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 to the opening of the facility in 1988, and Mickelson still carries a Grayhawk logo on his bag.
Lefty is friends developer Gregg Tryhus and 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.
And Tiger Woods chose the Raptor Course for the inaugural version of his World Challenge won by Tom Lehman in 1999, before moving it to Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
We had the opportunity to play Talon, designed by former U.S. Open and PGA champion David Graham, which is 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 wider 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 or hybrid club 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 your ball before it rolls in 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 Grayhawk community and 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 only 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 two Residence Inns and a Marriott Courtyard in the North Scottsdale area.
On the web: http://grayhawkgolf.com.
--Grayhawk Golf Club report By Derek Harper, The Sports Xchange
THE LAST RESORT: Wailea Golf Resort, Wailea, Maui, Hawaii.
THE LAYOUT: With three distinctly different championship courses, Wailea offers the vacationing golfer all he or she could ask for.
The Gold Course (par 72, 7,078 yards), was designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and opened in 1993; the Emerald Course (par 72, 6,825) also was designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and opened in 1994; the Old Blue Course (par 72, 6,758 yards), was designed by Arthur Jack Snyder and opened in 1972.
Located on the lower slopes of 10,023-foot Mt. Haleakala, a dormant volcano known as "The House of the Sun," Wailea offers panoramic vistas of the Pacific Ocean and the neighbor islands of Lanai, Molokai and Kahoolawe.
The courses wander through stark lava rock outcroppings, indigenous Hawaiian grasses, kiawe (mesquite) trees and remnants of papohaku, prehistoric lava rock walls built by early Hawaiians and preserved for their historic value.
It is important to choose the correct club because of the elevation changes on some holes.
HEAD PROFESSIONAL: Rusty Hathaway.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Test your game on the Gold Course, where the Champions Skins Game was from 2001 through 2007.
Most intriguing hole on the Gold is the par-4 sixth, which is only 297 yards from the back tee, but the green is guarded by a massive bunker complex that contains almost as much sand as nearby Wailea Beach.
Signature hole is No. 8, a 218-yard downhill par 3 which offers breathtaking views of Molokini, an ancient volcano crater that is partly submerged in the ocean, and the island of Lanai across the water.
The Blue Course, which features a number of fountains and lakes, once hosted the LPGA Tour's Kemper Open. Best hole on the course might be the 562-yard, par-5 fourth, which plays uphill from the tee and then downhill to the green.
The second hole on the Blue is a 207-yard par 3, on which the shot from an elevated tee is all carry across a lake to a green that also is guarded by several bunkers.
The Emerald Course is annually listed as one of Golf for Women magazine's most women-friendly courses. The Emerald contains a reminder of golf in the United Kingdom with a large double green that is shared by the 10th and 17th holes. The green borders a 2.7 million gallon brackish water lake and is one of the most picturesque spots on the course.
The finishing hole on the Emerald is a 553-yard par 5, with wide landing areas for the first two shots, which should leave a short iron to the green. Be sure to say below the hole for the best chance to finish with a birdie.
OTHER COURSES IN THE AREA: Makena Golf Club is only a few minutes drive from Wailea. Silversword Golf Course in Kihei, Sandalwood Golf Course in Waipaku, Pukalani Golf Course in Pukalani, Maui Country Club in Sprecklesville, the Dunes at Mani Lani in Kahului are not far away on the South end of Maui.
In West Maui are the Kapaula Resort, with the famed Plantation Course in addition to the Bay Course, and the Kaanapali Resort, which features the North and South courses.
WHERE TO STAY: The Grand Wailea Resort is a favorite of Michael Jordan and other celebrities. Also in the Wailea Resort area are the Four Seasons Resort, the Wailea Marriott, the Fairmont Kea Lani Maui Resort and Renaissance Wailea Beach. Nearby is the Maui Prince Hotel, where the Makena Golf Club is on the property.
ON THE WEB: www.waileagolf.com.