The howls were haunting. A surreal symphony of barks, yelps, howls, cackles and calls coming from a pack of coyotes in the middle of the afternoon and not more than 50 yards away. For a Midwesterner, playing golf in the desert of the American Southwest is an eye-opening, and an ear-opening, experience.

The howls were haunting. A surreal symphony of barks, yelps, howls, cackles and calls coming from a pack of coyotes in the middle of the afternoon and not more than 50 yards away.


"They just got a kill," Scottsdale local Corey LaRusso said of the celebratory chorus coming from just behind the sixth green at Eagle Mountain Golf Club in Fountain Hills, Ariz. "Or maybe they're cheering for Rob's approach."


For a Midwesterner, playing golf in the desert of the American Southwest is an eye-opening, and an ear-opening, experience. In addition to hearing things you've never heard before, you'll be amazed at the beauty of the Sonoran Desert and the unique setting it provides for some of the world's finest golf.


In the heart of Arizona's Valley of the Sun just east of Phoenix, Scottsdale has evolved into one of the world's most coveted golf destinations. There are more than 200 golf courses in the greater Phoenix area, with many of the top ones concentrated east of the city in and around the sophisticated suburb of Scottsdale.


Six courses in the area are ranked in Golf Magazine's "Top 100 You Can Play" list, more than any other region in the country. All within a short distance of each other, you could play Scottsdale's super six on a single trip.


"That just shows how great the golf is here," said LaRusso, a native of Los Angeles who played college golf at the University of Arizona, then settled in the Scottsdale area. "You can get spoiled here."


Getting spoiled is easy to do in a resort area that has rightfully earned a reputation for its fantastic golf, luxury accommodations, world-class dining, shopping and nightlife.


But first and foremost, it's golf that attracts visitors to the desert. Arizona's climate allows for play 12 months a year, although the summer months can be sizzling. Peak season is February and March, when the mild climate and warm, sunny days create perfect playing conditions.


As snow and ice keep even the most ardent Midwestern golfers at bay for at least three more months, now is the perfect time to enjoy all the amenities Arizona golf has to offer.


But with so many courses to choose from, how do you narrow it down? If you've never been to Scottsdale - and you're not looking for a bargain - there are five places that qualify as must-play venues.


- Troon North Golf Club: Thirty-six championship holes always are in excellent condition, especially in peak season, but among the most expensive rounds in the desert. Expect to pay $200 or more, but for that you get some of the best views in the area.


- TPC Scottsdale Stadium Course: Play where the pros play one of the most raucous events on the PGA Tour. More than two dozen Tour players call this their home course, and many of them will be getting cheered or jeered Feb. 25-28 when they play the par-3 16th during the Waste Management Phoenix Open, known until this year as the FBR Open. Fully enclosed with stadium seating, this is one of the most unique and deafening amphitheaters in all of golf.


"Imagine 15,000 people screaming at you when you come through here," our forecaddie, Pete, said during a December visit.


- Grayhawk Golf Club: Another facility with two terrific layouts, Phil Mickelson's home club is definitely a Scottsdale standout. Both the Talon and the Raptor courses have hosted numerous high-profile events, including the Accenture Match Play.


- We-Ko-Pa Golf Club: Free of homes and built on American Indian land in the late 1990s, both courses - Cholla and Sagauro - are ranked in the top 100.


- Talking Stick Golf Club: Golf courses designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore are almost always excellent, and 36-hole Talking Stick is no exception.


From central Illinois, getting to Scottsdale is as easy as holing that two-foot par putt. Allegiant Air flies direct from Peoria to Gateway Airport in Mesa, Ariz.


Round-trip fares are available for less that $300, even in peak season. Departing from Midway in Chicago or Lambert in St. Louis allows for lower fares on Southwest Airlines, and with Southwest's "Bags Fly Free" program, checking a golf bag and a large suitcase doesn't cost extra.


Lodging choices are as diverse as the golf. A number of upscale hotels are in Scottsdale, all with a golf concierge on staff to arrange your lodging and tee times with one phone call. The recently renovated XONA Resort Suites provides a central location with deluxe accommodations at reasonable rates.


With so many courses and resorts competing for the tourist dollar, the slumping economy has created a number of attractive deals. Just keep your distance from the coyotes.


Greg Stewart can be reached at (309) 686-3202 or gstewart@pjstar.com.


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For more about the golf courses in this story and many others, plus information about lodging, dining, nightlife and tourist attractions in and around Scottsdale, Ariz., visit www.scottsdalecvb.com.