Phoenix-area golf always brings out the best in my game and in my disposition. Especially at this time of year!
Yes, New England courses provide incomparable pleasure—but not year-round pleasure. Therefore, if we are going to play our game from late fall to early spring while the Patriots, Celtics, Bruins, and World Series Champions Red Sox in Ft. Myers are playing their games, we need a change of venue.
Hence, the Valley of the Sun, with its more than 200 golf courses and 330 days of sunshine annually, sings an irresistible Sirens’ song that enchants winter-bound golfers and lures them to a stunning desert panorama set against prominent mountain vistas. What better way to evade winter storms such as Bruce and his looming, vitriolic brethren than to escape to this Arizona haven where desert golf is so much fun and so unlike anything we have in the Northeast.
Although the Phoenix environs present a cornucopia of golf opportunities, the following four courses in the West Valley belong on everyone’s “must play” list: The Wigwam’s Gold Course, the Golf Club of Estrella, the Founders Course at Verrado, and the Victory at Verrado. And the resort that will best attend to our every need and desire is The Wigwam Golf Resort in Litchfield, located about 24 miles west of Sky Harbor International Airport just off I-10.
The Wigwam Has It All
Recently bought and totally renovated by multi-millionaire sportsman Jerry Colangelo, former owner of the Suns, Diamondbacks, and Coyotes, The Wigwam has a storied history that dates back to its first nine-hole layout in 1930 and now offers luxury accommodations, world-class amenities, and three parkland golf courses. The 440-acre facility offers 331 well-appointed and modern guest rooms, mostly spacious casitas, that are housed in the attractive traditional Southwest adobe-style architecture.
The two restaurants on campus are exceptional: Litchfield’s presents a farm-to-table menu that showcases local products, including steaks, chops, chicken, fish, and veggies; Red’s Bar & Grill is a favorite lunch and after-round lounge spot, located next to the first tee of the Gold Course. Additional superior amenities are a championship tennis facility with nine illuminated tennis courts, the state-of-the-art Fitness Center, the Red Door Salon & Spa, two regulation masonry bocce ball courts, sand volleyball, cornholing, ping pong, and three outdoor swimming pools, the main pool with dual waterslides.
Best of all, The Wigwam offers affordable Play-and-Stay specials throughout the year. Just access the website for more information.
Although the Gold Course is the flagship layout, the other two tracks—The Patriot and The Heritage—deserve mention, and both provide an excellent warm-up before attacking The Gold and the three other desert courses. Both are also walkable. The Wigwam keeps all three in prime condition, and the greens are a pleasure to putt. In addition, the range/putting areas at The Wigwam are outstanding for long and short game practice and are guaranteed to burnish the rust from those hibernating irons.
Playing the Patriot and the Heritage
The recently renovated Patriot (formerly The Blue), a 1965 Robert Trent Jones, Sr. effort, is user friendly because the four sets of tees range from only 6,000 to 4,791 yards and play to a 36-34 par 70. The fairways are narrow, the greens are small and well protected, and both tee and approach shots demand precision. The six par 3’s are notable for their beauty and use of water hazards. The Patriot is fun to play and can be navigated in much less than four hours.
The Heritage (formerly The Red), designed in 1972 by Arizona-resident Red Lawrence who was nicknamed “The Desert Fox,” is popular with the locals and Wigwam members. The wider fairways and larger greens and par 72 traditional layout are lined with pine and eucalyptus trees, and streams and ponds wander into play on 10 holes. Three sets of tees range from 6,852 to 6,291 to 5,806 yards. The closing stretch—15, 16, 17, and 18—is always a test and just might be the most formidable final foursome in Phoenix.
The Wigwam’s Gold Standard
The Gold Course is one of the best parkland courses that you can play in Arizona. Originally designed by RTJ, Sr. in 1965 (along with The Patriot) and meant to rival his famed South Course at Firestone CC, The Gold was renovated and modernized in 2015 by Tom Lehman, who kept Jones’s initial strategies intact, which includes small ponds and canals throughout the fairways and around the greens. The renovation returned the 7,430-yard, par 72 to its former glory at the top of the best-in-state rankings. Four other sets of tees—7,025, 6,830, 6,348, 5,885—allow each player to find a comfortable length.
Lehman has reshaped the steep-faced bunkers and the firm, elevated greens, and he has organized the green complexes to assure better access to the pin placements. The Gold has hosted many signature tournaments over the years, including numerous U.S. Open qualifiers. Presently, the Gold course annually hosts one of the most notable tournaments on the men’s college schedule—The Patriot All-America Invitational, which features PING All-Americans from the previous season in NCAA Divisions I, II and III, as well as All-Americans from the NAIA, NJCAA and AJGA ranks.
Jackie Nicklaus’s Golf Club of Estrella
The three unique and gorgeous desert courses near The Wigwam that are “must plays” in the West Valley are Estrella, Founders, and Victory. One of the “Top 20 Public Courses in Arizona,” The Golf Club of Estrella, managed by Troon Golf in that company’s distinctively competent manner, was designed in 1999 by Jackie Nicklaus. The Sonoran Desert surrounds the green ribbons of holes, and the course wends it way through the foothills of the Sierra Estrella mountain range. Nicklaus, Jr. has created ample fairways, has included only two water hazards, and has utilized fairway and greenside bunkers as the first line of defense.
The greens are large and well protected and absolutely perfect. The claim by management, “You will be treated to some of the smoothest and best-conditioned surfaces in the world,” is not hyperbole. Two more appreciated aspects of Estrella are that there are no blind shots, although you will have to negotiate a number of washes, and there are no peculiar layout oddities with which desert courses sometimes have to contend. What you see is what you get, and what you see is just a delightful day in the sun. Five sets of tees range from 7,139 to 5,124 yards. The golf club is part of the resort-style community of Estrella.
The Incomparable Founders Course
Verrado Golf Club is the home of the final two courses that mark the West Valley as a special golf destination. Tom Lehman and John Fought combined to design the Founders Course at Verrado in 2004, and Lehman gets full credit for the challenging Victory Course at Verrado, two miles away from Founders and the town community itself.
The Founders is one of the West Valley’s most talked about courses. Tucked away in the foothills of the White Tank Mountains, the course offers spectacular elevation changes, incredible vistas, and lots of just naturally rugged beauty. The skyline of Phoenix, about 30 miles away, is easily viewed on the almost always clear days. Ancient desert cacti and abundant wildlife punctuate every round, and no golfer should be without a camera to capture this singular setting.
Part of The Founders’ allure is the nine sets of tees. The par-72 tips play to 7,258 yards and are a true trial for even the most proficient golfer, but as the tees decrease in increments of about 200 yards, a fair trial can be found for every level of player. Wide fairways and expansive green complexes allow for some wayward shots, but the desert still comes into play, and the local Mr. No Shoulders will sometimes see a white sphere rocketing his way. GolfWeek has rated the Founders Course at #5 in their “Best Courses You Can Play” in Arizona.
Tom Lehman’s Victory at Victory
The Victory Course is the newest layout in the West Valley, opening in early 2017 to rave reviews. This one is Lehman’s second Verrado achievement, and he built the par-72 track on what had been solely a hilly, rocky, desert landscape. The course has nine sets of tees and can play from 7,258 to 4,646 yards. Again, Lehman’s M.O. is forgiving fairways, receptive greens, and extraordinary views. He has also spotted the lush fairways and greens with tactically placed bunkers. The huge practice facility is another bonus, and the scuttlebutt is that The Victory is the easier of the two.
However, the par-4 9th and the par-5 18th are two of the most memorable finishing holes in the Valley, although all the holes are immaculately maintained and distinctive in their own right. The 18th, especially, is a veritable player pleaser that was blasted from the desert bedrock to form an unforgettable finale. The tee shot must be hit from an elevated tee over a lake to the valley fairway below, but a well-hit drive gives the player a chance to hit the huge but hidden green that has been carved between the rocks and the protective mounding. Above that final green is the Cliff House, the aptly named clubhouse, that is perched on the precipice and overlooks the back nine. The open-air restaurant with the superb service is a most comforting ways to end the round.
MLB Spring Training, Antigua, Ping, and Daphne’s Headcovers
OK, so no question The Wigwam is the place to stay in the West Valley, and no question again that The Gold on campus and the nearby triumvirate of desert courses are the places to play. When the golf is done, though, the Valley is just beginning to amuse with the following professional possibilities just minutes away: spring training with 15 MLB teams, the NHL Coyotes, the NFL Cardinals, and the NASCAR International Raceway. Shopping and nightlife thrive at the nearby Westgate Entertainment Center, both Litchfield and neighboring Goodyear offer eclectic dining opportunities, and the Valley is home to several of Arizona’s largest concert venues.
If you still have free time, I have three more worthwhile options to keep you busy. First, the sportswear manufacturer Antiqua is headquartered in nearby Peoria, and the factory outlet is a treasure-trove for New England sports enthusiasts. Besides the run-over production of their splendidly embroidered international line of golf shirts that are sold for ridiculously low prices, Red Sox, Celtics, and Patriots shirts and gear abound. Time to stock up on this priceless apparel!
Second, Karsten has its manufacturing plant in Phoenix for its Ping Golf products, and factory tours and club fittings are available in-house with advance registration. In addition, Ping periodically schedules iron and wood fittings at area golf courses, and these events are always popular and most worthwhile for the players who can attend them. The one I visited at The Victory Course was an education in itself.
Third, the best headcovers in the world are produced here. Daphne’s has fashioned its iconic animal driver and metal wood accoutrements since 1978. CEO Jane Spicer started this golf stalwart with her mother Daphne, and their whimsical and inimitable creations, now about 175 strong, are sold in more than 75 countries. Tiger’s tiger, DJ’s black lab, Lydia Ko’s snowman, Craig Stadler’s walrus, Aaron Baddeley’s koala, and Ernie Els’s lion all had their genesis with Daphne’s. Covering up has never been so stylish.
So, the golf and the lifestyle in the West Valley are adventures that cannot be repeated in the Northeast. And as I said in the opening paragraph and must repeat, “Especially at this time of year!”
Can’t you hear that Sirens’ song?
(Featured image of Golf Club of Estrella—All photography by Vicky MacKay)