Courses We Love and Hate: Taking the Good with the Bad is an Art at El Rio

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

TUCSON - For most of us weekend warriors, the game of golf inspires a love/hate relationship. Striking the ball well? Scoring the 80's? God I love this game. Breaking roof tiles? Playing your second shot from the other fairway? Man, I am really thinking about hanging up my spikes.

El Rio Golf Club
A golf pro chips to the green at El Rio Golf Club.
El Rio Golf Club
If you go

In a game where there are more mood changes than an episode of "Melrose Place", it only stands to reason that certain golf courses provoke the best, and worst of our split golf personalities. Look no further than the city's oldest municipal course, El Rio, for the first perpetrator of this criminal activity.

The love side of El Rio is simple economics. Want to play all the holes you can get in after 4:00 p.m.? All you have to do is lay down a whopping $8.50 to play what usually amounts to anywhere between twelve to fifteen holes due to the fact that most muni hackers are playing over at Randolph and Del Urich - courses more centrally located to capture the majority of Tucson's golfing population.

The love side of El Rio is also mature vegetation, well kept greens and fairways, and a layout that brings you in for your first beer at the snackbar after the No. 6 hole. El Rio is the absolute stones for a quick nine holes after work in the summer. Plenty of shade is provided by the towering trees that remind one more of Florida than Arizona.

The Bermuda greens are thick as shag carpets and slower than a Tucson traffic jam, but they roll true and are kept in great shape. The kicker is the cold beer at the No. 6 hole that together with a relaxing walk among the shady trees, seems to make the work day disappear.

The hate side of El Rio stems from three major sources: sand (lack thereof), size and neglect. When one hits his or her ball into a sand trap at El Rio, the cursing truly begins. Nothing can wreck a perfectly good round at this venerable muni like landing in one on the many green-side bunkers.

Once upon a time, when the course was state of the art, the Tucson Open was played at El Rio. Evidently, this was the last time that the bunkers were restocked with sand. The traditional "blast" shot which provides many a golfer with a safe and easy out from bunkers is not available when attempting to exit El Rio's concrete pads."

There is an ongoing debate among golfers who frequently play El Rio as to which is larger, a postage stamp or the greens at El Rio. Oftentimes, good drives and decent approach shots are rewarded by balls quickly rolling off of these miniscule greens that despite their thickness, can't even hold a well spun Belotta ball.

This ground swelling of hate reaches its peak quickly on the 5th Hole, a short par-4 that doglegs abruptly to the left. With a good draw around the patch of trees to the left, the drive on this hole will set up a wedge shot for the approach. But putting your approach shot on the Lilliputian green at the 5th is next to impossible without resorting to a bump and run shot that lands about 10 yards short of the green.

If you are avoiding the traps and landing the ball on the greens, your heretofore enjoyable round may be interrupted by some serious cases of neglect. Areas around the greens and tee boxes are often grassless, hardpan dirt. Need to wash your ball after sticking it in one of the mud puddles that dot the courses after a summer rain? Make sure you keep a wet towel, because half the ball washers at El Rio are either dry or not functional.

Love and hate aside, there are many unique opportunities at El Rio. For instance on the short par-4 No. 3 hole, if you spray the ball to the right you get a chance to barter with young kids along the fence line to get your ball back. Just the other day I paid the princely sum of fifty cents to get my Titleist back in great condition. What a steal!

So the next time you play El Rio be prepared to experience the full spectrum of golf emotions during your round. Also, you may want to have some spare change available - the kids on the fence line do not take American Express.

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 from 1997 to 2003.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment