If the Payson High School golf team harbors an advantage that might lead to the school's first regional links title, it's the ever-so-sweet taste of good old-fashioned "home cooking."
This spring, Longhorn Coach Dave Bradley's greens group has the distinct advantage of playing the regional championship tournament on their home courses at Rim Club and Chaparral Pines.
In football, it's called the home-field advantage and on more occasions than anyone cares to tabulate, it's turned the winning tide in favor of the homies.
The state gold-medal rounds -- a pair of 18-hole shootouts -- will be played April 17 and 18.
In past years, the Longhorns were forced to travel to the home sites of regional foes who were much more familiar with the courses.
Toiling on an unfamiliar Fountain Hills-area course is one of the reasons the Horns were not able to wrestle the Central Region title away from Cactus Shadows last year. CS went on to win the Class 3A state championship over the Longhorns, who turned in their best season ever with a runner-up finish.
Bradley said the privilege of hosting the regional tournament at Rim Club and Chaparral Pines is an honor the Longhorns earned by last year's showing.
"We were third in the division and second in the state," he said. "It's time (other teams) came to us."
Junior Tyson McKee, who is expected to be one of the top players in the region this year, said opposing teams will find both Rim country courses challenging.
"Chaparral is the toughest course we play -- especially hole five," he said.
The youngster described the hole as a long par 4 that ascends "almost straight uphill and the wind is usually blowing in your face."
Compounding the challenge of the hole is a pine tree on the right and a rugged rough on the left.
A shot that strays into the rough, McKee said, is tough to recover.
At the Rim course, McKee and Bradley agree the par 4 second hole -- which is a long dog-leg to the right -- is a challenge that could also stymie opposing players.
Because the Payson players train on the courses daily, the Longhorns should have the regional tournament advantage against the likes of rivals Snowflake, Show Low and Holbrook, McKee said.
Other renowned courses the Longhorns will play this season include Sun Ridge Canyon at Fountain Hills, Torres Blances in Green Valley and Queen Creek's Johnson Ranch.
To better prepare his team for the rigors of playing Arizona's premier courses, Bradley enrolled his team in several preseason clinics which focused on player development.
One clinic -- improving the short game --was conducted by Rim Director of Golf Bob Irving.
The other was held at Arizona State University's Karsten Course where ex-pro Paul Pertzer worked to help the Longhorn players develop more efficient and powerful swings.
Both clinics, Bradley said, were extremely beneficial in helping his very young team improve their overall links skills.
With only four veterans -- Dallin McLaws, Keith Stevens, Tyler Perna and McKee -- returning to the Longhorn fold, Bradley will have to rely on the services of a kiddie corps roster.
"We have a very young team," he said.
Sophomores Jeff Higgens and Stephanie Marrs are candidates for varsity, but have only limited prep experience.
Among the crew of freshmen who turned out for the team are skilled players Bradley said could eventually find themselves toiling on the varsity level. They include Kyle Kent, Dallas Rensch, Tyler Schrum, John McDermott and David Curtis.
First-year players who don't make the varsity squad will have the opportunity to improve their skills on the jayvee team that has eight quality matches including showdowns with Snowflake, Sedona Oak Creek and Globe.
The past two seasons, the Longhorns were members of the Central region which allowed them to play many of their matches on high desert courses in Maricopa County. Their chief rivals were Fountain Hills and Cactus Shadows.
Last spring, the Central was dissolved and Payson High returned to the East where the school has resided off and on since 1980.
The move to the East region, Bradley said, means the Longhorns will be playing in conditions which are "much colder and windier; it was nicer going south to the warm weather."
White Mountain-area matches that could turn into ice bowls include a March 22 visit to Silver Creek against Show Low and an April 15 Snowflake tournament.
If any rookie Longhorns believe they need not be prepared for freezing northland cold, they should check in with their cross country counterparts who several years ago -- in Snowflake -- were forced to run in blizzard-like conditions. That infamous run remains a legend in cross country circles.
While the athletes understand playing conditions might not be ideal in the pine-covered high altitudes of the White Mountains, the thought of gripping a frozen club hasn't hindered their ambitions.
The team's goal, Bradley and McKee say, is to win the East region championship and advance to the state tournament, where the Horns will have their opportunity to win the school's first state golf championship.
Finishing second last year, Bradley said, gave the players a taste of success which he hopes will render them more determined to clear the last remaining hurdle to the state title.
An invitation and thank-you
Golf fans who wish to cheer the Longhorn linksters during home matches at both Chaparral Pines and the Rim Club are welcome to walk the course with their favorite players, Bradley said.
The coach, who has headed the program for six years and doubles as a PHS administrator, said he and the team members are extremely grateful to Rim and Chaparral officials who have graciously allowed the team to use the two prestigious private courses which are normally reserved for members only.
Also, this spring Rim and Chaparral officials donated new golf bags to the team.
"I can't say enough about what they are doing for us," Bradley said.