Five for Flying: Winging it Near Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

PHOENIX - Got a plane to catch? Or maybe you just have an innate fear of venturing too far from the airport. No need to make excuses - sitting in that Phoenix traffic can be worse than sitting through a marathon session of "Dawson Creek" reruns.

No worries: the Valley of the Sun has plenty of great golf tracks within a 15-minute drive of Sky Harbor International Airport. As far as your orientation, think south. Sky Harbor, unlike so many large airports in big cities that are located on the outskirts of town, is wedged in between Tempe and Phoenix, just five minutes south of Bank One Ballpark and America West Arena.

Sure, all the region's highly decorated courses are up in Scottsdale. But those courses are museums, folks - two hundred and fifty dollar a round facilities that inflict more financial pain than they instill golfing pride. Playability and proximity are the names of the games when it comes to these five courses,'s "Five for Flying."

The Lineup

Thunderbirds Golf Club (602.305.7755) is a mere ten minutes from the airport. Head south on the 143 Freeway to Baseline Road, and then take a left on Seventh Street and drive all the way up to the base of South Mountain. The name may ring a bell, as the course was recently named one of the best new tracks of the year by Sports Illustrated.

Thunderbirds is a remodel job, and perhaps the most extensive on to hit the southwest. The property owners teamed with the Thunderbirds (organizers of the Phoenix Open) to produce this 7013-yard championship layout that is already flirting with hosting the 2004 Tour Championship. Valley locals Billy Mayfair and Tom Lehman contributed to the redesign of the original 18 holes, and golf course architect Tom Fazio constructed a nine-hole par three course for use by the First Tee Foundation.

The entire course was rerouted to take advantage of the sick (think, good sick) views of the city skyline. Residents can play for under $100 any time of year or day, and the fee for non-residents is $118 Mon. through Thurs., and $138 Fri. through Sunday. Fees dive below $50 in the summer months.

You'll spot a couple of courses on your way to Thunderbirds, and both are worth your time and money. The Raven South Mountain is like nothing else you'll find in the Valley. Pine trees and ponds replace cactus and dry arroyos, and the service is second to none.

Plus, it's a great place to go star gazing - Raven is a favorite among Arizona Diamondback, Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Coyote players. Raven South Mountain is located just off Baseline Road, to the north. Wall to wall grass will limit penalty strokes, and even at 7000 yards, the Raven plays to a manageable slope of 133. Gary Panks and David Graham, two favorite sons of the Sonoran Desert, designed the course. Rates range from $128 for weekdays to $170 on weekend mornings.

The Legacy Golf Club (888.828.3673) flies in the face of what golfers have come to associate with desert golf: pain, heartache, and distracting, overly dramatic scenery. You'll get none of these at Legacy, but what you do get is a course that has been put to the test by the ladies of the LPGA, Michael Jordan, and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer.

Designed like a golf course should be, landing areas, hazards and greens are all laid out before you at Legacy - not tricks, no gimmicks, no pain and heartache. Game got you stumped? Legacy is also home to Top 100 golf teachers Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson and their "Coaching for the Future" Golf School. Legacy is located on 32nd St., just north of Baseline Rd.

Ocotillo Golf Club is a little slice of Florida golf situated just five minutes south of Chandler Blvd. and the 101 Freeway, about 15 minutes from Sky Harbor. The course features 27 holes of lushly turfed fairways and greens, set on 180 acres of Chandler's finest real estate. The story at Ocotillo is the water: over 60 acres of ponds and streams that come together to form one of the most unique golfing experiences in the Valley.

Water is in play on almost every hole on the White, Blue, and Gold nines. While there are few forced carries over the drink off the tee, there are also few dry routes into Robinson's trademark two-tiered greens.

Most players tend to request the White Nine, since it's the course they see when they first drive in. But Bishop and members of the Ocotillo staff all favor the Blue Nine because of its challenging approach shots and aesthetics. At 3404 yards and playing to a slope of 131, the Gold Nine is the longest and most difficult of the three. Peak season fees hover around $160 - a bit pricey, but the conditioning and service at Ocotillo justify this hefty chunk of change.

Whirlwind Golf Club's Devil's Claw Course has wasted little time in establishing itself as the real deal. The course procured a event in its first year of existence (2001), and the Gary Panks designed layout has many players calling it one of the best tracks in the East Valley.

Who are we to argue? For the money, there's not a better play in Chandler. Summer fees can dip as low as $43, and peak season fees are priced below average, at $120. What you get for the money is real estate-free golf, wide open fairways sprinkled with deep, steep-walled bunkers, and medium sized, gently tiered greens that hold approach shots as well as three to four year old putting surfaces.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of from 1997 to 2003.

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