With well over 200 golf courses in the Phoenix-Scottsdale metro area, the "Valley of the Sun" is certainly a candidate for the winter golf trip capital of the United States.
Just catch a glimpse the PGA Tour's Waste Management Phoenix Open on TV, held on the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale each January, to see just how much locals love their golf.
Phoenix-Scottsdale has a wide array of courses of varying styles, including some standouts with astonishing scenery. The top golf resorts are stylish and luxurious, and if you enjoy yourself enough here, there are plenty of golf course communities to retire in. Toss in the lively Old Town Scottsdale scene, MLB spring training, other outdoor activities and even some casino gaming, and this is certainly one of the great winter golf trips you can take in the United States and a no-brainer for Matt Ginella in his Top 10 buddies trip destinations.
If you're considering your first trip to the Valley of the Sun, here is what you should know:
The lay of the land in Phoenix-Scottsdale
Townies will surely tell you, Phoenix has been rapidly growing for the past few decades and has become one of the largest metropolises in the United States. The benefit is that Sky Harbor Airport (a major hub for American Airlines) is one of the more affordable and accessible airports in the country. Chances are, your home airport can get you there on a direct flight, and there are a growing number of international flights as well.
Located just east of Phoenix, Scottsdale is the epicenter of the golf scene, where a lot of the most acclaimed courses are located (sandwiched between them, Paradise Valley is where most of the "big money" and private clubs are located). Old Town Scottsdale is also the best spot for nightlife. It's a compact area full of shops, restaurants and bars. A neat perk here for buddies trips is there are many golf-cart taxis that are tip only and you can hop around town all night on the cheap.
There are many other pockets within the valley like Mesa, Chandler, Glendale and Tempe, which are all more local-oriented and offer a little more value for golf and lodging.
When to take a Phoenix-Scottsdale golf trip
January-February is prime time, with the Super Bowl-Waste Management Phoenix Open week being the ultimate peak. Even if mornings can be subject to frost delays or the occasional cold front that brings a dusting of snow, it's still more bankable winter weather compared to the southeastern U.S. By April things start slowing down, and golf courses that overseeded with rye in the winter begin to get their warm-weather Bermuda grass back. This leads to transitional conditions and usually "shoulder season" green fees.
The summer is hot, which is the time of year many locals score great deals to play the best courses. If you're coming here on a trip, try and get out in the morning as early as possible and make sure you're staying somewhere with a pool. If you're into pool parties, they've soared in popularity in recent years and can be found both in Old Town Scottsdale and at a handful of resorts like Talking Stick or Hotel Valley Ho.
Back to golf, overseeding generally takes place in October, so plan on most mid- to high-end courses being closed or freshly opened and really wet, requiring cart path only. By the second half of November or early December, carts are usually allowed back in the fairways after the rye grass has taken hold.
In a recent article, I dove into Golf Advisor review data to look at the ratings for value, conditions and overall on a month-by-month basis. Get with your golf group to determine if value or conditions mean the most to you.
What it costs and where to find value
As a general rule, place your thumb on the Stadium Course of TPC Scottsdale, the most expensive resort course in Arizona, and the more distance you travel from there, the more affordable the courses become. That's because most of the money and tourists focus on North Scottsdale, and with good reason -- the resorts and scenery are world class. The best North Scottsdale golf courses charge $250-400 in prime time (January-April). You'll want to head to the west or south valleys for more value. In those areas, top courses like Ak-Chin Southern Dunes or Verrado Golf Club charge closer to $150.
Between January and April, there aren't a whole lot of very good golf courses that can be had for less than $100.
Expect to pay more here compared to Myrtle Beach or Palm Springs (two of the other biggest winter destinations). Golf here is about on par with Sin City (the exception being the $500-plus Las Vegas golf courses).
Events during peak golf season
Weekend tee times on the best courses during prime time should be secured well in advance, and that's essential for Waste Management Phoenix Open weekend, which also coincides with the Super Bowl (which Phoenix hosts regularly). Don't expect to find bargains during that week around Scottsdale. You may have better luck around the perimeter of the valley.
Fans of baseball's spring training also enjoy coming down for an extended period of time to couple Cactus League play with golf on the side. There are a handful of stadiums in the area where teams play, the most convenient is Salt River Fields near Talking Stick off the 101 freeway.
Phoenix has four pro sports teams, all of whom play in different venues. The NBA's Phoenix Suns and MLB's Arizona Diamondbacks both play in downtown Phoenix. The NFL's Cardinals are in Glendale and play across the street from the NHL's Coyotes, but those days appear to be numbered as ownership is currently looking at various sites closer to the Valley core.
Why it's different from other Western desert destinations
The most obvious answer is that Arizona's Sonoran Desert is the exclusive home of the mighty Saguaro cactus, which is as iconically Western as the cowboy. But from a golf course perspective, Troon North's emergence into the scene in the 1980s elevated the standard for "member-for-a-day" desert golf, and many more soon followed.
Additionally, turf areas tend to be a little bigger compared to Las Vegas, which has more issues with water for irrigation. Phoenix-Scottsdale also has a deeper roster of standout courses compared to Palm Springs and Tucson, and being such a large metropolis, the "scene" seems to skew a little younger, too.
Avid Tucson golfers, however, will tell you the cost to play their top-shelf courses in peak season compared to Scottsdale is a real bargain -- about $150 compared to $300-plus. I'd say the Scottsdale golf resorts' closest peers are the many fine luxury-brand properties in San Diego. Golf course management company Troon is based in Scottsdale and operates many of the top destination courses in town. Being such a competitive market, as well as a great hotbed for industry talent, facilities tend to run exceptionally well here, from conditions to food and beverage.
Off-course activities in the Sonoran Desert around Scottsdale
Scottsdale has a diverse collection of off-course activities. The top resorts all have excellent pools and spas, so you can certainly lounge and be pampered to your heart's content. Old Town Scottsdale has excellent shopping, restaurants and nightlife.
Casino gaming can be found on tribal lands in all four corners of the valley (no live craps or roulette, but there are poker rooms). Golf courses with hotel and casinos on site or nearby include Talking Stick (Casino Arizona), Whirlwind (Wild Horse Pass Casino), We-Ko-Pa (Fort McDowell Casino) and Ak-Chin Southern Dunes (Harrahs).
For some great nature and scenery head to the East Valley, where you can do all sorts of outdoor activities from mountain biking to shooting to off-road Tom-Tom car excursions. There are numerous outfitters available, including Fort McDowell Adventures, which partners with nearby We-Ko-Pa Resort among others.
My favorite golf resorts in Phoenix-Scottsdale
Scottsdale has some of the finest accommodations for both buddies trips and couples anywhere in the world. Spas and dining are excellent seemingly everywhere. Some of my favorite digs for golf groups are Westin Kierland (I like the hotel more than the 27-hole golf course), Fairmont Princess Scottsdale is all-out luxury, particularly if you manage a Fairmont Gold suite. For seclusion and one-of-a-kind scenery look no further than the Boulders Resort, a Waldorf Astoria brand with a village of spacious adobe-style casitas to choose from. I had my bachelor party at Talking Stick Resort, which has two player-friendly Coore-Crenshaw courses (North and South), one of the best casinos, a lively pool scene and now a TopGolf next door. You can find neat digs in the West Valley at Wigwam Arizona, which has spacious, casita-style accommodations.
My favorite golf courses in the Valley of the Sun
Saguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa
While there are better all-around golf courses, you simply can't beat the one-of-a-kind scenery of the Boulders Resort South Course.
Troon North's Monument Course is as good as it gets for the overall product of layout, conditions and amenities.
I don't think any course made more out of an uninspiring piece of desert property than Ak-Chin Southern Dunes, a true players' layout and five-star facility at a three-star price tag. (Quintero is worth the drive for unique desert mountain scenery. I just don't like the layout as much).
You'll also find good bang for buck in the West Valley at Verrado Golf Club and Wigwam's Gold Course, a more traditional parkland by Robert Trent Jones Sr. that was recently refreshed.
And there's no more splendid golf day from bag drop to 19th hole than walking with caddies at the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course.
A few of the many public courses I haven't played yet, but hope to some day soon based on word of mouth, are Papago, Legend Trail, the new Ambiente Course at Camelback and the Peaks Course and Ranch Course at Tonto Verde.
What's new in the Valley of the Sun?
Given the state of oversupply in the golf course industry nationwide, you would think more courses would be closing than opening. But the golf scene seems pretty healthy if what properties are investing in is any indication. The newest brand-new 18-hole golf course at Wickenburg Ranch on the extreme northwest side of the Valley (currently offering preview play but plans to go private). Verde River Golf & Social Club has had three names in its decade-long history, but just reopened following a renovation by Tom Lehman. In the West Valley, Wigwam has invested a lot of money into its grounds in recent years, and Verrado Golf Club is opening a new course, the Victory at Verrado, in 2017. And in Scottsdale, there's a new par-3 course, Mountain Shadows, part of the new hotel. Dove Valley and Grand Canyon University (formerly Maryvale) are also courses with significant revamps in recent memory.