It's 5 degrees in Boston, Houston's huddled under a hailstorm and a blue norther is blistering New Orleans.

There's only one escape: Throw a few pairs of shorts, a couple of short-sleeved shirts and a large bottle of sun block in the golf bag and call the airline about one of those cheaper-than-yesterday tickets to the land of casual sand.Winters in south-central Arizona defy the laws of nature. Bright, sun-drenched skies and temperatures that always seem to tease 75 degrees. Arizonans don't suffer from cabin fever.

It's roughly 200 miles and as many golf courses from Phoenix to Nogales on the Mexican border. Despite the thousands of snowbirds, there's no problem finding a quiet, manicured fairway hidden in the high Sonoran desert.

There's a course for every game and pocketbook, from a $125-dollar-a-round, PGA-tested picture of perfection to a lush $25 city course. In between are private, getaway resorts built by reclusive millionaires and Hollywood stars that are now open to anyone with a road map and bag of clubs.

- Troon North: Located 20 miles north of Scottsdale, Troon North is a masterful mix of Bermuda fairways and unblemished bentgrass greens that form a strange, yet harmonious, marriage with indigenous saguaros and surrealistic rock formations.

The sense of seclusion is overwhelming. One hole cannot be seen from another. Troon is the consummate target course where swaths of desert cut in front of tees and greens.

The course was designed by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish, who believe God makes the best layout, so why fool with perfection? "Their courses are fair, playable, but challenging at the same time. They use the existing conditions," said Troon North's course superintendent, Jeff Spangler.

Quality is the first priority at Troon North. It has been named the best-conditioned course in the Southwest by several golf publications and a different grounds crew is usually at work on almost every hole - even the rough is raked.

Highlights include the third hole, called "The Monument," where a 30-foot monolith splits the fairway in the 544-yard, dogleg right.

No. 10 and No. 11 are the top-rated back-to-back holes in the state - the former includes a second shot over 80 yards of desert and the latter a 539-yard, double-dogleg with a gaping "Hell Bunker" about 100 yards in front of the green.

It all comes together, however, on No. 16, the "Post Card," where desert, rocks, a wash and even a small lake come into play in just 140 yards. A two-tier green caps the most challenging and picture-perfect par 3 on that side of the Continental Divide.

- Ocotillo Golf Club: About 30 miles south in the town of Chandler is the Ocotillo Golf Club, which shatters the desert stereotype with a wide-open, links-style venue and water on 23 of the course's 27 holes.

This place has more water than cactus; sometimes it's to the left, then right, or on both sides of the fairway. Greens are bayoued, not bunkered.

No. 5 is a gem - an emerald blanket leading to a large cascading waterfall that fronts the 342-yard, par 4. The 11th fairway is lined with water on the left and right and the 12th hole is 128 yards with water surrounding the green on three sides.

But No. 18 is the final and most challenging water shot on the course, due mainly to the second shot D a 120-yard blast over a lake.

- Tucson National: From Phoenix, hook a left on I-10 to Tucson, where you'll find Tucson National Golf and Conference Resort, the patriarch of Southern Arizona resorts.

The 33-year-old resort features 27 holes of traditional - rather than target - play nestled at the foot of the Santa Catalina mountains.

"This is a traditional, midwestern-style course with lots of rough, but at the same time it's forgiving, with a lot of trees as opposed to cactus," said Mike Buss, director of golf at Tucson National.

Tucson National is home to the Northern Telecom Open each January, and its 18th hole is the famous double lake, dogleg left that requires landing on a narrow strip of fairway to have a shot at the well-moated green. The 18th is rated the third-most-difficult finishing hole on the PGA tour.

Holes 8 through 11 are the stiffest test of nerve south of the Salt River.

Eight is the signature hole, a 500-yard, par 5 with bunkers running left and right. Nine is a par 4 with a small lake guarding the dogleg right. The second shot is to an elevated green with deep bunkers across the front and a bank of resort suites in the rear.

Nos. 10 and 11 are back-to-back par 5s that you'll never forget - no matter how hard you try.

Even if the course rubs you the wrong way, the club's European-style spa will put you back in shape with a Russian bath or Scotch shower, a salt glow or a loofah scrub.

- Randolph Park: You don't have to pay a lot to play the best courses, as evidenced by an oasis of greenery in the heart of Tucson.

Randolph Park is a municipal course that sports 36 holes. The north course is the longest in the city at 7,000 yards, and in spite of the 100,000 rounds played a year, the Bermuda fairways and over-seeded greens are surprisingly lush.

The city's largest park is a refuge for an assortment of desert wildlife and provides many contrasting images: A coyote darts across a fairway against the backdrop of a Dillard's department store.

It's easy to be sold on these courses. The north was built in 1931 and is the favorite of the natives. And it should be, at only $28 a round.

The North is peppered with large mesquite and eucalyptus trees, but most of the longer holes are very open. No. 9 is one of the prettier holes - a par 5 made difficult by a creek that forks in front and back of the green. No. 15 is a copy of the famed 6th hole at Augusta National, with water running along the left side from tee to green.

- Tubac Country Club: With so many quality courses in Southern Arizona, it can be tough to get a tee time during the winter and spring, but there are lesser known, high-quality courses about 50 miles south of Tucson that you can practically walk on.

Tubac Country Club and Resort was carved out of the cottonwoods and mesquites of the Santa Cruz River on the site of the Otera Ranch, the second oldest settlement in the United States.

Tubac was a weekend refuge for singer Bing Crosby and other stars who gorged on golf there in the 1960s. "It was kind of a retreat." said head pro JoAnne Lusk. "It was very popular among the entertainment set."

The original stables are now the dining hall and many of the 32 guest houses, or casitas, are small, single-room guest quarters tucked along the course.

At 3,300 feet, temperatures are 10 to 15 degrees cooler than those on the desert floor. The course is long and winding, going from flat, wide-open doglegs on the front nine to rolling, tree-lined holes on the back. The greens are star quality.

Holes 6 through 8 are the centerpiece of this course, while No. 7 is a 563-yard, par 5 that sweeps right, then left.

No. 8, the signature hole, is only 150 yards over a glass-top pond. The green is protected on both sides by 80-foot cottonwood trees. One large limb hovers over the normal pin placement, making the ideal shot into the top of the tree.

Green fees range from $36 for walk-ons to $25 for resort guests during the peak winter and spring months - the ambiance is free.

- Rio Rico: Just a few more miles to the south is Rio Rico resort - a high-desert hideaway, complete with world-class accommodations, restaurant and golf course designed by famed architect Robert Trent Jones.

Like any Jones course, it's long but leisurely. There's sand, but it's shallow and playable; there's water, but it only comes into play on the errant shots; and then there's the view.

From the very first tee, the course issues a challenge. "Warning: 12 handicap and above cannot play blue tees."

At 7,100 yards from those blue tees, the fairways are wide and the bentgrass greens are some of the best found on this trip. The trick is getting over the many traps that protect them.

The course starts with a 510-yard, par 5 and doesn't let up after that. Several holes feature backdrops of high pines trees or wispy long grass in the roughs that give the feel of a northern course.

There's an inescapable feeling as the last putt drops that you want to challenge this course again.

Jack Cute, golf pro at Rio Rico, says the quiet seclusion the resort has been known for may soon be shattered with the recent passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"Little, sleepy Rio Rico will probably become a big, bedroom community for Mexico," he said, noting that owners of the resort will soon embark on a $2.5 million renovation project for the complex.

- Kino Springs: Another little-known gem within a 3-iron of the Mexican border outside of Nogales is Kino Springs Golf Course.

Once part of a 5,400-acre cattle ranch belonging to actor Stewart Granger - where many screen stars, such as John Wayne, stayed in the handful of small bungalows dotting the course - Kino Springs has an elevation of 4,000 feet, a cool change from the other desert courses.

At just 6,445 yards, Kino Springs is a venue of hills and valleys that run along the Santa Cruz River, with the Coronado Mountains on one side and Mexico on the other.

Kino Springs has just changed hands and the new owners are planning to give this 20-year-old course a facelift, although its natural beauty will be hard to improve. Building on the ranch's historic past, Granger's ranchhouse has been converted into a four-star restaurant.

The first seven holes are rolling, wide open tracks; the next seven are all up and down, with several blind shots across ravines or through lush valleys to small, well-heeled greens.

Nine of the par 4s are 350 yards or less from the white tees. After those long, desert holes in Tucson and Phoenix, Kino Springs is the perfect remedy for that worsening handicap.

And best of all, Kino Springs touts "the cheapest green fees in Southern Arizona."

The details

- TROON NORTH: In North Scottsdale, 7008 yard, par 72. Green fees $125 and should be made at least five days in advance. Clubhouse facilities. Resort accommodations pending. (602) 585-7700.

- OCOTILLO GOLF CLUB: Chandler, Ariz. Full clubhouse, restaurant and pro shop. 27 holes. Green fees $75. (602) 275-4355.

- TUCSON NATIONAL: 167 villas and suites, three restaurants, pool, Jacuzzi, 650-acre European-style spa complex, Roman bath, Danish cold plunge, steam room, salon services, 27-hole, USGA championship course. Room rates range from $85 to $350 a night for an "executive casita." Greens fees: $85 for resort guests, $99 for walk-ons. (800) 528-4856.

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- RANDOLPH PARK: 36-hole municipal course located in the heart of Tucson, at Broadway and Alvernon Boulevard, Tucson. North Course, built in 1925, is the longest at 7,000 yards. Green fees $28, including cart. (602) 791-4008.

- TUBAC GOLF RESORT: Located off Interstate 19 in Tubac, Arizona. Also near historic Tubac Village. Separate posadas and casitas on the course cost $75 to $99 per day. Amenities included restaurant, spa, tennis courts, pool and tours to nearby Nogales Mexico. Greens fees: $15 weekdays, $20 weekends. (800) 848-7893.

- RIO RICO RESORT: Interstate 19, Rio Rico, Arizona, just minutes from the U.S.-Mexico border. 18-hole Robert Trent Jones designed course in Santa Cruz River valley. Individual suites, restaurant, cantina, swimming pool, Jacuzzi, horseback excursions. Resort rate: $75 per night, includes golf. (800) 288-4746.

- KINO SPRINGS: Located on Hwy. 82 east of Nogales, Arizona. 18 holes of championship golf. Accommodations available. Green fees $12 to $15.

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