Municipal Papago Golf Course still delivers golfers a good Phoenix-Scottsdale bargain

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

PHOENIX, Ariz. - The hunking chunks of rocks are the first surprise. You just don't expect to see mountains this dramatic, this close to downtown Scottsdale. Yet there they are lording over Papago Golf Course, providing great backdrop when your ball's in the air.

Papago Golf Course
Papago Golf Course in Phoenix puts golfers shooting alongside towering rocks.
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Papago Golf Course

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Historic, city-owned Papago Golf Course is a local favorite that sees more than 100,000 rounds a year. In 2008, Papago underwent an extensive, $5.8 million renovation by William Fuller, who formerly worked under architect Bob Cupp.

18 Holes | Public/Municipal golf course | Par: 72 | 7333 yards | ... details »

The second -- and maybe even larger surprise -- comes in the quality of the golf course. The way Papago's been talked about by Phoenix city officials pushing an $8.2 million golf course renovation plan, you expect the course to be in complete disrepair.

Instead, it's a great muni golf course -- still arguably the best option for cheap golf in the Phoenix-Scottsdale resort corridor. Is Papago anywhere close to a Torrey Pines? No, but it's $18 walking and $30 riding in Arizona's very nice winter twilight.

You're never getting those type of rates at a world-class muni unless you own a time machine.

Which makes it easy to see why some golfers would just as soon see Papago left largely as is -- a scenic course with flaws that's crazy cheap for Phoenix-Scottsdale.

"I always come play here when I'm on vacation," Chicagoan Larry Towers said. "It's a nice break on the wallet. And you're still staring up at the mountains. There are more than enough courses in great condition in the area that charge over 100, 200 bucks.

"What's wrong with a reasonable course where the fairways don't look great?"

That's one perspective. Another is that of a group of regular Papago golfers who've dubbed themselves Save Papago. They support a renovation 100 percent, but don't like the proposal of the company (the Arizona Golf Association) that the city favors. So they've launched their own Web site and plan protests.

Getting a headache? Don't worry: as a vacationing golfer there's really no reason for you to pay attention to any of this. If the renovation goes ahead, it will not start until April of 2008 at the earliest.

This winter high season, golf will go on as usual at Papago.

Which means there will be dedicated hackers jamming the fairways and the driving range that has you shooting straight at some hulking brown rock. Papago tends to draw true devotees, whether they're in polos or jean shorts.

No matter your dress or background, Papago can be a sudden, welcome departure from the rest of the city. You're driving along past gas stations and fast food joints and then in one turn, you're in Papago's parking lot looking up at those impressive Papago Buttes (if you're from anywhere flat, you'll see mountains; in Arizona, they're only high enough to be called buttes.)

No. 1 has Papago Buttes running along the left side and jaded golfers are quickly thinking that must be the highlight hole, put first to lure customers. But the rock theater's just beginning.

The second hole, a 368-yard par 4, goes right at the rocks. And there's something purely joyful about smashing a drive toward the buttes.

Papago's setting is surprisingly serene. It's on park land, so there are no houses, not a single garden gnome to mock your bad shots. Instead, there are a surprising number of trees dotting the edges of fairways. These aren't towering pines or firs, but for the desert, they're nice and near fluffy.

The trees and the big rocks even seem to shield Papago from some of Phoenix's heat. On a hot November day, a nice breeze rustled through Papago's fairways.

These are muni fairways. In large part, they're surprisingly green given all the talk of Papago's antiquated irrigation system. It's when you stray a little off the fairways into the rough, which can consist of a decent amount of dead grass, that your shots will be adversely affected.

Still, William Bell's 44-year-old design largely holds up today.

There are good risk-reward holes like No. 6 - a 420-yard par 4 that lets you really cut down the distance to the green if you try to fly the big bunkers and raggedy rough area to the left.

Just remember to always glance behind you. No, there's no need to be nervous about Sideways-inspired golfers shooting up your back at a course where the tees often get jammed. Rather, some of the best views are looking back at the rocks - particularly on the par-3 eighth.

All the way, you'll see a fairly steady, but hardly obnoxious, run of jets flying overhead, heading to and from the nearby Phoenix SkyHarbor Airport. In fact on this day, our group tried to wave a single through, but he had to beg off. Turns out, he was just trying to get four last holes in before his flight back home to the cold.

That's Papago. It brings out the golf crazed in a way $250 resort courses seldom do.

Papago Golf Course: The verdict

Papago Golf Course is a lot better than your average muni -- and it's a course worth working into a Phoenix-Scottsdale vacation.

Maybe the proposed renovation will take Papago to another level. There's no need for you to wait though. Play it now and you'll have a ball, while not losing many balls. This is 7,068 yards of golf that wasn't designed to torment anyone.

Papago is an especially good bargain at twilight, and this is actually the best time to play it. There's just something about putting out under those buttes with the moon moving into the sky. You will never be alone at near dark here either.

Instead, you'll find a like-minded community of dedicated duffers trying to get in as many holes as they possibly can, swinging almost until they cannot see their own hand in front of them.

Give Papago a chance. It's not nearly as bad as you've heard. Not bad at all actually.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Papago Municipal

    Ian wrote on: May 25, 2010

    Eight of us recently played the course, extremely disappointed in "THE BEST" municipal course in Phoenix. Carts shut down in areas that are normally OK on most courses, greens and fairways were fair to OK. I cannot believe that the LPGA plays here. In Vancouver, BC (my hometown) there are at least 20 or more better muni courses than this; honestly. Club house a trailer and was ripped off on quoted rate (only after did I find this out) Do not waste your money on this track you will not enjoy it.


  • Papago - no go again

    Steve wrote on: May 2, 2010

    Played Papago and several other courses during the week of April 26, 2010. We were very disappointed at papago (no go again), course was dry and in very rough condition, and no cart paths. We paid only $49/PP and did not deliver on expectations. Found a great course next day at Superstition Springs/Mesa, AZ; great condition and paid $37/PP.


  • Papago

    Dale wrote on: Dec 20, 2007

    Papago is always in horrible condition, from torn-up greens to spray-painted fairways. I will never ever play this course again in my life.


    • RE: Papago

      dennis wrote on: Jan 1, 2008

      OK Tiger...
      Go ahead and gripe.... Let's see YOU shell out 200 plus clams worth just for the GREENS FEE at a REAL golf course.... NOT!
      OK? Had enough?


    • RE: Papago

      Chris Baldwin wrote on: Dec 22, 2007

      Not true Dale. And there's photo evidence on the page right above your words to prove it.
      I heard all the stories about it being in bad shape too. Then, I went there and found them just that - stories. And I have no problem saying if a course isn't good.


      • RE: RE: Papago

        mike barnett wrote on: Mar 12, 2008

        We're coming for Spring Training next week but would like to play one round of golf. Would you recommend Papago or Cave Creek?


        • RE: RE: RE: Papago

          Richard wrote on: Mar 27, 2008

          I played both courses (for the first time) last week, and enjoyed them both. Papago gets the edge -- in my eyes anyway -- due to the challenge. Cave Creek seemed a bit easier (I'm a 12-handicap), but really nice. But you can't go wrong with either. Note that I think Papago might be undergoing renovation soon, so it's worth calling to see if they're open.


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