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Finding a few pearls in the Old Pueblo

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

TUCSON, Ariz. - Tucson should appreciate nationally ranked golf Courses like Arizona National and the Mountain and Canyon Courses at Ventana Canyon.

It should send thank you cards to high end daily fee tracks like Heritage Highlands, Starr Pass and the Golf Club at Vistoso.

Maybe even send along some flowers to all-inclusive Resort Course properties like the Hilton El Conquistador, the Westin La Paloma and Tucson Omni National.

Because of this diverse collection of upscale properties, the Old Pueblo has a legitimate claim to being a golf destination. Don't you think it's about time?

Tucson has the same sunshine, cooler summer temperatures, and better scenery than the Valley of the Sun. It has rich professional (Tucson Open), amateur and recreational golf (excellent muni system) traditions.

Yet for most of the modern golfing era (1960s to present), Scottsdale (the golf epicenter of the Valley of the Sun) had more quality Courses on its little finger than Tucson had in its entire valley.

It will probably always be that way. The culture of Scottsdale is golf, shopping, and fine dining (and not necessarily in that order). The culture of Tucson is college basketball and passionate (if often disjointed) environmentalism.

But the Old Pueblo, as they call it around here, is a viable alternative for traveling duffers looking to get away from the crowds and wallet-wrecking greens fees to the north. Here's a sampling of Tucson's Best based on a recent golf gorge by the Travel Golf Guy:

Best Resort for the Money - The Hilton (formerly Sheraton) El Conquistador. The 500-acre property snuggled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains provides a five star experience at a four star price. Guest rooms were recently remodeled in a chic, Southwestern décor. The $3 million "fantasy" pool, with its 143-foot water slide, has to be one of the Best in the state. Then there's the golf - all 45 holes of it. A tight little nine-holer is located on property and two full 18-hole layouts (the Canada and Conquistador) are situated about two miles away.

Best Resort, Money No Object - The Lodge at Ventana Canyon. Tucson's answer to the pampered Scottsdale golf Resort experience, the Lodge is a boutique Resort offering 50 cozy suites, plenty of meeting space, and a spa room. It is also the centerpiece for two of Arizona's Best Resort golf circuits, the Mountain and Canyon Courses. Tom Fazio designed both Courses in the mid 80s before he became a household name. The Mountain Course is the favorite among Lodge guests (see the third and 18th holes for the reason why), but the Canyon Course is popular with members and staff.

Best Golf Course (S) You Didn't Know You Could Play - The North and South Courses at the Gallery Golf Club at Dove Mountain. The South Course opened late in 2003. How its arrival on the Tucson golf scene didn't make national news is a mystery to one golf writer. Both tracks come courtesy of John Fought, a project-by-project architect who is highly respected among his peers.

The South Course is smooth and flowing with Donald Ross, turtle shell green complexes and just a sprinkling of bunkers. The North Course is big and bold with massive, penal bunkers and nose bleed elevation changes. The Gallery is a private, membership based property, but a limited number of tee times are available to the public each day.

Best Course for School Spirit - Arizona National Golf Club. Formerly the Raven at Sabino Springs, AZ Natty is now the official home Course of the University of Arizona Wildcats men's and women's golf teams. Two giant Arizona logos adorn the grounds, the golf carts are cardinal red (the school's primary color) and a giant hall of fame wall was erected near the cart staging area. Play a round on the challenging Robert Trent Jones II layout and then drink in the nostalgia at the wall. Bear Down.

Best Golf Course Makeover - Starr Pass. A recent, multimillion dollar "softening" has the once diabolically difficult layout playing like a mortal golf Course. Pound for pound, the former TPC Course and co-host site of the Tucson Open is still one of the toughest tracks in Southern Arizona.

Best 19th Hole - Hilton El Conquistador Clubhouse. The old school décor and friendly barkeeps are the perfect complements for post round imbibing. The views of Pusch Ridge and the Tucson valley are worth staying for a couple of rounds.

Finishing Hole - Tie, Mountain Course at Ventana Canyon and Arizona National. The par-5, 589 yard 18th on the Mountain is a must-play from the tips, where the fairway awaits some 300 feet below. The par-5, 513-yard 18th at Arizona National one ups it with nearly 400 feet of elevation change and a view south to Mexico.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

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.

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