Golf? What golf? Kierland Golf Club in Scottsdale focuses on the "experience"

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - With the cool blast of your personal air conditioning unit hitting the back of your neck, you head for the closing stretch. The sounds of Irish bagpipes hit the air, adding a sense of theater to every shot.

Kierland Golf Club's Acacia Course - closing hole
The closing hole on Kierland Golf Club's Acacia nine is brochure-made with the Imagination statue in the water and the resort in the background.
Kierland Golf Club's Acacia Course - closing holeKierland Golf Club - Acacia course - bunkersKierland Golf Club - Air-conditioned cartsKierland Golf Club in Scottsdale
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Kierland Golf Club - Ironwood/Acacia

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The 27 holes at Kierland Golf Club share the same desert landscape but there is enough variety throughout the three nines to provide three completely distinct 18-hole courses. Ironwood/Acacia combines the most player-friendly of the nines, the Ironwood, and the club's signature nine, the Acacia.

18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 72 | 6974 yards | ... details »

Kierland Golf Club - Acacia/Mesquite

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The Acacia/Mesquite is known for two holes in particular. Acacia's par-4 seventh hole may only be 374 yards, but it is the most photographed hole at this popular club for a reason. The Mesquite nine is also home to one of the most challenging holes at Kierland Golf Club.

18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 72 | 6913 yards | ... details »

Kierland Golf Club - Mesquite/Ironwood

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Kierland Golf Club in Scottsdale is home to 27 holes of championship golf. The holes are divided into three nines, which are played in three different 18-hole combinations. The Mesquite is the most difficult of the three nines, which can be mostly attributed to the par-4 sixth. The Ironwood nine is the most player friendly nine.

18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 72 | 7017 yards | ... details »

It's just another day at Kierland Golf Club. They do things a little different here, a little more unusual, a little more dramatic. You might not remember a host of holes from this largely resort-course-forgiving, Scott-Miller-designed three sets of nines. But they'll make sure you remember the day.

"Let's face it, golf's not always that exciting," Kierland Head Professional Ryan Eckroat said. "Especially if you're not playing very well. If you're not hitting it well, it can turn into a long day. We want to make sure our players enjoy it as much as they can.

"We try to make it about the experience. We try to give golfers something else besides just another good golf course. It's your vacation. And those hours on the course can add up to a big chunk of that vacation. We want to make sure that overall experience is good, something you'll remember, no matter what you shoot."

Kierland is one of the 200-plus courses in a Scottsdale-Phoenix area that is the resort golf capital of world, one that understands that sticking out is not always about that great risk-reward par 5.

Hence, the Irish bagpiper who sets up behind the Westin Kierland Resort, right near No. 9 on the Acacia nine. He plays late in the afternoons, adding another bit of dash to the setting sun. The pipes particularly resound over the last three to four holes of the Acacia Course. The bagpipes are also wailing early Saturday and Sunday mornings, providing some extra zest to that warm-up session on the range.

"I always play better on that Acacia finishing stretch when the bagpiper's playing," Eckroat said, grinning. "There's just something about hearing that noise that makes you think of the history of golf."

Or at least the history of funny-looking musical instruments.

But Kierland hardly stops at the bagpiper. It also goes high tech with air-conditioned carts. Each cart has two small air-conditioning units attached to the back, one behind each passenger. These units blow cold air on the back of your neck, turning on and shutting off themselves every time you step in and out of the golf cart.

As Eckroat said, "It's not going to make you forget it's hot." It won't even come close on one of those 115-degree summer Scottsdale days. But it does add another touch of creature comfort, a reprieve if only for an instant.

And it turns out golfers might like gimmicks. For in heavily promoting the air conditioned carts, Kierland increased its summer rounds significantly, without engaging in any of the constant price slashing that other courses often turn to in the heat.

With its bagpiper, air conditioned carts and experiments with Segway scooters as golf carts, Kierland's attracted a reputation as something of a different thinker in Phoenix-Scottsdale golf. Maybe that explains why the crowd seems to be a little more diverse here. On this afternoon, there were more women, beginners and juniors out playing Kierland's three nines than you see at many Arizona golf courses in an entire week.

These are players like Heather Brinsky, a New Yorker, playing the second round of her life. The first round: On Kierland a few months ago on another business trip.

"I like how the staff treats me," said Brinsky, who was playing with three work colleagues (two of them golf first-timers). "It's not as intimidating as a lot of golf courses. And it's easy to come out and play nine on a work day. You just sneak out of that conference a little early and you're here, having fun."

All part of the experience, of course. Maybe Kierland can put together a Playing Conference Hooky package. It would fit right in.

Kierland Golf Club: The verdict

For the golf part of Kierland experience, you get a Scott Miller design. Miller is the Arizona architect behind the buzz-generating We-Ko-Pa Golf Club. While none of Kierland's nines are going to merit that kind of drama comparison, Miller does pull off a satisfyingly entertaining, hacker-friendly play.

Especially if you make sure the Acacia nine is part of your day.

Acacia is the best of Kierland, particularly its last three holes. No. 7 is a 374-yard par-4 that lets the good golfer go with a 3-wood or 5-iron off the tee and a lob shot to a green. Of course, that approach is anything but anxiety free with as many bunkers flanked around the green as members of a rapper's entourage. No. 8 is a 219-yard par 3 with its tees looking down at the fairway and its fairway looking up at a green on a ridge.

It's all leading up to No. 9, a 531-yard par 5 with a sizable drop down to the fairway, a second shot where you aim at the Imagination statue (it looks like a swan) in the water to the left and traverse a narrow fairway with a few dips. All the while, the Westin Kierland Resort looms in the background. This is a hole designed solely to be in postcards and marketing brochures.

Which doesn't mean it can't be fun to play.

It turns out the actual golf may be part of the experience too. Who knew?

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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