Westin Kierland Resort and Spa in Scottsdale: History mixed with drama and golf

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Standing in the lobby of the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa in Scottsdale, you gaze out a 26-foot-high wall of glass at one of the most impressive golf scenes in town -- the ninth hole on Kierland Golf Club's Acacia Course.

Westin Kierland Resort and Spa
The posh Westin Kierland Resort and Spa at sunset.
Westin Kierland Resort and SpaKierland Golf Club - Acacia Course - 9Westin Kierland Resort - golf
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Giant bunkers yawn outside the windows; mounds enclose a valley-like fairway; and a blue lake with a modern sculpture ripples and gleams. In the distance is craggy Pinnacle Peak. So how did golf-course architect Scott Miller create all this back in 1996 so that it would turn into a sort of grand canyon of golf once they opened the hotel.

"It was always planned that way long before the hotel was built," says D.J. Flanders, the director of golf for the Westin. "This was a flat desert landscape, but they moved a lot of desert to create that backdrop with the rolling hills and undulations.

Says Miller, "When I was hired by the developer, I was given two tasks: to create a good and playable and recognized golf course and to create the foreground for the proposed hotel.

The mounds and bunkers help screen out the surrounding development and create a scene for the lobby that looks like "a mural or a postcard," Miller says.

The Westin Kierland Resort and Spa is one of three mega-resorts (with a total of 2,200 rooms) in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. The others are the Sheraton Wildhorse Pass south of Phoenix and the JW Marriott Desert Ridge in north Phoenix.

The Westin is probably the most expensive. But despite higher room rates, "we have done better than expected for the first year with leisure traffic and with groups, too" says Donna Butler, public relations director of the resort. "We've even had a lot of conference business with associations this summer.

To an extent all three resorts have followed a formula. Everybody's got golf, shopping, a waterslide, restaurants plus a spa. Wildhorse Pass, on the Gila River Reservation, of course, has gambling, too.

But Kierland definitely has a corner on drama with that golf course view. And it's invested a lot in using an historical theme throughout the property that it calls "the essence of Arizona," Butler says.

Ancient and modern Arizona art is on display -- Indian pottery, paintings of canyons and forests. Restaurants, bars and shopping areas bear names of key people and places, like The Rim bar, recognizing the Mogollon Rim of Central Arizona, Nellie Cashman's Monday Club Cafe, acknowledging a female pioneer and Arizona's oldest club for women, and a prospector's saloon and pool hall in what the hotel calls "the mining district." Plaques plus antique photos explain Arizona history. Woodbine Development, the hotel developer, hired Marshall Trimble, official state historian to help set the tone.

Just across the street is a unique shopping center, Kierland Commons, also owned by Woodbine. The Commons calls itself "today's version of yesterday" and looks like a village with narrow streets and center plaza. You may have visited many of the retailers before -- Ann Taylor, J. Crew, J. Jill and Victoria's Secret -- but the place feels quaint and picturesque. A host of restaurants beckons: the Cheesecake Factory, Morton's of Chicago, North, Zinc Bistro, the Ocean Club and others. And the Commons and the Westin stage events -- concerts in the Plaza on Saturday nights, carriage rides on Valentine's Day, an Easter parade.

You can cool off in adult and children's pools and zip down the waterslide into a flowing "river;" try out the spa and fitness center. A 25,000 square-foot ballroom opened with the hotel, but a smaller one -- 15,000 square-feet -- is also being built.

Westin Kierland Resort and Spa: The golf

In all three new resorts in the Valley of the Sun, the golf came first. They built those courses knowing the resorts would follow soon.

The advance planning was probably the trickiest at Kierland Golf Club where more houses and businesses stood nearby, and where developers wanted to get the most value out of every inch of pricey soil in midtown Scottsdale. You can make more money from shopping centers and timeshares after all than golf holes.

After debating how much golf to build -- 36, 27 or 18 holes -- three nines were laid out, the Mesquite, Ironwood and Acacia Courses. From a golfer's standpoint, this may seem a little sad as the other new resorts have two full courses each, but there are plenty of sterling alternatives nearby -- McCormick Ranch, the TPC Scottsdale's Stadium Course and Champion Course, and Grayhawk Golf Club. The designer, Scott Miller of Scottsdale, has a resume including some other daring desert-style courses about 10 miles away -- the Golf Club at Eagle Mountain and We-Ko-Pa on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Reservation. Both demand the ability to hit targets and narrow fairways and to carry arroyos without fear.

Kierland has a gentler personality, says Flanders, the director of golf. "Scott Miller understands the concept of what you need at a resort," he says. "Resort guests have to make their way around the course in a reasonable length of time. I would say our course is more playable.

All three nines have the generous fairways and super-large greens of an almost parkland setting. You can't lose six or seven balls here as you can at Eagle Mountain or We-Ko-Pa, and those mega-greens offer ample targets.

The fairways are like long canyons or valleys, often with steep sides that make it possible to bump your ball to one wall and then let it trickle down into the center of the fairway. You'll find lots of tiers and dips and undulations on the greens. But they putt true and are well-maintained. The real drama here comes from the bunkers that Miller has imaginatively placed in just the wrong spots on the fairways and everywhere around the greens.

Everyone's favorite nine at Kierland is the Acacia, probably because of nos. 7 and 9 spread out along the lake in front of the hotel lobby. No. 7 is a par 4 (374 yards from the back and 232 from the forward) with a rolling fairway and very elevated green flanked by bunkers and fronted by a gully of rough grass. If you can't make that green from the fairway, there's no leeway; you're in trouble.

The par-5 no. 9 (531 yards from the back and 409 from the forward) has a dramatic 80-foot drop from the tee boxes to the fairway, where you'll find a steep wall to the right and danger from the lake and a sea of bunkers to the left.

Another great hole is no. 9 on the Mesquite, a par 4 that measures 427 yards from the back and 277 from the forward. After a long stretch of fairway you have to cross a lake to a very elevated green with bunkers everywhere on its flank.

Westin Kierland Resort and Spa: Dining

Although the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa doesn't have as many restaurants as Desert Ridge, for example, it does have that shopping center with tons more. The premiere dining spot in the hotel is Deseo, serving Nuevo Latino flavors by chef Douglas Rodriguez. It's the only place to eat on site that doesn't carry out the Arizona history theme, according to Donna Butler.

Some entrees on the Deseo menu: seared tuna over quinoa with fava beans, spinach, carrots and other vegetables; Kobe sirloin with sliced tomato and caramelized onions; pork loin with black bean puree and chayote slaw; and plantain-crusted Hawaiian sea bass with banana, spinach and bacon.

Rooms at the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa

There are 735 guest rooms, including 63 suites and 32 casitas with kitchen areas, minus the stoves. Most rooms have a balcony or terrace with a golf course or mountain view.

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

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