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Ready or not, Tucson emerges as premier golf destination

Shane SharpBy Shane Sharp,

TUCSON, Ariz. - It's hard to tell if Tucson is embarrassed or intrigued about its status as the state's second largest city. Native Tucsonans gladly will explain to you how Phoenix is a new-fangled mess of freeways, subdivisions, and strip malls, and how their "Old Pueblo" is a bastion of good, clean living and liberal thinking. Metro Phoenix, they'll tell you, is a Mecca of republican politics run amok. Ubiquitous stucco homes spring from the desert like weeds after a thundershower, four-lane arterial roadways cross the valley like ribbons, and smog infested air hangs over the city skyline like some harbinger of the apocalypse.

Forgive native Tucsonans, however, if they are given to a bit of hyperbole when pontificating about their rival city. One need only attend the annual University of Arizona (based in Tucson) versus Arizona State University (Tempe, outside of Phoenix) football game to understand there's no love lost between these two desert dales. Truth is, millions of residents see Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa and the other municipalities of the Valley as a fine places to live, work and play. And they, in turn, savor every last second of peering down their noses at the little "college" town to the south, with its liberal attitudes and underdeveloped downtown.

Savvy Arizona golfers (squinty eyes, tanned skin, bleached out hair) also are quick to remind anyone who asks that the Valley of the Sun is like the Old Pueblo on steroids when it comes to fairways available for public consumption. But since the early 1990s, Tucson has made a respectable run in the realm of high-end resort and daily fee golf. In Golf Magazine's 2002 edition of the "Top 100 Courses You Can Play," Tucson placed two tracks on the list - the Mountain at Ventana Canyon at No. 81 and the Arizona National (formerly the Raven at Sabino Springs) at No. 99.

A blue collar and college town at heart, Tucson also has plenty of affordable options for traveling golfers on a budget. The five-course municipal golf system is one of the strongest in the Southwest and is a point of pride for local taxpayers. Then there's the "Valley." For years, Green Valley has ostensibly served as "Green Value," with courses like Canoa Hills, San Ignacio Golf Club and Torres Blancas leading the charge. The recent addition of Canoa Ranch (2003) has this retirement community 25 minutes south of town staking a legit claim to being a golf destination unto itself.

Meanwhile, back in Tucson, the once-private Forty Niner Golf Club has opened its doors to the public for a rate that makes former members blush. In a testament to the city's "value is king" mantra, the IRI Golf Group recently introduced a "Wildcat Trail" card that nets duffers discounts at 49ers and three other IRI managed courses (San Ignacio, Canoa Hills and Arizona National.)

While not essential to its status as an emerging golf destination, Tucson's rich tradition of hosting professional golf events adds to the city's overall golf culture. The Del Urich Course at Randolph Park is home of the LPGA Welch's/Circle K Championship. The Tucson Omni National hosts the PGA's venerable Tucson Open, one of the oldest Tour stops west of the Pecos, on its 27-hole facility.

If you are in need of more encouragement to forego Phoenix for Tucson on your next golf trip to the Sonoran Desert, consider this: Tucson is not nearly as inundated with players as Phoenix or Scottsdale, and the Old Pueblo's lack of serious traffic issues will enable you to get from one course to another in a much more expedient fashion than on the grid-locked freeways and arterials of Phoenix. What's more, the Old Pueblo's "high end" courses can be had for up to 50 percent less than comparable tracks in the Valley of Sun.

As an unabashed stronghold of the political left, Tucson may be in denial about its status as one of the Southwest's most complete, often overlooked golf destinations. After all, the game's stuffy, conservative reputation isn't in keeping with a lovingly liberal image. But for you, the non-partisan traveling golfer, the Old Pueblo is a safehouse of democratic golfing options.

Tucson's Top Tier

The Lodge at Ventana Canyon is the crown jewel of Tucson resort golf, and features two splendid Tom Fazio designed layouts, the Mountain and Canyon courses. The Mountain course, with its par-3, third hole standing in as the "most photographed hole west of the Mississippi," is the most sought-after play at the resort. But the Canyon Course is just as popular among locals, not to mention resort employees. Both courses play through the craggy foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains and feature stunning views and desert target golf at its best.

The Westin La Paloma is a 27-hole Jack Nicklaus designed facility wrought during the Golden Bear's "hit a high, soft fade to an undulating, heavily bunkered green or die," phase. Difficulty aside, the Hill, Ridge, and Canyon nines are widely recognized as some of the best desert golf tracks in the region. In typical Nicklaus fashion, greens are behemoth and replete with fire trucks buried beneath them. Fairway landing areas are generous and visible from the tees, always the Golden Bear's olive branch.

The Golf Club at Vistoso has never seemed willing to cower in the presence of its higher profile cousins. Paloma and Ventana are nationally acclaimed golf resorts. The Golf Club at Vistoso is just a golf course, and a fine one at that. This Tom Weiskopf designed layout was a "readers write-in" Golf Magazine's Top 100 You Can Play in 1996, and is a "sneaky" favorite among locals and visitors alike. The layout is nowhere near as penal as Ventana or La Paloma, and if you can find better greens in the greater Tucson area, let us know. Take note of the 166-yard par-3 third hole - on a clear day (there are only 323 of them) you will have an amazing view of the north side of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

The Arizona National Golf Club is one of the newer high end daily fee desert courses in Tucson, and one of the better upscale offerings in Southern Arizona. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the course is routed through arroyos, rock outcroppings and more saguaros that you can shake a putter at. Test your desert golf mettle by playing the course from the back tees. National plays just 6,776 from the cranks, but the 146 slope rating makes it one of the toughest tests around. Or simply enjoy the surrounds. The par-3 fourth hole overlooks the entire city of Tucson and on a clear day, golfers can see all the way to Mexico looking south. National is a favorite among Arizona Diamondback players when the team is in town for spring training and is the home course for the University of Arizona's men's and women's golf teams.

Solid Seconds

Tucson Omni National is the longstanding site of the Tucson Open, featuring two traditional, tree-lined nines and a newer nine holer with a more modern trappings and elevation change. The resort boasts first-rate facilities, from the locker room to the surrounding resort, and is a fine place to hang your soft spikes for an extended golf getaway.

The Sheraton El Conquistador, situated just a smooth 5-iron from Omni National, claims to be the largest golf facility in Southern Arizona. With 45 holes worth of newly remodeled golf courses, arguments are few and far between. On the grounds of the resort is the nine-hole Pusch Ridge course. Five miles away at the El Conquistador Country Club are two more noteworthy courses: the 18-hole Conquistador and Cañada.

Starr Pass is a former TPC course that served as the sister site of the Tucson Open in the early and mid 1990s. The stadium style layout seems to polarize players into two camps (love and hate) due mainly to its diminutive greens, blind shots and quirky design. Both camps do agree on one thing - the scenery afforded by the surrounding Tucson Mountains is worth the price of admission. The circa 1986 layout comes courtesy of modernist architect Bob Cupp. Starr Pass recently underwent a five-month renovation aimed at "softening" the course for the higher handicapper. A third nine, designed by Arnold Palmer's architectural team, is slated to open in 2005 along with a 575-room Marriott.

Heritage Highlands with its make-or-break par-4 13th is an Arthur Hills designed course in nearby Marana that is the centerpiece of a somewhat ubiquitous U.S. Homes residential development. The front nine plays through a good chunk of the housing, but the back nine climbs into the foothills and features a smattering of memorable holes.

If searching for a tonic for the cold comfort of desert target golf style courses, the aforementioned Forty Niners Golf Club is the perfect salve. This traditionally designed track on Tucson's northeast side plays through lush mesquite bosques and thick strands of Cottonwoods. The former venue for the Tucson Open is one of the few local courses that can be walked and played without a mastery of the long drive.

Green Valley Values

Canoa Ranch is the newest addition to Green Valleys' daily fee lineup. The Brian Curley, Lee Schmidt designed course opened this year to rave reviews from local and national publications. The Scottsdale-based team of Schmidt and Curley are responsible for such high profile courses as Bali Hai in Las Vegas and the Nick Faldo Course at Wildfire in Scottsdale. It says here the tandem did nothing to soil their stellar reputation at Canoa Hills. Given a limited budget and a tight site, the pair still produced a par 70 circuit chock-full of solid, memorable holes.

San Ignacio is another Arthur Hills designed course that opened in the late 80s. The course measures over 6,700 yards from the back tees but has long been regarded as a shotmakers delight. Thick patches of mesquite and Palo Verde trees and plenty of elevation changes make San Ignacio one of GV's tougher tracks from the back tees. Case in point being the par-5 eighth hole. This three-shotter plays 535 yards from the tips and requires a laser precise drive to a narrow landing area guarded by a ravine on the right and desert on the left. The course's summer specials are wildly popular with Tucson golfers looking to beat the heat (Green Valley is over 500 feet higher and typically five to seven degrees cooler than Tucson.)

Canoa Hills is one of Green Valley's original daily fee facilities. Designed by the relatively obscure Dave Bennett, the course opened in the mid 80s and is still going strong at the onset of the new millennium. In terms of style, Canoa Hills mirrors San Ignacio with its tight landing areas and narrow, mesquite-lined fairways. Canoa's true-rolling bentgrass greens have traditionally buoyed its reputation as one of the best values in the area.

Torres Blancas in the Rita Springs area of Green Valley is a Lee Trevino designed course that opened in 1995 and gained a popular local following with its agreeable greens fees and playable layout. At nearly 6,800 yards from the back tees, Torres Blancas has enough brawn to challenge low handicappers and long knockers. Meanwhile, its behemoth greens and straight forward design keep it manageable for average golfers.

For tee times or more information Tucson area courses, call 1-800-887-0664

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Tucson Golf

    Andrea Nugent wrote on: Jul 19, 2007

    Have you ever been to del Lago in Vail? While officially outside of Tucson, it's a pretty good track and a great deal for a AZ course.