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Where, er, not to golf

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

This just in: Idaho will have a golf trail in 2004. That's right - in less than a year, the spud epicenter of the U.S. will dig its heels in and do battle with Myrtle Beach, Orlando and Scottsdale for the ultra competitive golfing dollar.

Shocking? Hardly. Almost every state in the union and seemingly every country in the civilized world now claims to be a golf destination. Don't believe us? Just check the International Association of Golf Tour Operator's 2003 nominees for "undiscovered" and "emerging" golf destinations of the year, which includes Egypt, Finland, Nova Scotia, Mississippi, and Thailand, among others.

Eighteen holes and a tour of the ancient pyramids, anyone?

The point being this: recommending a golf destination during this time of unprecedented market parity is as difficult as nailing an NFL parlay. At the risk of sounding negative (and sports writers never come off as negative), it has become much easier to explain to traveling golfers where they shouldn't go. So grab your clubs, dust off your soft spikes, and prepare to go somewhere else.

Where not to go - quantity: Are you the type who likes to play 36 holes a day for five straight days, never holing out on the same course twice? You may want to avoid high-end, limited supply markets like the Monterey Peninsula (think Pebble Beach), the Oregon Coast (think Bandon and Pacific Dunes), New Mexico (think Paa-Ko Ridge and Pinon Hills, easily a half day apart) and Kohler, Wisc. (Think American Club.)

Where not to go - snob factor: If you'd rather play a couple vaunted courses in one trip than two run-of-the-mill tracks per day, you will want to avoid golf factories like Myrtle Beach, Orlando, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, Santee/Cooper, S.C., and Hilton Head. That's not to say there's not some high-end product in each of these markets. The Grand Strand, for one, is home to three of Golf Magazine's Top 100 Courses You Can Play for 2002. But more often that not, you'll be driving and putting on some unremarkable courses.

Where not to go - price gouging: If you grew up playing municipal courses, are in a somewhat normal income bracket, or just can't stomach a round of golf that runs higher than the monthly SUV payment, cross Las Vegas, Scottsdale, Palm Springs/Palm Desert/La Quinta, Pinehurst Resort, and Naples, Fla., off your list. All of these golf destinations offering dazzling resorts, designer courses and the price tags to match. The only exception being in the dead of summer, when the temps hit the triple digits and the locals come out from hiding.

Where not to play - weather: If you think long pants are for the PGA Tour and jackets are for skiers, you may want to forfeit that life-long dream of chasing the pill around Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. Mark Twain once said the coldest winter he ever spent was summer in San Francisco, but he could have just as well been referring to these bastions of not-so-balmy golf. Also avoid like three-putts: summer in Palm Springs/Palm Desert. Golfing at altitude in Scottsdale and Vegas in the summer is one thing. But playing at sea level in the hottest desert in the U.S. is another.

Where not to play - nightlife: Are you really in it for the golf? Or do you simply enjoy posting your usual 98, grabbing a Navy shower and hitting the local bars, nightclubs and gentlemen's establishments? If you prefer that the bars close shortly before your morning tee time, skip the trip to Pinehurst/Sandhills, Williamsburg, Va., and the Monterey Peninsula. Your, er, game sets up perfectly for Myrtle Beach, Las Vegas, Miami, Gulfport, Miss., or Gulf Shores, Ala.

All this negativity got you down? Here are some can't-miss golf destinations for quality, quantity, nightlife and weather:

1. Scottsdale/Phoenix/Mesa, Ariz. - Over 150 courses you can play, ranging from respectable city-run tracks to three-figure daily fee and resort courses like Troon North, Grayhawk, the and Boulders. Appropriately dubbed, "The Valley of the Sun," the region enjoys 300 sunny days a year and eight months of flat out enjoyable golf weather. As one of the ten largest metro areas in the U.S., Scottsdale/Phoenix/Mesa boasts professional and major college sports teams. Downtown Phoenix, Tempe (home of Arizona State University) and downtown Scottsdale are the places to be once the omnipresent sun sets.

2. Palm Springs, Palm Desert, La Quinta, Calif. - The Coachella Valley is the left coast's version of Myrtle Beach, only slightly (okay, not so slightly) more upscale. Nearly 200 courses ramble around the valley floor, morphing one of the driest regions known to man into a veritable Bermuda grass oasis. The lion's share of courses here are wallet-drainers (see PGA West), but American's Desert Playground has enough affordable venues (see Tahquitz Creek and Cimarron) to keep it in the good graces of the locals.

3.Tampa/St. Pete/Clearwater Fla. - The other Bay area is home to an intriguing mix of first-class resort courses, upscale daily fee and semiprivate tracks and a heaping helping of affordable public access facilities sure to appeal to any skill level and income bracket. While situated an hour north of town, World Woods (Pine Barrens and Rolling Oaks courses) are a must-play. Tampa is a hip, well-planned midsize city full of hustling thirty-somethings and the nightlife to match. If you still need a push in the right direction, check out synergetic Ybor City and the up-and-coming "SoHo" district.

4.Texas Hill Country, i.e. Austin and San Antonio - Picturesque Austin and San Antonio play host to highly regarded golf resorts like Barton Creek and the Weston La Cantera. There are also plenty of midlevel tracks that are heavy on quality but light on price. For nightlife, see Tampa/St. Pete/Clearwater and triple it. Austin's 6th Street is one of the best live music strongholds in the world. You are more likely to see Mariachis than Alt-Country along San Antonio's Riverwalk, but the downtown fixture is the heartbeat of the Alamo town's existence.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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