As it turns out, swinging for the cheap seats is a multi-sport endeavor. In baseball, of course, all the homerun hitters, past and present, do it four or five times a game. Bashing one over the centerfield fence, where the beer-swillin’ bleacher bums hang out, is one of the virtues of the game. And, in golf, we relish those opportunities to clench our teeth, reel back with reckless abandon, and try to smash one to the moon. Sadly, in both sports, the plan often fails. Many homerun hitters are also notoriously gifted at striking out! And golfers who swing for homeruns often hit, well, foul balls. The key is to be in a ball park – or a golf course! – that is fun regardless of the outcome of the “at bat.” For lovers of the long ball, the place to be – especially in March during spring training – is Scottsdale.
With over 100 golf courses and three of the most exciting teams in Major League Baseball – the Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks, and San Francisco Giants – hammering homers during spring training, Scottsdale is the ultimate playground for watching white balls (the dimpled kind and the cowhide kind) flying into desert-blue skies. Indeed, the opportunities to “play ball” are everywhere. And a dual focus of golf and baseball works like a dream. Birdies in the morning and baseball in the afternoon! Who said you can’t have your cake and eat it too?
The enticement of the warm desert, especially when much of North America is frozen hockey-puck solid, goes without saying. High season in Scottsdale is low season just about everywhere else. (Especially Canada.) So, obviously, you’ve got to do your homework when planning a ball bashing trip to the desert. Or you risk not getting your tee time…or your seventh-inning stretch.
Considering there are just two stadiums to choose from – Scottsdale Stadium in the heart of downtown and Salt River Fields at Talking Stick – your baseball selections will likely be a lot easier to determine than your golf. However, the Cactus League is home to a total of 15 Major League Teams. So other cities in Greater Phoenix, Mesa, Glendale, etc., also have teams and there are plenty of games to consider!
The San Francisco Giants, World Series winners in 2010, 2012, and 2014, play out of the beautiful Scottsdale Stadium, which is often considered one of the best parts in the Cactus League. The carnival-like atmosphere and the quality of the food at this stadium is definitely something people talk about. The Diamondbacks and Rockies play nearby at the Salt River Fields, a beautiful new $100 million dollar facility located on Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian land. The massive state-of-the-art facility includes the 11,000-seat stadium as well as twelve practice fields and numerous clubhouses.
Unquestionably, one of the easiest, cheapest, and most popular places to watch the ball games is from the grassy areas situated beyond the outfield fences. Or, simply put, the lawn seats. Consider this your general admission to the party. It’s every man for himself in terms of claiming your spot of turf and, make no mistake, the focus on the game itself can be a little, well, lacking. But, for a lot of people, this is what ball games are all about. Throw in a warm, sunny afternoon (basically a guarantee) and, presto, you’ve got a national pastime.
Finally, another cool thing to do baseball wise is exploring the Cactus League Legacy Trail. Downtown Scottsdale has, for decades, been a sought-after destination for Major League players, coaches, executives, umpires and fans. You can literally walk in the footprints of Hall of Famers like Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Ernie Banks and Dizzy Dean by stopping at some of their favorite hangouts (watering holes, etc.) on this self-guided trail. You can learn more about it at www.experiencescottsdale.com/events/legacy-trail.
When it comes to the golf, things tend to get a bit more complicated. Depending on your tastes – and the health of your wallet – you’ll probably want to peg it up on a premier, bucket-list course like Troon North, TPC Scottsdale, Grayhawk, The Boulders, or We-Ko-Pa. While these higher-end, A-list courses require a pretty penny to play – i.e.: the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course is $319 during high season, which lasts until April 3rd – you’ll be treated to some of the best desert golf holes on the planet.
Located just outside Fountain Hills in Yavapai Nation, We-Ko-Pa is a fantastic two-course facility that never disappoints. The courses – Cholla and Saguaro – are decidedly different in character, however, both serve up stunning desert golf experiences.
Saguaro, designed by the venerable duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, is subtle and minimalistic in terms of shaping and mounding. The holes use the natural movement of the terrain exceptionally well and yield a walkable (something rare in the desert!) crusade with syrupy-smooth golf holes that meld into the desert. Play it once and you’ll see why it is often considered one of the best public golf courses in Arizona.
The original Cholla course, which features more elevation change and significantly more contouring, serves up an exciting brand of golf that doesn’t let up from the opening tee shot. Wide and forgiving fairways, drivable par-4s, split fairways, memorable par-3s, and boasting a beautiful finishing run, Cholla is definitely a must-play when in the area. Conveniently located at the entrance to the courses, the We-Ko-Pa Resort & Conference Center is an ideal place to bed down. The resort is sleek and stylish and offers excellent stay and play packages, dining options, exciting Pink Adventure Tours of the wild and rugged Yavapai land, and much more.
For style points, the one-two punch of Grayhawk and Troon North, both 36-hole facilities, also rank high for discerning golfers who want to get the most out of their desert “long ball” extravaganza. Jayhawk, conveniently located just minutes off the 101 freeway, epitomizes what the desert golf genre is all about. Beautifully contoured holes with perfectly-groomed fairways slide through the desert with remarkable ease. Unfortunately, as with all desert courses, missing the fairways can be a punishing experience. Hopefully, your Big Bad Bertha behaves when you’re up to bat! As a cautionary note: the Raptor course recently renovated holes 15 through 17 and the reviews have been mixed thus far.
Troon North, home to the revered Monument and Pinnacle courses, boasts an even more dramatic desert setting with numerous granite rock outcroppings that creep into play, beautiful downhill holes, and stunning vistas. While the intimidation factor and shot requirements are high at Troon North, this is desert golf at its, well, pinnacle. Interestingly, this is where it all began for Troon Golf, which has now become one of the largest golf management companies in the world
Finally, another premier oasis for desert golf aficionados is The Boulders, which is located in Carefree, approximately half an hour from downtown Scottsdale. Yet another two-course feast with plenty of upside, The Boulders is known for its amazing lunar-like landscape, which features massive 12-million-year-old boulder formations that appear as if they’ve come straight out of The Flintstones.
While both courses at The Boulders – North and South – are difficult desert classics designed by Jay Moorish, if possible, try and play the South. It takes you right into the rock formations for a few highly memorable holes.
Thankfully, if your “big dog” didn’t behave properly at The Boulders, the luxurious casitas, world-class spa, seven restaurants, and so on and so forth, will act as rejuvenators. And, if not, there’s always long-ball lessons that can be learned from watching baseball.
Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary. You can reach him at email@example.com.