Matt Nicholson recounts his experience of playing in the American Golf Holiday’s Arizona Classic Pro-Am, a week long festival of golf which takes in rounds at some of the Grand Canyon State’s finest desert courses
I’ve always really enjoyed taking part in Pro-Am tournaments, as I love the team format and the camaraderie that it offers. The American Golf Holiday Company offers a range of fantastic destinations for its Pro-Am Tours, and the Arizona Classic, which takes place in November, is always one of the most popular.
My amateur teammates and I flew to Phoenix on the direct British Airways service, and it wasn’t long before boarded the flight that we recognised some familiar friendly faces, many of whom sign up for the trip every year.
After a smooth ten-hour flight we were met at the airport by the American Golf Holiday’s owners, John and Alison Hooper. After collecting our spacious seven-seater minivan, it was just a 25-minute drive to our hotel – the Scottsdale Plaza Resort – which was ideally located close to the many bars and restaurants, including those of the popular entertainment districts of the Old Town, Kierland Commons and Scottsdale Quarter.
After a good night’s rest, we were up early on Sunday to drive to the spectacular Troon North Golf Club, where the teams met up for a breakfast buffet in the clubhouse, prior to taking part in a Welcome Challenge Day. Although most teams bring their PGA Professional out with them from the UK, we had arranged to play with Jamie Harris, a popular professional from Kent, who had recently moved out to Arizona.
The tournament format was individual stableford, and the day provided a perfect introduction to desert golf, with the Pinnacle Course at Troon North presented in magnificent condition. The fact that the event is staged in November every year pretty much guarantees superb course conditions, and this, combined with typical sunny skies and temperatures of around 25 degrees, makes it a fantastic time to visit the desert.
Monday saw the start of the 72-hole Arizona Classic Pro-Am tournament at the magnificent Jack Nicklaus-designed Desert Highlands Golf Club, one of the area’s top private clubs. If you ever wanted to start a golf tournament with the wow factor, this is it. The organisers have a special arrangement that provides exclusive access to the course on the Monday for their Pro-Am competitors, and the experience is off the charts.
From the moment you arrive, it’s five-star treatment all the way. Staff are there to greet you on arrival and to help unload your golf clubs, prior to valet parking your rental minivan, and the next time you see your clubs they are on your golf buggy. But before then there is time to savour the clubhouse facilities, the magnificent locker rooms and the golf shop, where each competitor is given a voucher to spend, before heading outside to where free coffee and pastries are provided for you to take to the practice range. The way everything is organised allows for interaction with the other teams, and already there is a very special atmosphere and a shared feeling of being privileged to be able to experience one of the top private golf clubs in America.
Many consider Desert Highlands to be the course where Nicklaus invented ‘target style desert golf’, and the course grabs your attention immediately from the elevated tee of the drivable short par-four first hole. So, with the distraction of being able to see for over 60 miles across ‘The Valley of the Sun’, as the Scottsdale area is known, and after having our names announced on the tee, we were on our way.
The Pro-Am team format of best two net scores from four is fantastic for team bonding, with everyone encouraging everybody else, and I love it – especially if you have a great professional like Jamie on your side, whose score is likely to count towards the team on most holes.
In all my years of golfing travels, Desert Highlands is up there with the very best, and after a strong opening round, and the team tied for second, we savoured the atmosphere and surroundings of the clubhouse, where the organisers had laid on a superb BBQ on the patio, where competitors lingered to watch a spectacular sunset at the end of a perfect golfing day.
Tuesday was Tournament Round 2 – it was always going to be difficult to follow Desert Highlands, but Blackstone Country Club comes pretty close. Once again, that magic combination of a top private golf club, with a mint condition golf course and a luxurious clubhouse, provided us with another memorable day in the desert as our team charged into the lead.
On Wednesday most teams elected to play the optional Challenge Day at TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium Course – the host course for the PGA Tour’s WM Phoenix Open. However, a few teams, including ours, wanted a rest day from golf and a chance to explore the spectacular desert scenery. A number of tours were offered, with one team flying over the Grand Canyon in an aeroplane, while we elected to drive to Sedona where we then took a helicopter tour over the famous red rocks. Now we were not just competing on the golf course, everyone was competing for who had the most scenic photograph on their phone.
On Thursday, Round 3 took place at the Raptor Course at Grayhawk Golf Club, another former PGA Tour venue, and famed for its laid-back atmosphere and the rock music which is played around the clubhouse and driving range. This has to be the coolest golf club in the world. As it was Thanksgiving Day in America, the event organisers put on a barbeque cookout after play on the patio, and competitors were encouraged to wear cowboy hats and denims. With temperatures close to record levels for the time of year, this made for another special afternoon of banter and camaraderie, especially as the tournament was now wide open, and our lead was only one shot.
For the final tournament round on Friday, we headed out to the nearby Indian Reservation to play the spectacular We-Ko-Pa Golf Club’s Cholla Course. With a background of the Superstition Mountains and the Four Peaks, and stunning wild west views at every turn, this venue really shouts Arizona golf like no other.
On the day, the leading professional for the week, Guy Woodman, inspired his team to a final round charge to take first place, with us dropping into second. But there was no time to dwell on disappointment, as we headed back to the hotel for the prize-giving drinks reception and dinner, where the atmosphere reflected an incredible week of tournament golf.
Without doubt, the Scottsdale area ticks all the boxes for arguably being the finest mid-winter golf destination on the planet, with a superb winter climate, over 300 nearby courses, and a wide choice of restaurants, bars and nightlife.
The American Golf Holiday has built an annual event offering six of the best courses in the area, and complemented this with superb hospitality and an attention to detail which has deservedly given them an unrivalled reputation in the niche market of tournament golf holidays. It was an absolute pleasure to be in the company of every one of the competitors, and I can’t wait to come back again – and hopefully take the top team prize!
For more information on The American Golf Holiday’s Pro Am Tour, call 023 8046 5885, or visit www.pro-amtour.com