Golf in Yuma, Arizona

Yuma is a city of 80,000 whose population doubles half the year when "snowbirds," most packing golf clubs, arrive from Canada and other chilly climes throughout the U.S. While most golf destinations showcase several upscale courses designed by known architects, Yumans take a different approach.

Knowing that beginning golfers have little choice in courses and that even municipals can be intimidating until skills have been sharpened and confidence increases, Yuma has developed into a perfect winter destination for vagabonding groups as well as families with members at different skill levels.

Sunshine 93 percent of the year virtually guarantees a daily round all winter long in Yuma, not to mention that blue skies provide a perfect backdrop for an airborne golf ball. Located near the California state line 175 miles southwest of Phoenix, Yuma offers six par-three or executive courses, two longer 18-hole tracks (pars 54 and 59), and four regulation layouts, including one of Arizona's best municipals. A beginner could start on the par threes, work up to a mid-sized 18-holer, and build up enough confidence to finish with a round on a full-sized course all in one winter golf vacation. Families are also drawn by lower golf rates than the competing southern California/Phoenix/Tucson areas.

WHERE TO PLAY

THE MUSTS

Mesa del Sol (520-342-1283). Deceptively difficult course plays differently from back and middle tees. Set in foothills at base of Gila Mountains east of Yuma, with a surprising amount of water for a desert course. Curlews, coots, and roadrunners compete for attention.

THE SECOND TIER

Foothills Golf Complex (520-342-9565). Yuma's newest, a par-three executive course that's scenic, fair, and challenging even for intermediate players. Mid-irons off most tees. Complex includes an older par-three course.

Dove Valley (520-627-3262). Located in Somerton 30 minutes south of Yuma through agricultural valley. Short, relatively straight course has narrow fairways, smallish greens. Strive for accuracy; use driver sparingly.

Cocopah Bend (520-343-1663). An RV resort where "golf is free any day the sun doesn't shine," and they rarely give away a round. Course demands accuracy. Tight OB markers protect RV's that line many fairways.

BEST OF THE REST

Butterfield (520-785-4834). Eighteen-hole par-three course in Mohawk Valley is ringed by mountains. Has features of a full-sized course, including water holes and elevation changes. Woods can be used on a few holes.

Westwind (520-342-2992). Friendly RV park has a nine-hole, par-three course. Good for short-game practice.

Ironwood (520-343-1466). Quiet downtown nine-hole executive course is well maintained, perfect for beginners.

Fortuna del Rey (520-342-4766). During slow periods, green fee ($11 for nine holes) is on the honor system at this flat nine-holer near foothills east of Yuma.

Sierra Sands (520-726-4653). Straightforward executive course, mostly irons but a few woods called for off tee. Best to play in late afternoon at sunset. (North Course, South Course)

WHERE TO EAT

You don't have to cross the nearby border to get good Mexican food in Yuma. La Fonda, noisy, crowded, and fun, has been a local tradition since the 1950s. La Papagallo has a few nooks and crannies in large dining room for illusion of serenity.

For other cuisine, Julieanna's Patio Cafe is elegant, The Spaghetti Place at Shilo Inn has city's best view, and Yuma Landing Restaurant is crammed with historical photographs and a friendly, pub-like atmosphere. Yumans eat a lot of steak, and no place cooks it better than Hunter Steakhouse. The Crossing, with an American menu, is named for original ford on Colorado River.

NIGHTLIFE

Bring a roll of quarters ($1 bills for high rollers) to Paradise Casino, a 24-hour gaming hall run by Quechan Indian Tribe. Other Indian reservations around and beyond Yuma offer legal gambling, gala shows with chorus lines, other Vegas-like attractions. Desert Sun Stadium has minor-league baseball May through July, concerts and gatherings on non-baseball nights. For auto racing fans, engines roar at Yuma Speedway Park in September and from February through June.

BURNED OUT

Yuma boasts two downtown historic parks: Yuma Crossing and the infamous Yuma Territorial Prison, which, surprisingly, was a progressive prison in its late 19th-century heyday. Other possibilities include a visit to the Saihati Camel Farm and the enormous sprawl of sand dunes in the Imperial Valley, site of movies like Flight of the Phoenix. Unlike most desert cities, Yuma has water. Boating expeditions on the Colorado River are popular.

THE DEAL

The golf package has yet to arrive in Yuma, but the small-town atmosphere has club officials working together. Club pros will suggest other local courses appropriate for your level of play, and even book tee times elsewhere. This is important in winter when tee times become tight because of the swollen population.

Visiting golfers often stay at the Radisson/Suites Inn (520-726-4830) or the Shilo Inn Resort hotel (520-782-9511). Both offer complimentary breakfast and afternoon beverage reception. The Radisson is more roomy with loads of space for golf bags and shoes, while the Shilo is closer to downtown and Interstate access. Call for current rates. Concierges in both hotels will book tee times in advance of your trip and arrange transportation if desired.

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