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Lehman's new-school Sonoran Course gives Omni Tucson National more desert bite

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,
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Omni Tucson National wanted desert golf theater - With the Sonoran Course, Tom Lehman delivered in a big way. (Courtesy of tucsonnational.com)

The Tom Lehman-designed Omni Tucson National Sonoran Course shines in the desert, proving a better play than its PGA Tour-famous sister course, Catalina.

TUCSON, Ariz. - Staring up and up and up, you cannot help but conclude that Tom Lehman accomplished his mission. And not in a slap-a-banner-on-the-side-of-an-aircraft-carrier way either.

No, this is a job well done without any room for debate.

Omni Tucson National wanted a completely different type of golf course when it brought in Lehman to design a track to compliment its PGA Tour-famous Catalina Course. The 2006 Ryder Cup captain didn't disappoint, turning out the Sonoran Course, 18 holes of dramatic desert golf that couldn't look much more different from Catalina's parkland layout.

This is never more apparent on the crane-your-neck-up hole. No. 15 is a 515-yard par 5 that looks as docile as a kitten on the scorecard and turns out to be as scary as Pinhead from the "Hellraiser" series.

It shoots straight up toward the sky with monster bunkers all along its sides. The green's but a rumor until you're almost right on top of it.

Forget birdieing it. Your average golfer would have a hard time simply walking up it without the help of a golf cart.

Fifteen is the best single hole on Tucson National's Sonoran Course. But it's just one example of the golf theater that Lehman pulls off in this not-even 3-year-old course (it opened in December 2005). Catalina - which hasn't always been called that - brings more than 43 years of history, including hosting more than 30 PGA Tour events (it was the longtime site of the since-extinct Chrysler Classic).

Most people around Tucson - the more natural, outdoor-loving city two hours east of Phoenix - would consider it near sacrilegious to declare that Sonoran is every bit the equal of the Chrysler Classic host.

"Some visitors only want to play a desert course, so they go to Sonoran," said Pat Miller, Tucson National director of golf. "But the people who only want to play Catalina are much more passionate about it.

"There's an emotional connection from them having watched the pros play it on TV over all those years."

You can analyze the emotional connection on "Dr. Phil" if you want. For a pure golf experience, it turns out that Lehman's course is actually better. That's right, better.

It's a fun, tough battle over 6,552 yards (nearly 700 shorter than Catalina, not that your scorecard is liable to show it) with greens high on plateaus and views to the mountains all around.

Lehman certainly didn't approach Sonoran like it was destined to be a step course to the main tourist-attraction play. Designing it at the same time he prepared to coach the Ryder Cup team, he still made frequent visits to Tucson from his Scottsdale home, obsessed over details.

It got to the point where people who'd seen Lehman over the years on the PGA Tour started thinking something was wrong with him.

"Tom lost a lot of weight," Miller said. "He was suddenly really skinny. And there were all these rumors that he was sick. So finally one day when we were out on the course looking at things, I asked him if everything was OK.

"He just laughed and explained that he'd decided if he was going to take on coaching the Ryder Cup team - which he said was the hardest thing he'd ever done in golf - and doing everything else he had on his plate including designing our course, he needed to be in the best shape of his life. I think that says a lot about the kind of guy Tom Lehman is."

Lehman certainly didn't half-ass the Sonoran Course.

Even with Omni Tucson National Resort in the midst of a $92-million renovation and construction vehicles all around, Sonoran still manages to give you the sense of being away from it all.

The terrain helps. While Tucson National's desert isn't anywhere near as stark as Tucson-stalwart Starr Pass Golf Club, it's still pretty rugged. Lehman added to this feel by putting in a bunch of bridges that take you over little canyon drops, big rocks and gnarly bushes.

In fact, there are so many bridges on Sonoran, that the course could have been called The Desert Bridges. They're almost all different in look and the sound a cart makes rumbling across them from each other, too.

It turns out Lehman, the mild-mannered Minnesotan by birth, knows showmanship.

He has golfers climbing up a steep path to get to No. 17 - a par 3 where you're shooting to a raised green that seems to be bopping below mountains. You are in rare air.

You're playing a second course that deserves prime billing.

The Verdict on Omni Tucson National's Sonoran Course

Tucson is not packed full of outstanding courses like Scottsdale. You don't find one on every other corner. There are still more than 50 golf courses in this county with a population hovering around 1 million people, though. And if Lehman's Sonoran isn't one of the Top 10, it's just outside that.

It's worth traveling to North Tucson, which is actually closer to Phoenix than resorts like Ventana Canyon, to experience Omni Tucson National. Once you get here, you don't want to limit yourself to the course with PGA Tour stories either.

Sonoran has driveable par 4s, holes with two desert areas to clear (most memorably No. 8 and No. 18), lots of chances to try and cut the desert, and lots of chances to lose a ball or three. The shots up and down to greens provide some interesting lies and even better looks.

With a $185 greens fee in high season (same as Catalina), Sonoran Course is a play for those with a fair share of disposable income to enjoy. The price tag does seem to produce a drive from the clubhouse to deliver the best customer experience possible, though.

"Frankly, I want to get the player service guys to another level," Miller said. "If you're paying $185 to play, you don't want to see anything go wrong. You should expect someone to meet you before you even get to the bag drop. And we have guys trying to catch everyone in the parking lot, but sometimes we miss somebody."

There's a real commitment to good course conditionings, too. Sonoran's green was very green in this late-winter play, and superintendent Mike Petty seems determined to keep it that way.

Sonoran's no second fiddle. Just first class.

Tucson hotels

Omni Tucson National is a good resort that's going to get much better once the renovation is completed around 2010. Right now, the guest experience can be a little uneven with construction annoyances, but the beds are already plush, and the sense of retreat is largely intact.

Fast Facts

Sonoran and Catalina rotate every day with one being the members' course for the day and the other the course for resort guests and the general public. So even in a one-night stay, you should have access to both courses with an early-enough arrival.

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Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

 
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