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Tucson's hidden Canoa Ranch: Arizona golf's big surprise

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,
Canoa Ranch Golf Club - Rock Wall
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Canoa Ranch's rock walls are no home garden creations. (Chris Baldwin/GolfPublisher.com)

Canoa Ranch outside Tucson just may be the biggest surprise in Arizona golf. It's a theatrical display of desert golf with no houses and plenty of knee-knocking tee shots. Green fees are never more than $89 in the state where $200 resort courses are the norm.

GREEN VALLEY, Ariz. - It's a largely flat drive through the desert and frankly it's a little annoying to get to from many of Tucson's best resorts (even if it's only 40-45 minutes). Plus, Green Valley is an unincorporated retirement community. Even if you're over 65 that usually brings to mind flat golf courses that are about as much of a challenge to conquer as Paris Hilton in chess.

The little side road to the course parallel to the highway doesn't make you feel any more comfortable either.

In fact, you're not going to feel good until you step onto the first tee at the Canoa Ranch golf course. Then, staring out at that green, green fairway stretching and twisting ahead over a desert clear with nothing but sky and mountains to break your view - well, then Canoa Ranch becomes a golf course you'd brave lightning to play.

That's what several groups did on the day of this visit. They'd retreat to the clubhouse at lightning's flash, go back onto the course, find more rain pouring out of the sky again, return inside once more and then hurry back out as soon as the sky temporarily cleared. It turned into a round with more starts and stops then a pro football game.
These weren't little baby lightning flashes either. They were huge bolts splitting across the sky.

No one's enduring that for just an ordinary golf course - or even a pretty good one.

"It's about 10 times better than I thought it would be," vacationing golfer Joe Chamberlain said.

Canoa Ranch just may be the biggest surprise in Arizona golf. It's a theatrical display of desert golf with no houses and plenty of knee-knocking tee shots that's never more than $89 in the state where $200 resort courses are the norm.

This is a course that should be shouted about, but probably won't be. Canoa Ranch owner Bob McMahon is a good promoter (he owns nine popular Tucson restaurants, including the high-end steakhouse McMahon's) and he hired a good PR firm to push Canoa.

Still sit down with McMahon and you get the idea he's fine with Canoa Ranch being revered by the hardcore golfers who seek it out and under the radar with everyone else.

"This course is too freaking hard," McMahon roars, drawing laughs and a head shake from his hand-picked general manager David Powell.

There's a good chance Canoa Ranch will be the hardest 6,549-yard course you ever come across. From those back tees, the slope rating is a 139 and over-under on how many balls a hacker will send screaming into the desert is about 10.

Standing up on the high tee at No. 15, looking down at an old Western windmill to the right of the fairway in the middle of the desert, you can be excused for wondering if course architects Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley considered just blasting your golf ball out of the air with six shooters.

McMahon happily admits that some of the older gentlemen who call Green Valley home regard Canoa Ranch as something of an abomination on fairness.

It's all in fun though. Customary course conventions are tossed aside. Schmidt and Curley just put together the best and most striking holes for the land rather than relying on the usual yardage norms. There are six par 3s at Canoa Ranch and they're some of the toughest holes on the course, with many of them anything but short.

Canoa Ranch Golf Club: The Verdict

If you can play only one course in the entire greater Tucson area, Canoa Ranch would be a great choice. That's right Tom Fazio and Arnold Palmer. You've been bested by a largely unspoiled natural setting and some ingenious quirks.

Canoa Ranch isn't a perfect course. There are houses along a few holes near the end of the front nine. No. 12 - a 230-yard par 3 that's up a mountain and into the wind - flirts the border between tough and ridiculous. Still, Canoa Ranch is a perfect underdog.

The conditions are really good. That's how you keep the grousing old guys coming back even if their scorecards take a little battering.

When you're on a golf vacation, you want a course that's memorable enough to brag to your buddies about back home. The natural rock wall that hugs the split second fairway near a tough uphill approach to the green certainly qualifies as showstopping.

Banish any thought of a few garden stones thrown together by a grounds crew. This rock wall looks like it's cut out of the earth - because it is. If this is what tough looks like, you don't want to go back to easy.

"We'd like to think we have something a little different," Powell said.

Canoa Ranch is different enough to spawn devotees. Just don't expect them to tell you about it. Or give up the idea of playing when lightning's flashing through the heavens. Not that this is recommended.

They'll give you that rain check at Canoa Ranch. Don't worry.

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Canoa Ranch Golf Club - MountainsCanoa Ranch Golf Club - Western Windmill

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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