Don't break the bank playing golf in Phoenix - try these courses

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

PHOENIX, Ariz. - When the phoenix rose from the ashes, it probably didn't have golf discount cards on its mind.

Unlike the mythical bird, its urban namesake in Arizona doesn't reinvent itself every 500 years, though golf courses continue to go up in the Valley of the Sun at a prodigious rate, particularly in the west valley.

A golf trip to Phoenix can leave the first-time visitor with mouth agape, wondering if the pricey green fees are worth the high desert views, target golf and hustling bag boys, who do everything from wipe your clubs down to consoling you with, "Hey, everybody shoots over 100 their first time here."

Still, there are ways to play golf in the Phoenix area without maxing out your credit card, bottoming out your checking account and emptying that little change box in you car console.

Locals have an advantage, of course, because they can scan the newspapers and watch bulletin boards for special discounts as Phoenix area courses constantly adapt their rates according to what the non-golfers in Washington are doing to the economy.

Locals also have the advantage of living there in the summer, when rates go deep south, unlike the thermometer. Summer rates drop off the charts, which help more than sunscreen and ice water when temperatures soar above 100 degrees and the desert sun scorches man, beast and everything in between.

Aside from some courses that are consistently cheaper than their high-end counterparts, vigilant, penny-pinching Phoenix visitors have other options.

There is Stand-by Golf, for example, which sells cancelled tee times to those who are willing to go golfing on 24 hours notice; the service is used almost exclusively by out-of-towners, who aren't familiar with the Phoenix golf scene. Rates can be reduced up to 30 percent; the disadvantage, of course, is you aren't sure where you're playing from one day to the next.

There is the SunCor Players club card, which costs from $99 to $250 and saves a percentage of green fees and merchandise at seven Arizona and Utah courses.

But, if you're unwilling to take your chances on the above, there are several quality courses in the Phoenix area that offer consistently lower green fees than the high-end courses, and in which there is not a ridiculous concomitant drop in quality.

Start with the municipal courses. Phoenix munis green fees range from $4 to $35, depending on age, residency, the course and the season. Maricopa County residents can buy a discount card for $15 that's good for all the city-owned tracks. There are some good ones.

Munis aren't puny

The Aquila Golf Course in south Phoenix, for example, is a challenging course that requires accuracy. It has great views of the South Mountain, particularly from the ninth and 10th holes. Though its views aren't as good as fellow muni Papago, there are those who say Aquila will become the best muni in Phoenix.

Papago Golf Course is home to the Phoenix Open qualifying, and has a slope rating of 132 from the back tees, which puts it in league with many higher-end courses as far as difficulty. It was designed by William Bell who also did renowned Torrey Pines. The drawbacks are that the conditions aren't always the best - golfers are always calling on the city to put more money into maintenance - and it's sometimes difficult to get tee times.

Encanto Golf Course has wide, tree-lined fairways, with several water hazards. It's a flat, fairly easy course good for walking.

Also: Cave Creek, the Encanto nine-holer, Maryvale and Palo Verde, a 9-hole executive course.

"Pay for what you get"

The Foothills Golf Club isn't a muni, but it is very playable compared to other Phoenix courses; it also has a slope rating of 132 and Golf Digest has rated it 3.5 stars. The green fees never top the $100 mark, and of course drop drastically in summer, which is when most of the locals play it.

"We just like to provide a good value experience," said Foothills director of golf Kevin McGraw. "It's kind of a pay-for-what-you-get experience. People who pay over $100 expect a lot. We don't want to give them that kind of a price tag."

Set in the ridges and buttes of South Mountain, it has wide, rolling fairways, is 6,500 yards long and not as penal as many desert courses. The drawback is its popularity - it hosts about 56,000 rounds a year and so sometimes gets a little haggard.

The TPC Desert course may be one of the best deals in Phoenix, where locals can play for $50 in peak season and non-residents only $55. It also has mid-twilight and twilight rates, with junior and senior rates. It's not as challenging, obviously, as its big brother, the Stadium course, but Tom Weiskopf designed it so locals in particular could enjoy quality, affordable golf. They are enjoying it - 80 percent of the course's play is local.

"It's got a great view of the mountains, and actually has a little bit more of the desert in play than the Stadium course," said TPC marketing director Russ Norris. "It's only 6,400 yards, and it's friendly for kids and seniors. And you can walk it, unlike the Stadium course."

It was voted the best value in Arizona by the Arizona Golf Association, and Maximum Golf Magazine voted it in the top 100 best value in America. It has forgiving fairways and is usually in top condition.

Go west, young golfer

The West Valley, where real estate prices are drastically lower than elsewhere in the Valley of the Sun, has some newer, more affordable courses.

The Palm Valley Golf Club in Litchfield Park has 36 holes - the Palms and Lakes courses - and has been rated among the state's best public courses - it's ninth, par-5 hole makes a lot of "bests" lists. Located in Goodyear and designed by Arthur Hills, it has fall and winter rates of $35 weekdays and $45 weekends, and $25 and $35 after 2 p.m. The online special is $25.

Estrella Mountain Ranch is run by Troon Golf and is the first daily-fee course in Phoenix designed by Jack Nicklaus. The course is 7,102 yards long, in the shadow of the Sierra Estrella Mountains, and rates May through October are less than $100, with twilight rates less than $100 year-round.

The club also offers annual passes: $3,000 for individuals or $5,000 for families, that allow unlimited play with certain time restrictions.

The Wigwam resort has three courses, two of which were designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. The gold, recently redone, is the toughest, a parkland-style course with well-protected, pedestal greens. The blue course is short at 6,130 yards and the red is wide open.

Golf Digest named it the top resort course in Arizona, and the locker rooms have whirlpool and sauna rooms. Rates are $130 in the winter, but drop to $34 in the summer.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald 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
  • golf

    brent woodis wrote on: Sep 21, 2005

    Can someone tell me the dates that are considered"high season rates" for Scottsdale golf?


    • RE: golf

      mike melko wrote on: Dec 23, 2015

      we will be in area 1/31/15-1/5/16
      what are the rate ranges .
      Isn't there a pass discount for Arizona residents?


      • RE: RE: golf

        Mark Nessmith wrote on: Dec 28, 2015

        Mike: You'll find great deals at ....