Papago Golf Course
Once the finest golf course in the Valley, arguably the best muni in the country, Papago has fallen from its heyday in the 1970s and '80s. By 2002, the course was a disgrace. But with some recent improvements, including new restrooms, improved cart paths, a face-lift of the clubhouse and a topnotch pro, Papago appears as though it could be on its way back. With just a bit of sprucing up, you can begin again to appreciate the spectacular layout of the course. To be realistic, though, the city, likely with help waiting in the wings from Valley golf aficionados who love the old course, needs to go for the full overhaul. It should be done, and quickly. For a community that has gained so much from the game of golf, it is time to show respect in return by restoring and properly maintaining one of the game's national treasures. In the meantime, it's still our favorite city course.
The Estancia Club
Everyone's heard of The Boulders, and no doubt a private membership there is one of the most prestigious and (since it swaps the private course and resort course every so often) enjoyable golf experiences in America. But for a fully private course experience (meaning no riffraff like us), absolutely stunning desert golf, and prestige so prestigious few people realize how prestigious it is, The Estancia Club is the crème de la crème. This course sits in a 640-acre master-planned community at the base of Pinnacle Peak that, when built in 1995, redefined luxury and beauty in the Valley. Today, it still remains as coveted an address as any in town, especially for the golf lovers among the outrageously rich. Home prices for a decent property around the course start at, as we like to say, "the low two millions," with a few houses pushing the $10-mil mark. The family golf membership initiation fee is another $205,000, while a "new resident social membership" is only $50,000. But this is nothing if you're used to having everything. The course itself was designed by golf architect/guru Tom Fazio. Way back when, it was named Golf Digest's "Best New Private Course of 1996." But stand on the course as the sun sets over the Sonoran Desert, and you'll likely call it the best private course ever.
Most golf clubs radiate a snooty, privileged air and this one is no different. Eagle Mountain features many of the amenities of a private course: pro shop, banquet facilities, full-service clubhouse, and expansive emerald-green fairways. It's a chip shot away from the sprawling mansions of Fountain Hills, and the par-71 course, designed by Scott Miller, is enhanced by the natural beauty of the surrounding box canyons and desert vistas. Why do we love Eagle Mountain so? It has all the high-class perks, but you won't have to hock your firstborn just to get a membership. Summertime rates are dirt cheap, and year-round discounts are offered for Arizona residents. Sure, you'll have to ditch the ripped jeans and Van Halen tee shirt for the day, but it's worth it for a golf club that treats you the same whether you're from Scottsdale or Sunnyslope.
For the young or even middle-class golfer, Arizona can be like the proverbial ocean: Golf courses, golf courses everywhere, but not a single one I can afford. The creators of this golf Web site, however, have worked out deals with numerous top Valley golf courses to open up selected tee times at discounted rates for Web site members. Every day, you can go to the site and select from hundreds of discounted tee times Valleywide. And throughout the year, members are sent reminder e-mails with highlighted specials, reminding the cash-strapped golf lover that, indeed, he could leave work right now and get in a round of golf before supper.
The FBR O . . . , O . . . , Oh, hell, call it the Phoenix Open. PHOENIX OPEN! PHOENIX OPEN! Doesn't that feel good? Yes, thank you, FBR, whatever the hell it is you do, for providing the big bucks necessary to keep the top golfers coming here. That is important. Without the top golfers, the goobers who make the Phoenix Open the greatest people-watching event in the Valley wouldn't show up. Because, you know, they're really into great golf. The fun here is watching Scottsdale's finest show up and try to mate in daylight. This is unusual. Usually, in the bar, they can't see each other; the over-globbing glazing of the hair, the boobs that don't flex against spandex (PING G2 titanium implants, perhaps?), the baggy eyes from working every night to pay for the Miata in the parking lot that looks like a Z4 if you park it back there under the streetlight that's burned out. The Bird's Nest is back at the course! Hooray for faux-batshit-crazy-crazy-dude-fun-dude! But holy shit. Back when the Goldwaters were working this thing, it was a classy back-room affair. Bob Hope played this room, for God's sake. Now, it's whatever cover band can play "What I Like About You." What the hell has happened to us!?! Oh, settle. It's all good. Because beauty is on the prowl. Don't question beauty. For it is the essence of fun. Overheated, overstated, underdressed, overeducated at institutions where beauty understudied because it could because it was beautiful. Enjoy watching it all. It is skin-deep golf, played beyond the boundaries of golf. And like golf, the pretenders will fade with the fading light on Friday, and the real players, the really fun folks to watch, will be charging for the title as Sunday draws to a close.
To be sure, the Valley's biggest annual sporting event (though NASCAR definitely is right up there) is much more about the scene than the golf. Every now and then, however, we stop to watch a professional golfer hone his craft. To wit, the ever-popular "Big" John Daly, the most dysfunctional hillbilly linksman this side of the Ozarks. We wandered over to the practice area on a Thursday morning last January, the first day of the tourney. Right there before us was the powerful Daly working with his caddie. By work, we mean chain-smoking cigarettes, chugging from a two-liter bottle of Coke, and hitting ball after ball with amazing precision at a makeshift target of empty chocolate-bar wrappers about 50 yards away. After he hit about 40 balls, Daly pulled a Milky Way out of his golf bag, wolfed it down, walked over to his target site, and dropped his latest wrapper on the pile. Now that's an athlete.
The San Carlos Apache Tribe had several advantages when they went about building one of the state's great courses. They already owned the prime piece of landscape and, besides, they could always depend on a flow of golfers thanks to the dependable flow of gamblers making the drive to the nearby casino. For golfers, the fact that this amazing course has low overhead and can be a loss leader to draw people to the casino makes it one of the great golf values in the state. Amid stunning scenery, Apache Stronghold offers a ridiculous array of risk-reward scenarios. From the black tees, at 7,500 yards, the course can simply wear down most any golfer not at the top of his game. Oh, but what a lovely walk ruined. A round of golf will cost you only $45 if you walk, $55 if you want a cart, which is probably the best way to go. The best deal, though, is to make a weekend of it, with two nights at the casino hotel and two rounds of golf for $89 per night per person. It's like getting a normal hotel rate with one of the best rounds of golf thrown in for free.
A former copper boomtown, Miami (said: "Mi-am-uh") has fewer than 2,000 residents, but more original merchandise than you'll find in any shopping mall in metro Phoenix. Ditch eBay; check out the antique stores in the old downtown district in person. And don't forget the Book Bank, a great used bookstore, right off U.S. 60 as you're passing through Miami. A few minutes on, and you'll hit Globe. The shopping's not as good here, but the Noftsger Hill Inn the only place to stay, in these parts more than makes up for it. The inn, a former school, features enormous rooms furnished with antiques that would make the Miami shopkeepers drool, and the original chalkboards are graffitied with messages from guests. The proprietors say the place is haunted, but we didn't run into any spirits on our visit, just friendly fellow travelers and a home-cooked breakfast (including thick strips of bacon and fresh blueberry bread) before the drive home.
Tired of being stuck in town for the fall? It's bone dry, daytime temperatures are still scorching, and kids are relegated to crowded water parks or picnics on dead park grass. Pack up the family station wagon and head to Sedona's Slide Rock State Park, a scenic red rock canyon nestled in a 43-acre apple orchard. It's a setting straight out of Little House on the Prairie, complete with a farmers' market, nature trails, and swimming holes like the natural rock slide for which the park is named. The water quality is tested daily, and visitors are free to enjoy delicious apples from the native trees. No, really, we swear. And you can make it there and back in a day, easy.
This sprawling nature preserve, a little more than an hour's drive east of Phoenix on U.S. 60, doesn't have the polish of the Desert Botanical Garden. But it more than makes up for that with its slightly tatty, quirky charm, and no can deny that its collection of plant life is just as impressive. Its trails gently loop through 320 acres of cacti, trees, canyons and even a eucalyptus forest. No matter what direction you go, the walk never gets particularly strenuous, which makes it perfect for nature enthusiasts of all ages.

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