PHOENIX — Like Florida, Arizona is a haven for golfers escaping colder climates.
For Florida golfers, the Southwestern state offers a different terrain — mountains! — and some you've-got-to-be-kidding-me deals at other times of year. The sheer volume of courses makes it worth the trip, with the 200 or so just in Phoenix and its suburbs making a map of the area look like a Dalmatian covered in green spots. The choices run the spectrum, from local (and often more affordable) municipals to resorts that rank among the best in the world, perfectly maintained green oases carved out of the desert, challenging all levels of golfers.
The terrain is unlike anything anywhere else, ruggedly beautiful mountains surrounding a gravel-covered Valley of the Sun filled with all shapes of cactus, twisty-trunked trees with green bark and a variety of unique flora that give the desert a distinctly clean smell.
The weather? Autumn, winter and spring, it's almost perfect, everyone walking around in shorts while the rest of the country is bundling up or digging out of VW Bug-sized snowdrifts.
"If you're coming from out of the state, it's a totally different experience than anywhere in the country," said Rui Pereira, general manager for Rancho de los Caballeros in Wickenburg. "You're out in the desert, it's wide-open spaces that you don't see on the East Coast and many other places in the country, and the weather is great a good part of the year."
Temperatures in Phoenix are typically around the 60s even during the coldest months, with 80s in late fall and early spring. Occasionally, when the wind chills dip well below zero in the far northern states, Arizona can have a 100-degree difference in temperature. Think about that: 100 degrees warmer.
Certainly, there are times when a cold blast makes it through — the mountains above Phoenix had a couple of dustings of snow last winter — but most of the time it's short sleeves and shorts.
"You can be guaranteed that you're going to get sunshine, and 90 percent of the time when you come here in the winter, you're going to get very good weather," said Greg Ellis, general manager of Trilogy Golf Club at Vistancia in Peoria.
Scottsdale is the epicenter of Arizona golf, with one world-class course seemingly next to another. From Grayhawk and Troon North to TPC Scottsdale and the Boulders just to the north in Carefree, you really can't go wrong. But Phoenix, about 10 miles from Scottsdale, is the launching point for many winter visitors, with the massive international airport and many entertainment and dining options in addition to a variety of golf courses. A golfer could play a new course here every day for a month and not be disappointed. Oh, sure, there are a few clunkers, but the overall quality is as good throughout as anywhere in the country.
A word about the summer, for those whose budgets might not permit the peak-season winter fees: The weather that time of year is melt-your-steering-wheel hot — more than 100 degrees regularly starting about mid May and into early fall. But that's why green fees for those top-notch courses are often a quarter of the winter price: $130-150 resort courses down to $50, even $30 a round. The hotels are cheap, too, usually more than half off in the summer, meaning golfers can play and stay a week for what it would have cost for a weekend in the peak months.
Ways to cope with the heat include hitting the links by 6 a.m., even by 7:30, and finishing before the sun really starts beating down. Many courses offer iced towels — some scented — that guests can cool off with, and there's always water available all over the courses. "The standard expression is that it's a dry heat, but there's some truth to that," said Ron Woods, general manager of the Raven at Verrado in Buckeye. "Your tolerance is greater with a dry heat over humidity, so if you can tolerate the heat and prepare yourself with water, a wet frozen towel, sunscreen and a hat, you can manage. And the pricing is just unbelievable as to what you get."
IF YOU GO: Whatever season you plan your Arizona golf trip for, here are three courses worth trying:
. Rancho de los Caballeros
Location: Wickenburg, about 45 minutes up Highway 60 northwest of Phoenix.
The course: Set at the foot of the Bradshaw Mountains in the upper Sonoran Desert, Los Caballeros Golf Club is a hidden gem just outside Phoenix — and well worth the drive. An award-winning desert layout with spectacular views, the course is challenging yet still accommodating for higher handicappers with wide fairways. Check out the horseback riding, target shooting and spa when you're done.
Yardages: Front tees of 5,264 yards to 7,020 from the back.
Green fees: $90 peak season to $39 in summer.
Don't miss: The par-5 13th hole. A little hard to figure where to hit off the tee (aim farther left than you think), but the second and/or third shot is one of the most spectacular in the state, with a dip in the fairway leading to an elevated shot at the green with a tough-to-get-around bunker front-left.
Where to stay: The Ranch Resort. Located on 20,000 acres of open range right next to the course, The Ranch has an Old West feel — it's rated by the Historic Hotels of America — and has great stay-and-play deals with plenty of other entertainment options besides golf.
. Trilogy Golf Club at Vistancia
Location: Peoria, off Loop 303 northwest of Phoenix.
The course: A little different than the cactus-and-desert courses around the area; the tall fescue grass off the fairways and multiple bunkering are more like something you'd find in Nebraska or Iowa — even Great Britain. Same quality of award-winning course and staff as some of the Scottsdale courses, but cheaper and not too far away. Hit the Alvea Spa for a treatment after the round to finish off the day.
Yardages: From 5,573 from the front tees to 7,259 from the tips.
Green fees: Peak around $130 to $49 during off-peak months.
Don't miss: The par-5 18th. Has great vistas in the distance, a stream along the fairway and a lake near the green. Great example of the tall grasses along the fairway.
Where to stay: Trilogy has an arrangement for preferred rates with Cibola Vista Resort and Spa near Lake Pleasant and deals with a handful of Scottsdale hotels.
. Raven Golf Club at Verrado
Location: Buckeye, just north of Interstate 10 west of Phoenix.
The course: Spectacular award-winning desert course at the edge of the White Tank Mountains that's immaculately maintained with a bend-over-backward staff. Great views, particularly from the elevated holes on the back nine, and plenty of wildlife wandering through the challenging but fair layout. Watch for rattlesnakes in the desert areas off the fairways. A zoo and spring training sites nearby.
Yardages: Women's tee of 5,142 yards to 7,258 at the tips.
Green fees: About $120 for out-of-towners ($80-90 for residents) during peak season, as low as $29 during the summer.
Don't miss: The par-4 18th. Great views of the mountains to the left and the valley below. Reachable in two with a good tee shot, but beware the lake front-right after the fairway drops. Take a look back up the fairway from the green to see the Raven logo on the drop-off.
Where to stay: The Raven has deals with a few Scottsdale hotels. For something closer, there are plenty of chain hotels off I-10, including Days Inn, Comfort Suites, Holiday Inn Express and Best Western. The Wigwam Resort is only about 10 minutes away, too, for anyone who wants to stay there and hit the Raven.