Like just about everything in baseball, the official origins of spring training are disputed: Some argue it began in 1870; others claim 1888. What is not up for debate is that it became popular with fans very quickly—and by 1900, fans were flocking to Florida to escape the winter cold and start fantasizing about their team’s chances that year.
The current setup—15 teams in Florida, as part of the Grapefruit League, 15 teams in Arizona, as part of the Cactus League—has been a boon for golfers, as well. The teams are more spread out in Florida: Roughly half the stadiums are on the Gulf Coast to the west, and the others are on the Atlantic coast, so it’s better to focus on one destination. Out In the southwest, the Cactus League stadiums have a tighter dispersion pattern. If you’re willing to drive an hour, you can hit all of Arizona’s best courses, no matter where your team is located.
Here are a few favorites to mark off your bucket list before the season moves north for summer.
Gasparilla Inn and Club
Nearest teams: Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays
The golf is richer (and steeper) on the Florida peninsula’s east coast, but good courses can be found on the west coast, too. Gasparilla Inn and Club, near historic downtown Boca Grande, is a mere 20 minutes from Charlotte Sports Park, the fabulous spring training home of the Tampa Bay Rays. (The Braves’ stadium, Cooltoday Park, is 25 miles away. Ed Smith Stadium, home of the Baltimore Orioles, sits 50 miles north, in Sarasota.) Guests of the resort will find a manageable 6,800-yard course designed by golfing Hall of Famer Pete Dye, who also designed New York’s Pound Ridge and Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. Rounds begin at $125 for resort guests.
Teams nearby: Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies
Set in the shadow of the McDowell Mountain Range, east of Phoenix on Yavapai Nation land, the Saguaro course at We-Ko-Pa was designed by the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the duo responsible for some of the most breathtaking courses on Earth, including Bandon Trails, Cabot Cliffs, and Sand Hills. This spot is a short 15-mile drive for fans of the Diamondbacks and Rockies, who share the Salt River Fields stadium. And it’s only 50 miles northeast of Goodyear, where the Reds and Indians are practicing; if you want something closer, Papago Golf Course is home to perennial NCAA contenders Arizona State and only 30 miles from Goodyear. It costs about $90 at peak times.
Nearest teams: Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins
In the Red Sox spring training home of Fort Myers, Fla., JetBlue Park at Fenway South features a “green monster” that’s six feet taller than the original that looms over Boston’s Landsdowne Street. There are several nearby courses to test out while you’re imagining the first three-game tilt with the Yankees, but Herons Glen and Country Club is only 20 miles from the stadiums of the Red Sox and Twins and has a short track that’ll make you forget that it’s probably snowing back home.
Teams nearby: Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants
If time and convenience is of the essence, Talking Stick Resort remains closest to most Cactus League teams. Although often overshadowed by its neighbor, TPC at Scottsdale, this one has two Coore and Crenshaw layouts, one of which is a links design with unusual bunkering. Anytime you can get on one of their courses is a good time to go.
Nearest teams: Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees
Only an hour southeast of Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., and 30 miles from the Lakeland home base of the Tigers, lies Streamsong, a phosphate mine that has grown into one of America’s premier golf destinations. It has three courses from the holy trinity of golf architecture’s most sought-after firms: the Red Course (Coore-Crenshaw), Black Course (Gil Hanse), and Blue Course (Tom Doak), and they come in second, third, and fourth, respectively, in Golfweek’s list of “Best Courses You Can Play.” The cost comes to $245 for resort guests and $285 for the general public.
Teams nearby: Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels
Just 15 miles north of the Talking Stick Resort is TPC Scottsdale, the epicenter of golf in Arizona. It draws some of the largest—some might say rowdiest—crowds in the sport during the Phoenix Open, which finished on Feb. 2 this year. Its “Stadium” course was renovated in 2014 and is most famous for its par-3 16th hole, which is the only fully enclosed one on the PGA Tour, thanks to grandstand seats that completely surround the hole.
Nearest teams: Houston Astros, Washington Nationals
Easily the most fascinating city for baseball fans this spring is West Palm Beach, Fla., where the defending World Series champs and the newly minted villains of the sport, the Houston Astros, share the Fitteam Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. After watching fireworks on the field, splurge on the 7,100-yard Rees Jones Course at Breakers West and debate the merits of sign stealing.
Teams nearby: Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers
An hour and change northwest of Phoenix, Ariz., Wickenburg Ranch is the closest to the Royals and Rangers camps in Surprise. The 9-hole, par-3 Li’l Wick golf course plays just 663 yards from the forward tees, and the putting greens remain lit up after dark. Or head east toward Apache Stronghold. It’ll take about a 90-minute drive from Scottsdale, but you’ll get the rare chance to play a course designed by the great Tom Doak for less than $40.
PGA National Resort
Nearest teams: Miami Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals
Palm Beach Gardens, near this spring’s home of the Marlins and Cardinals (they share Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium) is home to the PGA National Resort and Spa, which will host the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic beginning on Feb. 24. A trio of holes (15,16, and 17) on its Champion Course is called the “Bear Trap,” after designer Jack Nicklaus’s longtime moniker. The resort is also home to four other courses. Call the resort for rates and availability.
#1 – Innisbrook’s View
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