Be on the ball for the FBR (Phoenix) Open in Scottsdale

By Brendan McEvoy, Contributor

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - If it's a top priority to catch the Phoenix Open, one of the PGA Tour's oldest and most attended events, it's not too early to line up travel plans. The tournament week starts on Jan. 26 at the TPC Scottsdale's Stadium Course.

More than 500,000 golf fans - most of them local - made the trek to The Stadium Course last year. They saw Vijay Singh start his impressive 2003 campaign with a victory after a final-round 63 on the Stadium Course. And with the tournament's white-knuckle history, the attendance numbers aren't going down.

The lodging spots inside the security gates that surround the TPC Scottsdale, like Resort Suites and The Princess, are already booked with officials and media crews. But with the new Marriott and Westin Hotels opening in the past year just two to three miles away, more than 1,500 rooms that weren't there last year are available for golf fans.

Another new aspect to this longtime event is the presence of a new title sponsor, Freidman, Billings, Ramsey Group, Inc., or FBR - a top-10 investment bank based in New York. The Thunderbirds, the local charitable group that has supported the Phoenix Open, sold the naming rights for more money that will be used to increase the purse from $4 million to $5.2 million and for charity. FBR agreed to sponsor the tournament - now known as the FBR Open - for at least the next five years.

That's nice for charities and Tour players, but to the avid golfer, it's a footnote.

The best part of the FBR Open is that you can play the TPC Scottsdale's Stadium course until Jan. 23, three days before the pros show up for practice rounds. According to TPC Scottsdale Director of Marketing Russ Norris, the tee sheet is fairly open the week before the tournament.

"They'll get to experience everything the Tour players do, from five-inch rough to greens rolling 10 or 11 [on the Stimpmeter]," Norris said. "And the tents, sky boxes and bleachers will be going up all week, too."

At the Stadium Course, which is known for its mounding, trouble comes in the form of the rough Norris eluded to, 74 bunkers and large, tricky greens. Every year, Tom Weiskopf returns to polish his 1986 masterpiece with minor changes. But he hasn't done much to change the last four holes, a punishing test of golf that Norris said "are why you win or lose the tournament."

The only limitation on public play approaching the Open is on the number of players per day - 100. The carts will be path-only. The in-season green fee of $217 won't budge, either.

Perhaps a better option for both the wallet and a visit during the Open is the TPC's Desert Course, a shorter more forgiving version of its sibling. The TPC has no restrictions on the Desert Course - $55 green fee and it stays open during the Open. When that urge strikes to tee it up after watching the pros knock it around in the morning, the Desert Course is a short walk from the gallery at the Stadium Course. Tee times at both courses can be made up to 90 days in advance

Where to play

During this time of the year, Grayhawk Golf Club is hard to beat. With 36 holes of the best desert golf around and a laid-back rock-n-roll approach, there's a good chance you'll have fun and maybe even run into a Tour player. A group of Aussie pros regularly practice at Grayhawk, and a number of the Tour players in the Open field will take refuge there to avoid the crowds.

Both Grayhawk's Talon Course and Raptor Course ranked in the middle of the "Top 100 Courses Can Play" list by Golf Magazine. The Talon Course, designed by former PGA and U.S. Open champion David Graham and architect Gary Pranks, features elevated greens that are extremely large. The scenery of the McDowell Mountains and the Phoenix Valley are impressive.

The Raptor Course, designed by Tom Fazio, is the tougher of the two courses. It hosted the Anderson Consulting World Championships of Golf four times in the mid to late '90s.

And there is no denying Phil Mickelson's connection to the place. Mickelson was a Grayhawk "ambassador" when the course opened. He regularly practiced there and they even named the famous patio grill after him - "Phil's Grill." He holds the Talon Course record with a 61, which he shot fooling around with fellow pros Rocco Mediate and Tim Herron. The scorecard is framed next to the bar at Phil's Grill. Mickelson has since left Scottsdale for San Diego. But if it was good enough for Phil, it's good enough for anyone.

Desert golf wasn't always cool; Tom Weiskopf made it the in-thing with his 1989 effort at Troon North's Monument Course. He followed that effort with the Pinnacle Course six years later. Troon North became the "country club for a day" with these precious conditions and high daily green fees. But the architect made good use of the Sonoran Desert landscape. Both designs take advantage of arroyos, natural washes, huge saguaros, mesquite and ironwood, all of which contrast with the lush green fairways. Troon North's bizarre quirk comes in the form of a boulder in the middle of the fairway on The Monument hole. Work crews tried to move it originally, but the City of Scottsdale fought for it to be left alone. Weiskopf, proving he had a sense of humor, left this boulder in the middle of the fairway some 262 yards from the back tee box.

SunRidge Canyon Golf Club in Fountain Hills is another Sonoran Desert classic design. Nestled between the walls of canyons, SunRidge has spell-binding views from its rolling fairways and undulating greens. But Keith Foster's stunning design goes well beyond panoramic scenery. Foster challenges the golfer's mental game and shot-making skills with a variety of strategic decisions and the "Wicked Six" - the final six holes that climb back up the canyon. Those holes play uphill and into the wind. The cunning layout was good enough to earn a spot at No. 42 on Golf Digest's "Top 100 Courses You Can Play" list.

Staying in Fountain Hills, The Golf Club at Eagle Mountain is another can't-miss stop on any Arizona golf trip. Eagle Mountain is a rare top-notch desert golf course that everyone, regardless of handicap, can play and enjoy. Head Golf Professional Dan Bright said the course is a hit with the women because of its forgiving layout that measures from 5,065 yards to 6,755. Thursday through Sunday during peak season, one par-3 is selected for the "Hit the Green" challenge. Golfers bet up to $50 that they can hit the green with their first shot. If they succeed, they're wager is doubled in the clubhouse. Who needs a casino with an offer like that?

One of the newer desert delights comes from We-Ko-Pa Golf Club, which means Four Peaks Mountain in the tribal language spoken by the Yavapai Native Americans. Set amid a rocky desert landscape, We-Ko-Pa is on the Fort McDowell reservation. Architect Scott Miller routed this course around the Verde River and built larger landing areas than traditional target golf designers. The Jack Nicklaus protege created a more playable course that blends with the natural landscape - arroyos and box canyons. He framed the holes with sculpted bunkers and waste areas. And if you score low, maybe you should try your luck at the Fort McDowell Casino - a famous fixture on the reservation.

At the Boulders Resort in Carefree, wildlife are a regular fixture. The building of two 18 hole golf courses - the North and the South - didn't scare away the rabbits, bobcats and coyotes. In fact, there is a "coyote rule" at Boulders: If a Coyote sprints out and purloins your Titleist, you get to replay your shot without penalty. The North and South Courses are characterized by dramatic scenery and rugged desert terrain. On an alternating basis, one course is open to hotel guests and the other is kept private for members. Neither course plays over 7,000 yards, but they are tough challenges (North 137 slope rating and South 140). Boulders was named a "Top 25 U.S. Resort" by Golf Digest.

Perhaps the Westin Kierland belongs on that list, too. The 27-hole course is the backdrop for a luxurious 2,200 room hotel. With all the new resorts popping up, Kierland cornered the market on dramatic golf course views. The golf is more than fair - generous fairways, super large greens and a parkland like setting in the middle of the desert. The fairways are like long canyons or valleys. The greens have lots of dips and undulations. But the real challenge is avoiding the bunkers that surround greens and gobble up ill-conceived tee shots. Be sure to play the Acacia nine, it's everyone's favorite. The Kierland is also home to a Golf Digest Golf School.

Brendan McEvoy, Contributor

Brendan McEvoy spent five years with Times Community Newspapers, a Reston, Va.-based chain of 18 weekly newspapers covering the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

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