Phil Smith couldn’t stop smiling as he drove around The Phoenician’s golf course this past September. While his punch list of things to complete before a November grand opening was still long, he proudly showed off numerous greens and explained his thoughts on new bunkers and fairways with unbridled enthusiasm.
“I’m really excited about this project,” said the Scottsdale-based course architect who previously worked with Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf. “It started as a renovation, but I call this a brand-new golf course. We touched every square inch of it.”
The new look will pleasantly surprise those who have played the resort’s former Desert, Oasis, and Canyon nines at the base of Camelback Mountain, just nine miles north of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. While that previous routing lacked a consistent feel and cohesion—the nines were built and modified at different times and by different architects—this new course has a distinct and natural flow. Smith, working with resort ownership and management company Troon, has created a seamless 18-hole journey that takes advantage of the site’s strengths while also injecting plenty of new life into the setting.
The new course capped off a multi-year renovation project that included virtually every part of The Phoenician, which celebrated its 30th anniversary on Oct. 1, 2018.
“We’ve always been one of the top luxury resorts in North America,” said general manager Mark Vinciguerra. “But what was a luxury experience 30 years ago when the resort opened is very different than what it is now. This project was about positioning The Phoenician to be competitive with what the luxury traveler wants currently, and also to maintain our competitiveness into the future. To do that, we had to transform everything at the property.”
In 2016, all guestrooms and casitas were redesigned, and a remodel of The Canyon Suites was also completed. In 2017, all public areas were redesigned, and three new restaurants — The Marketplace, Mowry & Cotton, and the poolside Kalio Kabobery—were unveiled. In 2018, a new three-story spa and a new athletic club debuted. The highly regarded J&G Steakhouse has received updated décor, while The Phoenician Tavern (formerly known as Relish Burger Bistro and located on the second floor of the golf clubhouse) will open its doors in early 2019.
“By creating all of these new experiences, there really is no reason for our guests to want or need to leave the property,” said Vinciguerra. “The customer reaction has been just great.”
He expects to receive similar feedback about the new course, where annual golf memberships will also be available. “Resort guests want to enjoy their golf,” he said. “It will be very playable, but it can be made very challenging without compromising the integrity of the design.”
Architect Smith’s primary goal on the 10-month project, which evolved from simply redoing a few holes to a thorough renovation, was to make sure golfers feel comfortable when standing on the tee or in the fairway.
“The course is designed to give the player every opportunity to make an informed decision from each tee and landing area about how they would like to approach each shot,” he said. “All hazards are visible and are designed on the proper angles. Each shot attack angle was carefully designed to reward a good shot.”
Seven existing holes, the majority of which were located on the highest points of the course, closest to Camelback Mountain, are no longer part of the routing. Smith then worked on creating two entirely new holes while revising, and in some cases combining, previous holes.
Now in place is a 6,518-yard, par 71, with three reachable-in-2 par 5s, multiple short par 4s, and a captivating quartet of par 3s. Smith shifted some fairways, reshaped some lakes (in the process removing almost three acres of water surface), changed 90 percent of the cart paths, eliminated bunkers, dissolved blind shots, and widened fairways where possible.
On the longer par 4s—including the second, which now plays 439 yards from the tips—Smith applied a particular strategy. “That hole was previously bunkered on both sides and appeared very tight,” he said. “What I like to do on long 4s at resort courses is to use depth perception as a guide. The bunkers there now are well short of the green but appear closer.”
Smith predicts the seventh hole, a severe dogleg-left (previously Oasis No. 7), will amaze those who remember the previous version. “There was a lake at the corner of that dogleg that was for the most part hidden from the tee,” he said. “That lake is now gone. A storm also knocked down a eucalyptus tree, so that opened up the corner a bit and makes it more tempting to go for it. But most people should play down the middle of the fairway and then have a wedge into the green, which now probably has the most movement of any on the course.”
The brand-new ninth is a downhill, dogleg-left, 435-yard par 4. The approach shot is to a peninsula-shaped green, backdropped by a lake and guarded by greenside bunkers. The
177-yard, par-3 11th has an elevated tee with memorable views of the Papago Buttes and downtown Phoenix.
Another panoramic vista awaits at the par-4 13th, which takes golfers to the highest point on the course. “When you stood on that tee before, you saw half the amount of grass that there is now,” said Smith. Additional city views were opened up at the 14th hole by lowering its green by six feet.
“The main idea on the new holes 10 through 15, most of which were cut into a hillside, was that we doubled the width of each hole,” said Smith. “The previous holes in that area were really narrow, and if you missed the grass at all, you were down on rocky areas. I wanted to give golfers confidence off the tee so that they can hit driver and keep it in play.”
The par-5 18th has a new bunker on the corner of the dogleg-right, and Smith also pushed an existing lake more to the right, creating a much larger landing space for tee shots. A heroic shot over water remains to the green. It’s the latter, in fact, that will provide the primary defense of the course, even without many severe undulations.
“I think the greens are going to be fun,” said Smith. “Course superintendent Tom Bush and his team, as well as the overall Troon team, are so good at managing green speeds that they will get them just right. Plus, the flatter you build a green, the harder it is to read it. You don’t see where the breaks are and it’s much trickier. We had some fun with these.”