Scottsdale vs. Tucson: Which Arizona golf destination is right for you?

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You're thinking about a desert golf vacation in Arizona. Or maybe you're looking for a place to retire. Two warm-weather destinations come to mind immediately -- Scottsdale and Tucson -- and while they are certainly both in the desert, they really have more differences than similarities. So which one is better? Which offers more value? Which has better golf? For the most part, it depends on personal preferences and budget.

For example, while Scottsdale certainly has more golf per capita and a higher number of top-ranked golf courses and private clubs, it's also more expensive. And there are other differences as well. Here's a look at the tale of the tape.

Scottsdale area loaded with top golf

While Scottsdale is only about 220,000 in population, there are more than 200 golf courses in the area. Of course many of those are in the suburbs of the nation's fifth largest city, Phoenix, but still, you can hardly take a side street, it seems, without running into a fairway somewhere.

On the other hand, Tucson, which has just a little more than a half million in population, has fewer than 75 golf courses in the area, but the golf is generally less expensive, there are fewer tourists and the upper end of courses are certainly comparable to what Scottsdale offers.

But if you look at any "Best Of" Arizona golf lists, you'll find that Scottsdale dominates the list. For example, on Golf Digest's latest list of 25 best courses in Arizona, two of the top three and 16 of the state's top 25 are in the Scottsdale area, led by no. 1, The Estancia Club in Scottsdale. The Estancia Club, a 7,300-yard Tom Fazio design next to Pinnacle Peak -- as well as all but three courses -- is private. We-Ko-Pa's Saguaro Course and the two courses at Troon North Golf Club -- Monument and Pinnacle -- come in at 21, 23 and 24 respectively.

The Stone Canyon Club in the Oro Valley just outside of Tucson comes in at no. 4 on Golf Digest's list, but the next Tucson-area course doesn't appear until no. 25 -- the Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Marana, a 27-hole Jack Nicklaus signature resort course with a private membership.

Similar trends are reflected in our GolfAdvisor reader ratings. In GolfAdvisor's top 25 ranked courses in Arizona for 2014, 19 of them were from the Scottsdale-Phoenix area, led by Quintero Golf Club, a Rees Jones design with plenty of elevation change. The highest ranked Tucson course was Sewailo Golf Club, a Notah Begay design and amenity of the Casino del Sol.

Top public golf courses in Tucson and Scottsdale

The truth is, however (especially if you like public golf), there are so many quality golf courses in both markets that you're going to find plenty to enjoy, no matter which destination you choose. It's just that you're likely to pay more in Scottsdale.

The Scottsdale area is replete with great resort choices, for example, especially in the late fall, winter and spring, when courses are overseeded and in their best condition.

One of my favorites is the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course, home of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. This Jay Morrish-Tom Weiskopf design is one of the more playable PGA Tour courses, with wide fairways and way more grass than desert. Other outstanding Scottsdale-area golf resorts include The Boulders, Grayhawk Golf Club, Talking Stick Golf Club, JW Marriott Camelback Resort and Westin Kierland, just to name a few.

Tucson, on the other hand, has several resort courses and a decent collection of munis as well. For the most part, they are not as expensive as the Scottsdale offerings.

The aforementioned Sewailo Golf Club, which opened in 2013, has quickly become a favorite with locals and visitors alike. Designed around large lakes and wide fairways, the course is playable by all levels and presents plenty of good risk-reward opportunities. Other top quality resort courses include Ventana Canyon, Westin La Paloma, Starr Pass Golf Club, Omni Tucson National Resort & Spa and Arizona National Golf Club, the home course for the University of Arizona Golf Club.

Where to retire: Tucson or Scottsdale

If money is no object, you like a large metropolitan area, and you're always looking for something to do in addition to golf; Scottsdale, which has sort of a California suburban feel to it, is probably the better choice for retirement. There's no shortage of modern shopping centers, entertainment, nightlife, arts, theater and sporting events, both on the professional and amateur level.

The Phoenix-Scottsdale area is the spring training home to half of the Major League Baseball teams, and Scottsdale itself has two ballparks and three teams. Plus, nearby Glendale has the Arizona Cardinals and Super Bowl XLIX, and there are also the NBA's Phoenix Suns, NHL's Arizona Coyotes and Arizona State University athletics. Scottsdale also has the PGA Tour's Waste Management Phoenix Open. Unfortunately for Tucson, the WGC-Match Play Championship is moving from the area to San Francisco's Harding Park with a new May date and sponsor (Cadillac).

Of course, Phoenix isn't that far from Tucson, so it's only a 90-minute drive for Tucson residents who want to enjoy some of the big-time attractions in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area, and Tucson is home to the ASU Sun Devils' rival, the University of Arizona Wildcats.

Located just 90 miles north of the Mexican border, Tucson is certainly slower-paced than Scottsdale, overall not as developed and certainly has a cheaper cost of living. Tucson is on Forbes Magazine's Top 25 Places to Retire list, citing its "cost of living -- 4 percent lower than the national average -- typical home price of $172,000, abundant doctors per capita and high rank for bicycling and volunteering."

There are also differences in weather. Even though Tucson is farther south than Scottsdale, it's generally cooler and wetter (Tucson gets around 11 inches of rainfall per year) than Scottsdale because it's higher in elevation (2,400 feet). That means it's a little more bearable in the summer with temperatures often in the 90s instead of the high 100s. Both have mild winters, but it can get cold for a day or two at time. And as those who attended the 2013 Accenture Match Play Championship at The Golf Club at Dove Mountain can attest, sometimes it even snows.

Mike Bailey is a former Golf Advisor senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. He has also been on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
Commented on

I would agree with all. Scottsdale is where it's at! Plus the scenery is great with a brew in hand :)

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Commented on

Guys, I really enjoy reading Mike Bailey's articles and generally agree whole heartedly, but I am not a fan of the Stadium Club in Scottsdale. Have played it 3 times in July (I know it's hot, but the green fees are ridiculously low) and every time it was in miserable shape.  Even worse was the Pro Shop never told us about the course conditions. You are better off playing some of Mike's other choices: Grayhawk, Troon We-Ko-Pa and Talking Stick.  I have yet to have a bad experience @ WKP or Talking Stick.  Just my 3 cents... 

God Bless,TK

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There's nothing like a massage after a round or two on the golf course. Or in the case of the Willow Stream spa at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in Arizona, there's the spa's co-ed waterfall/pool treatment built in the likeness of the Grand Canyon's Havasupai Falls. The 44,000-square-foot spa is undoubtedly one of the finest in the Southwest but hardly the only choice in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. There are so many, and each are unique in their own way.
If you're looking for value in your golf vacation, here's something you might want to consider: Travel to Tucson, Arizona and play the munis. Tucson has some of the best golf weather in the U.S. and one of the better municipal golf systems. Nobody's saying that Tucson's best munis are as good as Torrey Pines or Beth Page Black, but they are very good values. In fact, while the resort courses approach $200 during peak season, Tucson's munis are well less than $50. And the golf is pretty stout.
One of Jack Nicklaus' early designs, La Paloma Country Club, is also one of his best. Operated by Troon Golf and open to guests at the newly renovated Westin La Paloma, the golf course is one of the best conditioned and most scenic in southern Arizona. With plenty of elevated tees and mountain views throughout, the scenery never stops.
Picking the most scenic courses in Scottsdale is an impossible task. Not because there's so few courses from which to pick. Because there's too many. With that said, here are some camera-ready classics.
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Scottsdale vs. Tucson: Which Arizona golf destination is right for you?