CHARLOTTE, N.C. – No National Football League division can match the NFC West when it comes to geographical variety. On the southern end sits Phoenix and the arid Sonoran Desert. On the northern end is Seattle, unofficial rain capital of the U.S. In between you've got the dramatic hills and rough waters of the San Francisco Bay area, and – via a loose definition of west – the midwestern river town and sports mecca of St. Louis, MO.
Few divisions can rival this competitive new grouping's daily fee and resort golf offerings, either. The Phoenix area is arguably the most popular golf destination in the world (Myrtle Beach might have something to say about that), and Scottsdale is home to some of the most lavish courses in the U.S. The countryside surrounding San Francisco provides a breathtaking backdrop for some of America's most scenic courses, and the famous Monterrey Peninsula is just a solid 3-wood away. Seattle and St. Louis, while not recognized as golf destinations, hold their own in both quality and quantity of layouts available for public consumption.
Without further ado, let's handicap the field.
Troon North, Greyhawk, the Boulders … what can we tell you about this resort golf playground that you don't already know? How about this: We-Ko-Pa, designed by Scott Miller and owned by the Yavapai Indian Nation, is one of the best new courses you can play in the desert southwest; Talking Stick, a Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore design, is pushing the minimalist envelope; and Whirlwind Golf Club on the Gila River Indian Reservation south of Phoenix, is one of the best courses in the Valley for the money.
Need more? No problem. Nick Faldo, courtesy of the design team of Brian Curley and Lee Schmidt, has put his name on a spectacular new course at Marriott's Desert Ridge Resort and Spa in Scottsdale and Jack Nicklaus has crafted an affordable alternative to the upscale tracks of the north valley with his 36-hole Bear Creek facility.
Considering the quality and history of the courses in the greater San Francisco area, it would be easy to seat the City by the Bay in the top spot. But the best courses in the Valley of the Sun are literally just a 20-30 minute trip from Sun Devil Stadium, and the must-play courses of San Francisco are a good hour or two away. The names, however, are strikingly familiar for true golf fans.
Pebble Beach and Spanish Bay head the list, but Greg Norman's Wente Vineyards in the Livermore Valley is one of the better tracks you may not know about. Northwest of the city, there are at least a dozen worthwhile daily fee courses, including Rooster Run in Petaluma, and Fountaingrove Country Club in Santa Rosa. Bodega Harbour Golf Links is worth the drive back towards the coast, as 16 of its 18 holes offer views of the ocean.
The city known for its airplanes, coffee and computers was once ranked near the bottom of U.S. towns in terms of golf holes per capita. Within the city limits, the song remains the same: three tired old municipal courses pump over 100,000 annual rounds a piece through their fairways each year. But if you think water – as in crossing it – you'll find some of the better golf offerings in the Pacific Northwest.
Hop a ferry for the Kitsap Peninsula (they leave approximately every 30 minutes) and set your sights on the Olympic Course at Gold Mountain in Bremerton. Olympic, named for the mountain range to the west, was a Golf Magazine “Top Ten You Can Play” selection from 1997, and its sister course, the Cascade, is a straightforward layout that attracts its fair share of Emerald City duffers.
Thirty miles north, the Port Ludlow Golf Course is still worthy of a visit. The Trail Nine, which opened in 1992, stakes a legitimate claim to being Washington's toughest stretch of holes. If you do decide to stay in the city, sleepless or not, the West Seattle Municipal Course is by far the best of the city-owned lot.
The scales of justice prevail: great baseball town, NFL's best football team, but mediocre golf town. Still, plenty of options exist, and this isn't exactly Las Cruces, New Mexico. Stonewolf Golf Club, just over the border in Fairview Heights, Ill., is an affordable, challenging, Jack Nicklaus-designed course. Tapawingo National Golf Club in Sunset Hills is a solid 7,151-yard Gary Player designed course that is popular with the locals.
1. St. Louis – The best team in the NFL last season (14-2) and the best team in the NFL this season. With quarterback Kurt Warner at the helm and speedy receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt lined up wide, it's still the greatest show on turf.
2. San Francisco – Jeff Garcia is proving he's no fluke, and two-time comeback player of the year Garrison Hearst is the perfect fit at tailback in Steve Mariucci's run-first, pass later offense.
3. Arizona – Getting better every year under Dave McGinnis.
4. Seattle – Trent Dilfer goes down, and so do the Seahawks.
August 23, 2002