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Tucson's Reputation Belies its Golf Offerings

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp will be profiling some of the country's best golf cities in honor of America's resilient spirit over the past year.

TUCSON, AZ -- It's hard to tell if Tucson is embarrassed or intrigued about its status as the state's second largest city. Native Tucsonans will gladly explain to you how Phoenix is a new-fangled mess of freeways, subdivisions, and strip malls, and how their "Old Pueblo" is a bastion of good, clean living and liberal thinking. Metro Phoenix, they'll tell you, is a mecca of republican politics run amok. Ubiquitous stucco homes spring from the desert like weeds after a thundershower, four lane arterial roadways criss-cross the valley like ribbons, and smog infested air hangs over the city skyline like some harbinger of the apocalypse.

Forgive native Tucsonans, however, if they are given to a bit of hyperbole when pontificating about their rival city. One need only attend the annual University of Arizona (based in Tucson), Arizona State University (Tempe, outside of Phoenix) football game to understand there's no love loss between these two desert dales. Truth is, millions of residents see Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa and the other municipalities of the Valley as a fine places to live, work and play. And they, in turn, savor every last second of peering down their noses at the little "college" town to the south, with its liberal attitudes and underdeveloped downtown.

Savvy Arizona golfers (squinty eyes, tanned skin, bleached out hair) are also quick to remind anyone who asks that the Valley of the Sun is like the Old Pueblo on steroids when it comes to fairways available for public consumption. But since the early 1990's, Tucson has made a respectable run in the realm of high-end resort and daily fee golf.

In Golf Magazine's 2002 edition of the "Top 100 Courses You Can Play," Tucson placed two tracks on the list – the Mountain Course at Ventana Canyon at No. 81 and the Raven at Sabino Springs at No. 99. The city also has an admirable history of hosting professional golf events. The remodeled North Course at Randolph Park is home of the LPGA Welch's/Circle K Championship and Omni Tucson National Resort hosts the PGA's venerable Tucson Open.

If you are in need of more encouragement to forego Phoenix for Tucson on your next golf trip to the Sonoran Desert, consider this: Tucson is not nearly as inundated with players as Phoenix or Scottsdale, and the Old Pueblo's lack of serious traffic issues will enable you to get from one course to another in a much more expedient fashion than on the grid-locked freeways and arterials of Phoenix.

Where to Play

The Lodge at Ventana Canyon is the crown jewel of Tucson resort golf, and features two splendid Tom Fazio designed layouts, the Mountain and Canyon courses. The Mountain course, with its par 3, third hole standing in as the "most photographed hole west of the Mississippi," is the most sought-after play at the resort. But the Canyon Course is just as popular among locals, not to mention resort employees. Both courses play through the craggy foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, and feature incredible views and a good sampling of desert target golf.

The Westin La Paloma is home to three nine-hole Jack Nicklaus designed courses, and yes, they were all designed during the Golden Bear's "hit a high fade to this undulating green or die," phase. Difficulty aside, the Hill, Ridge, and Canyon layouts are widely recognized as some of the best desert golf courses in the region. In typical Nicklaus fashion, greens are behemoth and replete with fire trucks underneath them. Fairway landing areas are generous and visible from the tees, always the Golden Bear's caveat.

The Golf Club at Vistoso has never seemed willing to cower in the presence of its resort course cousins. Paloma and Ventana are golf resorts, but the Golf Club at Vistoso is just a golf course, and a fine one at that. This Tom Weiskopf designed layout was a "readers write-in" Golf Magazine's Top 100 you can play six years ago, and is a "sneaky" favorite among locals and visitors alike. The layout is nowhere near as penal as Ventana or La Paloma, and if you can find better greens in the greater Tucson area, let us know. Take note of the 166-yard par 3 third hole – on a clear day (there are only 323 of them) you will have an amazing view of the north side of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

The Raven Golf Club at Sabino Springs is one of the newer high end daily fee desert courses in Tucson, and one of the best. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the course is routed through arroyos, rock outcroppings and more saguaros that you can shake a putter at. Test your desert golf mettle by playing the course from the back tees where it weighs in at nearly 7,000 yards. The par 3 fourth hole overlooks the entire city of Tucson and on a clear day, golfers can see all the way to Mexico looking south. The Raven is a favorite among Arizona Diamondback players when the team is in town for spring training.

Also Playing

Tucson Omni National is the longstanding site of the Tucson Open, featuring two traditional nine hole layouts, and one other newer nine hole course with a little more of a modern flavor and plenty of elevation changes. Excellent facilities, a beautiful place to hang your hat.

The Hilton Tucson El Conquistador claims to be the largest golf facility in Southern Arizona, and with 45 holes worth of newly remodeled golf courses, arguments are few and far between. On the grounds of the resort itself is the nine-hole Pusch Ridge course. Five miles away at the El Conquistador Country Club are two more courses: the 18-hole Conquistador and CaƱada.

Starr Pass is a former TPC course that served as the sister site of the Tucson Open in the early 90's. The course has fostered a love/hate relationship with many players because of its diminutive greens and blind shots. Craig Stadler designed the course, and a number of the holes had PGA players and duffers scratching their heads.

Tubac Golf Resort was the stage for the opening rounds in the movie Tin Cup. The course is a traditional Red Lawrence design located 40 miles south of Tucson in the village of Tubac. The course is playable for high handicappers and is an affordable alternative to Tucson's higher priced resort courses. The par 5 16th hole features an elevated tee box overlooking the Santa Rita Mountains and the Santa Cruz River Valley.

Heritage Highlands Golf and Country Club is an Arthur Hills designed course in Marana that is the centerpiece of a cookie cutter U.S. Homes development. The front nine plays through a good chunk of the housing, but the back nine climbs into the foothills and features a smattering of memorable holes.

You Wish

Two new private courses have served to bolster Tucson's reputation as a retirement haven for the financially gifted. The Gallery in Marana is easily one of the best courses in southern Arizona. John Fought and Tom Lehman designed the course, which is filled with bunkers and jaw-dropping scenery. The newest private offering is Jay Morrish's Stone Canyon Club in Oro Valley, and it may be one of the best in the entire state.

Where to Eat

Daisy Mae's Steakhouse – located out Anklam Road just west of the Starr Pass entrance. Best ribs in the state fall off the bone upon arrival. Old west atmosphere of wooden floors and walls, complete with a gas fire out on the porch.

Rosa's – Some of the best Sonoran Mexican food in Tucson, and it is located right in the heart of a shopping center on the way to the foothills (on the southwest corner of Campbell and Ft. Lowell). Best Margaritas and chile colorado in town.

El Minuto – Favorite among downtown locals. Located at the northern edge of Barrio Historico, El Minuto is known for its hearty soups and carne seca (dried beef flavored with onions and garlic.)

Little Abners Steakhouse – located out in the sticks, LAS is a must if you have the time. Head out on Silverbell Road towards Marana, and you will ultimately run into the best steaks in town.

El Terrero – head down to South Tucson for a taste of Mexico and Mexican food. Located on a small side street, El Terrero is known mainly to locals. Check out their famous cheese crisp, and savory chimichangas.

Getting There

Tucson is served by a midsize airport, Tucson International Airport, and one major Interstate, I-10.

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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