Ask C.A. Roberts what makes Arizona one of the world’s premiere golf destinations and he draws a momentary blank. That seems unusual, considering Roberts is the president of OB Sports, a golf management company headquartered in the greater Phoenix area that works with 17 courses in the area.
Yet, as someone intimately involved in Arizona golf, Roberts should be cut some slack. No one likes a bragger. And there is plenty to boast about when it comes to golf in the Valley of the Sun.
“I’d have to say it’s the weather, because it’s just different here,” Roberts said after a few minutes of thinking out loud. “There are other places with great weather in the winter, like Southern California or southeastern Florida, but there’s something about being in the middle of a desert that makes ours unique. It’s crisp and stark and so dry. The mornings are crisp and cool, and temperatures don’t get much higher than a sunny 80 degrees. There’s no humidity, no bugs and usually not a lot of wind. It’s just so clean, so pristine.”
There are more than 200 courses in the region and “the bar has been raised so high on agronomics that I’d say we have the best conditioned courses in the country,” Roberts said. “To even think of competing out here as a golf course you have to meet the existing standards. The same goes with customer service.”
It also doesn’t hurt the region that it has spectacular desert and mountain scenery and views, and that the area is home to more than 4 million people, allowing access to all the nightlife, restaurants, shopping and sightseeing that a burgeoning metropolis can offer.
Here’s a roundup of some of the finest properties in the area:
The first encountered during a drive east from Southern California on Interstate 10 is Raven at Verrado in Buckeye, about 40 miles west of downtown Phoenix. Since opening in 2004, the course, located in the foothills of the White Tank Mountains, has drawn rave accolades from national golf magazines, including one that tabbed it as the best public golf course in the Phoenix area.
Designed by John Fought and Tom Lehman, the course plays 7,258 yards from the back tees. The front nine is fairly flat and winds through rugged desert terrain, but the back nine – which offers the most jaw-dropping views – plays into the canyons, giving golfers two different experiences.
Our next stop, just east of Buckeye, is Palm Valley Golf Club in Goodyear, a city built in the 1940s in large part to house employees of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. One of the most extensive golf properties on our list, the club boasts two courses: the par-72, Arthur Hills-designed Palms Course, which is 7,015 yards from the tips; and the par-62 Lakes Course, designed by Hale Irwin. The Palms’ signature hole is one of the finest finishing holes in the state – a par 5 that includes a lake on the left side of the fairway that wraps around a three-tiered green. The Lakes is shorter but also features several water-guarded greens. The facility also includes a pitch-and-putt for juniors as well as a lighted driving range.
The only course on our list actually in the sprawling metropolis of Phoenix is Raven Golf Club – Phoenix, about eight miles south of Sky Harbor International Airport. Formerly known as Raven at South Mountain, the course may be in the city limits but the 6,000 Georgia Pine trees that line the fairways and the gorgeous mountain views make it feel as if it’s located in the mountains of northern Arizona.
Designed by Gary Panks and David Graham, the course maxes out at 7,028 yards and, since opening in 1995, has been lauded for its superior conditions and customer service. OB Sports took over management last year and gave it a significant facelift, including an innovative club-fitting system and a rental system that allows you to build your own set of clubs from multiple manufacturers, including Callaway, Ping and TaylorMade.
Every course on our list is set up to accommodate high-handicappers from shorter tees, as well as to challenge scratch golfers from the tips. But none of the courses is as tough from the tips as ASU Karsten Golf Course in Tempe, about 10 miles east of downtown Phoenix. The Pete Dye-designed track is the home course for the Arizona State golf squad and hosts myriad tournaments throughout the year.
At 7,002 yards from the tips, the course isn’t a monster in length. But we’re talking Pete Dye here, so there is plenty of creative mounding and bunkering to keep things interesting. It also has one of the finest pro shops in the country and is only five miles from the airport in Phoenix, making it a convenient place to play if you’re in town for a day on business.
East of ASU Karsten, in Mesa, is Longbow Golf Club. The par-71 course, which opened in 1997 and received a major redesign in 2003, plays slightly longer than 7,000 yards from the back tees. Fairway bunkers pose a constant challenge and errant shots can easily end up in the desert. In 2009, a national golf publication included Longbow on its 100 best resort courses in the United States.
Driving north from Mesa, about 30 miles northeast of Phoenix, is Scottsdale, which is where the bulk of luxury hotels and golf resorts are in the Valley of the Sun. McDowell Mountain Golf Club, which is owned in part by PGA Tour icon Phil Mickelson, is located in the city.
Formerly known as Sanctuary, the new-look McDowell Mountain reopened in late 2011. The 7,072-yard course was beautified from top to bottom but also was made tougher for low handicappers and more forgiving and playable for recreational players.
No golf-themed visit to Scottsdale is complete without staying at the opulent Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. The Fairmont is a AAA five-diamond resort with one of the most hailed spas in the country. Its dining options include the acclaimed Mexican restaurant Hacienda as well as the Bourbon Steakhouse. It’s high-end resort experience from top to bottom and is ideal for everything from a romantic getaway to a business excursion.
Matching the resort’s opulence are two stellar golf courses located nearby. The Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale is home to the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Open. The Tom Weiskopf-Jay Morrish-designed course is 7,089 yards from the tips. Befitting a course designed to challenge the world’s best golfers, the course is immaculately conditioned and is difficult and demanding from the tips. Also located on the property is the Randy Heckenkemper-designed Champions Course at TPC Scottsdale. Built on the former site of TPC Scottsdale’s Desert Course, the layout was completely revamped in 2007 to flow seamlessly within the naturally rugged terrain, meandering between natural ravines and through picturesque foothills.
And then there’s Grayhawk Golf Club, comprised of two courses: the 7,001-yard Talon Course and the 7,108-yard Raptor Course. Both rank among the finest layouts in the state. The former, designed by David Graham and Gary Panks, is slightly more scenic, as it is set in a box canyon. The latter was designed by Tom Fazio, one of the world’s most heralded golf architects. The Raptor is vintage Fazio: every hole is unique and the greens are hard, fast and undulating. The conditions and customer service are as top-notch as each of the courses, making this one of the most complete golf facilities in Arizona.
Just east of Scottsdale lies Vista Verde Golf Club. Located in the Verde Valley, the course offers dazzling views of the Tonto National Forest and surrounding mountains. The Ken Kavanaugh-designed track opened in 2006. Its wide fairways are ideal for high handicappers, but the course, which measures 7,219 yards from the tips, is filled with risk-reward holes for better players looking for a challenge.
Eagle Mountain Golf Club, about 10 miles east of Scottsdale in Fountain Hills, offers some of the most splendid views of any course on our list. The Scott Miller-designed course rests in the ravines of the McDowell Mountains and has “the most interesting long views of any course in the valley,” Roberts said.
The course is 6,800 yards from the tips and, unlike many desert courses, forced carries are rare. The fairways also are built to funnel shots toward the center, increasing its player-friendly reputation.
We-Ko-Pa Golf Club, located in Fort McDowell about five miles east of Eagle Mountain, may be the most prototypical Arizona golf experience on our list.
The condition and service make it “the trendsetter in the market, in my opinion,” Roberts said. “It’s got the highest-end maintenance you’ll ever see, and being on tribal land there are no homes anywhere, just mountains and saguaro cactus as far as you can see. When you come to Arizona and have in your mind a picture of what Arizona golf should look like, it’s We-Ko-Pa. It’s a pure desert golf experience.”
The two courses on the property include the Scott Miller-designed Cholla, and the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw-designed Saguaro. Both offer exceptional views but possess their own identity. The Cholla course is vintage desert target-style golf, while the Saguaro is more traditionally designed and engrained into the native land.
Also in Fountain Hills is Sunridge Canyon Golf Club. While every hole on this 6,823-yard course designed by Ken Foster is memorable, its claim to fame is its self-christened Wicked 6, the last six holes on the course. This stretch, which winds through gorgeous terrain, includes forced carries from the tee boxes and onto several greens; water hazards, doglegs, uphill holes provide plenty of bite for even a scratch golfer.
Southern Dunes Golf Club, managed by Troon Golf, is some 40 miles south of Phoenix. Designed by the Scottsdale-based firm of Schmidt-Curley Design, with ample assistance from Fred Couples, Southern Dunes is a whopping 7,517 yards from the tips. Five other sets of tees knock that yardage down to as short as 5,102 yards.
Forced carries, undulating fairways, bunkers everywhere, plenty of places to lose your ball, and fiercely protected greens will keep you on your toes the entire round. It has more trees than cacti, and, as its name implies, it’s more of a links-style course. But it’s definitely one of the most challenging, so course management is a must. It’s also affiliated with Harrah’s Ak-Chin, a 40,000-square-foot casino and hotel, which received a $20 million renovation in 2011.
While you could make the drive to Southern Dunes and get back to the Phoenix-Scottsdale region in plenty of time, the last course on our list might tempt you to stay a couple of days longer. It’s the Sedona Golf Resort, about 110 miles north of Phoenix.
“Sedona is an international destination, with people coming from all over the world to see its red rocks and experience its peace and tranquility,” Roberts said. “The course is perched on a side of the hill where the red rocks start and if you’re coming to Sedona, this course absolutely offers all the views you would imagine.”
Designed by Gary Panks, the par-71 course that plays 6,646 yards from the back tees begins at 3,600 feet above sea level and reaches 4,200 feet by the 10th hole, meaning the views keep getting better and better. No wonder the course likes to tout itself as playing golf in the Grand Canyon – if there were golf played in the Grand Canyon.
– By JOEL BEERS