Phoenix-Scottsdale off course: NBA, MLB, and NFL games now a must-see option

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

Spectator sports in the Phoenix-Scottsdale resort corridor used to mean one thing: Spring training baseball. Now, though, in addition to playing great golf courses like Troon North, Boulders South and Raven at Verrado, vacationing golfers are flocking to Diamondbacks, Suns and, yes, even Cardinals games.

Raven at Verrado
Raven at Verrado is as consistently underrated as the Arizona D'backs.
Raven at VerradoPhil Mickelson - FBR OpenSteve Nash - Phoenix SunsPhoenix-Scottsdale Desert Golf
If you go

PHOENIX - Just a few years ago, calling this town a sports epicenter would have produced more laughs than Bernie Mac at the Improv.

The Phoenix-Scottsdale golf resort corridor always brought a lot to go along with its topnotch golf: surprisingly cutting-edge restaurants, hot nightclubs, high-end shopping. But great spectator sports was never part of the equation. Sure, there was spring training baseball every year, but spring training's much more of a funtime scene than an actual rooting-interest sporting event.

"Unless you were a (Dallas) Cowboys fan, nobody ever came to Arizona to watch sports," local Paul Gerardi said, laughing.

Yes, even Phoenix natives make fun of the area's longtime sports bane: For years and years, the NFL's Arizona Cardinals only drew a decent crowd one game per season - the game America's bandwagon team the Dallas Cowboys came to town. Now ... we'll things have changed faster than a speeding bounce pass.

Phoenix-Scottsdale is suddenly, somewhat inexplicably, awash in sports success and big-game events. Now, you'll find dedicated golfers who consult sports schedules as much as overseeding schedules when determining the perfect time for their golf trip.

"I plan my visit so I can see at least two (Phoenix) Suns games while I'm there now," said golfer Craig Faulk, a regular visitor from Chicago. "I just love to watch Steve Nash play. And it's something fun to do at night besides just hitting the bars.

"My Bulls fans friends will kill me when they read this, but the Bulls are still sort of boring. With the Suns, I know I'm going to see tons of dunks, 3-pointers and crazy passes."

The Suns definitely kick started this mini sports revolution in the Valley of the Sun. They became really good three years ago, regularly challenging for the best record in the NBA and started drawing more and more people to U.S. Airways Center downtown.

Now, the area's other teams are getting in on the act. The Arizona Diamondbacks surprised scouts and shocked Sabermetric baseball boosters like Bill James by winning the National League West. Sure, people from Arizona didn't actually go to the Diamondback games until the playoffs started, but you can go to Chase Field and catch one of baseball's youngest and most exciting teams with transplants and visitors from other baseball towns.

"They're a fun team to watch," Kansas City's Dale Cathert said after the D'backs' Chris Young hit another home run. "Certainly better than what I have to see back home. And it's easy to get tickets too.

"I'm here to play golf. Don't get me wrong. I'm here to play golf at Troon North. But it's nice to have a sporting event to go to at night. It's a good bonus."

It's increasingly becoming a little extra part of Phoenix-Scottsdale's allure. One of the things that separates the Valley of the Sun from other golf-crazed hotspots like Myrtle Beach is the sheer volume of things you can do off the course.

From clubs where only high-priced champagne flows to a college town where middle-aged golfers can go Will Ferrell "Old School" to some of the best antique shopping in the country, the Phoenix-Scottsdale corridor has more options than Brad Pitt in a pickup bar.

Now, you can add great big-time spectator sports.

Even the Arizona Cardinals are getting into the act. The Cardinals still aren't any good. But they play in a spaceship-looking, gleaming new stadium out in the middle of the desert and tickets to their games are now actually valued (as opposed to just a few years ago when everyone from grocery clerks to gas-station attendants got them as giveaways). Plus, this season, the Cardinals' new coach is playing into the fun by creating a quarterback controversy between Hollywood pretty boy Matt Leinart and church-preaching teetotaler Kurt Warner.

The Cardinals' new stadium is also home to one of the major BCS bowl games every January. Bowl trip packagers know enough to play up the golf angle endlessly.

In fact, during the buildup to last year's National Championship Game, you couldn't help but run into Ohio State fan after Ohio State fan while playing $250 courses like Boulders South.

Arizona courses to match a Steve Nash fastbreak

So you can watch compelling sports in the hours you're not swinging your 7-iron. Now, the question becomes, which golf courses match the character of your favorite Phoenix-Scottsdale spectator event?

If you're into the Suns' high concept symphony of speed ball with Nash lofting alley-oop passes to Amare Stoudemire, Gold Canyon's Dinosaur Mountain Course should fit right in with your thinking. Dinosaur Mountain is a rollicking entertaining course with a surprising amount of substance behind it.

There are long drops from high tee boxes, views out onto Superstition Mountain and enough fun in this Ken Kavanaugh design to make you forgive how high your own score is rising.

If you're more of a Diamondbacks man, Raven at Verrado is your golf course. This relatively new course out in the burgeoning West Valley continues to be underrated despite its striking desert looks, sneaky sloping greens and Scottsdale-lite pricing (under $100 most of the time).

Like the D'backs, Raven at Verrado will probably continue to be overlooked until someone names it the best course in all of Arizona. It's a contender.

In recent years, everyone from Sports Illustrated football guru Peter King to the local mailman have declared the Arizona Cardinals a division title contender. And every year, the Cardinals settle near the basement. To find a golf course nearly this overrated, check out TPC Scottsdale Stadium.

Yes, that TPC Scottsdale Stadium - the famous of the FBR Open, otherwise known as Phil Mickelson's tournament around here. It's not that this is a bad golf course. It's just not nearly good enough to be considered one of the $200-plus must-plays.

That's another thing about attending pro sports events in the land of ultra lush desert golf. The tickets don't seem quite so expensive.

"When I go to Phoenix, my wife never complains about seeing the Suns games on the VISA statement," Faulk said, laughing. "She's too busy screaming about the prices of all the greens fees."

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.

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