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GOLFERS have notoriously brittle levels of concentration as they prepare to play a shot. It is said that Ryder Cup star Colin Montgomerie, for instance, can be put off by a butterfly landing too heavily in an adjacent field.

So was my equilibrium threatened when, preparing to chip onto a green at the Desert course at the fabulous Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, I observed a notice saying, "Caution, possibility of rattlesnakes in desert areas"?

Not in the slightest; partly because I had been forewarned that it is a very, very remote possibility, and partly because it would not surprise me if Arizona's acute sense of hospitality extended to their wildlife. It was easy to imagine, as I searched for my ball, the rattlesnake enquiring solicitously: "Were you playing a Nike 4?"?

Club selection acquires a new meaning in Greater Phoenix, which boasts more than 200 courses, but my stay in the area was only short. So I was restricted to playing at The Phoenician – which has three nine-hole courses; the Desert, the Oasis and the Canyon – and the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa – which has two 18-hole layouts, the Devil's Claw and The Cat-tail.

But together they afforded me a taste of playing the sport in an environment of breathtaking beauty, never more so than when treated to the Arizona sunset which produced a stunning backdrop of silhouetted mountains, cacti and – in one truly memorable moment – a circling eagle.

What strikes the visiting player immediately is the lushness of the turf, a sharp contrast to the arid scrubland which both abuts and weaves through the Devil's Claw course at Wild Horse Pass.

Here it is all too easy to be distracted by a combination of the scenery, wildlife and evocatively-named holes, such as Where the Dog Spoke, Home of the Wind, Dragonfly Falls and Arrow's Flight. My favourite hole was the 393-yard ninth, Eagleman's Gamble, which offered two fairways, the one to the left much smaller and more difficult to reach but providing a shorter route to the green. One caddy proclaimed he never had trouble selecting his route. "I just hit it down the middle and see which fairway it lands on,” he smiled.

It's easy to see where such a relaxed attitude springs from, here on this tranquil resort built two years ago on the Gila River Indian Reservation, home to the Pima and Maricopa Indians. Wild Horse Pass is not only a resort, but also a celebration of the land owners' history, heritage and culture, containing as it does artwork and artefacts in the traditional designs of the tribes.

It is difficult to imagine a more serene or awe-inspiring setting than that which greets the visitor as they pass through the entrance doors and into the lobby, a panorama dominated by the Sierra Estrella and South Mountain ranges, regarded as sacred by the tribes.

There are plenty of other options here for those who find they can resist the lure of the golf courses, including a casino, tennis, the Aji Spa, where you might pamper yourself with a massage, body wrap or facial, four pools including an 111ft waterslide, and riding at the Koli Equestrian Center where glimpses can be caught of wild horses which roam around the resort's perimeter.

Dining options include the Kai restaurant where, as part of Wild Horse's philosophy, local produce is central to its authentic Native American cuisine. Should you visit and the pecan-crusted rack of lamb is on the menu, it is a must-have.

Wild horses would have been needed to drag me away from here, had it not been that duty called. And so we moved from Phoenix to nearby Scottsdale and The Phoenician, a 250-acre haven which is, like the Wild Horse, dedicated to relaxation. Nestling against the aptly-named Camelback Mountain, The Phoenician, too, has distractions for the non-golfer, such as tennis (12 courts on four different surfaces), croquet, bowls, cycling, the Centre for Well-Being spa, and nine pools, including one that is beautifully inlaid with tiny mother of pearl tiles.

But it will not surprise you to learn that it was The Phoenician's golf courses which demanded my immediate attention on arrival.

The Oasis hugs the gardens of an adjoining residential area with palm trees lining every fairway and water hazards providing an extra challenge on all but two holes. Particularly interesting and testing is the 371-yard par-4 seventh, a hole which dog-legs 90 degrees to the left where water – or a neighbouring garden – awaits the drive of the over-ambitious who try to chew off too much of the corner. It is as if the Oasis's nine holes have seeped, like mercury, into the gaps between houses and it is a heavenly, enclosed environment in which to play.

The Desert course, meanwhile, has coiled itself around Camelback Mountain. Its holes snake back and forth in its foothills before eventually climbing to present a short (101-yard) par-3 – the 8th – which is nonetheless difficult because of the premium  it places on club selection from an extremely elevated tee. The sixth, a 168-yard par-3, provides a similar lofty perch where you would be well advised to ignore your impending tee shot for a moment in favour of taking in the stunning scenery of the Sonoran Desert.

Re-seeding of the Canyon meant I was unable to play it, but it is said to be the most forgiving of the three. As at Wild Horse, a variety of tees means golfers can choose those which provide the most enjoyment, making playing a challenge not a chore.

As you would expect of a resort this size, there are many dining options – nine in all – including Mary Elaine's, a Five Diamond award-winning restaurant featuring modern French cuisine, and the Terrace Dining Room, offering modern Italian cuisine.

My favourite, not just for its location overlooking the golf courses, was Windows on the Green, which serves innovative Southwestern grill cuisine, where I opted again for the (Colorado) rack of lamb, served with sweet potato gratin, Southwestern ratatouille and sweet creole mustard sauce. Small wonder I could even swing a club the next day.

Guest-rooms at both Wild Horse and The Phoenician are spacious and comfortable, the only shock coming on the final day when we awoke to what appeared to be flooding on our verandah. It transpired to be rain, something of a surprise in a place which sees little more than 7.5 inches a year and where the average high temperature is 85F. Anyone sufficiently encouraged to visit Arizona should be advised that their tourist season runs counter to most, with summer their off-peak time because of temperatures which can soar to 110F and even beyond.

In that heat, even the friendliest rattlesnake wouldn't leave the shade of its rock to help you look for lost golf balls.

Phoenix &
Scottsdale

Published: January 29, 2005

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