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Tucson's star rises in Arizona golf scene

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

Don't listen to the Scottsdale snobs: With its natural desert golf courses and surprisingly sophisticated restaurants and resorts, Tucson shines brightly as an Arizona vacation destination.

Tucson golf - true desert golf
Tucson golf doesn't mimic nature, it thrusts you into nature.
Tucson golf - true desert golfTucson golfer - Playing DesertTucson - Canoa Ranch Golf Club - rock wall

TUCSON, Ariz. - It's so dark that you could be forgiven for thinking you stumbled into Montana or a David Lynch movie. Then you look up and the sky's awash in stars that seem lifted from James Cameron's special effects studio.

No way they could be real. Who's ever seen stars that bright? Besides Brokeback Mountain cowboys.

You're not golfing in Scottsdale anymore.

Which might surprise a lot of folks in Scottsdale, who can't imagine why you'd leave Arizona's golf-resort capital for the two-hour drive to nowhere, aka Tucson.

"The only reason to visit Tucson is to see a University of Arizona game," Chicago transplant and Scottsdale addict Barry Johnson said. "And Lute Olson's lost his touch in basketball, and who the hell knows if [Mike] Stoops is ever going to find it in football.

"So there's really no reason to go to Tucson right now."

A first-time visitor might agree while tooling south on Interstate 10 as horse and ranch country gives way to vulture and conspiracy theorist secret-bunker country. Scottsdale's sophistication seems to have dissipated into the desert air like Lindsay Lohan's clothes at a nightclub.

"The first time I came up here, it was completely pitch dark," said Ryan Littman, executive chef at Tucson's JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort, who transferred here from a Palm Springs hot spot.

"I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. I was thinking, 'All right, maybe this isn't such a smart idea.'"

Tucson has a way of growing on you, though. Now Littman, Marriott International's reigning Chef of the Year, is in no rush to leave his organic garden outside the Starr Pass Resort.

Tucson golf love

It's even easier for a regular golfer to fall hard for this place. Tucson golf is true desert golf.

This isn't the manicured desert of Las Vegas golf-course communities. It's the desert you'd walk into if you wandered off the side of a highway and headed down into a canyon.

Giant, century-old saguaro cacti loom over the fairways like mocking witnesses to bad shots. And forget your lost-ball horror stories - you haven't been in a real golf-ball war until you've played a course like Starr Pass Country Club's Rattler nine.

"I love it when those guys from the East Coast come in who think they have a tough course back home," said Bob Sereno, a 70-year-old, gold-chain wearing Tucson transplant who still swings a big stick.

"By the fifth hole they might as well be crying for their momma. Sometimes they get so frustrated they end up doing something foolish, reaching in somewhere they shouldn't, and get bit by a snake."

OK, it's not exactly Chamber of Commerce ad-campaign material. (Come to Tucson! Feel the sting!) The point is, Tucson's more natural than a pre-boob-job starlet. Golfing here really gives you a sense of getting away from it all.

Until you get in your car and find yourself in a rush-hour traffic jam that would make Mother Theresa scream at Gandhi.

Tucson is a city of less than a million people. It's virtually surrounded by mountains almost set up in a palace guard formation. It's about the last place you'd expect to be breathing somebody else's exhaust fumes for hours in the evening.

Only everyone forget to clue the city planners in.

"I think they wanted to keep the roads crappy to discourage too many people from coming," said Dan Maloney, a local hiking and mountain biking guide. "Instead everyone came anyways and they're all on those same crappy roads."

Whatever the reasons, Tucson's in the midst of a huge multi-year highway expansion plan. One night it took me more than an hour just to cross town from the JW Marriott to the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort.

Tucson dining, lodging shine

Other Tucson surprises are much more pleasant.

For instance, I had better braised short ribs at Starr Pass Country Club's unheralded Catalina Steakhouse than at the super-hyped Daniel Boulud Brasserie at Wynn Las Vegas. And the sheets at the JW Marriott Starr Pass make some luxury West Coast destinations' bedding look like Kmart material by comparison.

And while more and more golf destinations turn to casinos to help lure hackers - formerly staid 'n' stodgy Palm Springs is just the latest - Tucson stays resolutely old-school. There are a few Indian casinos, but they're a ways out of town, anything but glitzy and not much of a tourist draw.

Instead Tucson counters with character - and characters. Like the dry-cleaning tycoon who checked into the JW Marriott Starr Pass late one night and found the bar closed. So he sprang into action, leaping over the gated-off counter to pour himself a few drinks.

He proudly tells people the story now, adding, "I didn't take advantage though."

Of course not. It's Tucson, no worries. Now it's just one of those tales retold and retold around a resort campfire under those crazy bright stars.

Pull up a chair. You just might want to stay a while. Don't worry. Your friends in Scottsdale never need to know.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

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.

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Dates: September 15, 2017 - April 30, 2018
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