Best of 2002 for Phoenix has slam dunks and surprises

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

Whirlwind Golf ClubPHOENIX, Ariz. - Even though tourism slowed down in Arizona this year, builders were still hard at work putting the finishing touches on new and remodeled courses.

Several new courses opened at the end of 2001 and a few more this year - though most of the new offerings were private clubs. More than 200 places to play tempt golfers in the Phoenix area, and the state has more than 300 in all. Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, now bills itself as having more golf courses than any county in the country. And this boom happened in only about 20 years. In 1982, there were fewer than 100 courses in the state, according to the "Official Guide of the Southwest Section of the PGA..

In the future, expect course building to slow down. Right now, most new courses are being built on the western and northern fringes of Phoenix, where the land is cheaper, water more plentiful and new houses are going up at a record pace. Anthem, the Del Webb mega-development north of Phoenix, is working on a second course. Builders like Lyle Anderson and DMB are planning projects in the far western town of Buckeye, where 10 or more courses could be built. While most of these course may appeal to tourists, they are aimed at residents.

The big news this fall was the opening of three big-ticket resorts next to golf clubs that already were thriving - the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass next to the Whirlwind Golf Club on the Gila River Reservation, south of Phoenix; the Westin Kierland, next door to the Kierland Golf Club, and Marriott's Desert Ridge, next to the Wildfire Golf Club. As a result of these openings, other local resorts have upgraded their facilities in an effort to hang on to their business.

Remodeling and renovation of older courses is continuing at a record pace in the Phoenix area as new owners take over old properties and turn them into first-class tracks. One of the biggest, recet remodeling projects, however, the Thunderbirds Golf Club in South Phoenix, has hit hard times already and could be sold soon in a foreclosure auction.

If you're interested in sampling the best of the best in Arizona, here are some possibilities.

Best new private course in the Phoenix area: Whisper Rock - Whisper Rock, actually opened in late 2001, but we felt compelled to mention it because it's a unique course, designed by PGA star Phil Mickelson (his first course) and architect Gary Stephenson. The people who built Grayhawk, the public-fee club 10 miles to the south, also did this course and the surrounding development. It's a tough course, a par-72 at 7,400 yards from the back tees, with lots of boulder outcroppings and desert washes. The initiation fee is $100,000 per person. Whisper Rock is located at Hayden Road and Lone Mountain in North Scottsdale.

Best new private course in Northern Arizona: A lot of hype is going into the Seven Canyons Golf Course, designed by Tom Weiskopf and located in the heart of Sedona's red rock country. Memberships in that par-70, 6,600-yard course, will cost $105,000, and they are by invitation only. A better buy and a place we really like a lot is Talking Rock Ranch in Prescott. This high-country, par-72 course (7,350 yards from the back tees, 5,105 yards from the forward) was designed by Jay Morrish, a pioneer in developing desert courses in Arizona. The course, which opened in September 2002, has a magnificent site in the Williamson Valley, and full memberships cost only $35,000. For more information, call (877) 922-4440.

Best new public course in the Phoenix area: The 6,800-yard, par-71 Cattail Course at Whirlwind Golf Club at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort on the Gila River Indian Reservation - The newly opened Cattail is the brother course to Devil's Claw at this brand-new casino/resort south of Phoenix. Both courses were designed by Gary Panks and this one is longer and tighter with great mountain views and lots of water in play. Call (480) 940-1500) for information.

Stoneridge Golf ClubBest new public course elsewhere in Arizona: Stoneridge Golf Club in Prescott Valley was designed by Randy Heckenkemper of Tulsa, Okla., not exactly a familiar name for Arizona golfers, but he's a former associate of star Weiskopf and Morrish. Stoneridge (7,034 yards from the back tees, 4,953 yards from the forward tees) is a hybrid of the desert- and mountain-course styles that winds its way up and down for miles through brush-tangled, boulder-dotted canyons and ravines at about 5,000 feet of elevation. It's a very playable course and has reasonable green fees. Call (928) 772-6500 for more information.

Best renovation: Phantom Horse Golf Club at the Pointe South Mountain Resort in South Phoenix - Phantom Horse recently updated this 1980s era course, including adding a new 18th hole with an island green and building a new clubhouse. The improvements also cut back on the cars traveling through the resort. For information, call 800-767-3574.

Best golf store: In Celebration of Golf is not exactly the place to find the best prices. But it does offer some of the most unique golf merchandise in the world - everything from antique clubs to stuffed wing chairs with golf motifs on the upholstery as well as golf clothing that could break your bank account. If you love golf, you'll have to put a tour of this store on your vacation list. The store is located at the Scottsdale Seville shopping center at the corner of Scottsdale Road and Indian Bend. For more information, call (480) 951-4444.

Best golf clubhouse food: Clubhouses in Arizona are proof that fine cuisine can co-exist with pro shops and driving ranges. Our favorites so far: The Quill Creek Café at Grayhawk Golf Club, the cowboy-style Tonto Bar and Grill at Rancho Manana in Cave Creek, and Bernard's Restaurant at the Ocotillo Golf Resort in Chandler.

Best new resort: The Westin Kierland. We're not fond of the very tall mega-resorts being built in Phoenix these days, but what's great about the Kierland is the fabulous view out the main lobby onto spectacular steep bunkers designed by golf architect Gary Panks. It's as if you're looking out a window at Grand Central Station onto the Grand Canyon. And that old adage, "It's location, location, location" when it comes to real estate, would definitely apply to the Kierland. It's located in the heart of north Scottsdale, within walking distance of fun restaurants and stores at the most interesting shopping center ever built in Valley of the Sun - Kierland Commons. The resort is at 6902 E. Greenway Parkway, Scottsdale. Phone: (480) 624-1000.

Best new restaurant: If you like sports, you'll love the Fox Sports Grill. The $3 million, 20,000 square-foot restaurant opened this fall at the Scottsdale Promenade shopping center at Frank Lloyd Wright and Scottsdale Road. Features include a state-of-the-art TV lounge, an outdoor putting green, billiards room and glass-enclosed wine cellar. The American-style food includes spicy Maryland-style crab cakes, crispy calamari, "grilled" Caesar salad, lots of burgers, ribs, pork chops and fish. Check out www.foxsportsgrill.com.

Best golf club: Tonto Verde Golf Club in Rio Verde. We know we're supposed to say Grayhawk or Troon when picking the best place to play in the Valley of the Sun. But we're partial to the two courses at Tonto Verde about 20 miles east of Scottsdale. This is actually a private club with two challenging courses that are open to public play until the club fills up. Choose from the target-style Peaks Course and the more traditional Ranch Course, both designed by Gary Panks. You're not going to believe how peaceful and spectacular the scenery is here - on the "back" side of the McDowell Mountains, looking at the Superstition mountains and the Mazatzal Mountains. Call 800-767-3574.

Best desert course: Sunridge Canyon Golf Club in Fountain Hills - Some people claim that this isn't strictly speaking a target course, but it's close enough, even though there are generous landing areas to aim for. At any rate, this is a golf club nestled into one of the most beautiful canyons in the mountains east of Scottsdale. The 6,800-yard course offers thrilling elevation changes and six great finishing holes. The course is located at 13100 North SunRidge. For tee times, phone 800-767-3574.

Best target-traditional hybrid: Both courses at Grayhawk Golf Club in North Scottsdale - Both of these courses, the Talon by Panks and the Raptor by Tom Fazio are super gems of the desert with innovative design and spectacular maintenance. It doesn't matter which you play, you're a winner either way. The club is located at 8620 E. Thompson Peak Parkway in Scottsdale.

Best traditional course: McCormick Ranch Golf Club's Pine Course in Scottsdale - A trip around the Pine at McCormick Ranch represents more than a round of golf. It's a trip back in history to what golfing was like in Scottsdale in the more relaxed era of the 1970s. At the same time, what looks at first like a course with very few twists and turns, can be a fine challenge in terms of testing a golfer's distance and control. And as always at McCormick Ranch, the maintenance and condition of the course is superb. Phone: 800-767-3574

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.


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