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A walk in the desert? Top Phoenix-Scottsdale golf courses declare why not

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,
Troon North - Pinnacle Golf Course
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Troon North Pinnacle has been transformed into a desert walk. (Courtesy of Troon North)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - When you show up at the the TPC Champions Course and the clubhouse attendant asks if you want to walk, you know things are changing in Arizona's golf capital.

Getting out on the golf course and seeing just how many golfers are strolling, hauling their own bags around, it's clear that the change is catching on. What was pretty much unheard of only five years ago in the Phoenix-Scottsdale golf resort corridor - walking golf courses - has now found a niche.

And it's not limited to local munis or other places where budget golfers are trying to save a buck. Instead you're seeing the option of walking being promoted at the top newer golf courses and other high-end palaces, places where they used to practically carry you from your rental car to the golf cart.

This might seem like a strange spot for the trend to catch on. After all, Valley of the Sun isn't just a nickname. Walking in the desert? Who walks in the desert besides extras in "Lawrence of Arabia?"

Well, it turns out a number of golfers who still want the high life but not the cart life.

"You get a lot more out of the day if you walk the course," said Charlie Slansky, a businessman in town who sought out the TPC Champions Course in part because he heard it encouraged walking. "The exercise for one thing. You can almost justify the time spent golfing if you actually get a workout while doing it.

"The only thing I ever worked out while riding in a golf cart is my beer grip. I tend to drink a lot more beer when I'm riding a cart.

"Besides, I think it's just beautiful walking out here. Being in the desert can give you a complete sense of solitude. It's calming."

In Arizona, this is a fall and winter high season thing. You don't want to be walking 18 on a midday 118-degree August round. Unless you yearn to walk right into the emergency room after.

But when the Phoenix-Scottsdale golf resort corridor is at its best - when you want to be here anyways - it can be a surprisingly friendly walking locale. Sure, the terrain can be a little rugged with some climbs and dips. But you're a golfer.

If you just wanted to walk in straight lines on a smooth path, you'd join those old folks who shuffle around malls in the hour before they open.

With that in mind, here are some of the best walking golf courses in Phoenix-Scottsdale's land of golf riches.

Saguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa: Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw designed the second course at We-Ko-Pa to be a walking golf course back when no one thought anyone would ever want to walk in Arizona. The year was 2006.

Because the designers set out to make Saguaro a walking course from the beginning, it plays out unlike most of the signature courses from the 1990s building boom in greater Scottsdale. Its holes are close together and there's something of a natural rhythm to the round - though you'll have some climbs up green, green fairways.

The best thing about Saguaro though is it's a great golf course that takes you well out in houseless desert and let's you see some of the most striking blue sky you'll ever come across. Golf carts?

Here, they only detract from the vibe - even if way too many Saguaro players still use them.

Troon North Pinnacle Course: This is the best overall golf course in Phoenix-Scottsdale. But just a few years ago, walking it would have been as convenient and practical as going down the freeway in a rickshaw.

Holes were separated from each other by long cart path trips. There was no way a walker could have kept up with other players in carts in his group - or maintained anything less than a six-hour round - even if he ran like Forest Gump.

A redesign of both golf courses at Troon North by original designer Tom Weiskopf - one in which he essentially rethought the entire layout - transformed Pinnacle into a continuous 18-hole course where the walks aren't endless between greens and tees, one where you don't return to the clubhouse after nine.

"Both courses can now be played exactly as the land dictates," Weiskopf said.

Suddenly, Pinnacle's a fun walking challenge. Just don't be surprised if you're one of the only ones not taking a cart the day you play. When the price is close to $300, golfers tend to jump on every perceived luxury perk they can get.

TPC Champions Course: Formerly known as TPC Desert Course, Randy Heckenkemper took a mundane golf course in the shadow of Scottsdale's small private jet airport and turned it into an enjoyable challenge. Heckenkemper particularly shored up the finishing stretch.

Your legs aren't going to be burning from walking to the end either. TPC Champions may be the most level desert golf course you'll ever play.

Wigwam Blue Course: Not much over 6,000 yards, Wigwam Blue makes for a short walk through green parkland that's anything but desert like. Its tight fairways and quirky holes where driver is often taken out of your hands insure you cannot walk all over it though.

On the scorecard, that is.

ASU Karsten Golf Course: College golf teams have to walk, so it's no surprise that the home of Arizona State's vaunted golf program is staunchly pro strollers. Just turn down the cart that's included in the greens fee and be on your way.

You don't play Karsten to walk in Phil Mickelson's spike marks, though. You play it because it's one of the most reasonably priced good courses in the Valley. This Pete Dye links-style design changed to a par 70 from a par 72 last winter with a few holes becoming noticeably more strategic from the back tees. What hasn't changed is the Dye railroad ties.

Or the fact you don't need a golf cart.

There's definitely a new wind blowing in the desert. Who needs to sit through a round?

More photos

We-Ko-Pa - Saguaro Golf Course TPC Champions Course - Hole 4

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Walking golf

    Greg Murphy wrote on: Nov 11, 2015

    The desire to experience "place" is universal and without it there would be little desire to see different "places". Landscape is a defining element of most places.
    The experience of moving through a space is more powerful than being stationary and viewing it from one aspect, even an aspect with a 360 degree view.
    The way we are moved through a space also powerfully impacts our experience of place. If we enjoy being a participant we want to move ourselves through the space. If we'd just as soon spectate as participate, we're OK to have somebody or something move us through the space. But the experience of being transported through a space is undeniably less immersive and therefore, I would argue, not nearly as deep. The experience of observing a game vs being in the game are different perspectives of the same event. Participating in something is just more active and immersive, like being IN the game. Spectating is a different form of experience, passive and removed FROM the game.
    Golf gives us an opportunity to experience a landscape by
    moving through it. Moving through a landscape on foot is deeply primal and satisfying. It is why people hike. Sitting through the experience turns us into observers of the landscape rather than participants in the landscape. If you've ever cycled through a landscape vs ridden in a bus through a landscape you know there is no comparison between the two. Though exceptions do occur. Compton at midnight. I'll take the seat next to the combat hardened Navy Seal, thank you.
    But taking a seat on a golf course? WTF ever thought that was a good idea? How do you take a walking game and take the walk out of it? Change the purpose. Present golf courses not as venues for physical outdoor sport, but as palaces to pamper the privileged, where the pinnacle of high end greatness is achieved by those palaces that virtually "carry you from your rental car to the golf cart". Took that from the article.
    There is potential for a big shift here. It took quite a while to get players off their feet and onto their butts but if courses actually promote a return to play over pamper, and a few players take the lead, others will follow.


  • Private carts

    edgar wood wrote on: Aug 22, 2009

    I wanted to know if you know of any courses in the area that allow you to use your own private golf cart.


  • Walking courses in AZ

    Larry Berle wrote on: Nov 20, 2008

    I am glad to see this article and am glad that there are more courses that can be walked in AZ. The new renovation of Papago Park (due to open Dec 6, 2008) can also be walked and it was a teriffic course before, so I suspect it will be great now. I have played the entire Golf Digest Top 100 and wrote a book about it called A GOLFERS DREAM. You can read more about it at www.GolfersDreamBook.com
    Larry Berle


  • Walking in Scottsdale

    John Cannon wrote on: Nov 18, 2008

    I was interested in whether the courses set forth in your article on walking allow or provide pull carts or caddies or do you have to carry your bag.


      • RE: Walking in Scottsdale

        marty wrote on: Nov 18, 2008

        you can bring your own pull cart at TPC Champios, and the electric -powered trolley at We Ko Pa was great fun to use. By the way, you can use a Segway(additonal cost) at Kierland in Scottsdale.