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A president's playpen: Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa draws stars with luxury, location and golf

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,
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Biltmore's golf plays out along big mansions & often famous faces. (Chris Baldwin/WorldGolf.com)

Want to hit the links where Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and A-Rod play golf in Phoenix? The Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa and the two golf courses right across the street from it - the Adobe and Links courses - are your ticket.

PHOENIX, Ariz. - Bill Clinton smiles back at Dick Bates every morning when the general manger of the Arizona Biltmore Country Club takes a seat behind his desk. Pictures of the grinning Clinton - golfing the Arizona Biltmore, of course - hang in a display on the wall.

Bates doesn't sound too impressed with the president whose smile fills his office though.

"You mean Slick Willie," Bates chuckles when asked about the photos. "You could tell he was into being a celebrity. He wanted everyone to notice him and be impressed by him. He's definitely all politician."

Bates shrugs. He's not pushing any political agenda. This is no loud right-wing warrior. It's just when you work at the Biltmore, you tend to meet presidents and even more famous people (Oprah anyone?) Every U.S. president for the last 40 years has played golf at the Biltmore and stayed at the plush Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa that's a very short walk across the street from the country club.

Bates remembers the time "the first President Bush," as he calls him, walked into his office after a round during his presidency and ended up spending 30 minutes shooting the breeze about all things golf. As George Bush's harried staffers kept trying to tell him he had to go.

"He just wanted to talk to someone about golf," Bates said. "George Bush the first, now that was a real down-to-earth guy. You'd never know he was president by the way he talked to people. He didn't act like a big shot."

You might be surprised by who does and doesn't front big time at the Biltmore. Yankees AL MVP Alex Rodriguez, he of the $300 million contract (again)?

"A-Rod couldn't be a nicer guy," Bates said. "He never wanted any special treatment. He never came out with a bunch of people with him either. Just a regular guy."

By now you're probably wondering what draws so many famous people to Biltmore golf? Are the two Biltmore courses among the highest-rated courses in the Phoenix-Scottsdale resort corridor?

No. Not even close, really.

Biltmore's Adobe Course is a classic old school course dating back to 1928, one of the oldest courses in all of Arizona, sprung from the mind of chewing gum tycoon William Wrigley Jr. Thanks to a 2004 renovation restoration, it's very green with bunkers that really pop out.

Adobe is also as flat as Florida and as wide open as Angelina Jolie's bedroom door. This is the extremely rare Arizona course where you don't have to worry about losing golf balls, and that can be refreshing.

Adobe can be more forgiving than a Catholic priest on Christmas. I watched an ex-college football star in his 50s shoot a 75 as easy as can be.

Its sister Links Course, which Bates freely admits is the preferred course, can confound with the tricks and twists in its design, on the other hand. This is the Howard Hughes of golf courses, eccentric in all its swerves around corners, unexpected ups and downs and turns past multi-million dollar homes.

You'll see radio legend Paul Harvey's home (on No. 2) and a legit Frank Lloyd Wright designed home (on No. 18) while playing Links Course. You'll see more of Phoenix's skyline than you do from most revolving rooftop restaurants from the high, high back tee on the par-3 15th. And you'll see tees that you cannot believe they stuck there and holes that you cannot believe fit in there.

"They're certainly two of the more unique courses in Arizona," regular Grand Canyon State golfer Harry Norris said.

And Britney Spears had an interesting 2007.

The Biltmore's historic luxury

The golf is good, but that's not why everybody who is anybody seems to play Biltmore golf. The Arizona Biltmore Resort (which is not owned by the same company as the country club) long ago became the place to hold your big event in the Southwest and in the decades since Marilyn Monroe lounged by the pool and Clark Gable lost his wedding ring here that hasn't changed all that much.

John McCain had his wedding reception at the Biltmore and George W. Bush held a big-donor fundraiser that caused the Secret Service to all but take over the hotel on the night he slept on its pillows, in sharp contrast with his dad's more low-key visits.

Back when Wrigley owned a resort that was literally an oasis in the middle of nowhere and invited his friends to frolic, a full orchestra played on a balcony over a huge dining hall. The elaborate orchestra's gone, but the food might be better now.

A newly renovated Wright's restaurant turned out to be the surprise great meal of an Arizona winter so far.

It is the Frank Lloyd Wright influenced architecture that makes the Biltmore Resort really stand out in appearance though. Walking around the grounds here, past elaborate gardens and setback low-lying buildings with mountains on the horizon, gives you the sense of being in a slower-paced time.

And where else can you play lawn chess with huge near-life-sized pieces?

In a busy world, Biltmore is one of the few golf courses to promote its nine-hole rates too, which in another non-golf-industry norm are only exactly half the full round fee.

Still, it's the location that pushes the Biltmore over the top.

It's a retreat in the middle of it all. The Biltmore Resort is centrally located in Phoenix rather than out in Scottsdale with the rest of the five-star palaces. It's easy to get to for the movers and shakers in local business. Camelback's high-end shops are right down the road (you could almost walk, if everyone here didn't take town cars).

Almost all the local NBA and Major League Baseball teams in town to play the Suns or the Diamondbacks stay in the area because it's luxury with easy access to downtown.

"People really like our location with the gas prices today," Bates said.

Or the chauffeur prices.

You're at the Biltmore. Where presidents and paupers can both play large.

And even big shots can redeem themselves.

"Clinton was only supposed to play one hole here because he had other appointments," Bates remembers. "But he ended up staying for a round and making everyone wait across town."

Bates laughs. A golf man appreciates that kind of dedication.

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Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

 
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