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Scottsdale golf in December: Bargains, sunshine abound before the peak season storm

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As my trip last week confirmed, mid-December is a fabulous time for golf in Scottsdale if you can find room on your travel calendar between holiday family trips during. Despite temperatures and course conditions that are nearly perfect, green fees are a bargain; many are 30-50 percent off their spring peak-season rates.

My aim for the week was great under-the-radar courses that fly below Scottsdale's top shelf (like Troon North, TPC Scottsdale, Boulders and Grayhawk). The undisputed champ among my course rotation for the week was the Raven Golf Club - Phoenix (pictured above). The Raven is a facility that delivers an elite round of golf without commanding two or three benjis for the privilege (midweek prime time slots in December can be had for $75-99). The Raven's location just south of Sky Harbor International Airport means the property doesn't boast the million-year-old boulder piles like Troon North and Boulders Resort. Instead, the course's beauty is man-made. More than 6,000 Georgia Pines were imported. Designers Gary Panks and David Graham sculpted rolling mounds and giant bunkers to create a grassy, free-swinging layout more akin to the Carolina Sandhills.

Despite much fanfare when it originally opened, the Raven lacked its 'A-game' in recent years. But OB Sports assumed management in 2010 and performed some major housekeeping. The Raven should reap the rewards this spring, when happy golfers begin to spread the word.

Another facility that demands a second look is the McDowell Mountain Golf Club (formerly Sanctuary Golf Club). Phil Mickelson led an ownership group that took over the Sanctuary in 2010. Mickelson's team, along with architect Randy Heckenkemper, revamped the facility to suit both tourist swings and low-handicappers. Playing corridors were widened and some bunkers were filled in, though the back tee yardage was extended to more than 7,000 yards and the practice facility was enhanced to attract range grinders. The project will be complete when the new 11,000-square-foot clubhouse opens in January, just in time for prime time.

McDowell Mountain

McDowell Mountain has been cleaned up and widened under Lefty's eye. 

Minutes from Scottsdale, another facility delivers a legendary name without a premium green fee is the Pete Dye-designed ASU Karsten Golf Course ($59-69 in December). Though unquestionably a Dye signature thanks to its railroad ties, plenty of greenside water hazards and enormous grassy mounds bordering fairways, it's one of Dye's more playable courses from the 6,200-yard set of tees -- for those of us who never had a chance of landing a Sun Devils golf scholarship.

Golf in the West Valley: Wigwam Gold and Raven at Verrado

Wigwam Gold

Classic golf awaits in the West Valley at Wigwam Resort's Gold Course.

Those who make the 30-minute drive from Scottsdale to the West Valley can find not only good bargains but also some sleeper layouts worth the gas money.

At the historic Wigwam Resort, the Gold Course blends classic bones with modern stoutness. The course plays 7,430 yards from the back tees, long enough to host the Patriot All-America, a top collegiate event. The parkland design by Robert Trent Jones Sr. features raised and intricate greens and directional fairway bunkers, making it one this area's finest plays for lower-handicap players. For the rest of us, the 6,348-yard gold set provides for a most pleasant and unique round. You also won't be fishing around desert or tip-toeing around 'jumping Cholla' for errant drives; this course is wall-to-wall grass and a mix of mature, native and imported trees that frame each hole (December green fees: $55-69).

Toward the westernmost edge of the Valley is the Raven Golf Club at Verrado, another desert play luring golfers away from the epicenter with great rates and a championship layout (December green fees: $69-99). One of the Valley's newest courses and part of a budding residential development (yes, locals throughout the desert admit the market has picked up quite nicely in the past few months), Verrado's back nine winds up and down foothills to deliver great variety with scenic downhill holes and tough uphill ones. The higher tee boxes showcase wide fairways you can swing away at, plus a unique view of the distant Phoenix skyline miles to the east.

Stay and play in Scottsdale

Valley Ho

Hotel Valley Ho in downtown Scottsdale

If your group wants to make downtown Scottsdale your base for the week and wants some stylish digs, check into the Hotel Valley Ho, a mid-century modern refab with updated guest rooms and niceties like an espresso maker, HD TV and a large bathroom. Or, for golf and gaming, the new Talking Stick Resort is sleek and has the best casino floor in the Valley, not to mention 36 holes of all-natural Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw golf, plus a massive practice facility onsite. 

The scene in downtown Scottsdale is a mix of chic joints and dives. You can get a great cut of steak or prime rib in a friendly, sporty environment at Donn & Charlie's. Or go for something a little more slick like Mission, serving Latin American dishes in a stylish environment. For casual beers and sausage, try the new Brat Haus, serving all sorts of varieties of both beers and meats from pork to turkey and rabbit.