IN THE PUBLIC EYE: Grayhawk Golf Club - The Talon Course, in North Scottsdale, Ariz.
THE LAYOUT: Phil Mickelson has enjoyed a long relationship with Grayhawk dating back to the opening of the facility in 1988, and Mickelson still carries a Grayhawk logo on his bag. He's friends developer Gregg Tryhus, there are pictures of Mickelson's career highlights throughout the clubhouse and "Phil's Grill" - the restaurant looking out at the Raptor course - is named in his honor.
It stands to reason Mickelson would only associate himself with a top-tier golfing experience, and Grayhawk offers two of the best tracks in the Phoenix area.
We had the opportunity to play Talon, designed by former U.S. Open and PGA Champion David Graham and regularly ranked among the top 100 public courses in the country.
While most of Grayhawk's bigger events are now held on the Raptor course, Talon is steep with its own tradition. It once played host to the semifinals and finals of the Andersen Consulting World Championship of Golf - now known as the Accenture Match Play Championship.
Talon can be stretched out to 6,973 yards (73.3/146) from the tips, and is still a very challenging test from the green "Palo Verde" tees (6,391/70.8/134). There are five sets of tee boxes in all, down to the "Heather" (5,143/70.1/126). You'll notice from the rankings that Talon is challenging, but it's a fun test and very playable for most anyone.
Graham and course architect Gary Panks designed the course to place a premium on driving the ball accurately. Most fairways are lined with swaths of bush-ridden desert on both sides, and while water rarely comes into play, almost every green is protected by multiple bunkers and features a tiered putting surface.
Talon weaves its way through the property with beautiful views of the McDowell Mountains while blending into its natural surroundings. Nothing about Grayhawk feels forced - it's extremely well maintained, but it's not a resort-style course, which many golfers will appreciate.
Miss left or right off the tee and you'll find trouble. The areas surrounding the large putting surfaces are generous, but bunkers come into play around 15 of 18 greens.
GENERAL MANAGER: Joe Shershenovich
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Two pre-round thoughts to keep in mind - the fairways are bigger than they appear, and don't be fooled by the massive greens.
Talon is certainly a course you'll score better on the first time around if you play with someone familiar with the layout. From the opening tee shot, fairways often look significantly smaller than they are - and local knowledge keys you into which side they open up on.
The 385-yard Par-4 first hole isn't long from the green tees, but it gives a good feel for the experience at Talon. There's more landing area to the right than it appears off the tee box, but an accurate drive leaves a short iron in to a big green. It's a common theme with six par-4s under 400 yards but featuring tight landing views from the box.
Sixteen of 18 greens are at least 34 feet deep, and nearly all feature multiple tiers. So while the landing surfaces are very large, they're also deceptive because three-putts are commonplace without solid approach shots. Pay attention to the pin locations and avoid the mindset of simply attempting to hit the putting surface.
One of the highlights of the front nine is the 465-yard par-5 third hole. It features a strong dogleg left and is reachable in two with a well-placed drive down the left-hand side. The green is 34-feet deep, but is also elevated and protected by deep bunkers on the front right that you want no part of.
The par-3 eighth hole is a ball-striking test. There are no bunkers to contend with and plenty of room to miss the green, but at 189 yards it requires a well-hit long iron to avoid a testy up-and-down for par.
The front nine closes with another excellent par-5 that runs 507 yards. The green is protected by a deep bunker stretching from the front right all the way around behind the back right side.
Talon's back nine was built around several deep box canyons that provide some unique layouts and a bit of a different flair from the front nine.
The par-4 13th hole is appropriately named "Heaven or Hell." At 277 yards it is drivable, although the wind often is in your face off the tee. It requires a 235-yard carry over a canyon and is 250 to the front edge of the green. Miss short right and you're in the hazard. Miss left and there are five bunkers protecting the three-tiered green. The landing area is small, but the potential reward is an eagle putt.
Take in the Mesquite, Palo Verde and Ironwood trees that line the course as you traverse through the inward nine.
Water only comes into real play on one hole - but there is 360 degrees of it.
The par-3 17th is a pretty island green. At 114 yards from the green tees it's a short iron to a green that is 32-feet deep, so the danger is minimal as long as you don't let the vision of carrying the water - and stopping before it on the back side - paralyze your brain.
The par-5 18th is an excellent closing hole. Playing 552 from the green tees with a dogleg right protected by a string of reachable bunkers, it's not a two-shot hole for most. The fairway is undulating, creating many uneven stances for your approach shot. But the green is 36 feet deep and inviting for a closing birdie.
After the round, grab a pint at Phil's Grill, or the new Italian restaurant, Isabella's Kitchen, which has a big patio facing out to the 10th tee box and the 18th green.
OTHER COURSES IN THE AREA: It's hard to go wrong in the Phoenix area, and there are more courses than even the locals have time to get tired of.
Many of the top facilities feature two courses worthy of lining up a 36-hole day for, including Troon (Pinnacle, Monument) and TPC (Stadium, Champions) in Scottsdale, We-Ko-Pa (Cholla and Saguaro) in Fort McDowell and the Boulders (North, South) in Carefree.
Talking Stick, owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, is another Troon establishment with a pair of consistently top-ranked tracks.
WHERE TO STAY: There are a number of rentals available in the Grahawk community - www.vrbo.com is an excellent resource to see what is available during your stay.
For those seeking a quality hotel or resort, the Four Seasons in the Pinnacle Peak area is just a few miles north and around more excellent golf courses. Ten minutes to the south, the Fairmont Scottsdale Princes and the Sheraton Desert Oasis are walking distance to TPC Scottsdale, along with the Hilton Garden Inn and Zona Resort Suites.
There is also a wealth of more budget-friendly options centrally located for avid golfers, including a pair of Residence Inns and a Marriott Courtyard in the North Scottsdale area.
On the web: http://grayhawkgolf.com/