I traveled directly from the Phoenix Open to New York City for a staff meeting, along the way losing about 70 degrees and most of my good cheer. Being a California kid I often forget how miserable it is in most of the country this time of year, so while I am still thawing out from my cameo in NYC I want to offer some counsel to all of you would-be golfers suffering through the endless winter: start planning your trip to next year’s Phoenix Open. Today. Right now. I don’t care what you have to do to finance it — break into the kids’ piggy banks, dial back your 401(k) by a couple percentage points, give up lunch, whatever. Just get there in ’08.
The Open is always a great time, but next year it will be held the same week that Phoenix is hosting the Super Bowl. That means the biggest party in golf will be even bigger, crazier, and, presumably, even more fun, if such a thing is possible. I took three friends to this year’s Open — Chad Gieg, Jim Pape, and Brooks Wells — a pack of fugitive husbands who left behind a total of nine kids under the age of six and arrived in desperate need of some Guy Time. Playing golf in the morning, watching the tournament in the afternoon, exploring cougar dens by night…does it get any better than that? I think not.
The great thing about Scottsdale is that it offers so much variety in where you can stay and play. We went high-brow — which I know will come as a surprise to many readers — crashing at the Four Seasons Troon, which has a spectacular setting high in the hills in north Scottsdale. The place enjoys such a private, sleepy, romantic feel it is probably better suited for female companionship than hanging with a bunch of flatulent dudes, but it was an ideal home base because it is close to many of the best courses in the area. We played, in order, Whisper Rock (Upper), Troon North (Monument), The Boulders (South) and Grayhawk (Talon). All except Whisper Rock are open to the public and should be part your itinerary, though there are dozens of other tremendous tracks to choose from. (We-Ko-Pa, Talking Stick and Troon North (Pinnacle) are already on the itinerary for next year.)
I won’t bore you with the play-by-play of our on-course battle royals, but this terrific quartet of courses deserves special mention. The front nine of the Boulders was the most memorable golf we played all week, just one calendar-worthy hole after another cut through rugged terrain and featuring some breathtaking elevation changes. Troon North is an architectural landmark, one of the first world-class courses to be set in the desert. I was blown away by the tremendous variety of holes and imaginative hazards. Grayhawk is not as scenic but offers a sterner test, with wicked greens and tougher par-5s. It will earn a measure of renown during the PGA Tour’s Fall Series when it hosts the inaugural Fry’s Championship.
Then there’s Whisper Rock, surely one of the coolest spots in the golf world. If you know the right person and have a favor to call in, this is the place to do it for. The Rock was founded in 2001 with a course designed by Phil Mickelson, its most notable features a lovely natural setting and the devilish green complexes that require a Mickelsonian short game. The layout was rechristened the Lower Course with the opening of Tom Fazio‘s Upper a couple of years ago. We teed it up on the Upper and loved it. The drivable par-four 13th, with a tee box set virtually atop a mountain, is one of the most dramatic holes I’ve ever played, and it’s part of a stretch on the back nine that is as good as it gets. But the courses are only part of the Whisper Rock experience. Mickelson is the club’s patron saint and has provided its motto on an inscribed Masters flag displayed in the bustling grill room: “To the boys at the Rock, It’s all about the hang!” Though the club fairly reeks of money, it somehow maintains a welcoming, low-key vibe. It’s the kind of place where caddies talk trash to the members after a bad shot, and instead of a fancy halfway house there is a fridge where you help yourself to crustless PB & J’s and other exotic treats.
One on the favorite pastimes at the Rock is to peruse the handicap sheet in the lockerroom. Mickelson is listed at +4.9, and that’s not even the best in the club; Geoff Ogilvy is +5.5. Not bad for one Scottsdale outpost to have claimed half of last year’s majors. Last week Mickelson did his practicing at Whisper Rock instead of the tournament site, the TPC of Scottsdale, and who can blame him? The TPC is not exactly conducive to quiet contemplation. Obviously, if you want to guzzle beer and ogle nubile, underdressed sorority girls — and really, who among us doesn’t? — the Phoenix Open is clearly the place to go. It’s also a great tournament for watching golf, with so many risk/reward holes, especially on the back nine, and we saw the kind of dramatics the TPC can produce with Aaron Baddeley‘s thrilling bang-bang finish.
And even in a non-Super year there are plenty of other diversions around Scottsdale beyond the tournament action. We walked away with a collective $1,500 from one of the Indian casinos dotted around town and also caught a Suns-Spurs game. Another sidetrip took us to the new Hot Stix Performance Center. I wrote about Hot Stix’s cutting edge custom-fitting system last year, but as cool as the technology is, you’re still indoors, hitting into a net. Hot Stix has now rectified that with the 10-acre Performance Center, with hitting bays looking out onto an expansive range, allowing you to watch the ball fly. Even better, there are various short game stations where you can test out clubs in game conditions. It’s definitely the next level in fitting, and worth a sidetrip if you’re not too hungover from the Bird’s Nest.
The truly mind-blowing thing about the Phoenix Open is that for a typical tournament 20,000 fans in one day is a good turnout; around the TPC of Scottsdale they are already bracing for 200,000 or more for just the third round next year. I’ll be part of the crowd, without fail. You owe it to yourself to be there, too.
Senior writer Alan Shipnuck has covered golf for Sports Illustrated since 1994 and frequently contributes to SI.com.