowell Indian nation. The Scott Miller-designed Cholla opened in 2002, and immediately set new standards for public course quality in Scottsdale, debuting in Golf Magazine’s U.S. Top 50. Five years later came Saguaro from legendary design team Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who created a minimalist desert course, following natural contours with little earth moving. Both are very strategic with lots of decision making, and so good it is hard to choose between them, so many visitors play both in the same long day. You don’t have to gamble to be a winner here: thanks to the casino, rates at We-Ko-Pa run just $75-$105 year round, half what many quality competitors get.
We-Ko-Pa is tops in Scottsdale casino golf, but a close number two is rival Talking Stick Casino Resort (managed by Troon Golf), with two more courses by Coore and Crenshaw. But these are radically different; instead of desert target-style design, hitting from one patch of green to the next, they both feature wall-to-wall turf with almost no trees. It looks different, but these are two more excellent courses, and a little less intimidating.
Perhaps the number one “must play” course – and the reason many golfers make the trip in the first place – is the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale, anchoring yet another topnotch 36-hole facility. This is home to the annual Waste Management Open, better known as the “Greatest Show on Grass.” It is nothing less than the most popular golf tournament on the PGA Tour’s roster – and the most popular on earth. In 2014 the event set another record with more than half a million spectators – more than twice as many as the Masters and far more than the U.S. Open and Women’s U.S. Open combined. The course is instantly recognizable to golf fans for its par-3 sixteenth, the only hole in its own stadium, an enclosed amphitheater the size of a major league baseball field. The structure is dismantled much of the year, but visitors in the weeks before and after the January event can experience it just like the pros, entering and leaving through tunnels beneath the bleachers. In any case, whenever you visit, this is the rare opportunity to play golf in the footsteps of champions, including every top player of the past few decades.
The TPC Scottsdale also has a second high-quality layout, the Championship Course, and both received a major renovation last year by original designer Tom Weiskopf with significant improvements to every single hole, all new bunkers, greens, and a clubhouse revamp with new restaurant.
Just these five spots have ten first-rate courses and are more than enough for most golf vacations, but there is no end to the quality options in Scottsdale. Grayhawk is another vaunted 36-hole public course, longtime home club of Phil Mickelson, with its Talon and Raptor courses. South of Phoenix, Troon also manages the first rate Cattail and Devil’s Claw courses at Gila River Indian Community’s Whirlwind Golf Club, another casino facility. The 27-hole Kierland resort is one of the most popular public layouts in this golf-mad area.
Where to stay near Scottsdale