Golf in Tucson, Arizona

Spoilt for choice in the desert

Clive Agran
Tue, 6 May 2008

  View of Ventana Resort
 Clive's Five Top Courses

 Clive's Five Top Holes

 Clive’s Five things for after golf
Golfers are spoilt for choice in Arizona. Take something seemingly uncomplicated like breakfast. My innocent request for eggs on toast opened a veritable Pandora’s box of alternatives. As for bread, such a bewildering range, I wished I'd never asked!

And don’t think a request for coffee offers a soft option. Once you’re over the regular or decaffeinated hurdle at 7.30 am you're faced with two per cent, skimmed, half-and-half or regular milk.

  View of Tubac Resort
It's much the same with golf - almost too much choice. You can practically hear the golf waitress saying: “We have Phoenix or there’s Scottsdale or you might prefer Tucson or my personal favourite is… .” Stop! “I’ll try a little Tucson, thank you.”

But even that wasn’t the end of it as Tucson alone has far more courses than you could play in a month, let alone a week. Fortunately, mine were chosen for me.

More decisions came in packing my suitcase. Tucson enjoys more sunshine than any other city in the United States with approximately 325 sunny days and no more than 11 inches of rain a year. Since most of the this falls in the stormy and steaming months of June, July and August, I courageously left my waterproofs behind for my mid-Winter romp around the cacti. Wrong! It rained.

Disappointingly, the desert didn't suddenly burst into bloom as I thought it would. If it had, that would have been some consolation for getting very wet. To be honest, it didn't rain that hard but even that is an event in Arizona.

People came poured into the streets to stare unprecedented grey skies. Americans think us Brits talk about nothing but the weather. Actually, they weren't so much talking as yelling. “Hey, it's raining!” they screamed, while standing around in little knots staring at puddles and giggling excitedly.

Not only did it rain but the temperatures also dropped somewhere below the seasonal average, which is normally in the high 70s. In fact, it was rather refreshingly in the mid-60s. In my hotel there was a minor crisis until someone figured out how to reverse the air conditioning and blow hot air back into the rooms rather than suck it out.

  View of Ventana Green
Fortunately, I took a tasteful fawn sweater with me that I figured would not only be handy but would also blend in well against a sandy background. That was a shrewd move because even when it’s very warm during the day the temperature plunges in the evening and both the early mornings and nights are quite chilly, principally because Tucson is about 2,500 feet above sea level.

The only other tough call I had to make was whether or not to take my 3-iron. A little-used weapon, I reckoned it might be the ideal club to clobber a menacing rattlesnake. Wrong. Snakes hibernate and would be so far underground that not even the deepest divot would disturb their slumber during the winter months.

Just like ‘links’ and ‘parkland,’ ‘desert’ golf is a legitimate category of course. It has its own unique features, hazards and experience. Purists might moan that it looks as if a green carpet has been laid down with the cacti functioning as Grippa-rods around the edge, but some golfers are only really happy when they’re miserable.

One last tip if you decide to go. Be sure to try the Arizona Iced Tea when the drinks’ wagon comes around. But be warned, they have peach flavour, strawberry, lemon, raspberry, regular… .

Clive’s Five Top Courses

Omni Tucson National Golf Resort and Spa
It used to host the Chrysler Classic and is presently building a new clubhouse and extra rooms. Already impressive, it’ll be even more spectacular when the work’s finished later this year.

The recent addition of a second course has added considerably to its overall appeal. The original – now called the Catalina Championship course – has a more parkland than desert feel thanks to the 10 lakes and ponds and the specimen eucalyptus, pine, mesquite and willow trees.

There used to be three nines. The original Orange and Gold are gently contoured while the more recent Green is decidedly hilly with some exciting elevations and impressive views. The Green has been joined by an additional nine designed by former US Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman and the composite 18-holer has been christened the Sonoran.

  View of Omni Tucson National Golf Resort and Spa

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.

Ventana Canyon
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.

  View of Canoa Ranch
Canoa Ranch Golf Club
A fine example of how the desert can be transformed into a golfer's paradise without destroying the integrity of the land. So while it’s considerably less manicured than some it doesn’t suffer as a consequence. With its impressive elevation changes, strategic bunkering and glorious views, there’s plenty to enjoy and much to appreciate. Perhaps I lack a little in the imagination department because the spectacular views of ‘Elephant Head’ were somewhat wasted on me as I couldn’t see the pachyderm. But I enjoyed the more ‘natural’ experience that this course provides and the exceptionally friendly atmosphere of the clubhouse.

  The 7th on the Canyon Course at Westin La Paloma
Clive’s Five Top Holes

The 18th on the Catalina Course at Omni Tucson
A lengthy par-4 between lakes. When the Tucson Open was played here, it was regarded as one of the toughest finishing holes on the USPGA tour. Many years ago, Arnold Palmer and Chuck Courtney stood on the tee on the final round tied for the lead. Palmer made a double bogey and won by a stroke!

The 7th on the Canyon Course at Westin La Paloma
There has to be a masochistic streak in every golfer otherwise you would find a less stressful pastime. And the painful appeal here is that it’s too long and too tight to be comfortable. Even the scorecard is ambivalent and has it down as a par-4/5. But it’s a beautiful hole, albeit in a rather worrying way.

The 5th on the ‘Rancho’ nine at Tubac
This par-5 is a faithful re-creation of the 18th hole in the ‘Tin Cup’ movie where Costner repeatedly comes to grief in the lake guarding the green in his forlorn attempt to get home in two shots. How refreshing for a course to pay homage to a fictional hole.

The 3rd on the Mountain Course at Ventana Canyon
This is a titchy but intimidating hole where you either hit the green ledge on the other side of the canyon or listen as your ball ricochets to oblivion. There just no in-between! I can’t confirm whether or not it is ‘the most photographed hole west of the Mississippi,’ as the resort claims, but everyone in our quartet took a photo, so that’s four to add to the total.

The 2nd at Canoa Ranch
The elevated tee provides a spectacular view of this magnificent par-5. A meandering dry creek runs down the entire length of its 500-plus yards and is an ever-present threat. Although there’s a choice of two fairways, I couldn’t hit either.
“To miss one fairway is unfortunate, to miss two smacks of carelessness.” I suspect that there are many ways you can play this hole but I couldn’t find one that worked. When I eventually came to hit my approach, the green is very small!

Clive’s FIVE things to do after golf
Wander around the world-renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, where exhibits re-create the natural landscape of the Sonoran Desert region so realistically that you will find yourself eye-to-eye with hummingbirds, mountain lions, prairie dogs and monsters.

Mosey on down to Old Tucson Studios, which is southern Arizona’s No.1 outdoor entertainment venue, including live shows, stunts, saloon musicals and stagecoach adventures.

Pima Air and Space Museum claims to be the largest aviation and space park west of the Rockies with more than 250 aircraft on show. There’s even an option to 'experience' the thrill of lift off in a Titan II Missile.

Out of Africa Park has Bengal tigers, giraffes, lions and bears to watch close-up and personal. For further information visit: or



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