Valley of the fun: Putter with purpose

Photo gallery: Phoenix golf courses

Phoenix is traditionally one of the PGA Tour's first stops of the year, and the aptly named Valley of the Sun should also be one of the primary destinations for any scratch golfer or duffer.

With more than 320 days of annual sun shining on 200 golf courses in the greater Phoenix area, you'll probably burn through more sunscreen than gasoline as your golf getaway winds through the picturesque Sonoran Desert.

The first clue that you've arrived in a mecca of the game comes before you've even left Sky Harbor Airport, where a preponderance of golf clubs make the baggage carousel resemble an assembly line at the nearby Ping factory (where tours, by the way, are held on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; check out the Web site or call 602-687-5385 for information).

Grab your bag, rent a convertible and within minutes you'll be at one of the world-class golf resorts that are as indigenous to the region as saguaro cactus.

Soon you'll understand why PGA touring pros like Geoff Ogilvy, Paul Casey and Aaron Baddeley call the valley home, why more than 500,000 raucous fans turn out every year for the FBR Open in nearby Scottsdale and why you've just landed in a golfer's heaven on earth.

TPC Scottsdale

The opportunity to play where the pros do makes TPC Scottsdale (17020 N. Hayden Road, Scottsdale, Web site), site of the annual FBR Open, one of the valley's most popular courses.

Located off Loop 101 in the northern reaches of Scottsdale, the Stadium Course takes on decidedly different appearances, depending on your vantage point.

Looking at the island green of the 15th hole, the course offers a stunning backdrop of the McDowell Mountains, capped off by pastel-blue skies.

Other times, when you're looking south and the course shows a high sky over a low-slung, barren landscape, it feels more like you're on the Midwestern plains than in the Arizona desert.

Regardless, TPC Scottsdale's Stadium Course is tranquil throughout, with one exception: During the last weekend in January, a famously unrestrained crowd turns out for the FBR Open. Patrons at the PGA's best-attended tournament are young, fun-loving and blissfully ignorant of golf etiquette.

"It's known as the party tournament," says head pro Greg Wolf. "Over half a million fans turn out every year, and crowds would be even larger if we didn't go up against the Super Bowl."

With many students from Arizona State on hand to root for alum Phil Mickelson, the event becomes a golf tournament with the incongruent feel of a college football game. Similarly, the links can seem like two different courses.

"The front nine is more challenging," Wolf says. "On the back nine, there are a few holes you can birdie. You want people to have fun, but you also want it to be a challenge."

While the front nine does indeed offer a greater test, it is devoid of much of the aesthetic beauty so prevalent after the turn. Like Tiger Woods, TPC Scottsdale knows how to close: The back nine is stunningly gorgeous. The 15th hole, a 558-yard par-5 with an island green, and No. 17, a reachable par-4 with water on three sides of its green, are especially memorable.

"The course is very playable," Wolf says. "There are some true desert courses where if you miss the fairway, you'll lose your ball. But that's rarely the case here."

Touring pro Andrew Magee helped to make the 333-yard 17th hole of the Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish-designed track famous when he recorded the only par-4 hole-in-one in PGA Tour history during the 2001 FBR Open.

Woods also added to the course's legacy when he aced the 159-yard par-3 16th hole – before a rowdy crowd estimated at 10,000 – during the 1997 FBR Open.

(See details on a new course at TPC Scottsdale in "Clubhouse notes.")

The Legacy Golf Resort

The Legacy in Phoenix (6808 S. 32nd St., Web site) presents the best of both worlds: The resort's grounds have the peaceful, serene feel of a sanctuary, while views of the city skyline offer a reminder that you're never far from the material pleasures of the America's fifth-largest city.

"It's like a hidden oasis in south Phoenix," says head pro Christian McClain. "When you're on the course here, you feel completely removed from the city, with South Mountain offering spectacular views."

Another terrific vantage point comes on the par-5 18th hole, where three weathered grain silos line the fairway. The grounds were once the site of the Dwight B. Heard cattle ranch, and the silos, which were once the tallest structures in Maricopa County, make it impossible to forget the site's history.

Meanwhile, the course's 52 bunkers are a constant reminder that you're in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.

"The bunkers are five to six feet in height," McClain says, "so you've got to take your medicine and get out."

The signature hole of the 6,908-yard Gary Panks-designed course is the Par-3 17th, which plays 203 yards off the back tees and features a green that is well protected on the left side by – what else – sand.