SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- December is always a time of great anticipation in Phoenix-Scottsdale -- a sort of calm before the peak season haboob of sun-starved golfers arrive.
There's no such thing as downtime in this mecca, especially not when snowbirds in the north are already escaping biblical snowfalls normally reserved for major northeastern airports on Christmas Eve.
Before the leftover eggnog has a chance to go bad, two college football bowl games (the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31 in Glendale and the Cactus Bowl on Jan. 2 in Tempe) arrive. Then at the end of January comes the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where about a half million fans descend on TPC Scottsdale -- some who actually come to watch the PGA Tour, others who just enjoy the party. Also in early 2015 is the NFL's Pro Bowl on Jan. 25, followed by all the pomp and festivities leading up to Super Bowl XLIX, which will be played Feb. 1 in Glendale.
As if that weren't enough, Golf.com reported in early January Tiger Woods plans on entering the WM Phoenix Open for the first time in 13 years.
Meanwhile, during the comparative calm of mid-December, I played four rounds of golf in this most attractive part of the Sonoran Desert, even managing to find a few of my tee balls on grass, which does far less puncturing of your slacks than hitting left-handed punch-out shots from under a prickly pear.
Ak-Chin Southern Dunes renovated, adds #miniDunes course
Perhaps the most exciting development among the facilities I visited is the reopening of Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club in Maricopa. Long known as one of the purest tests of golf in the area, the Aussie Sandbelt-inspired course closed for the summer to undergo renovations and a few minor design alterations that made it a little more player-friendly for those of us who'd rather play bogey golf from the whites than shoot a buck twenty from the tips.
Southern Dunes unveiled a second, tiny course with great intrigue, particularly for the "grow the game" set: #miniDunes. If the gratuitous hashtag use didn't give it away, the concept is aimed at junior golfers, particularly those of the Ak-Chin tribe living near the course or any other juniors or beginners living in the Maricopa area. And Fred Couples, on hand for the grand opening, proclaimed much of his success to growing up on a par-3 course in Washington state.
"I think it's an incredible idea," Couples said of the concept of converting the range into a pitch 'n putt in the afternoon. "It's great to stand [on the range] and look pretty and hit it 300 yards, but really your scoring clubs are down in this section of the bag. It's the 6, 7, 8, 9.
"If you can develop these, you can become a really good player really fast."
Just because #miniDunes is aimed at kids, it doesn't mean adults can't head out with a sand wedge, a cold one and some choice smack talk to settle some bets left over from their morning 18 on Ak-Chin Southern Dunes.
Westin Kierland Resort introduces Golf Boards
Back in Scottsdale is the lavish 27-hole Westin Kierland Resort, which continues to come up with new spins of this old game. No other golf facility on the planet has as many options to transport you around a golf course. In addition to taking a conventional cart or even more Stone Age -- walking -- the resort introduced a fleet of Segways in 2005.
Earlier this year, Westin Kierland added Golf Bikes. Refreshingly human-powered and easy to learn, they are light, modified mountain bikes with rear racks for your clubs and bag for provisions. Then, just this month, it added GolfBoards, which let golfers display their robust athleticism by hanging 10 on rippling fairways. The futuristic-looking board takes a little getting used to, but you can cruise up and down the slopes of the course Maui Wowie style.
What's next at Kierland? Who knows, but you know the resort is probably already looking. Wind surfing between each shot seems compelling, no?
Quintero, Troon North are desert stunners
Meanwhile, it's business as usual at a couple of other favorite area courses. Quintero Golf Club, located in the extreme northwest valley, is at present the top-rated course on GolfAdvisor. After finally making the trek myself, it seems golfers are smitten by a combination of elevated tees and generous (for the desert, that is), sculpted fairways. And being so far from the epicenter of Scottsdale, green fees are paltry in comparison, which helps you look past the still-temporary clubhouse and long drive through an unfinished residential development to the first tee.
Quintero, while remote, is relatively close to Glendale. So for those staying near the University of Phoenix Stadium, it's a fine option while the masses are centered on TPC Scottsdale and Old Town, many of which are almost entirely booked solid already.
Troon North Golf Club, of course, needs little introduction. It's been an icon in desert golf since it debuted in the late 1980s. The flagship course and birthplace of management company Troon Golf, which now operates many of the area's top pubic and resort courses, this is where exemplary service, facilities, course design, nature and hopeless duffers collide. And today, there's still no better spot in the valley to splurge on a colleague's expense account.
I curry the minutest of favor toward the Monument Course over the Pinnacle Course, but it's an arbitrary opinion at best. Each 18 dazzles with north Scottsdale scenery full of boulder piles, Pinnacle Peak and magnificent saguaros interspersed with other fauna both native and man-planted. There's a reason that Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish are go-to names in the Southwest, and their effort here remains a standout nearly 30 years later.
And if you couldn't put a driver in play at Troon North, stop by the Callaway studio and get set up on its OptiFit Fitting System and get fit for some new gear. If you won the lion's share of skins in your group, skip that part, have drinks on the patio at the Dynamite Grille and ponder sneaking out for a twilight nine.