Desert Oasis: Ambiente at Camelback Golf Club

It’s a spectacular sunny morning in Southern California. It also happens to be Christmas week, when traffic will be light. So we load up the car and head the family six freeway hours east to Scottsdale, Ariz. I’m eager to play the brand-new, 7,225-yard Ambiente golf course at Marriott’s Camelback Golf Club. It’s a private club with access to Marriott hotel guests.

By the time we arrive in the late afternoon, there’s no time to play golf. But we check into the nearby JW Marriott, and find ourselves plopping our luggage down in a large and nicely appointed casita. That’s the standard room at the hotel. It’s quite a bit larger than most hotel rooms, with the usual features. My favorite part is the private patio flanked by a couple of cacti. A great place to sit on the comfy chairs and relax.

The next morning, my son and I head over to play Ambiente. We are lucky enough to paired with director of sales and marketing Shane Allor. After all, he can provide guidance on where to hit. “It’s 122,000 square feet of greens, lots of undulation on the greens and fairways, and the native grasses really make it stand out,” says Allor. “We’ve gone from 200 turf acres on the old Indian Bend course that existed here down to 90 acres. We’ve taken a lot of the native grasses and made them come into play. You can get in trouble real easy. It’s a tough course. For every level of player, though, you have an opportunity to shoot a good score and have an enjoyable round.”

Being a low handicap, I opt to play from the back tees. My son, a beginner, tees it up from the forward tees. The course is exactly one month old, and looks like it’s in pristine condition. The fairways and greens are bright green, and I’m very eager to play.

That is, until I take my first tee shot of the day and put it in the left rough - it flirts with the edge of the fairway, then glances an overhanging tree branch and instantly becomes un-findable. Not the most optimal way to start the round. But things quickly improve. I’m able to find the fairway for most of the front nine, and notice several things about course right away. First of all, as we were warned beforehand, the greens are rock-hard. After all, they’re brand-new and still need to mature. But they roll very fast, making putting a challenging activity for the day. Breaks are difficult to read. Eventually I play for less break then appears, which seems to fare better.

The second thing I notice is that the bunkers are very steep and difficult to emerge out of. To worsen matters, many of the pin placements are right behind the bunker, with many of those lightning fast greens breaking away from the bunkers. So if your shot comes up short of the bunkers, you’ll have a very tough time getting your next shot over the bunkers and stopping them on a dime by the pin.

Another thing that becomes a frequent sight here are all of the narrow fairways. In fact, several of my tee shots I think are hit right down the middle. But by the time I reach them, I realize the ball has rolled through the fairway, down a steep slope and into the thick rough. Some of them are lost. But that’s kind of to be expected from a brand-new course, especially one in the middle of the desert.

There are 74 bunkers on this course, and I feel like I found most of them. A dried-up wash runs nearly the length of the course. And it comes into play on several holes. There’s lots of pronounced mounding throughout the course, as well, both on the greens and in the fairways.

As a low handicap, I recognize that this is a very difficult course to play from the tips. However my friend – also a low handicap — has already played from the more forward tees, and was able to break par. So I think this difficulty I’m experiencing is a case of both not knowing the course well and also not playing the proper tees for my game. Several people I speak with afterwards also tell me that once you play the course about four or five times, you get a much better feel for where to play shots and lower your scores.

To be honest, the course was too much for my son, who remember is a beginner. But I think that higher handicaps who play golf regularly will find this to be a fun and entertaining course. I’d like to come back and play it in about two or three years, once the greens have matured some. I think I will have a much easier go of it. That said, I also think it’s a great and likable challenge right now for better players. It’s in phenomenal shape, and the greens are rolling very true at this point.

After birdying one hole on the front side, I feel a little more in command. There are some notable holes on the back nine. I really enjoyed the 393-yard par-4 13th, especially the tiered green. The 245-yard par-3 15th is a funky hole that also features a noticeably sloped green. You really have to be conscious of where you’re placing your approach shots, so that they break the proper way towards the hole. And by the time I reach the 462-yard par-4 18th, I realize I’m probably shooting in the low 90s or so. Which is a lot of strokes for my usual game. Thankfully I wasn’t keeping score, otherwise I might have officially had my ego handed to me.

As Allor alluded to, Ambiente has replaced the old Indian Bend course that was at Camelback Golf Club. Indian Bend was completely torn up about two years ago and Ambiente now occupies the space. The routing is totally different, elevation was added in many places, and many trees were removed (which reportedly stirred up plenty of complaints by locals). The feel of Ambiente is completely different than Indian Bend’s was, and officials hope that this new high-end layout will attract many new golfers.

I’ve personally had enough golf for the day. The next morning, I stop in the hotel’s full-service Starbucks. After a perfect peppermint mocha, I go out front and catch the five-minute shuttle van over to the course. Today I’m playing sister course Padre that has been around for years. As the pro promised me, Padre is a much more player-friendly course. The fairways are wider, the landing areas are large, the traps are less hassle to get out of, and the greens roll true. And at 6,868 yards, it’s more manageable. The course is pretty, and it’s kind of a typical Arizona resort course in that it’s flat, fast, easy and fun to play. An expected contrast to Ambiente, the greens hold well. So many approach shots just kind of stick and even create some backspin. I wind up shooting 78, which is right on target for my game. Funny thing is, I don’t feel like I hit the ball any better than I did the first day. But that goes to show you the difference in playability between the two courses right now.

Bottom line: The Camelback Golf Club offers two vastly different playing experiences. I believe golfers of all abilities will enjoy both courses. Especially as Ambiente grows older and its grass matures more, I think it’s going to get a lot of favorable reviews from golfers. And Padre is simply a solid, good resort-style layout that people will really enjoy time and again.

That night, my family gathers in the patio area of the hotel. Amid lighted fires and heat lamps all around, a musician is strumming a guitar and singing Christmas music. We order some desserts, and bring a board game out to play. A perfect atmosphere and an ideal way to end this great low-key getaway.

The next morning is Christmas Day. We load up the car, check out of the JW Marriott, and ride away back to Southern California. Best of all, no traffic.


Hip To Be Square

This is the time of year that equipment companies begin revealing their latest products to golf media. As has been the case the past few years, several upcoming products for spring have been downright eye-catching.
Case in point: Cleveland’s new Smart Square putter at first seems like just another good-looking, newfangled model on the market. It’s a black-headed mallet with the slightest offset. Think of Odyssey’s very successful 2-Ball putter, which positioned two circles directly behind the center of the putter face. But in Cleveland’s case, there are two squares instead of circles behind the face. And they’re black, outlined in white. So what’s the big deal, you ask? Well, I’ve been playing it for the past two months and can’t believe what a difference it’s made in aligning putts.
In the non-golf world, your eye is trained all day long to look at straight edges – cell phone screens, divider lines in the streets, papers, books, whatever. And this straightness translates well to this product. When I’m looking at the 2-Ball, my eye instinctively looks at the rear circle, then the forward one, then the ball. If they all look like they’re in a straight line directed at my target, I putt away. But I’ve never been real confident in my ability to align those circles. The Cleveland putter removes any guesswork. Heck, you can set the putter down to where you think it’s aiming straight, mark the ball to eliminate distractions, and then actually line up the outside edges of the squares directed at the hole to see precisely where you’re aiming. Believe me, after trying this putter, I’m thoroughly convinced that straight lines are easier to nail down the correct direction.
First time I used the SmartSquare, the Cleveland representative I played with happened to bring as a promotional piece ball markers that were exact replicas of the squares on the putter. Same size, shape and color. And when I marked my ball on the course – lining the face of the marker to where I thought was my target – I constantly stepped back, hole after hole, and realized I was aiming left of my intended mark. So I straightened out the mark, placed down the ball, then positioned the putter over the mark at the same orientation. Every putt thereafter hit its mark. Every putt.

Electric Biking

This past Saturday, my wife and I decided to cruise the Dana Point harbor on electric bicycles. We rented a pair of cushy cruisers from the Pedego store there ($14/hour per person) and were on our way within two minutes. Gorgeous day, phenomenal and liberating way to get around. The bikes are so smooth and quiet, and they glide effortlessly at up to 20 miles per hour — any faster, the store owner told us, and you’d need a motorcycle license to operate one. Against wind, uphill — these things are awesome! I want to buy one. They’re relatively pricey — starting at about $1,800 a pop — but I vow that someday soon, I will completely ditch my car and scoot around town on a Pedego. The savings on gas, maintenance and insurance alone would probably pay for the bike within 18 months. It’s a practical, clean and convenient mode of transportation. And I actually think in many cases it would be faster than taking a car. While we negotiated the bike path between Dana Point and San Clemente, we passed hundreds of cars on the adjacent road that were stuck dead in a traffic jam. I can only imagine in my area of Southern California how I could quickly bypass the traffic, in getting to the grocery store, coffee shop, library or wherever else I was heading. Thankfully, our weather is conducive to bike riding nearly 350 days a year. I truly believe electric bicycles will be incredibly popular in the future. Plus it’s a great feeling to not be polluting the air with my car.


Going Back Home

A Michigan native who now lives in California, I’m always intrigued by watching those Pure Michigan advertisements on television. Not having played up in the Northern part of the state for many years, I decide it’s time for a five-day return trip. I fly into Traverse City, hook up with some friends, and head the hour east to Boyne Highlands resort in Harbor Springs.

A cocktail and appetizer hour in the hotel’s Slopeside Lounge is the perfect way to kick off the journey, especially by enjoying mass quantities of the local whitefish. In the morning, our first full day, we partake in the breakfast buffet upstairs in the hotel’s main dining room before golf - as we will every day this week. From the omelet bar to the fresh made donuts, this is an eater’s paradise. We head over to play the 6,814-yard Donald Ross Memorial golf course. It’s located just up the hill at the resort, maybe a four-minute car ride from the lobby. Each hole is a near-replica of a famous Donald Ross hole across the world. There are renowned courses represented, such as Oakland Hills Country Club, Pinehurst No. 2, Oak Hill Country Club, and Royal Dornoch, among others.

I recognize several of the holes from the actual ones that I’ve played in the past, and all of them here are nicely Michigan-ized: They’re all lushly grassed, tree-lined, and are simply beautiful and in perfect condition. And the scenery is simply spectacular. Even though it’s the middle of August right now, I can only imagine what it must look like here in another month when the leaves start changing colors. In the spirit of Donald Ross, some of the greens are postage stamp-sized and many of them include plenty of undulation.

I particularly love the 5th hole, a 617-yard par-5 replica of No. 13 at Oak Hill’s East Course — where the PGA Championship was staged this year — that plays uphill and into the wind. Even though I double bogey, I look back from the green to the tee and think what a beautiful hole, one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. Then on the 10th hole, we see two deer crossing an adjacent fairway, galloping together into the woods. Graceful. The course opens up a little bit on the 13th — the fairway landing areas become a little bit wider. It all boils down to the tough 18th hole, which is a replica of the 16th at Oakland Hills. Bottom line: This course is simply beautiful, fun to play, has plenty of well-placed bunkers that come into play on almost every hole, and is in immaculate condition. Seems like each green was in as perfect as shape as I’ve ever seen in one golf course, and all the putts roll pretty true. There are a lot of subtle breaks, and if you don’t read the greens just right, you will miss. From a visual perspective, many of the drives seem to be set up as if you’re hitting out of a chute. I love those kinds of holes. It’s a terrific course to start our trip on. After golf, we go up to the Seminole pub in the clubhouse. We have barbecue chicken pizza, salad and pretzel bun sliders. Awesome!

That afternoon, I go with one of my buddies to work on chipping. As it happens, there’s a par-3 course right behind the hotel. Every hole is 130 yards or less. The tees, fairways and greens are in surprisingly great shape. Best of all, you just walk on and play. No tee times, no starters. Like a carousel, you just pick a hole and start playing. Then leave whenever you’d like.

At nighttime, our group heads into quaint downtown Petoskey - about 15 minutes away - for dinner at the City Park Grill. I’ve eaten a lot of jambalaya in my life - this may be the best ever. Spicy, savory, filling. And the biscuits they hand out to all diners are awesome, as well, at this establishment that Ernest Hemingway used to hang out at (second stool from the front end of the bar was his). A stop at Kilwin’s ice cream shop on the way back to the hotel caps off a great evening.

Next morning, it’s time for 36 holes. Our first stop is the 7,154-yard Heather course at the resort. A Robert Trent Jones design that I last played when I was 12 is in outstanding condition. It opens with a dogleg right, into a small green. Over the next few holes, we play shots over water, around wetlands and through hills - although the course is not too hilly by any stretch. In fact, we all decide it’s the perfect walking course. We’re careful to watch the pin flags, because when the wind picks up, it’s hard to tell its strength and direction. The back nine has no wet lands, but plenty of encounters with water and bunkers. If this isn’t the prettiest course in Northern Michigan, then I don’t know what is. The scenery is fantastic, and the course epitomizes all that’s great about golf in the area: Challenging, scenic, fair, in great shape, and just downright fun.

The afternoon round finds us on the adjacent 7,312-yard Arthur Hills Course, named after its course designer. It has a much more modern feel to it - the kind of layout that could be placed anywhere in the country and stand out nicely. No. 5 is lined with tall skinny pine trees. Thousands of them. I feel like I’m on the set of “Lost”. And when the wind pucks up, the trees begin rattling into one another. It’s kind of surreal and freaky. There’s lots of break on the greens, especially noticeable on short putts. My advice: Aim for 100-yard lay-ups all day and you’ll thank me later. The chipping can be severe, so it’s frankly just easier to hit full shots into the greens rather than chip from difficult and sometimes thin lies. You’ll encounter some gorgeous pathways through the woods in-between holes. And your longest tee shot of the day will likely come on the dramatically downhill 13th. A beautiful and enjoyable course that’s playable for all skill levels, its fairways are generous, and all of the bounces and rolls are both predictable and fair. Your score will realistically reflect how you played. And that’s a great thing.

Dinner is at The Pier in downtown Harbor Springs. As you might guess, it’s located on the banks of Lake Michigan and specializes in seafood. I order a spicy seafood pasta that’s delicious, then top it off with a Sander’s hot fudge cream puff. I waddle away from the table, then head down the street to the Old Sport & Gallery golf memorabilia shop. It’s smaller than its sister location at Pinehurst, yet packed with a fascinating collection of signs, books, photos, and other conversation pieces. Very cool.

Next morning, it’s off to Bay Harbor, another Boyne property that’s about 20 minutes away. This is an upscale, 27-hole course. We play the 6,827-yard Preserve/Quarry 18, in which the first four holes take you along the cliff above Lake Michigan and Little Traverse Bay. The views may be better than those along oceans, because you can still see some land far away - giving you a sense of depth and distance — and the water is deeper blue than anything I’ve ever seen in Southern California. Eight of the first nine holes have water views, and the breezes off the water can pick up at any time. The course is in ideal condition, and a lot of fun to play. The Quarry nine wraps around a large quarry, starting out in the woods, then becoming more open by its third hole. There are some long carries and uphill climbs, as well as great downhill par-3 and par-4 back-to-back finishing holes. This is one of the top-rated courses you can play in America, and it doesn’t disappoint. 

After lunch in the clubhouse, we take a five-minute ride to play Boyne’s 6,712-yard Crooked Tree Golf Course, a 1991 Harry Bowers design that’s having some renovation done by Hills, who’s there to greet us at the clubhouse. He says he’ll be redesigning the three finishing holes here, to make them more playable for everyone. The course reminds me of all of the farm country courses in the outskirts of the Detroit area - nice up-and-down, winding holes that make you feel as if you’re playing at the corner of the earth. I love the isolation, the roll of the land, and the layout of the holes. Like most of Boyne’s courses, it’s player-friendly and a lot of fun to negotiate. And because of the design, its pace of play is relatively quick. In retrospect, Hills is correct in that the last three holes can use a modification. The 16th will have a lower green and be more risk/reward, the 17th will be sloped downward with a slightly lower green; and the 18th will feature a more-level green with a subtler dogleg angle. While this probably means nothing to you unless you’ve played the course, it will lend more credibility to the course and be more consistent with the first 15 holes. The renovations will be complete by year’s end, and I’d love to come back and play afterwards. We notice that all of Boyne’s 18th holes that we’ve played — except Bay Harbor’s — finish with shots over water. We’re told that was deliberately done, to serve as bet settlers.
Dinner at Petoskey Brewery is fun. I’m not a beer drinker, but will say that the cabernet there hit the spot and then some - particularly when combined with the tomato bisque.

Back to golf the next morning, this time at Belvedere Golf Club in Charlevoix. How cool is this place: It opened in 1925 and still uses the original (and tiny) clubhouse. It’s 6,784 yards from the tips and in perfect condition. It’s hosted the Michigan Amateur countless times, has small and lightning-fast greens, and relatively flat holes. Some of the terrain is hilly — No. 4 is a long, uphill par-3 that when the wind picks up might very well be unreachable for many. It’s astounding to think that this course was made in an era when golf balls didn’t fly nearly as far as they do today. It must’ve been a beast of course back in the 1920s when it still played at 6,713 yards. Then to think at how great of shape it is 87 years later. Wow. In fact, while its length is short by today’s standards, it feels much longer. You need to milk distance from every club in the bag. If you ever play here - and I highly recommend you do - grab a freshly barbecued brat or burger behind the clubhouse. You’re welcome.

After lunch, we hop in the car and head down to the 6,956-yard Kingsley Club for an afternoon round. This ranks 23rd on Golfweek’s list of Top 100 courses. It opened for play in 2001, and looks and plays as if it were at Bandon Dunes - without the ocean. There’s lots of lush fairways and greens defined by hilly terrain and fescue areas. But it’s fescue you can hit from, if needed. The elevation changes are stunning, as are some of the vistas. And there aren’t many flat putts. Thank goodness my cart partner was a savvy course member who knew seemingly every bounce and angle, as well as distances and aiming spots. If it weren’t for him, I might still be out there trying to figure out where some stray shots went. My friends concur that this might be the finest course they’ve ever played. Period. I agree that it’s a really strong candidate, but Kingsley might be a difficult challenge for less-skilled players who probably wouldn’t get away with some misses that they would at other area courses. Regardless, if you belong to a private club, definitely try and get your club pro to score you a round at Kingsley. It’s destined to be the next great course in this golf-rich area. 

We check into the recently renovated Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme - close to downtown Traverse City. It’s really nice inside, and a wonderful family resort. And where my favorite pro sports team - the Detroit Red Wings - stay during training camp. The rooms are upscale and very comfortable, and there are loads of amenities on property. Best of all, it’s home to three popular courses, the Bear, Wolverine and Spruce Run. The next morning, we cross the parking lot to play the 7,078-yard Bear, a Jack Nicklaus design that opened for play in 1985. What a surprisingly nice course. It’s demanding - most of the greens are guarded by bunkers and/or water. There are plenty of steep and thick mounds that come into play just off the fairway. Good shots will be rewarded. Mishits have a chance of playing okay or ending up in penal situations. I’m physically and emotionally spent at this point, having just played about 150 holes in 4.5 days. 

Overall, this is an amazing golf destination. One of the best around. There are so many outstanding courses to play that collectively offer a diverse range of experiences. It’s easy to get to, from most everywhere. And you don’t have to travel too far from one place to another, once you arrive. The scenery is gorgeous - and gets even better in the fall. The weather for this August week was on average sunny and 75. And people are very friendly. What’s not to love?

The front nine at Bay Harbor