The Troon North golf course on the far north edge of Scottsdale is a sight to behold. An emerald grass carpet, smooth, even and weedless, snakes its way along saguaros, next to mesquite bushes and paloverde trees. The grass rises and falls, from tee to green, enveloping manmade lakes, skirting golf-cart paths, cresting ridges and falling back into washes. Every so often, a cottontail or lizard darts out of the underbrush and scampers from one side of the fairway to the other.

Troon North is one of the tougher courses in the state--a good example of the "target" style of golf course that became popular in the 1980s. It is also considered one of the most beautiful courses around, with spectacular mountain views and breathtaking desert scenery from just about every tee and green. Except for the manicured turf and the whir of passing golf carts, it could be a desert park.

One of the reasons for golf's appeal is the "back to nature" overtone the game carries. There are hills to climb, streams to cross, ponds, marshes, maybe even the ocean to skirt and woods to comb in search of hooks and slices. The wind and the sun are factors; the lay of the land, especially on the greens, is crucial.

Small wonder, then, that golf is such an Arizona institution. As soon as wealthy easterners looking for a vacation spot saw the scenic charms of the state, and the rugged, scrub-brush beauty of the desert in particular, they wanted to carpet it with tees and greens. Arizona quickly became a place where golf lovers could feed their jones in the winter, when many of their home courses were closed. What other place in the country offers Arizona's combination of fantastic weather and unusual, striking, even mind-blowing scenery? With well over 200 courses (about 130 in Maricopa County alone), Arizona has more golf holes per capita than any state besides Florida.

Retirees move here to play golf and take it easy. Yuppies save their pennies so one day they can own stately adobe homes along the rims of spectacular Scottsdale golf clubs. Golf has become a part of the Arizona dream, a fixture of the local lifestyle so ubiquitous that to think of the state without it is tantamount to thinking of the state without the Grand Canyon.

Golf is also big money. It brings the state economy as much as $1 billion a year, by some estimates. Golf courses are used by developers as amenities to entice buyers and drive up the prices of new homes.

There is, however, some reason to wonder whether the continued development of golf courses in Phoenix--especially in sensitive desert areas--is a good idea, economically or environmentally.

The Legislature has granted Maricopa County golf-course owners a $10 million annual tax subsidy. More than two billion gallons of precious groundwater are poured on Valley golf courses every year, dropping water tables. Cocktails of pest- and weed-killing chemicals, spread to maintain vast expanses of emerald-green turf, are washed into the sensitive desert abutting golf courses.

It may be time to ask whether Arizona's love affair with golf courses still makes sense.

When he began forming a group to buy the Phoenix Suns in 1987, Jerry Colangelo met Dial Corporation Chairman John Teets on the links at the Phoenix Country Club. After he traded for Charles Barkley in 1992, Colangelo and his new franchise player shot a round while they discussed signing then-Portland free agent Danny Ainge.

And nobody knows the icebreaking value of a good golf game better than Governor J. Fife Symington III. A few years ago, he and an aide were playing golf with two Japanese businessmen in an effort to expand trade between Japan and Arizona. The mood among the foursome was somber and reserved until Symington, a notorious slicer, teed up the ball. It went high, then took a sharp right turn into a transformer box atop a telephone pole. There was an explosion. The transformer was blown completely off its perch. When the governor turned around, his Asian guests were rolling in the grass, laughing hysterically.

Besides being good places to conduct business, golf courses are good businesses themselves. Although they are expensive to build and maintain--higher-quality courses can cost upward of $10 million--much of the initial outlay often is recouped quickly. Nowadays, developers use golf courses as centerpieces for subdivisions whose homes carry premium price tags.

Local golf boosters, including the Arizona Golf Association, are quick to point out that the game also provides broader economic benefits. In the last few years, the AGA has tossed around the figure $1 billion as golf's overall annual contribution to the Arizona economy.

While $1 billion is a nice, round, big number, ascertaining whether it is an accurate one is not a simple task.

A 1989 study by two analysts at the University of Arizona in Tucson revealed that the average large Arizona golf course provides the equivalent of 36 full-time jobs per year to staff its pro shop, maintenance crew and food and beverage operation. Those jobs were not of the high-paying variety; the study said such employment paid an average of around $5 per hour. Clearly, golf courses are not one of the state's big providers of upper-middle-class jobs. Nor is there a sizable golf-equipment-manufacturing presence in the state.

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