Arizona’s historical golf courses undergo modern transformations that make them among the best in the west, and we know because we played them all recently.
Mountain Shadows – Photo by Allen Kennedy
When the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix and The Wigwam, a little north in Litchfield Park, opened their doors to the public in 1929, Arizona was still the wide-open west. Guests would arrive at The Wigwam by stagecoach. When checking-in, they were given a room key and a horse.
Tourism, particularly golf tourism, has come a long way since. But the Valley of the Sun is still ripe with its share of classic, older resorts that wear the years well and shine with the patina of history. But few improve like wine, undisturbed in the dark with years of dust clinging to them; they’re more like desert denizens who periodically shed their skins to emerge anew.
Wigwam Arizona – Photo by Allen Kennedy
Some recent stay-and-plays showed just how polished the process can be. Back in 1959 the Mountain Shadows resort opened in Paradise Valley as an exemplar of modernity. Its name came from the shade that Camelback Mountain threw over the resort each afternoon. It quickly attracted the Sinatra Rat Pack crowd and other celebrity clientele, particularly after the 1960 debut of a short par-56 course designed by Arthur Jack Snyder.
Mountain Shadows – Photo by David Samsom
Mountain Shadows was even featured in a short-lived television detective series called “The Brothers Brannagan” and one episode of “The Monkees,” but the sheen didn’t last. It flipped through a few owners and locked the doors in 2004.
But Westroc Hospitality began new construction in 2015, the course was redesigned (to a par-54) by Snyder disciple Forrest Richardson, and a brand spanking new Mountain Shadows opened in 2017, with a sparkling nod to its fifties retro design past.
The short course is a sheer delight and naturally a good warm-up if you’re about to tackle more play in the area. Actually, as soon as you are ready for a full-length course, Mountain Shadows will happily pack your clubs into their Tesla Model X courtesy car for a trip over to the Camelback Inn, said to have been Scottsdale’s first resort.
Opening with 80 seasonal rooms in 1936, Camelback Inn posted the motto over its front entrance: “Where Time Stands Still.” The timing was just right 31 years after opening, when it became the first Marriott property, today known as the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa.
Early visitors included Eisenhower, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, and naturally a flock of golfers queuing up on the two courses. Arthur Jack Snyder and Red Lawrence were the early architects of record, but the old Padre Course was redone by Arthur Hills in 1999, and the Indian Bend Course was replaced altogether by the Jason Straka-designed Ambiente Course in 2013.
Early visitors included Eisenhower, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart, and naturally a flock of golfers queuing up on the two courses.
The Arizona Biltmore, now in its 90th year, is perhaps best characterized by its Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired design motifs throughout the resort, carried off by former Wright student Albert Chase McArthur, as Wright’s winter home and studio, Taliesin West is in Scottsdale. The Biltmore conducts history tours of the property three times a week by day, and one during Friday happy hour.
Arizona Biltmore – Photo by Allen Kennedy
Its two golf courses are characterized in parkland style, not desert—a timeless and leisurely 1928 Billy Bell design (the Adobe) and a 1979 Bill Johnson track (the Links) that some say is a tougher go. Both offer splendid views of the nearby mountains, and both have history right underfoot from the various U.S. Presidents who have played there.
The Wigwam has actually reached a centennial of sorts. It had its start back in 1918, when Goodyear Tire & Rubber built its Organizational House for executives visiting to check on the company’s cotton fields. Cotton was then being woven into tires. The old, adobe-style casita look is still part of The Wigwam’s charm on the outside, but the 440-acre, full-service resort has 331 thoroughly modernized rooms and suites on the inside.
There are three 18-hole parkland style courses, two by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. (the Gold and the Patriot) and one by Red Lawrence (once called the Red, but now known as The Heritage).
The Phoenician – Photo by Brian G. Oar
If a 1988 youngster by comparison, The Phoenician in Scottsdale, is the most recent to emerge from a resort-wide transformation. This newly polished 250-acre gem includes the splendor of the 60-room Canyon Suites resort-within-a-resort, the three-story structure housing The Phoenician Spa, and what amounts to a brand new golf course, as well.
The new 18-hole design by Phil Smith opened in November on its 115-acre layout. There was never anything wrong with the site at the base of Camelback Mountain with its splendid views and elevations. But Smith, who worked in the past with Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf, had advice from both when they looked over the former 27-hole layout: “Take out nine holes.”
And so it has come to be. An improved feeling of expansiveness is the immediate reward, with wider fairways and more forgiving landing areas, even better long-range vistas, fewer blind shots. But the course still has teeth, with more challenging greens, another fine example of making old bones young again.