Saguaro at We-Ko-Pa, Raven, Faldo at Wildfire: Phoenix- Scottsdale's top underdog golf courses

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

Golf courses such as Troon North, Boulders and Grayhawk put Phoenix-Scottsdale on the golf map. But tee times at lesser known plays such as the Saguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa and Raven at Verrado are well worth the trip.

Saguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa
We-Ko-Pa's Saguaro shouldn't be overlooked on a Phoenix-Scottsdale golf vacation.
Saguaro Course at We-Ko-PaTrilogy at VistanciaRaven at Verrado
If you go

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - A trip to the desert golf mecca can sometimes still make you feel like you're in 1997.

Potential recession? What potential recession? Another $150 bottle of wine, please. New courses? What new courses? Who needs new courses? Play Arizona's best golf courses and be done with it. Until you do it all over again next year.

In a Phoenix-Scottsdale corridor that boasts more than 200 golf courses, it's amazing how little the top plays have changed in the last decade. Troon North, Grayhawk, Boulders and TPC Scottsdale Stadium largely remain the coveted make-a-trip plays just as they were back when some people still considered Michael Jackson sane, nobody had ever heard of a wardrobe malfunction and the idea of a Boston Red Sox World Series win stood for sheer fantasy.

Part of this comes down to excellence for sure. It's hard to crack the upper echelon when the elite courses are this good. Another big factor is geography. Scottsdale simply became too built up and its land much too prized to fit in more golf courses than the ones you already run across every other block. And a course without a Scottsdale zip code almost needs to be twice as good to be accepted by high-end golfers.

Still, a lot of this stuck-in-the-past golf attitude can be chalked up to ignorance. There are actually plenty of new showcase-worthy plays that weren't here when parachute pants were in. In fact, in the last few years, the Valley of the Sun has undergone a golf metamorphosis that's gone largely unnoticed.

Forget the need to play the same old same old. More than a half dozen courses with completely new looks are waiting to be discovered.

"It always amuses me when I run into golfers here who play the same courses year after year after year," frequent Scottsdale visitor John McKnight said. "You want to be like 'You know how many golf courses are here? This isn't Prescott. You know, it's Scottsdale, right?'

"I guess some people are always scared to try something new though."

Many more might be simply unaware. With the pure volume of golf in the Phoenix-Scottsdale resort corridor, it's easy to miss even an outstanding new play. And it's not golfers' fault that so many golf guidebooks and rating systems seem to be written by people who haven't actually visited Phoenix in a decade.

"It's not always easy to get the golf press to recognize a new course in the greater Scottsdale area," said Derek Crawford, We-Ko-Pa Golf Club's director of sales and guest services.

Some courses are worth finding though. Several of the desert's newest golf experiences may just make your trip. They'll at least certainly remind you it's a new century.

New golf courses in Phoenix-Scottsdale

1). Saguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa: Saguaro's sister course, the original Scott Miller-designed We-Ko-Pa track, captured the kind of word of mouth buzz that a surprise Indie picture box office success enjoys when it first opened. This much less eye-candy intimidating new course deserves more of the same.

Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw came up with a walkable course in the desert that will leave you talking about how striking the sky is when there are no houses around and lush green fairways stretching out in front of you. The desert sneaks up on you here like a kid jumping out of the bushes.

2). Raven at Verrado: Calling this course a mini Troon North - as some experienced golfers have - is actually somewhat of a disservice. This is a very original design with true desert looks and plenty of chances for your ball to go screaming into a snake's lair.

If this John Fought and Tom Lehman track wasn't a good 45-minutes drive from downtown Scottsdale, out in the far West Valley in a new development, it would be a name course already.

3). Trilogy at Vistancia: This course simply has a great sense of place. That sounds like a wacky interior decorator term from one of those Bravo network shows that your girlfriend watches - a great sense of place.

At Trilogy at Vistancia, it truly applies and makes sense. Believe it or not. Chances are good you'll see a mini whirlwind or three swirling over the desert here on a clear day. The Native Americans call them restless spirits.

You'll call them cool and just part of the uniqueness of a course that can swallow golf balls like Cookie Monster scarfs down chocolate chips. Only needlessly super speeding - and sometimes rock hard - greens that can repel even good approach shots take away from the atmosphere of Zen.

4). Wigwam Gold: It's new in the same way that Pamela Anderson is new every time she sees a plastic surgeon. Which means a lot new.

Sure, Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed this course in 1960. But it hadn't been worth playing for at least a decade before a $5 million restoration/renovation a few years ago. Now, Jones' monster bunkers look more ominous - and probably better - than they ever did.

5). TPC Scottsdale Desert Course: Long the most overrated "budget play" in all of Arizona, TPC's Desert Course is in the process of getting a much-needed recrafting from revamp specialist Randy Heckenkemper.

Hopefully, the cheesy desert transition areas that often looked to be made up of sand from your four-year-old's sandbox will be long gone.

6). Wildfire Golf Club Faldo Course: Technically it's not new, but in its fifth year the Faldo Course at Wildfire is at a point where it's worth discovering. There are 106 bunkers here and not nearly enough fairway.

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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