Home » Course Review

Starr Pass Tucson Golf Club offers an elite desert and mountain experience designed for the pros

By David R. Holland, Contributor

TUCSON, Ariz. – Few golfers who walk the sixth hole on the Coyote nine at Starr Pass Tucson Golf Club know it, but they're following a legendary trail on this 351-yard par 4.

Starr Pass Tucson golf course - Coyote - hole 7
Most first-time players are pleasantly surprised that Starr Pass Tucson is so much in the mountains, Director of Golf Todd Howard said.
Starr Pass Tucson golf course - Coyote - hole 7Starr Pass Tucson Golf Club - Coyote - hole 6Starr Pass Tucson Golf Club - Coyote - hole 3Starr Pass Tucson Golf Club

Richard Starr crafted a stagecoach line through the rugged wilderness of the Tucson Mountains more than 120 years ago. He faced gigantic saguaros, dry washes, rocky expanses, nasty rattlesnakes and stifling summer heat as he carved a trail to the Old Pueblo - a settlement now called Tucson.

Today, that striking path traces the signature hole at Starr Pass Tucson Golf Club, a 27-hole, championship layout. No. 6 presents a tight-squeeze tee shot, blinded by a large rock pile, through the middle of two weathered, desert mountains.

If you remain in play, an approach shot awaits over a deep bunker in front of the green, sloped from back to front and left to right.

Needless to say, when the Northern Telecom Open, also known as the Tucson Open and by many other names, was staged here in the 1980s and '90s, the sixth hole on the Coyote nine served as a favorite viewing spot for the patrons.

Starr Pass Tucson Golf Club: A history of challenging golf

Former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman, inspired by the natural beauty and rugged terrain, selected Starr Pass as a tour site when he saw the land for the first time. Bob Cupp and Craig Stadler designed the golf course as a Tournament Players Club (TPC) facility in 1986.

The tour players struggled here on the Coyote and Rattler nines. But a youngster from Arizona State named Phil Mickelson won the tournament as an amateur in 1991 and provided the secret to taming Starr Pass: Hit a lot of fairways, a lot of greens and make a lot of putts.

Mickelson did; many others did not.

So the Tucson Open moved on without Starr Pass. In 2004, the course was mitigated, returning as an Arnold Palmer Signature golf facility.

"The greens were a lot smaller and undulating, and the bunkers were very deep," said Todd Howard, director of golf at Starr Pass. "So those features were softened with larger, less contoured greens and more shallow bunkers. There wasn't a lot done tee to greens, except making the elevation changes a little less dramatic."

Starr Pass Tucson Golf Club: Characteristics and today's course

"Most first-time players are pleasantly surprised that the course is so much in the mountains," Howard said. "They think it is going to be desert flat, but it is far from that."

In addition to the Coyote (3,512 yards, par 36) and Rattler (3,490 yards, par 36) nine, Starr Pass includes the Roadrunner (3,217 yards, par 35).

When the pro tournament visited annually from 1987 to 1996, Rattler's third and fifth holes rated as two of the most difficult on the PGA Tour, with the average score for 18 holes also among the highest on tour.

Rattler's No. 3, a 485-yard par 5, sounds short. But it's a risk-reward hole, according to Howard.

"It you bomb your tee shot, you can go for the green in two," he said, "but that will mean a second shot over a wash. The green is somewhat elevated, and the flag is protected by large bunker in front and the wash. But it is a flatter green that most."

Howard's favorite, the 510-yard, par-5 No. 5 on Rattler, requires a good, long tee shot to reach the green in two. Or you can lay up to an elevated plateau of fairway and throw an approach to a green sloped back to front.

Above the hole, Howard said, expect a very quick putt.

Coyote's aforementioned sixth is the signature hole.

"It is a risk-reward hole, because of the blind tee shot," Howard said. "Some players try to drive it over the huge rocks, and others play conservatively. The green slopes left to right and seems narrow, so it is kind of an optical illusion and hard to get the exact yardage.

"Putting toward Tucson doesn't look that downhill, but it will fool you."

Starr Pass Tucson Golf Club: The verdict

Realize from the first tee, with its sweeping view of downtown Tucson, that this golf course was built as a TPC - meaning it was laid out to challenge the best players in the world.

But if you can purge your mind of its difficulty and focus on the beauty of the rock-strewn mountains, you'll enjoy a fun day at Starr Pass.

Starr Pass also offers teaching facilities and practice areas with putting and chipping greens and a double-loaded driving range.

Where to stay: The JW Marriott Starr Pass

The views of the craggy mountains are vast from each of the resort's 575 guestrooms and 35 suites that feature a private patio or balcony.

Swimming? One can drift along the Starr Canyon River, shoot down the Monsoon Falls Water Slide, lounge by the reflection pools and play in the dancing springs.

To dine, I headed north of the University of Arizona on Campbell Street for two distinctive restaurants: Acacia at St. Phillips for eclectic, new Latin and Pacific Rim food and Pastiche Modern Eatery for American-based cuisine with influences worldwide and creative pastries and desserts.

David R. HollandDavid R. Holland, Contributor

David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter @David_R_Holland.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Solid Review!

    Jay Lotoski wrote on: May 18, 2010

    Hi David, thanks for the local review. I have to agree with Bob, this is a tough course, but one that does get a little better once you get familiar with the layout.
    I do have to disagree with Bob, each time I have played there the staff has been friendly and attentive. I will be returning.
    I would like to re-post this to my local blog www.TucsonGolfBlog.com if possible, I think we need more in depth reviews like this to show off the top quality of courses we have here in the Tucson area!
    Thanks again!


  • Good story

    Bob wrote on: Apr 27, 2010

    I think you got it on the difficulty of this golf course. I wouldn't want to go back and play it and didn't think the staff was that friendly, especially in the hotel. This is one of those "I played it once and that's enough" golf courses. Good story.


Dates: September 15, 2017 - April 30, 2018
Great Stay and Play options at Sewailo Golf Club, the package includes two rounds of golf per day and a welcome gift from Sewailo Golf Club.
Price range: $150