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Arizona Golf Beats the Mid-Winter Blahs
by Jack Saylor

Tom Fazio lives in the laid-back little village of Hendersonville, tucked away near the side of a mountain in North Carolina where he has what seems to be a gazillion or so kids (really only six) involved in a like amount of school activities.

Tom does not like to miss any of these events or spend scarcely one night away from his homesite. But he also happens to be recognized as perhaps the top golf course architects.

Money aside, he still frequently eschews jobs that take him farther from his beloved North Carolina then he can return in his friendly little airplane the same night, or two at the most.

Thus Fazio's most highly-acclaimed work over the years has been in Florida and South Carolina low country -- Jupiter Hills (with Uncle George Fazio), Kiawah Island, Wild Dunes, Moss Creek, Emerald Dunes, Osprey Point, PGA National, World Woods and neighborhood North Carolina jobs like Pinehurst No. 8, Forest Creek and, of course, Champions, right in Hendersonville.

He has been lured away on occasion to do the Vintage courses at Indian Wells, California, Pelican Hills at Newport Beach and the renown Shadow Creek in Las Vegas, plus finally to Michigan (Treetops North in 1992), even Montana and elsewhere.

But the Fazzman was usually reluctant to heed the words of go west, young man. When he did, the results were spectacular.

Fazio was somehow hogtied and taken to Tucson, Arizona, in 1984 and the result of his meandering among the cacti, scrubgrass, rocks, boulders and background of the Santa Catalina mountain foothills was the Canyon course at Ventana Canyon, north of town.

He returned in 87 and added the Mountain course, which make Ventana Canyon a small, but superb resort gem where the amenities are top-drawer and the activities endless -- from horseback riding, tennis, biking, jogging, hiking, swimming, even hot-air ballooning as well as golf.

But we digress, this is about golf. Fazio has sculpted fairways between pepper trees, gnarled mesquite and, of course, those silent sentinels of the desert -- the variable-sized cactus plants, the saguaros seemingly giving golfers a single-finger salute for oft-errant shots.

The fairways are rolly and quite generous (particularly on the Canyon), but the game starts at the greens. Sports fans, they are treacherous.

One must always be cognizant of where the mountain background is -- putting toward it, rap the ball; going away, brutally fast. Trouble is, you can't tell if your putt is really tilted up and down hill and three-putts abound.

The drives between holes, however, are often long and scenic (dodge those rocks) and you'll forget your putting woes. So winding are the paths you can make wrong turns if you're not alert, but you always wind up at another spectacular hole.

Says Fazio: "Golf shouldn't be overly difficult, but it shouldn't be easy."

The Ventana Canyon courses are not easy, but inevitably fun, especially if you solve the putting riddle.

The Mountain stretches 6,926 yards from the back -- very challenging, but gold (6,356 and 5,746) mke it morel playable and the women can compete at 4,709 yards.

The most remarkable hole on the Mountain is the par-three No. 3 at 107-yards -- yes, that's from the back tee, Fazio's shortest-ever hole, and plays even a little shorter. It might be tougher getting to the tee, than playing the hole.

You cart it up a crooked path around rocks that resembles San Francisco's Lombard Street, then hoof it on a stone staircase to the tiny tee. In the offing is the beautiful green cut into rockside -- Lord, please select the right club and swing.

In between, is nothing but a chasm with gnarly bush, rock and grunge. Hit it or bounce it there, well, adios. What a great hole!

The Canyon course is similarly apportioned, 6,819 yards, with three friendlier tees reaching forward to the women's 4,919, featuring short par-fours of 290 and 303 yards (back tees), but don't get over-confident.

The Canyon's piece-de-resistance is the grand finish, an uphill 503-yard dog-leg par-five (again, back tee) with a waterfall backdropping the green, trickling its water to a green-side pond.

Ventana Canyon is perhaps a somewhat unheralded spot because it is smallish, only 50 suites, but the suites and the service are second to none, including the Hearthstone dining room and Sierra Bar. Bon appetite.

Nightly rates start at $129-a-night upward, golf rates from $169 downward (depending on month). Phone 800-828-5701 for current rates or available packages.

Another Tom, (this one Weiskopf) already had a huge name in golf for his majestical swing and game (forget his occasionally controversial personality) before carving a new life as an architect.

Unlike Fazio, who couldn't be pried from North Carolina with a backhoe, Weiskopf, a Cleveland native, fell in love with the Phoenix area to the point that he lives there.

Although he does superb work elsewhere (his 1999 unveiling at the Cedar River course at Shanty Creek sent that course right to the top of Michigan charts), Weiskopf made his design reputation in Scottsdale, partnered at the time with Jay Moorish, to produce Troon North, unabashedely referred to as "the best desert course ever built."

The point is arguable, but Troon North Golf Club's Monument (1990), followed in 96 by the Pinnacle, are rated No. 1 and 2 in Arizona by some as well as a host of other awards.

Both play in excess of 7,000 yards from the back tees, but each has five sets of tees with which to make yourself comfortable according to your handicap -- and you'll enjoy it more if you swallow pride and pick the proper tee.

The scenery of the Sonoran Desert makes it difficult to concentrate, with breathtaking views from one elevated tee after another, with mesquite, ironwood and palo verde trees accentuated by the rangy signature Saguaro cactus.

Sharp elevation changes, the huge rocks, bunkers and waste areas make the golf challenging, but not impossible with wide fairways, huge greens, albein including the difficulty of reading in the mountains.

The drama of the terrain continues and is embellished on the Pinnacle with huge rock formations and steeper drops of fairways. Still, it is foolhardy to single any given holes as more special than most others. The hallmark of Weiskopf's work is every hole is memorable -- and they are.

Conditions are impeccable, but there is a downside for some in having it so pristine: the dreaded cart-path-only mode of play is in vogue year-round. Seems 90-degree wouldn't hurt conditions, particularly since fees are $240 until April 1, thereafter working down to $75/$90, if you can handle June through August climate.

No matter, cart-path-only doesn't seem to hold down play at Troon (or Pebble Beach, for the matter) so at least you can say you were forewarned.

The only problem Troon North had was there was no resort at the site for those who like to stay-and-play.

Voila! Near Christmastime, "99, Four Seasons Resort, plunked on 40 acres in the desert setting, opened its lush doors 1.2 miles from the up-scale public Troon layouts. Four seasons is just as up-scale, but obviously very privatized and claims half the tee times at the two courses.

Start with 25 casitas, 22 suites (equipped with private plunge pool and telescope to view desert and mountain wonders), add 183 over-sized guest rooms, complete with fireplace and patio, and you have the homey, if ultra-luxurious atmosphere of Four Seasons.

For non-golfing prime time, there is a sprawling 12,000 square-foot fitness center and spa, a 6,000 square-foot two-level pool, tennis courts (some lighted for night play), and four dining establishments, including the Crescent Moon, a rustic bistro with Italian cuisine which is enchanting at sunset high above the twinkling lights of downtown Phoenix.

While concentrating on golf, no time was epended on such worthwhile one-day side projects as bisiting the Grand Canyon, Sedona or Lake Powell -- in fact, even the synchronized dual massages by moonlight ($140) were somehow bypassed.

But such luxuries have made Four Seasons, the first such property in the Valley of the Sun in 10 years, to bow in at No. 8 in the country and be the only Arizona resort in the top 10 list of American Airlines "American Way" magazine, ahead of such marquee stopovers as Puerto Rico's Dorado and Carromar Beach and the fabled Greenbrier in West Virginia.

Calls should be made to check on precise special package rates of varying length for golf, tennis or golf/spa tuneup time, but 2001 rates range from $175 for Casita, $495 for a one-bedroom suite and up for larger in the value season of June 17 to Sept. 6.

High-season tariffs, which started in January and run through May 14, range from $500 for casita; $900 to $1,150 for one-bedroom suite, $2,400 for two bedrooms or (if you're feeling in high cotton), there's the three-bedroom presidential suite at $4,000. For any other information, packages or reservations, phone 800-332-3442 or 480-515-5700 or contact by fax at 480-515-5599.

If the Four Seasons and Troon are a bit pricey, that's life in Arizona -- especially in the season of getting away from the snow belt.

There are some 130 courses in the greater Phoenix area, with more on the way, and the best are on the high end, greens fee-wise, of $100 to $150, such as Legend Trail, Grayhawk, TPC at Scottsdale, The Raven at South Mountain, etc.

For enjoyable nearby courses at perhaps a tad lower fees (phone first), check out Las Sendas GC (a Robert Trent Jones Jr. track) in Mesa; Coldwater GC, Avondale; Estrella Mountain Ranch in Goodyear; Ocotillo GC, Chandler; Arizona Traditions in Surprise; Trilogy in Gilbert; Desert Springs at Sun City Grand, Legacy in Phoenix, Scottsdale's Orange Tree Resort and the Gold Canyon Resort at Superstition Mountain, whose courses are named Dinosaur Mountain and Sidewinder.

If those don't lure you to Arizona, you have no imagination.

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