USA – Chaka Desert Challenge
By Stuart Thompson
Mark and I left a surprising warm and sunny Northern Ireland to go experience desert golf for the first time. After years of watching tournament golf at Scottsdale on TV we eagerly looked forward to playing on immaculate green courses set in a beautiful but harsh arid landscape.
We flew into Phoenix and as it is the small airport the immigration was pretty painless and in no time we had our hire car and hit the road for the short drive to Scottsdale. Our base for the first three nights was the JW Marriott McDowell Mountains. We checked in and strangely it was Saturday night again due to the time difference so a bit of dinner (at an ungodly hour back home) and a couple of beers then bed for some sleep before the start of the Chaka Desert Challenge which started the following morning.
It was an early meet up and we headed out to explore nearby different options for breakfast, Mark who was driving was still in UK mode and started on the wrong side of the road but made it safely to a great diner which was only 5 minutes away. After a hearty American breakfast we headed to the well know Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale course for a visit, the iconic stadium 16th hole didn’t have the stands up but you could get a good feel for the course and it lives up the TPC standard of a serious test of golf with a tough but fair lay out and very fast greens!
This gave us our first look at desert golf and we couldn’t wait to play now. Like everything in Scottsdale it doesn’t take long to get around, so about 20 minutes later we had arrived at the Wildfire Golf Club which is attached to the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort. We had a bit of time before the tee off which was great as it allowed us to warm up on the practice range and also use the extensive short game and putting areas. As for the course itself it is a typical Faldo design course with wide fairways, raised greens and plenty of bunkers to catch you out, all in all a great test of golf. First day of the Chaka-desert challenge was over and after shooting a 78 gross it was 1-0 to me having saying that Mark had played well.
Wildfire Golf Course, Scottsdale
Designer: Nick Faldo
Stuarts Favourite hole: 16th risk & reward par 3 which you can drive for the big hitters but you have out of bounds on the left and five perfectly position bunkers to catch you out around the green, even if you’re not a big hitter
After the handicap meeting and a cold beer we headed back to the hotel and after a quick change we went to the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort for dinner. This was a totally different hotel than we were staying in as the Marriott is small and compactunlike the Fairmont which is a large luxurious resort with a number of different restaurants and bars, we thoroughly enjoyed a superb “authentic” Mexican dinner.
Note: If you stay at this hotel you avail of discounted green fees at TPC Scottsdale.
After breakfast we took the short drive to the Westin Kierland hotel and golf resort which was very impressive from the drive up to the clubhouse. This is a very well set out hotel and golf courses, I wouldn’t say it is desert golf by any means but a very good golf course that you wouldn’t complain playing every day and an all-round great golf resort.
Our next stop was Troon North golf club where sadly we didn’t have a tee time today as this was definitely desert golf at its best. Both myself and Mark were blown away with this course and from the cacti with golf balls bedded into them to the lush green fairways surrounded by the desert sand this course is definitely one for the bucket list.
After Troon North we drove to Camelback and played the Ambiente course which proved to be a test of golf in a completely different way. The Camelback course is the only course we have played that the front 9 from one end to the other with the back nine holes alongside the front nine which for a course is very unusual. As for the Chaka Desert Challenge Mark struggled on the front nine but rediscovered his game at the turn and made a great comeback from being 6 down with 7 to play to salvage a well-earned draw. Match score Stuart 1 3/2 Mark 1/2
Camelback GC – Ambiente Course
Stuart’s favourite hole – 4th Par 4, it’s not the hardest hole on the course but the drive diagonally across the waste land with the bunkered fairway and tight green it really is a hole that could be a card wrecker early on in the round.
Unfortunately it was time to leave Scottsdale and we set off in early morning rush hour for the 4 1/2 hour drive to Palm Springs. It was great to be out on the open road going through the harsh desert landscape and the initial stretch out of Phoenix was pretty flat and I lost count of the cacti en route. The final stretch was more interesting and overall it was a lovely experience and something I would do again. It was funny after all the desert and mountain ranges to arrive in the lovely ambiance of Palm Springs nestled at the foot of the mountains with LA on the other side. We stayed in the superb JW Marriott Desert Springs which has two courses on site, a beautiful lake with little boats taking you to the restaurants at night and many rooms with wonderful views of the 18th green and sunset over the mountains. Mark and I sat out on a balcony enjoying tortilla chips and dips and a bucket of cold corona watching the sun set over the mountains – we agreed it would have been pretty romantic in different company!
It was off to the range again to warm / loosen up after the drive and to take on Mark who after yesterday had finished strongly whilst I had problems with my short game. The course itself is built around the resort so as you guess there isn’t a big lot of room for error on some holes (my excuse for putting 2 balls in the car park). This match ended up close with Mark winning 3&2 even with me enjoying a 2 over par back9 he was playing like a single figure handicapper! Match Stuart 1 1/2 Mark 1 1/2.
There was a serious handicap meeting over a few beers that night as it was the mighty TPC West Stadium course the next day,
Desert Springs GC – Palms Course
Stuart’s favourite hole – 18th, to be honest all of the final 4 holes are brilliant but 18 has trouble on every shot. It is designed around the lake in front of the hotel and everything you hit has to be straight or it is in with the boats but all in all a great finishing hole.
This was the day we both had really been looking forward too as we got to play the course rated as the toughest course in the west coast and 4th toughest in the entire USA. First of all we checked out of the Marriott and moved to la Quinta resort as staying in this hotel allows you to play to TPC courses at very reasonable rates. La Quinta is worlds apart from the resort style Marriott hotel, best to describe la Quinta is little Spanish / Mexican village with small chalet bungalow style rooms with original local decor. It is perfect for anyone who wants the experience of the TPC courses and a good mix with the Marriott.
There aren’t too many courses that when you arrive that you get the kid in a toy shop feeling, everything from the minute you walk through the clubhouse doors and walk past the players who have won tournaments and played at the courses gives you an idea of what is to come. The Pete Dye course doesn’t have one bad hole on it and is designed to perfection with long waste bunkers 200yrd carries over water to a 30ft drop off the side of a green which is guarded with a bunker! And greens that are like putting on glass. Mark again was playing like a pro and won 3&2 making the match Stuart 1 1/2 Mark 2 1/2.
TPC West – Stadium course
Stuart’s favourite hole: Hard to pick a favourite hole as they are all good but the 17th with the island green it is always a test and something we don’t get on our courses so this would be my favourite.
It was the last day of the golf and after breakfast we made the 5 minute drive back to TPC west, this time to play the Nicholas tournament course which we had been told was another good test of golf but not as hard as the Stadium course. This was true but again it was very well designed amongst the million dollar houses that make up the complex. The course has a lot of fair holes but an accurate drive is required and some that need a bit of thinking to get round but all in all another fantastic course. Mark was in top form and again my short game let me down and he easily won the match 6&5 and with it the overall Chaka Desert Challenge.
TPC West Nicklaus course
Stuart’s favourite hole – 9th great par 4 with houses / out of bounds on the left and long waste sand bunker and water on the right for your drive, as for the 2nd shot you have a tight approach over water to an angled green.
It was a quick shower and changed before we packed up and started out for the drive to Vegas. Again it was a lovely drive and an experience as I don’t think I have driven in such spectacular scenery, and ending with the drive into the bright lights of Vegas.
After 5 days of golf and two long drives the last day was to see the sights and sounds of Vegas. I wouldn’t say it would be a relaxing city as it is non-stop but it is certainly an experience that I would recommend. Sadly this was the end of the trip and we headed back to a surprising sunny and unsurprisingly far greener Northern Ireland.