Castles -n- Coasters

In the West Valley, wedged between Interstate 17 and Metrocenter, you'll find this world-class miniature golf paradise, past which flies a gigantic rollercoaster. Four separate 18-hole mini-courses let golfers (or should we say "golfers"?) putt their way through lush landscapes, fountains, and around a medieval castle. Little kids play for free, and kids of all ages can nip inside for refreshments, video games, and even a little air hockey. Fore!

In an area saturated with world-class golf courses, the We-Ko-Pa Golf Club stands out from the crowd. Both its Saguaro Course and Cholla Course are elite options for golfers of any level, with some of the fastest greens and most elegant scenery of any desert golf course, but the Saguaro Course stands out for its flowing design and more traditional compact layout. Saguaro allows its desert surroundings to determine its winding path, playing like a smoother and more naturally structured course compared to its competitors.

The newest Cactus League stadium is unlike any other. That's because Cubs Park was built to mimic one of the most legendary ballparks: Wrigley Field. The dimensions at Cubs Park are proportional to Wrigley's, the backstop is made of brick, Chicago dogs are sold at the concession stands, and the big green scoreboard in left field is based on the one in Chicago. Granted, the new park has major differences from Wrigley, which turned 100 years old this year. For one, there's no ivy on the outfield walls. Though there are other state-of-the-art spring training facilities in the Valley, Cubs Park is the only one that's a must-see.

Bruce Arians, a veteran of 25 NFL seasons as a coach but only one as a head coach and part of one as an acting head coach, either worked a miracle last season by leading the Arizona Cardinals to a 10-6 season or he really knows what he's doing. We're going with the latter. At this writing, he's 1-0 this season. It was Arians' rookie season with the Cards, a team that has struggled since the departure of famed quarterback Kurt Warner, he of two Super Bowl appearances, including a winning one in St. Louis and a losing one here following the 2008 season. To call the Cardinals dismal in the four years after Warner's departure is kind.

Then came the exit of Coach Ken Whisenhunt, who looked like a genius when Warner was around but sunk fast with a series of awful QBs. In came Arians, fresh off a 9-3 stint with the Indianapolis Colts while filling in for the ailing Chuck Pagano for the 2013 season. And it started off semi-bleak in Glendale, too. The Cards lost four of their first seven games and appeared headed for the NFL sewer. But Arians, a former college quarterback himself, got his veteran QB, Carson Palmer, on the right page, and the team won seven of its last nine games, becoming that rare 10-6 team to miss the playoffs.

It's attributed to the dumb luck of playing in the same conference with arguably the two best teams in the league, the Seattle Seahawks (who won the Super Bowl) and the San Francisco 49ers. Arians' crowning achievement of putting together a brilliant game plan and beating the Seahawks near the end of the regular season didn't matter to the playoff gods. Even with the departure of more than a few workhorse veterans, the Cardinals are billed to be better this year. We're betting that Arians surprises his team's conference arch-rivals and takes the Redbirds deep into the playoffs this season.

Don't believe the hype that Robert Sarver's a tightwad owner loath to spend big bucks on top talent. It's not true. The Phoenix Suns' head man, he of the giant foam finger in the team's heady playoff days, has had a wide-open wallet since he's owned the team, and it's only going to get more so when he and his staff finish working out star point guard Eric Bledsoe's contract. Hell, Sarver & Co. were ready to do whatever it took to land LeBron James if the star just would just have aligned (sigh . . . King James decided to go home to Cleveland) — so set was Sarver on returning a playoff contender to the Valley of the Sun.

In addition, Sarver has demonstrated his commitment to floor a contender at US Airways Center by making the genius move of hiring the most dynamic coach/general manager combo in the NBA today, Jeff Hornacek and Ryan McDonough. Hornacek's the legendary Suns player who was moved to Philadelphia in the Charles Barkley trade and was an assistant coach for the Utah Jazz before coming here. He's an even more astute coach than he was a player. Smart combined with smart always works, and McDonough, who labored for 10 years in the Boston Celtics organization, lastly as assistant general manager to former Suns coach and Celtics great Danny Ainge, is a basketball genius.

McDonough, just 34, and Hornacek, 51, combined to put together a gritty team that played, well, smart. The result was a 48-34 record, a 23-win improvement over the season before, sans the presence of a superstar. McDonough was runner-up for NBA executive of the year after last season. But it really was Sarver's doing that the Suns struck fear in the hearts of even their staunchest opponents. The irony was that competition was so tough in the NBA's Western Conference that they didn't make the playoffs. Much more to come this season; we're certain of it.

Best Reason to Believe the Diamondbacks Have a Bright Future

Sports Exec Tony LaRussa

The Arizona Diamondbacks made a stunning move when they brought in legendary manager Tony LaRusa as chief baseball officer in the middle of this dismal season. One of the most brilliant minds in the game, LaRussa, when he retired as skipper of the St. Louis Cardinals, had been a major-league manager for 33 seasons, winning three World Series titles. Most famous as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, he also helmed the Chicago White Sox and the Oakland A's, and he was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, this summer. He was the only manager in history to retire after winning a World Series championship.

At this writing, LaRussa has made only one significant move after a few months on the job. He gave general manager Kevin Towers his walking papers.And he is expected to overhaul the team, possibly from manager Kirk Gibson on down, before the 2015 campaign begins. As for Towers, who made many bonehead moves in his five years on the job, including trading slugger Justin Upton and pitching prospect Trevor Bauer, his end couldn't come soon enough for us.

Though better than in the past, Diamondbacks relief pitchers have faltered this year, but La Russa's just the exec to change that. He's credited with streamlining, if not inventing, bullpens. Rather than overusing his closers, he's employed a series of set-up specialists — from flamethrowers to lefties on lefty batters to righties on righty batters — to give his teams match-up advantages. The idea is to give the closer a clean slate to shut down an opponent in the ninth inning and to keep a franchise's ultimate power pitcher fresh.

LaRussa, who reportedly is the first to arrive at work in the D-backs' front office and the last to leave, has his work cut out for him — this year's was the team's worst start since its fledgling season and the deep hole eliminated the D-backs from the playoff early.

Paul Goldschmidt is more than just a power hitter, despite what his 6-foot-3, 245-pound frame (complete with tree-trunk-size guns) might suggest. The first baseman for the Arizona Diamondbacks, a National League starter at his position in this year's All-Star Game, hits for average and is a crack defensive player. But power is a major part of his game: He led the league last season in runs batted in and was third when he suffered a season-ending injury in early August. Before getting injured, he was among the top 10 NL leaders in home runs (19) batting average (.300), and on-base-plus-slugging percentage, or OPS (.936). And there's more to his offensive game than his bat: He's quick enough to have stolen 18 bases in his first full season in the majors, 15 in his second, and nine at the time of his injury this year.

He's the all-around spectacular athlete in cleats and a cap, diving and leaping for catches in the field; he won a Gold Glove award in 2013 for his spectacular defense. Arizona was a dismal team this season, but Goldschmidt stood out, as he has since his rookie season in 2011. When the trade deadline came in late July, Goldschmidt was the only Diamondback who was sacrosanct. It's an understatement to say that he and injured pitcher Patrick Corbin are the franchise. Following in the footsteps of the greats who came before him, such as Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, and Stan Musial, Goldschmidt is a sports hero to the bone. And like at least two of them, he's humble to a fault, embarrassed to answer questions about his greatness.

If anyone ever doubted how much Diamondbacks ace Patrick Corbin meant to the franchise, they need only look at the team's horrible record this season. Corbin, who went on the disabled list this spring, followed by Tommy John (ulnar-collateral-ligament) surgery on his left elbow, was a member of the 2013 National League All-Star Team, after posting an 11-1 record by midseason. The best pitcher in the Diamondbacks' starting rotation and one of the best in the National League in his first full season, Corbin went on to a 14-8 record with a 3.41 earned-run average. And expectations were high that the lefty, who commanded a 92-mile-per-hour fastball and an off-the-table slider, would lead Diamondbacks pitchers again — and that he and slugger Paul Goldschmidt would carry the team into the playoffs. A great starting pitcher like Corbin is the most important element on any baseball team. When such an athlete is on the mound every fifth game, the team has a solid chance of victory.

Without such a vital puzzle piece, it can mean the difference between a winning and losing season. And the Diamondbacks' problems this year can be laid squarely on the backs of its starting pitchers. At this writing, Arizona ranked 26th out of 30 teams, with its pitchers combining for a 4.22 ERA. With Corbin on the mound last season, Arizona ranked 17th. Which is not say that the D-backs didn't have pitching woes in '13, just that they weren't nearly as pronounced and that the majority of the problem was the bullpen. This season, Arizona's relief corps has gotten stronger as the season's progressed while its starting pitching has remained woeful. Many pitchers never are the same after Tommy John, but Corbin's young age, 25, is expected to work in his favor; for the sake of making the long, hot summer around here more bearable, we pray that he makes a furious comeback in '15.

Pundits didn't believe it would work. Phoenix Suns Coach Jeff Hornacek knew it would. He knew that starting two speedy point guards in the Suns back court was a genius move, mainly because he and Kevin Johnson were paired as such when they played for Phoenix under fabled Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. And work it did, when Dragic and Bledsoe were healthy at the same time. In the 37 games they played together last season, the Suns went 24-13, lifting the team to a 48-34 record, more than a 25 percent jump over the season before.

Though the Suns didn't make the playoffs, they certainly would have if Bledsoe hadn't been out for two months following knee surgery. Each player has his strengths; Dragic as a lightning-fast perimeter shooter who, at 6-foot-3, also can dunk on breakaways; Bledsoe is a quick and agile penetrator who weaves to the basket and, at 6-1, can leap to score on big men. Each player's a pesky defender who picks the pockets of even the most sure-handed NBA ball handlers. After his acquisition from the L.A. Clippers, Bledsoe averaged two steals, 18 points, and 5.5 assists per game in his abbreviated season. Dragic averaged 1.5 steals, 20 points, and six assists per contest. A restricted free agent, Bledsoe wants a pay increase to $80 million over five seasons, but the Suns are offering less. If they reach an agreement and the dynamic duo remains intact, we expect the Suns to be a playoff contender for seasons to come.

Patrick Peterson's always has been an overachiever. A star defensive back at Louisiana State University, he was drafted fifth overall by the Arizona Cardinals in 2011. And he started fast in the National Football League: In his first season in Glendale, Peterson, a cornerback/returner, ran back four punts for touchdowns. On top of that, at only 24, he's been named to the Pro Bowl twice as a cornerback. His defensive play's been spectacular, naturally, with 12 touchdowns and 162 tackles. And he's been able to avoid serious injury, never missing a game in two years. Now he's getting the big money, an extension of his current rookie contract worth $70 million over five years, $48 million of which is guaranteed. This puts him in a league of his own at his position. With these numbers, Peterson will be the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL, eclipsing even defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks corner Richard Sherman. Sherman got a four-year, $56 million deal. When Sherman signed his lucrative agreement after last season, he and Peterson engaged in a war of words over who was the best cornerback in the league. It continued after news of Peterson's deal leaked out. When Peterson tweeted to Sherman: "Yu mad bro LMAO" followed by a bunch of smiley faces, Sherm tweeted back a picture of his hand laden with a Super Bowl ring. Which begs the question: Can the Cardinals overcome arguably the two best teams in the NFL, Sherman's 'Hawks and the San Francisco 49ers, and get Pat a ring of his own?

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