If golf is supposed to be fun, then it'd be hard to find a better example than my recent short trip to the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. It featured three Troon-managed golf courses, all different from each other, and all of them offering varying degrees of difficulty.
One aspect that set this trip apart, however, was how I got to play each course. I walked 18 of the holes at the 27-hole Phoenician, but I got some help from one of the four electric trolleys offered at the resort. At The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa, which has several ways to traverse its 27 holes, it was the GolfBoard. And at SunRidge Canyon in Fountain Hills, I played golf the way most people do -- with a powered golf cart -- but the course itself had recently reopened after a sparkling renovation.
Starting with The Phoenician
Home base for this quick trip was the aforementioned Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale. The golf courses in any combination aren't long, and they aren't desert golf. There's grass and water everywhere and a few spots where there are elevated tees. Cast in the shadow of Camelback Mountain, the setting is as good as anything in the Valley.
But staying at the Phoenician is about so much more than the golf. There are more than 600 guest rooms, all luxuriously appointed and spacious. Dining is exquisite, from the views and fine offerings of the J&G Steakhouse to the tasty burgers and craft beers at Relish Burger Bistro. And there's much more than golf in the activity department, including hiking, biking, swimming at one of the eight pools (there's also a 165-foot water slide) or tennis at the Tennis Garden, one of the top tennis facilities in the country. In fact, I got to play on a grass court for the first time with head tennis professional Jason Purcell, who not only showed me the nuances of playing on turf but helped me with a few fundamentals as well.
But back to golf: Right off the plane, our group played the Oasis nine and Desert nine, which add up to just more than 6,200 yards from the tips. What this course lacks in length, it makes up for in precision. Driver is definitely not the play on all the par 4s or even par 5s, and there's a good bit of water included in the layout.
One of the more spectacular views comes on the shortest hole on the course, the par-3 eighth on Desert. It's just 120 yards, but the dramatic drop from the tee makes it play less than a hundred. More importantly, as a walker that day, it was a pretty good climb. But instead of carrying my own clubs, I used a Stewart Follow-powered trolley, which allows you to either control the unit from the handle or use Bluetooth to have it follow you (this option is best used walking down a fairway).
Even with the powered caddie, though, I still walked more than seven miles, much of it up or down hills, which made the quick massage at the Phoenician's spa all the more welcome. It's just one of the treatments offered at the Centre for Well-Being, a 22,000-square-foot spa complex offering comprehensive programs and á la carte services ranging from signature body treatments to energy therapies and fitness classes.
Brand new feel at SunRidge Canyon
The second course on our playlist was SunRidge Canyon Golf Club in Fountain Hills, where there have been all kinds of changes. The golf course was renovated this summer with new greens, bunkers and a few hole changes.
The clubhouse was expanded and opened up, there's a new restaurant, the new Howard Twitty Golf Academy and a new expansive Hot Stix Golf Center, where you can choose from thousands of combinations of heads, shafts and grifts, scientifically fitted for your game. Since Don Misheff -- who is also chairman of the board at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio -- successfully bid on the course in 2010 to become the new owner, more than $5 million has been spent on improvements.
The new smooth and somewhat receptive greens -- which aren't over-seeded in the winter -- are one of the most impressive aspects of this wonderful Keith Foster-designed course. Probably running above 11 on the Stimpmeter, chipping and putting required a deft touch, and reading them wasn't easy. Some bunkers or waste areas were moved or eliminated as well to make some of the holes play a little easier.
Perhaps the most dramatic changes, however, came around the clubhouse, where you'll find the new Wicked 6 Bar & Grill, which opens up to views of the course, man-made waterfalls and mountainous views. The new restaurant is a modern American taphouse, featuring gourmet burgers, sandwiches, wood-fired pizza and other chef specialties. It draws a non-golf crowd as well as golfers, and there's regular entertainment in the evening after the course closes.
"We're interested in creating an all-around great golf experience," said Misheff, a near-scratch player, "not just making money."
As for the course, it can be stretched out to just more than 6,800 yards. There are a few homes around it, but they are set back and don't detract from the beauty of the desert landscape. Some elevated tees make for some dramatic vistas as well. And the course is known for its finishing stretch, named the Wicked Six, a collection of difficult holes that close out the round.
GolfBoard at Westin Kierland easier than surfing
Day Three took us to The Westin Kierland, which offers all kinds of ways to get around the golf course. In fact, it might be the most innovative golf facility I've ever been to when it comes to ways to play golf. In previous trips, I had tried the Golf Bike (which is a great way to get around the course and increase your fitness) and the golf Segways, but I had never tried the GolfBoard, which is endorsed by surfing legend Laird Hamilton.
After a few minutes of instruction, I was off and running. I can't say I took to it like a duck on water, but it was fairly intuitive. Unlike surfing, there are handle bars, so it's more like being on a scooter than a surfboard and far easier to keep your balance. Curbs can be tricky (you've got to go around them), and side hills were challenging, but overall, it was a fairly easy, fun and active way to get around the course.
As for the Scott Miller-designed golf course, the Westin Kierland ranks high on the fun meter. Like the Phoenician, it really isn't desert golf. Lots of turf, combined with hills that actually kick slightly errant tee shots back to the middle of the fairways means you really have to be off your game to lose a ball. Plus the course was in terrific shape.
The Westin Kierland also has outstanding dining, fitness programs, practice areas and a great teaching program. In fact, after the round, we ran into Mike LaBauve and one his prize students, Cheyenne Woods, who is, of course, Tiger Woods' niece and a player on the LPGA Tour.
After golf, the Troon folks whisked us away to one of the most impressive athletic facilities I've ever seen -- the Phoenix location of Exos Performance Center, which trains elite athletes (as well as some regular folks) from all sports from all over the world. For our part, we went through some exercises and stretches that would help us with our golf game, which was an introduction to the three-day "Exos Golf Experience, powered by Troon."
The golf experience is headed up by Tim Mahoney, director of education for Troon Golf. He and his staff work at Troon North with the trainers at Exos to help golfers prepare to make the best golf moves possible, enhancing the instruction they receive on the range and on the course.
Ninety minutes at Exos was inspirational, to say the least. I left there wanting to get in the best shape of my life and play better golf -- a couple of beers with dinner later than night in Old Town Scottsdale notwithstanding.