When winter's chill envelops most of the U.S., heat-seeking golfers have long zeroed in on metropolitan Phoenix for relief. Mountain panoramas, cactus-studded desert-scapes, verdant expanses of green, and luminous, sun-blasted days make Phoenix/Scottsdale a one-of-a-kind draw. Throw in world-class shopping, lodging, dining and pro sports, and it's easy to see why so many golf professionals (course architects, equipment manufacturers, top instructors and Tour players) call the Valley of the Sun their home—and why you should check it out yourself.
The best time to visit Phoenix is a matter of timing and budget. October/November offers ideal weather, but the newly overseeded fairways are heavily watered, so there's little roll on drives or approaches into greens, and it's cartpath-only. December/January usually shines with 65- to 70-degree daytime highs, although chilly desert nights can mean frost delays in the morning. With limited daylight at this time of year, slot your tee time accordingly. March and April are perfect, but the priciest. May warms up, but low humidity, ideal conditions and fewer tourists (with reduced green fees) make this month the best value.
WHERE TO PLAY
While Phoenix/Scottsdale serves up its share of traditional parkland layouts, what makes the region unique are the target-style desert designs: lush ribbons of fairway framed by pale sand, thorny brush and eccentrically shaped cacti. That's what brings you to the Southwest—but what's particularly distinctive is the unusual number of top-ranked, public-access, 36- hole dream destinations that dot the landscape. Which one—or ones—to play? Here's the lowdown.
Cholla (Scott Miller, 2001)
Saguaro (Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw, 2006)
THE SKINNY We-Ko-Pa's layouts descend into valleys, scale ridges and cozy up to mountains, including its namesake range (in the Yavapai language, "We-Ko-Pa" means "Four Peaks Mountain"). Because the course is on tribal land, it's free of homes and roads, making it the ultimate back-to-nature desert treat.
THE PICK The elder Cholla layout sports We-Ko-Pa's two most dramatic holes, the par-5 eighth and the par-3 14th. Saguaro features more imaginative contouring and is walkable. For purists, it's Saguaro. For scenery lovers, it's Cholla by a whisker.
Monument (Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish, 1991/1996)
Pinnacle (Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish, 1991/1996)
THE SKINNY Tucked among the shadows of Pinnacle Peak, these superb tests zigzag through huge rock outcroppings, leapfrogging dry desert washes and skirting mountain slopes. Houses come a little too close on occasion, but these are still the area's finest shotmaker courses.
THE PICK Daunting forced carries, strategic risk/reward options and greater walkability elevate the Pinnacle for strong players. Monument features two signature drivable par 4s and the par-5 third, which is dominated by a giant central boulder. Both courses are worthy; Pinnacle by a nose.
Talon (David Graham/Gary Panks, 1994)
Raptor (Tom Fazio, 1995)
THE SKINNY Both courses were carved from the flat desert floor, so their character comes from the architects' flair for shaping. Highlights include deep bunkers, elevated, contoured greens, fairways bracketed by thick desert flora and stirring McDowell Mountain backdrops.
THE PICK Talon boasts the two most memorable holes, the par-3 11th, its back tee accessed by a swinging bridge, and the drivable par-4 13th, set in a box canyon. Raptor is favored by low-handicappers; it has better definition and a stellar, lakeguarded 18th (a par 5 for mortals, a 4 for the pros). Slight edge to Raptor.
Stadium (Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish, 1986)
Champions (Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish, 1986; redesigned by Randy Heckenkemper, 2007)
THE SKINNY Not as attractively costumed as some in town, Stadium is nevertheless the desert's ultimate must play, thanks to its 31-year history of hosting the Waste Management Phoenix Open and its legendary par-3 16th. Champions sufficiently tests the Senior pros, and both provide mountain vistas.
THE PICK Champions triumphs for value and is an excellent test, but c'mon—think Tiger's ace, Phil's wins, insane crowds and an underrated back nine for risk/reward valor, and Stadium is the easy choice. The island-green par- 5 15th and drivable par-4 17th are two of the Tour's best— and the 16th is its loudest.
North (Jay Morrish, 1984/1986)
South (Jay Morrish 1984/1991)
THE SKINNY Both North and South wend through forests of cacti, prickly desert shrubs and the prehistoric, colossal rocks that give the resort its name. Stone-studded mountains, enticing shot demands and a plethora of wildlife, from adorable bunnies to ornery javelinas, add to the memorability.
THE PICK The North is the stronger, more consistent test (and only slightly less dramatic than the South), but the South dishes out some of the desert's most unforgettable holes, notably the greens on the first and fifth, and the tee boxes at 6, 7 and 8. South—just barely.
WHERE TO STAY
Situated in the heart of North Scottsdale's golf hub, the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North dazzles with its adobe-style casitas, Talavera Restaurant and captivating views of Pinnacle Peak.
Edging the TPC Stadium course, the sprawling Fairmont Scottsdale Princess features TPC-inclusive packages, but the bars, restaurants and Willow Stream Spa are so good you might forget about the golf altogether.
Charming casitas with fireplaces nestled into the rocks, rock climbing clinics and ancient-basalt-stone massages at the spa are among the highlights at The Boulders Resort in Carefree. The irresistible nachos and margaritas at the Spotted Donkey Cantina are the perfect day-capper.
WHERE TO EAT
The Phoenix/Scottsdale area doesn't really have a food identity—but then, it doesn't really need one. Whether you're hankering for food-truck tacos, the daily catch or anything in between, it's here.
La Hacienda by Richard Sandoval
Tucked away at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess is one of the nation's top-rated Mexican restaurants. Start with a tequila tasting via the resort's Tequila Goddess, who educates and pours from more than 200 varieties. Guacamole prepared tableside, the chorizo and potato empanadas appetizer, the carnitas hacienda main course and a flaming coffee dessert pair beautifully with the handsome decor.
Lefty not only christened the place in 1994, he helped plan the menu. The premier public-access 19th hole in Arizona dishes out tasty prime-rib sliders, Navajo corn chowder with a kick, goldfish bowl– sized margaritas and mounds of Mickelson memorabilia. The restaurant flows into Grayhawk's other dining establishment, the Quill Creek Cafe, where patrons on the outdoor patio enjoy stellar McDowell Mountain views.
Mastro's City Hall Steakhouse
Mastro's is now a national presence, but it all started in Scottsdale. And while the north Scottsdale original continues to rock it, checking out their Old Scottsdale location will get you a great steak, plus easy access afterward to buzzy nightspots for the young and young at heart. For now, feast on Mastro's clubby atmosphere, the thriving live piano scene and diet-wrecking menu items. You can't miss with the sizzling bone-in filet, accompanied by lobster mashed potatoes or gorgonzola mac and cheese.