Arizona golf always has been defined by its diverse landscape and dramatic backdrops. Add award-winning architects like Tom Weiskopf, Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, Tom Fazio and the highly regarded team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, to name just a few, and no wonder the blue ribbons keep piling up for Arizona golf, which now includes a rainbow of more than 300 courses statewide.

Big-city play

Arizona’s awe-inspiring portfolio of golf available to the public starts with Troon North Golf Club in Scottsdale and We-Ko-Pa Golf Club on the Fort McDowell Reservation near Fountain Hills. Arguably, no two clubs that feature 36 holes of golf have earned more recognition than the Monument and Pinnacle courses at Troon North and We-Ko-Pa’s Cholla and Saguaro courses.

Experts rarely agree when it comes to which of this dynamic foursome is Number 1. Even though all four courses have taken turns being rated the highest in various polls, Golf Magazine/golf.com recently ranked Pinnacle first, Cholla second, Saguaro third and Monument fourth in its “2010 Best Public Golf Courses in Arizona.”

Coming in fifth place in that poll, by the way, was the new Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club, formerly a private, men-only golf club located in the small farming community of Maricopa near Phoenix. Designed in part by Fred Couples to a staggering 7,337 yards, Southern Dunes is so highly respected that it annually hosts qualifying for the US Open and the PGA Tour.

Other annual award winners in the metro Phoenix area include TPC Scottsdale, home of the Waste Management Phoenix Open; Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, where the Talon and Raptor courses also have hosted professional events; and Gold Canyon Golf Resort in the village of the same name, where its dynamic Dinosaur Mountain Course was voted Number 8 on Golf Magazine’s “America’s Most Underrated Golf Courses” – the only Arizona layout on the list.

Then there is the one-of-a-kind Boulders Golf Resort near the quaint town of Carefree. The sensational Jay Morrish-inspired North and South courses – both natural beauties – have helped the resort earn Gold Medal Award status from Golf Magazine every year since 1988. It’s no wonder, as there’s a lot to love about these perfectly manicured fairways and greens, especially the way they weave their way through the two-million-year-old rocks.

The Lodge at Ventana Canyon in Tucson, where Fazio created the Mountain and the Canyon courses, is another Arizona masterpiece that leans heavily on Mother Nature. Cut out of the mountains, canyons and arroyos that are part of a pristine, 600-acre high Sonoran preserve, only the highly acclaimed Lodge reaps as many rewards as the links.

Another terrific golf resort in metro Tucson is the regal Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Dove Mountain, which has garnered several major awards since it became the official tournament host of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in 2009.

Designed by Nicklaus, Dove Mountain’s 27-hole “green monster” got high marks from Golfweek (Number 2 Best Public Access) and Golf Magazine (Best New Public Course list for 2009), as well as a first place from Golf Inc. for its clubhouse. Oh, yes, and “favorite new spa” from Spa Magazine.

Surprises statewide

Keep in mind that not all of Arizona’s best golf offerings are found in the metropolitan Phoenix and Tucson areas.

For instance, south of Tucson is the renowned artisan community of Tubac, where 18 holes of golf by Red Lawrence were so well done that they shot a movie – Tin Cup – there. (Ken Kavanaugh wove an additional nine into the course after the movie.) With such a feather in its golf cap, no wonder Tubac Golf Resort & Spa made Golf Digest’s “Best Places to Play’’ list for 2010.

Sedona Golf Resort in Northern Arizona is another of the state’s hidden gems, with its incredible backdrops of Bell and Cathedral rocks. So is Emerald Canyon Golf Course, a Bill Phillips design located along Arizona’s West Coast, on bluffs high above the Colorado River near Parker.

hole_17_w_river.pngTalk about amazing awards associated with the game! In 2009 Emerald Canyon earned the American Fisheries Society’s “Conservationist of the Year” award for its efforts to save and propagate the boney-tailed chub and razorback sucker in its lakes.

For those searching for a course combining a bit of everything that is Arizona golf – views, variety and value – try ASU Karsten Course in Tempe. The home of Arizona State’s golf teams and located smack dab in the middle of Tempe, the Karsten Course has consistently earned four and a half stars from Golf Digest, as well as being named to the Zagat Survey’s “Best Bang for the Buck in a Premium Golf Area.”