Cactus Makes Perfect: Travelin’ Joe’s Top Six 36-Hole Arizona Desert Courses you can Play
To play cactus-covered golf, you have to come to the Arizona desert. It’s hardly a traditional setting for the ancient game, but it’s certainly among the most memorable. As the late major-champion-turned-architect Tom Weiskopf once said: “Desert golf courses are different. By law, we can only irrigate 90 acres of turf. Consequently, nearly all of the great new courses are target-oriented. On the plus side, this makes for a unique, dramatic look, the striking contrasts of green formality against the rugged desert backdrop.”
Combine those distinctive desert designs with 330 days of sunshine per year, mountain vistas, glorious sunsets and top professional tournaments, and it’s easy to justify a golf trip to the Grand Canyon State. The main problem is narrowing down which courses to sample. Some woo with value. Others are worthy trophy-course splurges. To help refine your options, here are my top six 36-hole spreads in the Arizona desert.
TPC Scottsdale – Scottsdale
For golfers who notch their belts, the Stadium course at TPC Scottsdale is an absolute must-play. The 1986 Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish design is home each year to the largest, most vocal galleries in golf each year for the WM Phoenix Open. Front and center for those who enjoy walking in famous footsteps is the raucous 163-yard, par-3 16th, where Tiger Woods made his unforgettable ace in 1997, but the entire closing stretch is terrific, especially the island-green, 553-yard, par-5 15th and the drivable, 332-yard, par-4 17th, a pair of risk/reward beauties backdropped by the McDowell Mountains.
In 2007, after Randy Heckenkemper reimagined the old Weiskopf/Morrish Desert course, Champions transformed from afterthought to the big time. It’s understandable why it’s forever in the shadows of the legendary Stadium course, but it truly holds its own, with desert accents, mountain views and sufficient challenge at 7,115 yards to have tested PGA Tour Champions Q-School competitors for many years.
We-Ko-Pa Golf Club – Ft. McDowell
Just as it isn’t easy limiting our “Best of the Desert” to six picks, it’s pretty tough choosing one We-Ko-Pa course over the other. The 16-year-old Saguaro, designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, features blissful isolation, with no homes or roads crossing the course. Both Tribal courses are backdropped by Four Peaks Mountain, Red Mountain and the McDowells, so no matter which direction you’re going, there’s serious eye candy ahead. Saguaro romps through stubby desert trees, namesake cacti and thorny underbrush.
It is more walkable, with wider fairways, and is more Old World-y than its counterpart, with angles and kick-slopes that are all-important and where “run-up” approaches are encouraged. Possessed of four par-4s of more than 470 yards and four under 340, Saguaro asks for equal parts power and precision.
Now 21 years old, the Scott Miller-designed Cholla may be the more visually memorable of We-Ko-Pa’s two tracks. It plunges through cactus-filled canyons, climbs atop ridges and offers glimpses of Four Peaks Mountain — notably at the 605-yard, par-5 eighth and at the 177-yard, par-3 14th — with no homes to mar the view. It could well be the more drama-filled of the two courses, especially thanks to its three split-fairway, risk/reward holes. Flip a coin between the two courses. You can’t lose.
Troon North Golf Club – Scottsdale
Tucked into the shadows of Pinnacle Peak and the McDowell Mountains, this par-71 Weiskopf/ Morrish collaboration (the front nine by both, the back nine a Weiskopf solo) zigzags through massive rock outcroppings and cacti, at times leapfrogging dry desert washes, and at others skirting mountain slopes. It’s slightly more walkable than its Monument sibling, though both are wild rides. Pinnacle sports bolder bunkering and elevated drama, as it’s a little tighter off the tee and offers more forced carries. Weiskopf treasured Pinnacle’s first hole, a 392-yard par-4, called “MacKenzie.” It’s Tom’s nod to his design hero, Alister MacKenzie, and features a green with a false front, a classic MacKenzie design gambit.
This par-72 Weiskopf/Morrish creation boasts two drivable par-4s, the 306-yard sixth and the 299-yard 15th. The latter in particular wows with a healthy carry over rocky, cactus-strewn desert scrub. Succeed and you’ll find an inviting slope that funnels shots onto the green. Monument’s namesake boulder — it’s huge — resides in the middle of the fairway at the 566-yard, par-5 third.
Boulders Resort & Spa – Scottsdale
Situated in the farthest reaches of north Scottsdale next to the aptly named town of Carefree, the Boulders rocks with 36 holes that blend into the desert landscape, highlighted by giant saguaro cacti and the prehistoric rocks that give the resort its name. The cart ride alone on the front nine is worth the price of admission. Take the time to climb up to the back tees at Nos. 6, 7 and 8. This is Flintstones golf in Bedrock stuff. The South also serves up the par-4 first and the par-5 fifth, both with greens at the base of six-story-high boulders.
The stronger, more consistent test of the two Boulders layouts — and only slightly less dramatic — the North is nearly equal to the South on the must-play meter. Like the South, this is a Jay Morrish solo design that melds its shotmaking challenges with nature. Speaking to the latter, I have encountered coyotes, roadrunners, rabbits, a bobcat and a family of javelinas during my Boulders experiences, so if you’re into exotic desert wildlife, you’ve come to the right place.
Grayhawk Golf Club – Scottsdale
Current home to the Men’s and Women’s NCAA Championships, the Raptor rolls out a 1995 Tom Fazio design hewn from the flat desert floor, but he sculpted the earth to create interesting contours, deep bunkers and elevated greens. Many of the best holes, such as the 192- yard, par-3 eighth and the lake-guarded, 521-yard, par-5 18th (a par-4 for the Men’s NCAAs and PGA Tour events) feature stirring McDowell Mountain backdrops. Part of the fun is the vibe, with classic rock music on the range, piped in through faux rock speakers, and goldfish-bowl-sized margaritas served up at Phil’s Grill, named for Phil Mickelson, a Grayhawk ambassador for nearly 30 years.
Talon, a 1994 David Graham/Gary Panks design, has terrific variety and many memorable holes. For back-tee golfers, the swinging bridge tee box at the 175-yard, par-3 11th rocks. What follows is an all-carry shot over a cactus-filled canyon. The drivable, 303-yard, par-4 13th, set in a box canyon, is another standout. The par-3 17th tempts at just 126 yards, but miss the island green and it’s Splash City. Thick desert flora frames every Talon fairway, and mountain panoramas arrive early and often.
Ventana Canyon Club & Lodge – Tucson
Home to an on-site lodge and a Loews resort next door, Ventana Canyon rolls out two superb Tom Fazio designs, Mountain and Canyon, each a must-play if you’re anywhere near Tucson. Of the two, Mountain gets the nod. From the back tee at the 589-yard, par-5 18th, you can see 100 miles to the south clear to Mexico — yet that’s not even the top vista here. That honor goes to the 107 yard, par-3 third, called “Hole in the Wall.” Once you move your lower jaw back into place, your task is to drop a three-quarter pitching wedge over a yawning, cactus-filled chasm to a two-tier green engulfed by an amphitheater of Saguaro cacti. For sheer mountain and cactus magic, this is the ultimate desert golf hole.
Astonishing mountain scenery in a Sonoran Desert preserve greets golfers at every turn at the Canyon course. Distinctive holes abound, from the 336-yard, par-4 10th, its green abutting Whaleback Rock, to the downhill plunge at the 158-yard, par-3 13th, to the wall of water backing the near-island green at the 503-yard, par-5 18th, with the Loews hotel in the background. Critics chirp that several disjointed cart rides detract from the experience, but once you arrive at the tee, you’re smitten again.