It is much more of a desert experience than its neighbour and is also further removed from the houses that are a little too close for comfort in one or two places on the Catalina. When I played the latter four years ago, one of our group, although he failed to break 100, did manage to break a window. Adjacent real estate is a fact of golfing life in the States but, I much prefer the Sonoran, which opened in December 2005 and is a genuine desert experience.
Westin La Paloma
In Hill, Ridge and Canyon, La Paloma has three nines which offer those lucky enough to stay in this stunning hillside hotel plenty of variety. Designed by Jack Nicklaus, the holes are sympathetically contoured with distinctive mounds alongside many of the fairways, which at least make an effort to knock the ball back onto the shorter stuff. This is authentic desert golf where stray shots are consigned to spiky oblivion.
Here, I should acquaint you with 'The Desert Rule' written on the scorecard: “If a ball comes to rest in the desert the player may drop a ball within two club lengths of the nearest point of grass relief, no nearer the hole, with a one-stroke penalty.” In other words, a 'critter alert'. When a ball is lost in the desert, the sensible thing is to leave it there.
Whichever two nines you play, the course measures about 7000 yards from the brutal black tees and 1,000 yards less from the sympathetic silver, it’s an unforgettable challenge. Remember, it's open only to members and hotel guests, so you can’t just walk on off the desert.
Tubac Golf Resort and Spa
Three nines is evidently a popular arrangement here, too where it has strong showbiz connection. Big Crosby was one of a consortium who bought what was then a very old ranch back in 1959, built the golf course and attracted John Wayne and other Hollywood stars to this exclusive resort. Numerous scenes from the classic golf movie, ‘Tin Cup’ starring Kevin Costner were also shot here.
The final island hole on the ‘Anza’ nine is supposed to resemble the famous 17th at Sawgrass, where they are playing the Players Championship this week. This, however is far less terrifying and little more than an easy lob wedge.
There is a tough stretch, however, on the sixth, seventh and eighth around ‘Rancho.’ A 465-yard par-4, followed by a 254-yard par-3 and a 651-yard par-5 together comprise the feared ‘Tubac Triangle.’ No planes or ships go missing here, just golf balls.
The extra nine holes were added in 2003 shortly after the property was sold to a development company with ambitious plans to upgrade the development. Somewhat unusually, rather than stringing them together, the new nine was woven into the existing fabric of the course. Also unusual for this part of the world, thanks to the adjacent Santa Cruz river, the course is lush parkland with a sprinkling of cattle to add a ranch-like feel.
The resort consists of two spectacular Tom Fazio creations set in the foothills of the Catalina mountains. Guests play the Canyon Course on odd days of the month and the Mountain Course on even days. It was my good fortune to stay for a couple of nights and squeeze in a round on each.
I first tackled the allegedly less fearsome and marginally shorter Canyon measuring 6,819 yards from the back which was a thrilling meander through some spectacular terrain. The breathtaking views across the Sonoran desert towards Mexico, immaculate fairways, super slick greens and almost constant birdsong, combined to create a magical experience that even four putts on the last failed to dampen.
Lest you suspect that my critical faculties were numbed by a succession of tequila cocktails or I was corrupted by a presentation pack of three golf balls, let me enter a mild moan. The distance from one green to the next tee was occasionally so considerable that I began to wonder if I had missed a turning. But often the drive took me down delightful paths, alongside impressive properties and allowed more time to appreciate the experience and spot exotic wildlife.
On the Mountain Course I baulked at the black back tees and settled for the gold, which saved me 580 yards and countless balls.
The starter informed us that all the greens slope away from the mountain, which was quite helpful although advice on how toreach the greens would have been appreciated. Perhaps it’s testimony to this glorious course that, even though I had left my ‘A’ game in the hotel and I nevertheless enjoyed the round enormously.
The Mountain is a classic desert-style, target course, with many changes in elevation and several, knee-wobbling, tees that would discourage members of the Vertigo Sufferers Golf Society from paying a visit.That 's too bad because they’re missing out on a real beauty.