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Feb/Mar 2000

Day Trips: Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff

The Insiders Guide To Phoenix

Desert Wings: Sky Harbor Airport

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SW Aviator Magazine
3909 Central NE
Albuquerque, NM 87108
Phone: 505.256.7031
Fax: 505.256.3172

PHOENIX: Golf and Much More
by Gerrit Paulsen

“Oh my gosh, they’re beautiful!” “Is that a cactus on the fairway?” “Look, there’s another one — man, they’re all over the place!” “I had no idea there were so many golf courses in Phoenix!” The exclamations from my passengers were starting to overpower the intercom, making it hard to hear Deer Valley ATIS. Descending into Phoenix we crossed a succession of golf courses, each more spectacular than the last, and each eliciting greater marvel from the golf addicts aboard my little Cessna. Arriving for a weekend golf orgy, we were anxious to match our skills against some of the premiere golf courses in the Southwest.

Great winter weather, fabulous resorts, an abundance of top-ranked golf courses, and plenty of good airports to choose from makes Phoenix an ideal weekend escape — and not just for golf. There are many other exciting reasons to make this desert metropolis your fly-in destination, including world-class restaurants, shopping, cultural attractions, and the beauty of the surrounding Sonoran desert. But on this weekend my friends had one thing on their minds: golf, and lots of it.

Apparently, my passengers are not alone in their golf fervor. According to the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, more than two million tourists and half a million Arizona residents played 11 million rounds of golf in the greater Phoenix area last year, and spent nearly one billion dollars on golf and related products. Clearly golf is a major factor driving the area’s tourist economy. Numbering over 180, the Valley of the Sun has more golf courses per capita than any other state west of the Mississippi. No wonder greater Phoenix continues to build courses at an alarming rate—adding more golf courses than any other place in the United States over the past six years, and there are 522 more holes in the planning stage or under construction.

Our weekend itinerary was simple: leave Albuquerque early Saturday morning, golf Saturday afternoon and again Sunday morning, then back home to work and family obligations by dinnertime Sunday night. We were able to fit three people, overnight bags, and two sets of clubs into my Cessna 172 before running out of room. (No letters please, a gross weight increase STC came with our 180-horsepower Air Plains conversion.) If space or weight is an issue in your airplane, leave the clubs at home. Nearly all of the better courses in Phoenix will rent you a good, name-brand set of clubs for around $35. This may give you the added advantage of blaming any bad shot on “those darned unfamiliar rented clubs!” Good shots, of course, are always directly and unequivocally attributable to your prowess as the world’s most skilled golfer.

We arrived at the busy Phoenix Deer Valley airport midmorning, well before the one o’clock tee time. The nice folks from Cutter (one of the two FBOs located at Deer Valley) met us plane-side with our renal car. What a joy it is to arrive in your own plane, rather than enduring the commercial airline hassles of crowds, lines, hiking to baggage claim, and waiting at rental counters! This left us plenty of time to check-in at the two bedroom condo we had rented for the night and unpack, before heading out to the links.

Accommodations in Phoenix run the gambit from bare-bones budget motels to five star ultra-luxury resorts. Many hotels and resorts offer golf packages with their accommodations, either on their own course or on a variety of nearby courses. This is an especially attractive option if your goal is to play the more exclusive courses not open to the general public. Many hotels also offer courtesy transportation from nearby airports, and some will even ferry you to and from affiliated courses, especially if you are on a package. This can be a real money saver during the peak winter season, when rental car rates soar to well over $50 a day for a roller skate sized economy car.

Saturday’s course was a classic Arizona desert “target” course. My golfer buddies explained to me that a target course has strategically placed islands of manicured green dropped into the virgin desert, as opposed to cutting in the traditional long sweeping fairway connecting tee to putting green. Besides creating a visually stunning experience, these target courses require much less water than a traditional course, a major consideration here where total annual rainfall is less than eight inches. An Arizona target course also helps you focus on accuracy, since losing a ball in the thorny cactus and venomous rattlesnake and scorpion habitat between greens can be downright dangerous. Part of the starter’s speech at many of these courses is a warning to just take the stroke and drop a new ball if your shot goes into the desert, rather than risking an encounter with one of these “locals.”

The non-golfers in your family also have plenty of incentive to come to Phoenix for the weekend. Cultural attractions include the Heard Museum in central Phoenix, which houses an outstanding collection of Native American art and historical exhibits. Nearby is the Phoenix Art Museum, a decidedly modern structure, especially in contrast to the classic Spanish colonial style of the Heard Museum, but housing equally exquisite works of art.

For outdoor activities, consider a day in Papago Park. Here you will find the Phoenix Zoo, where you can follow the shaded walkways through their extensive Arizona Exhibit, getting to know the desert denizens now being displaced by all those new golf courses. Also be sure to visit the Desert Botanical Gardens while in Papago Park, to stroll among an amazing variety of local and exotic cactus, succulents, and prickly shrubs and trees. The incorrigible golfer will be relived to hear the park also houses a public golf course. For a better look at the beautiful Sonoran desert scenery that surrounds Phoenix, drive to Saguaro Lake northeast of town. Here you can see the giant and fragile saguaro cactus in their natural habitat, rather than just on touristy T-shirts.

For many visitors, the Valley of the Sun is synonymous with shopping. The Fifth Avenue Shops in central Scottsdale have been a tourist destination for decades, and continue to be worth a visit. Newer shopping attractions include the Arizona Center near downtown Phoenix, and the shops that line “Old Town” Tempe’s Mill Avenue. These areas are also good bets to experience Phoenix nightlife. Downtown Tempe, near Arizona State University, is a popular spot for the younger crowd to see and be seen, becoming busier — and more bizarre — as the weekend hour approaches midnight. The Arizona Center and central Scottsdale both have a high concentration of more mature, upscale restaurants and nightclubs.

We skipped much of the late night revelry, so Sunday morning found my friends up early and heading for their next golf indulgence. Not being quite the rabid golfer they are, I elected to skip this outing in favor of another of Phoenix’s legendary resort excesses — the Sunday Brunch. One of the best is at the Arizona Biltmore. (800-950-0086, The Biltmore has been an Arizona landmark since 1929, and still retains the design and ambiance inspired by consulting architect Frank Lloyd Wright. For the nostalgic golfer, the Biltmore also boasts one of the original courses in the Valley.

With the exception of the blazing hot summer months, the weather in Phoenix is delightful. The sunshine and warm temperatures are, after all, why there are so many golf courses in Arizona. Naturally you will pay dearly for the luxury of golfing during the best weather, with non-discounted peak season rates of up to $150, or more, on the better public courses. For the value conscious, remember there is an inverse relationship between the thermometer and greens fees. Triple digit summer temperatures will drop a round of golf at even the finest course into the moderate double digits. Hotel and resort golf packages can also be an exceptional value during the off season. Summertime golf can be quite pleasant if you are on the links at dawn, when the temperatures are in the comfortable 70s and 80s. Spend the broiling midday hours by the hotel pool, or in air conditioned shops and museums, then venture back out again for nine holes of twilight golf after dinner.

One of my personal favorite year-round resorts in the Valley is the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort in north Phoenix. One of three Pointe resorts in the Valley, Tapatio Cliffs’ spectacular mountainside setting, fine restaurants, and magnificent swimming pool complex makes it extremely popular. This resort also has a fine golf course of its own, and access to several others. With some flexibility and negotiation, peak season room rates will likely end up around $200 a night. (800-947-9784, Those of you with an unlimited King Air or biz jet budget should consider the Phoenician Resort at the base of Phoenix’s landmark Camelback Mountain. Winter room rates here start at over $600 a night, not including greens fees for the three nine-hole courses on the resort property. At that price, you are unlikely to encounter any Cessna 172 ruffians on these exclusive links. (800-888-8234,

By mid-afternoon on Sunday we were back at the airport, shoehorning the still warm clubs back into the baggage compartment for the flight home. I retained my pleasant glow from brunch, and our golfers were sore, sunburned, and oh, so very happy.

After take off I nearly missed the frequency change call from Deer Valley tower, as once again the intercom was abuzz with commentary on the new and exciting golfing opportunities sliding by beneath our windows: “Look at how that one is laid into the boulders!” “Those houses sure look expensive, I wonder if it’s a private course?” “There’s another cactus in the middle of the green!” “See the course over by that mountain, we’re gonna have to come back and play that one!” Yes, gentleman, I think we will.

Which Airport?

The choice of which golf courses to play in Phoenix isn’t the only tough decision you’ll have to make when planning your golf getaway to the Valley of the Sun. A quick check of the Phoenix VFR Terminal Area Chart reveals no fewer than a dozen airports to choose from. The proximity to your chosen golf destinations should help narrow down the choices, as will access to your hotel.

Sky Harbor International is Phoenix’s commercial airport. As of 1997, it was the eleventh busiest airport in the nation, and sixteenth busiest in the world. The casual weekend pilot unfamiliar with local procedures probably wouldn’t want to land at Sky Harbor.
Scottsdale Airport is in the heart of the Valley’s upscale resort and golf course area, so expect to mix it up with business jets on the ramp and in the pattern. Prices also tend to reflect the convenient access to high-end resorts.

Both Mesa Falcon Field on the east side of town, and Deer Valley Airport on the north side of Phoenix, are within a reasonable drive of Scottsdale. Deer Valley is also convenient to most of Phoenix and the Sun City area, while Falcon is a manageable drive from most East Valley communities, including Tempe and Apache Junction. Both airports, as well as Scottsdale, have a high number of based aircraft and intensive student training; be vigilant in their busy patterns.

Located on the west side of town, Glendale Airport is farther away from most of the attractions described in this article. However, Glendale’s lower costs and uncongested traffic pattern makes this friendly airport a good option when visiting Phoenix. As with the other airports discussed above, Glendale has a control tower to help sort out traffic, a full service FBO, and rental cars.

Regardless of your chosen airport, allow plenty of travel time to reach your final destination once on the ground. The city has sprawled over an incredibly vast area, so nothing in Phoenix is very convenient to much of anything else. Driving cross-town takes at least an hour, and even longer during the weekday rush hours.

Albuquerque-based Gerrit Paulsen is an Embry-Riddle graduate who, along with his wife Cindy, enjoys exploring the beauty of the Southwest in their Cessna 172.

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