The Buzz: Before the JW Marriott Resort sprung up in this northeast part of Phoenix known as Desert Ridge, Arnold Palmer and his design crew sculpted a signature course, which was one of five he designed in Arizona and was selected as one of the “Top 10 Palmer standouts” by golf & travel magazines. It is a stark contrast to the Nick Faldo-designed course that opened five years later, and remains one of the best overall layouts in the Valley of the Sun. The back nine, along with the back nine of the Faldo Course, will be used to create a course for a new LPGA Tour event in March, 2011. Over the years, Palmer has taken some heat for not spending enough time at some of the venues where his courses were created, but he was very hands-on with this one, visiting the site six times during construction. Two years after opening, it played host to the EMC2 Skills Challenge, which was televised by NBC and featured PGA Tour players such as Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Nick Price and winner Billy Andrade. When he attended the 1997 grand opening, Palmer proclaimed, “Wildfire uses the desert very well, and environmentally, I think we did a fantastic job.”
Visually, it is very appealing, with numerous arroyos, backdrops created by the McDowell Mountains, and splendid views of Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak. There are five sets of tees, ranging from 4,915 to 7,145 yards. With a rating of 72.5 and slope of 140, it is a handful if you tackle it from the tips. The Palmer course is a target-oriented layout, yet its fairways are wide enough to allow you to attack with a driver on most tees. There also are some blind shots, split fairways, dense areas of rough and undulating greens that are expansive, with an average size of 7,000 square feet.
The front nine is highlighted by a pair of back-to-back holes. No. 5 is a 530-yard par 5 with a split fairway to a green surrounded by eight bunkers. The par-4 sixth, at 415 yards, is a photo op with Camelback Mountain looming in the distance, where your tee shot needs to carry desert terrain, leading to a green protected by a U-shaped bunker. But the course saves its best for last, with five strong finishing holes. No. 14 is another beautiful hole, a par 5 at 530 yards with a split fairway and a partially blind tee shot divided by desert, leading to a long, narrow green. No. 17, a 450-yard par 4, might be the toughest hole on the course demanding a solid drive and an accurate approach to a two-tiered green guarded on the right by water. As Palmer said when the course was completed, “I enjoy designing golf courses that celebrate the sheer fun of golf, and Wildfire is exactly that.”
The clubhouse and practice facilities also are first rate and deluxe GPS screens on the carts feature flyovers of each hole. Then there is the hotel, which is so elegant you might not want to leave the glass-enclosed lobby that presents splashing fountains, waterways and palm-lined and pathways. In addition to public play, the golf club offers annual memberships with benefits that dwarf those of some country clubs. Along with access to both courses, members enjoy the amenities offered by the resort property, such as spa treatments, tennis courts and a fitness center, as well as stays at other Marriott hotels and reciprocal golf at more than 40 Marriott courses. Be advised, however, that few of those courses will surpass what “The King” created here.