Canoa Ranch Golf Club an Arizona top 10 surprise contender near Tucson

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

GREEN VALLEY, Ariz. — One look at the rock wall carved out of a mountain on No. 2 and you know you've found one of those golf courses. One of those underrated, super-priced finds off the paved golf resort path.

Canoa Ranch Golf Club
Canoa Ranch Golf Club makes you feel like you're playing golf in a postcard.
Canoa Ranch Golf ClubCanoa Ranch Golf Club - hole 2Canoa Ranch Golf Club - Western wheelCanoa Ranch golf course
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Canoa Ranch Golf Club

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The course at the Canoa Ranch Golf Club is demanding but also scenic. Dramatic elevation changes provide spectacular views of Elephant Head and strategic bunkering throughout provides plenty of challenges.

18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 71 | 6701 yards | Book online | ... details »

That imposing rock side on the edge of No. 2's fairway is just the beginning of a day of wows. You didn't know what to expect when you took the 45-minute drive from Tucson out to Canoa Ranch Golf Club. You surely didn't expect this.

Canoa Ranch turns out to be the little golf course that's great. This Schmidt-Curley design unfolds along an up, down and around desert landscape with interesting hole after interesting hole. No holes blend together here. You're not going to mistake No. 7 for No. 15 or anything like that.

Instead, it's gulp strong and swing stronger.

And don't listen to the owner.

"This course is too freaking hard," Canoa Ranch owner Bob McMahon roars, though freaking might have been a different F-word. "It was designed for guys like him."

McMahon points his finger at David Powell, his general manager and a former University of Arizona scholarship golfer.

"Schmidt-Curley are zero handicappers too," McMahon said.

McMahon's one of the great characters in modern Tucson. He owns nine area restaurants as the head of Metro Restaurants — including the high-end steakhouse McMahon's — and his cowboy spirit comes through on Canoa Ranch too.

McMahon probably thinks Canoa Ranch is impossible because he will only play it from the back gold tees. When a golf writer says he'll probably play it from the next set, McMahon shoots back without hesitation, "What's wrong with you? You bleep."

More like, you'll get bleeped if you play Canoa Ranch from the gold tees. The slope rating here comes in at 139 from a mere - make that a seemingly mere - 6,549 yards. That slope rating's liable to appear low to anyone who played these tees, too.

If you ask Canoa Ranch to beat you up, it will take you out back and leave you so crippled the Amazing Kreskin wouldn't be able to locate your old game.

"I have members on their hands and knees begging me to make it a little easier," McMahon said.

In truth, if you move up to the green middle tees, it's a very playable course with plenty of bite left at 5,654 yards.

The scenery is not discounted from any set of tees. Stunning is a word that's way overused in the golf world, but Canoa Ranch is stunning. Everywhere you look there's more desert and mountains stretching into the distance.

Standing on the plateau that serves as the fifth green, looking into what can only be described as a mountain postcard, it's difficult to believe Powell's estimation that the front nine is the less scenic nine. And Alec Baldwin's the less talented brother.

Yeah right.

Only Powell's probably right. Canoa Ranch Golf Club's back nine takes the thrills of the front nine and turns them up a notch.

On No. 11, a very long par 5 at 577 yards, you're almost shooting down a high chute to get to a green set up on a ridge 40 feet below the last bit of fairway grass. Starting with No. 13, the holes start to have viewing platforms that are named. The big elevated tee on No. 13 is Candaci View, the even higher perch on No. 16 is Clara's Sandbox.

It's all very theatrical, but the holes play even better.

Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley threw everything cookie cutter out the window when they laid out Canoa Ranch Golf Club. There are six par 3s in this anything but conventional design. Though in truth, a few of those par 3s play like par 4s.

No. 12, which is listed at 230 yards but plays much longer than that with a forced carry across a gully, up a mountain, often into the wind, should be a par 4 and a tough par 4 at that.

All the while, you're swinging to a constant chorus of bird chirps. A bird watcher would have a field day on Canoa Ranch. The Audubon Society should hold outings here.

It's that noticeable, that different from almost every other course you'll play in Arizona.

Canoa Ranch is full of touches like this. No. 15 has an old western wind wheel tower off in the rough, very visible from the elevated tee. It gives you the sense you're out in the real Old West.

The hole - a 398-yard par 4 that's downhill and drivable (though the target's smaller than the Grinch's heart) - is even more fun to play than look at. That's how it goes at Canoa Ranch.

The character's good, the scenery's fantastic and the golf's even better.

The verdict on Canoa Ranch Golf Club

Canoa Ranch literally comes out of nowhere, yet it's good enough to challenge for a spot in a Arizona top 10. Playing a round here is the equivalent of going into your attic and uncovering an original Mona Lisa.

Minus the multi-million dollar payday, of course. At its afternoon high-season rate, at least Canoa Ranch is a near steal.

One with an obsessive commitment to doing things right. Sitting with McMahon and course superintendent Rick Jorgenson at lunch, hearing the owner go off on what needed to be tidied up on several holes, you expect the course to be in shaky shape.

Instead the fairways are very green and the conditions better than those found on several high profile resort golf courses in Tucson the same week. Canoa Ranch is the only course in the greater Tucson region to use chaparral rye fairway grass, which means no overseeding. And by the looks of things, no problem keeping it green.

Green Valley hotels

If you're staying out here, you're going to be out there. McMahon says Green Valley's like Tucson was 40 years ago. You're close to Mexico though and not far from Tucson.

There's a new Wyndham Resort right across from the clubhouse.

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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