Phoenix, Arizona –Where Spring Training Means More than Just Baseball!

Litchfield Park

Words and Images By: Grant Fraser – @gfrasergolf 

Although my favourite sport is hockey, I must confess that I’ve never been a fan of our winter months. In fact, my distaste for our winters parallels my yearning to play golf year-round the older I get. Watching golf on television in January through March just doesn’t do it for me. In fact, seeing the tour pros play in Hawaii, Arizona or Florida makes me dread winter even more.

This past February I’d had enough. After watching a Sunday evening summary of the latest PGA TOUR stop on the Golf Channel, I decided to contact a friend of mine who owns an event planning business in Toronto. I told her that I needed some help planning a trip for a group of sun-starved, golf-depraved 50-somethings desperate for a reprieve from our relentless sub-zero temperatures.

It wasn’t long before she got back to me with a recommendation, a personal favourite of several of her clients that included not just golf but baseball and hockey as well. By the end of the week we were enroute to sunny Phoenix, Arizona, for a week of sporting indulgences that would make even a Masters patron green with envy.

No longer a stagecoach stop in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix has come a long way from its origins dating back to the 1880’s when cattle and cowboys were the norm. Although Florida is regarded as the official “sunshine state”, the phrase befits Arizona as well as the sun shines 330 days of the year. Despite scorching heat during the summer months, daytime temperatures are perfect between November and April. Sunny and warm during the day, cool and comfortable in the evening.

Apache Junction (2)

For a golf/sports enthusiast there is no better destination than Phoenix, Arizona. With approximately 4.5 million residents, Phoenix is the 5th largest metropolitan area in the United States and home to over 200 golf courses. The NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, NBA’s Phoenix Suns, MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks and NHL’s Arizona Coyotes also call this diamond in the desert home, making Phoenix arguably the best spectator sports venue in the U.S.

It is during our winter months that this statement becomes especially true. In addition to golf and the Suns’ and Coyotes’ regular season schedules, MLB’s Cactus League season starts late February. For baseball fans, it doesn’t get any better than Phoenix this time of year as 15 MLB teams from both the American and National Leagues play at one of the city’s 10 spring training parks. Unlike Florida’s Grapefruit League where MLB teams play throughout the state, all the games played in Arizona’s Cactus League happen within the GPA.

Golf, Baseball and Hockey – The Ultimate One-Day Sports Trifecta

With so many activities to choose from, what’s a hard-core sports aficionado to do? I recommend doing them all because in Phoenix you can! Call it a one-day sports trifecta that includes golf, baseball and hockey. That’s what I recently did, and it was a day none of my pals and I will soon forget.

Our day began with an early 7am wake-up call providing us with adequate time for a coffee and light breakfast. Having felt the effects of prolonged sun deprivation, the brilliant sunshine of the morning did not go unnoticed setting the stage for a perfect weather day in the desert. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to enjoy the amenities of our hotel as we had a date with the starter at the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course at 8:30am. This is Phoenix’s most famous golf course as it is here that approximately 700,000 fans come to see the game’s best players compete at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the PGA TOUR’s most raucous event now referred to as the “Greatest Show on Grass”. To put this number in perspective, this is nearly 5x the number of fans that would come to watch a typical PGA TOUR event.

TPC Scottsdale

Measuring 7,261 yards, the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course was designed by course architects Jay Morrish and Tom Weiskopf. This was the course that raised the bar of desert golf and is still regarded as one of the Top 10 public golf courses in Arizona by Golf Digest. The last five holes are the ones that generate the most excitement, especially the famous par 3, 16th hole and the short, par 4, 17th hole. Just imagine yourself on the 16th tee with 150,000 fans eagerly waiting to scream in your backswing. Land on the green and you’re the most popular guy on earth; miss the green and you’re nothing more than a weekend hack. That’s what makes the TPC Stadium Course so special – you get to experience what it’s like to be a tour player for a day.

We certainly didn’t play like a tour pro, but we were treated like one at TPC Scottsdale. After lunch on the patio overlooking the 18th green, it was time to head south to Mesa to sporting event No. 2. Time was of the essence as we didn’t want to miss the opening pitch at Sloan Field, the winter home of the 2016 World Series Champions Chicago Cubs. Winter baseball in Phoenix may be the area’s number one tourist draw as thousands of snowbirds from across Canada and the U.S. flock here to get up close and personal with their favourite ball players, a desert pastime that has been happening like clockwork since 1947. Most of the parks are new and seat no more than 15,000 diehard fans providing an intimate sporting experience where everyone feels they have the best seat in the house. Our day at Sloan Field allowed us to do exactly this as our seats were seven rows up from ground level and cost $25. Indulging in a few ballpark beers, Chicago-style foot-longs and bags of roasted peanuts perfectly complemented an entertaining afternoon of baseball.

After picking up a few souvenirs that included a photo-op and autographed baseball from Cub great and MLB Hall-of-Famer Fergie Jenkins, it was time to leave Sloan Field and drive west across town to Glendale to catch the final leg of our sport trifecta.

Hockey in the Desert?

For a city of this size, I was most impressed with how easy it was to travel from point A to point B along the series of well-marked, inter-state highways that link all the GPA’s communities. From Mesa, it took 35 minutes to arrive in neighbouring Glendale, at the Gila River Arena, home of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes in time for the 7pm puck drop.

Gila Arena

The visiting New Jersey Devils were in town and despite being one of the NHL’s frequent cellar dwellers, the Arizona Coyotes have done an admirable job displaying what hockey in the desert looks like. Thanks to Wayne Gretzky and other puck pioneers, hockey has come a long way since its inception 20 years ago. The arena isn’t filled to capacity like you’d see at any of our rinks in Canada but that is what makes seeing a hockey game here so appealing. For starters, getting a ticket is never a problem. Last minute seats are plentiful and affordable regardless of who the Coyotes are playing. Secondly, for $50/seat my pals and I found ourselves 10 rows up from behind the net. In Toronto or Montreal, it would cost me the equivalent of a new set of golf clubs to get a seat of comparable quality. Unfortunately, there would be no overtime or shootout to prolong our evening on ice, sadly bringing to a close our dream day in the desert tailor-made for the most ardent sport fan.

For those who prefer hoops to hockey, swapping the ice rink for the hard court is also an option as the NBA’s Phoenix Suns are the other fan favourite in town. February and March are moving months in the NBA as teams compete for a playoff berth and coveted home court advantage. If the Suns are as entertaining as the Raptors, I’ll be sure to take in a basketball game at Talking Stick Resort Arena the next time I’m back.

Desert Golf is Unlike Any Other Golf Experience

Over the next five days, our focus returned to golf and experiencing several of the best courses in the state. Phoenix was exactly what the doctor ordered, providing the perfect prescription for a group of winter-weary Canadians eager to rekindle their love-hate relationship with their golf clubs. In addition to TPC Scottsdale, we played several other exceptional golf courses including We-Ko-Pa and Las Sendas. Of all the courses I’ve played in the desert, the Saguaro and Cholla courses at We-Ko-Pa are my personal favourites. Meaning “Four Peaks”, the origin of the club’s name comes from the indigenous Yavapai Nation after the prominent and sacred mountain range visible to the east.  Both golf courses exemplify desert golf to perfection as there is nothing else out here but 100-year old Saguaros and Mother Nature herself. The 7,225-yard Cholla Course was the first to open (2001) and is the brainchild of golf course architect Scott Miller. Five years later the design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw went to work and created the 6,966-yard Saguaro Course, the second desert masterpiece at We-Ko-Pa.

Las Sendas

We added Las Sendas to our playlist given its Canadian connection. Owned and operated by Calgary natives Lloyd and Wayne McBean, Las Sendas was designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. amid the Usery mountain range in eastern Mesa. Measuring 6,925 yards, the course is a top 10 favourite in the state. The 18th hole is considered to be the signature hole, but the million-dollar view on property is best seen from the patio that overlooks the Sonoran Desert and shimmering downtown Phoenix skyline. Hang around to enjoy a brilliant desert sunset. The patio at Las Sendas is the perfect place to do so.

In addition to the three aforementioned courses, I’ve provided a list of 11 other golf courses in the GPA. Some have more than one course including Grayhawk, Verrado and the Wigwam Resort.  I’ve played them all and confidently recommend every one to any group of golfers.

All the golf courses on my list are near a broad range of comfortable and affordable accommodations. Luxurious hotels, resorts and spas are synonymous with Phoenix and just as plentiful for those who prefer a more decadent 5-star experience. Some of the best resorts can be found in the Scottsdale area, most notably the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, whose backyard happens to be the TPC Stadium Course. The Arizona Grand Resort and Spa is Phoenix’s only AAA Four-Diamond all-suite hotel and is conveniently located six miles from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. In the West Valley is the historic Wigwam Resort, an Arizona landmark whose origins date back to the early 1900’s, cotton ranch development and the Goodyear Tire Company.

The Beauty of the Wild West

While Phoenix may be a great golf and sports town, a first-time visitor would be remiss for not taking the time to escape the city’s urban sprawl and experience the natural beauty, tranquility and ruggedness of the Sonoran Desert. Everywhere around you, the desert is abundant and alive as plenty of knotty and twisted 100-year old Saguaros – “the sentinels of the desert” – dot the landscape for as far as the eye can see. Tiny desert flowers can be seen sprinkled across the dry desert sand providing a subtle array of hues that change with each passing hour.

Apache Junction (1)

Nowhere is its beauty more apparent than on the historic Apache Trail enroute through the pristine Tonto National Forest region. This is a winding 20-mile drive that extends east from Mesa alongside the shores of Canyon Lake through the Superstition Mountains. Take your time and savour the vistas as these are Central Arizona’s finest landscapes. Your final destination will be Tortilla Flat, an authentic trading outpost dating back to 1904 and home to the Superstition Saloon and Restaurant. Find time to stay for lunch and join the saloon’s $1 Club. Membership will cost you a buck and all that’s required is you find a sliver of empty wall space somewhere in the restaurant to paste your own bill like the thousands of other diners who have come before you.

Phoenix’s Fabulous Food & Beer Scene

Upon your return to town, be sure to partake in Phoenix’s fabulous culinary and craft brewery scene. According to the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild, there are approximately 40 craft breweries in Phoenix and 100 in the state. This makes Phoenix one of the largest craft brewery towns in the U.S. From this frothiness for specialty suds, a craft brewery guided tour industry has emerged introducing traveling beer connoisseurs to local entrepreneurs whose two best friends are named barley and hops. Beer making is as much an art as is it a science and not only are these tours tasty, they are equally educational. Only in Phoenix can you enjoy a specialty pint of Trooper IPA, Red Flash, Bearded Blond or Rye-So-Hoppy?, just to name a few.

Complementing many of these cool craft breweries are perfectly paired restaurants whose eclectic cuisine is why Phoenix has emerged as an urban foodie favourite.  Fabulous U.S. and Mexican fare is the norm but so too are Italian, Greek, and Asian specialties. The Huffington Post recently ranked Phoenix at No. 9 on its list of the Best Pizza Cities in the U.S. Whatever your food preferences may be, you can be sure they exist within Phoenix’s vibrant and delectable culinary mix.

So, there you have it. My version of a perfect winter getaway that satiated all my sporting, leisurely, and dietary cravings. As good as the golf is in Phoenix, so too are all the other activities and adventures you can engage in. While our golf season may be upon us, it’s never too late to start planning your next golf getaway. So next February, check your professional sports calendars and come play golf, watch a ball game and catch the Coyotes all in the same day. Stay long enough and you can do this more than once. Consider this your own version of spring training.

All images by Grant Fraser @gfrasergolf 

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Fast Facts

General Information:

Visit Phoenix – 1-877-CALL PHX, www.visitphoenix.com

Visit Mesa – (800) 283-6372, www.visitmesa.com

Experience Scottsdale – 1-800-782-1117, www.experiencescottsdale.com

Accommodations

Arizona Grand Resort & Spa

www.arizonagrandresort.com

Fairmont Scottsdale Princess

www.fairmont.com

The Wigwam Resort

www.wigwamarizona.com

Golf Courses

ASU Karsten Golf Course

www.asukarsten.com

Eagle Mountain Golf Club

www.eaglemtn.com

Golf Club of Estrella

www.estrellagolf.com

Grayhawk Golf Club

www.grayhawkgolf.com

Las Sendas Golf Club

www.lassendas.com

Legend Trail Golf Club

www.legendtrailgc.com

Papago Golf Course

www.papagogolfcourse.net

Southern Dunes Golf Club

www.golfsoutherndunes.com

Superstition Mountain

www.superstitionmountain.com

Tournament Players Club of Scottsdale

www.tpc.com/scottsdale

Troon North

www.troonnorthgolf.com

Verrado Golf Club

www.verradogolfclub.com

We-Ko-Pa Golf Club

www.wekopa.com

The Wigwam Resort

www.wigwamarizona.com

Great Places to Visit

Arizona Brewery Tours

www.azbrew.com

Downtown Phoenix Tours

www.phxtours.com

Queen Creek Olive Mill

www.queencreekolivemill.com

The Orange Patch: Arizona’s Finest Citrus

www.orangepatch.com

The Farm at South Mountain

www.thefarmatsouthmountain.com