A winter golf escape to Scottsdale, Arizona

SCOTTSDALE, AZ We stay at Xona Resort Suites, which has the local courses wired for tee times with discounted rates, and let them set us up. Since 2003, our group has played most of the premium golf courses. We heartily recommend the Troon courses, the We-Ko-Pa courses, the Boulders Courses, Las Sendas, Sunridge Canyon, Raven Verrado, Legend Trail, Encanterra, and also exquisite private clubs like Mirabel. If you peruse the pages of this Web site, you will find reviews for all of them.

This year's rotation took us through rain, brisk mornings, and blue skies. Five days, five good courses, and five fond memories.


The home course of Arizona State University is open to the public, and asks reasonable rates for a big league golf course, at least by Phoenix winter standards. Non-residents will pay just over $100 in prime season, but much less in summer. ASU Karsten is world unto itself -- like a desert version of Scotland, but surrounded by a college football stadium, an industrial area, and an endless procession of jetliners flying into or out of Sky Harbor International Airport. Talk about urban contrasts---just concentrate on the holes and your shots, not the environs.

This Pete and Alice Dye design is interesting and engrossing, but not easy. The par-70 plays 7000 yards from the Professional tees, and 6200 from the Champions tees. It leaves little margin for error due to some of the largest, steepest mounds this side of Bandon Dunes. If you hit the ball down the middle, those mounds will not be a factor. But if you land on the wrong sides of them, they present obstacles, opportunities, and oppressively difficult lies. They will rob you of distance and rattle your nerve. I am not normally a fan of such unnatural terrain on a golf course, but at ASU Karsten, it works as eighteen manufactured games.

The par-3'are all manageable. The 16th is the toughest, at 1342/175/217/248 yards over water, and all carry. Its backdrop, a power station, epitomizes the disparity between this golf course and outside environment.

ASU Karsten's short par-4's are particularly good. Each requires decision making and execution from the tee. The 209/259/296/323 yard, par-4, 2ND features four fairway bunkers, with one of them pinching the middle. If you can carry a drive 240 yards from the tips, and squeeze between them, it leaves a short, uphill pitch for birdie.

The 18th, which ranges from 340 to 471 yards, is a difficult a finishing hole as we have played in the desert. The fairway runs along a lake, which divides it from the par-4, 9th. That water will factor into both your drive, and the approach.

The Stadium Course

When golfers visit the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, they list this Tom Weiskof design as one of their wanna/must plays. They see it on television in the FBR Open. They search for that boulder that the gallery moved as a loose impediment back when it seemed Tiger Woods could move mountains. And, they remember the always-bawdy crowds in bleachers surrounding the 100/120/143/162 yard, par-3, 16th.

The Stadium Course has manicured, tournament conditions, along with high-end, TPC service and ambience. In winter, the course insists that golfers use a forecaddie whether they want to or not. At least those caddies keep the foursomes moving. Pace of play averages 4:15.

From the Tournament or the Players tees, an average golfer may struggle with some of TPC Scottsdale's longer holes. Swallow your pride, and move up if necessary. The course has several notable holes, especially on the back nine.

The 498/528/55//595 yard, par-5, 13th provides players an option of split fairways, divided by a desert waste area in the middle. The left side plays safer from the right, but the other route, with water on the right, provides a better angle into the green. This assumes, of course, that a player would be capable of reaching the green in two.

The 403/439/468/552 yard, par-5, 15th, also has water, but along the left side, creating more variance of design. This hole is short enough that, after a boisterous drive, a good player may be tempted to go for the island green, which leaves ample room for errant shots, but not enough to feel comfortable.

The par-4, 246/254/292/332 yard, 17th, is just plain fun. It's short enough that longer hitters will be tempted to go for an eagle or birdie. Water lines the left side of the fairway. A pot bunker sits middle, right. Carry it, and a slope on the back may bounce balls onto, or at least near to the green. This is the hole Andrew Magee aced with a shot that ricocheted off an opponent's putter.

TPC Scottsdale bills itself as providing golfers an opportunity to live the PGA Tour experience. The rack rate asks $285 a round in peak months. That is no small ticket, but negotiable. Call in advance, ask for the reservations office, and inquire about the specials. If you can be flexible, you can play TPC Scottsdale for much less money, particularly during summer months.

As an alternative, do not overlook the adjoining TPC Champions Course, which opened as a redesign in 2007. This is a super-deal. Walkers will pay $44 a round any day of the year. In fact, some aficionados prefer Champions to the Stadium course.

Fountain Hills, Arizona

We have visited The Golf Club at Eagle Mountain several times, now. Familiarity breeds affection. Golf Digest Magazine lists it among Arizona's four-star, best places to play. Lengths from 5836 to 6755 yards. Course ratings range from 67.2-71.7, and slopes from 126-139.

This Scott Miller design offers desert golf, but not quite target golf. It has wide, contoured fairways and large, undulating greens. Dramatic elevation changes provide nice views and shorten some of the longer holes. The 420 yard, par-4, 18th, drops 100 feet from tee to green.

This year, we played Eagle Mountain on an uncharacteristically wet, rainy day. More than one inch of water fell, but the greens and fairways remained receptive.

Of all the holes, we like the 180/2134/243/272 yard, par-4, 14th. This is a fun and involving dogleg right---at least, for those players who don't try to drive the green. Best to carry your drive across desert into a fairway running at a 45 degree angle, then hit a short wedge across a ravine for your second shot into a 35 yard deep, three-tiered green. The hole is as nice to look at it is to play. Control your wedge distance, and this can be a birdie. Try to stay below the cup.

Scottsdale Arizona
The Talon Course
The Raptor Course

This is your classic country club for a day. Music creeps from speakers hidden in rocks along the entryway. Attendants greet you upon arrival. They ask about your 'day', not your round. That would be wise because if average golfers visit Grayhawk expecting glory, they are more likely to exercise self-loathing.

Golf Digest ranks the Grayhawk courses among Arizona's 'Top 10 In The State You Can Play'.

The Raptor Course, designed by Tom Fazio, is younger and meaner than the Talon. As the late Ed Rentner noted when he reviewed this course for us, it exemplifies all that good players love and hate about modern architecture. The Raptor plays 6700 yards from the championship tees, and 7100 yards from the tips. The fairways provide little transition between grass desert 'flora'. The course has visually pleasing cross bunkers, but they are sculpted, deep, and dangerous.

The large mounded, rolling or terraced greens offer many pin placements. Stay below those holes if you hope to keep your sanity.

The par-3, 8th, plays 174 yards from the tips. It is one of the prettiest and most memorable holes on the course. They call it 'Aces and Eights', although one would suspect it has yielded more of the latter than the former. This hole sits against a backdrop of the McDowell Mountains. A dramatic slope flanks the left side of a green with three deep bunkers to the front left, and another to the right.

The Talon Course, designed by US Open Champion David Graham and architect Gary Panks is somewhat less difficult, but that's a relative statement. The Talon plays 6391 or 6973 yards from the two rear tees.

The par-4, 7th, called 'Flash Flood', plays 402 yards from the tips. This hole has a narrow fairway that squeezes at 270 yards. Grass mounds run along the left side. Leave your driver in the bag unless you really trust yourself.

My favorite is a short par-4, naturally. The 13th, 'Heaven or Hell', plays 303 yards from the tips, with shorter tees for the rest of us. It is tempting, but intimidating. You can drive this green, but beware a shot blocked right, as the fairway drops into a deep box canyon. The green has two levels. One of the players in our group drove to the middle, below the hole, and still made par.

Carefree, Arizona

We finished the week with a rare treat with a round at Desert Forest, an exclusive private club in Carefree, Arizona. Golf Digest consistently rates Desert Forest as one of the Top 100 Courses in America. It receives similar honors from all the critics and golf magazines that matter.

This is the first desert style course ever built, in 1962. It is a classic of understated, subtle design by Robert 'Red' Lawrence, who would appear to have laid it down on the gentle, rolling terrain. The 7035 yard course from the tips has no fairway bunkers, no water hazards, and no out-of-bounds.

You will not miss them.

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