Bunkers make a mark on the North Course at The Gallery

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

MARANA, Ariz. - Those 108 bunkers on the North Course of The Gallery will linger in your mind. You have to stay out of those bunkers, and if you ever run into Tom Lehman, you're going to tell him exactly what you think of those bunkers.

The North Course, the first of two courses at The Gallery, was built in 1998. It's also the first of several courses designed as part of a partnership between Lehman, the PGA star, with John Fought, a former PGA player who is now renowned as a golf architect. But the partnership, although memorable, is over for now. Lehman and Fought are not starting any new courses together.

The Gallery is one of a number of great golf clubs tucked into the Dove Mountain and Oro Valley area north of Tucson. And the North Course has racked up a long list of awards in its short life, including being named one of the Top 100 Modern Courses in America by Golfweek and being listed on the most recent Top 25 Courses in Arizona put out by Golf Digest.

Many of those Top 25 are exclusive private spots, but The Gallery still allows some public play. The clock is ticking though; eventually the North Course and its brand-new South Course, designed by John Fought himself, will be strictly private. Whether you're thinking about joining The Gallery or not, you'll want to be able to say you've played at this Arizona classic.

It's a little bit easier to reach this course from Phoenix than you might think because of its location on the north side of the Tucson area. Even if you're not staying in Tucson, you can drive to The Gallery in only an hour and a half drive from Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix.

Those who have never visited here before will be impressed with the scenery and the backdrop of the Tortolita Mountains. Part of the lush scenery is due to the elevation - about 3,000 to 4,000 feet at various points. But it's also because development of subdivision piled on subdivision has yet to happen here. As one golfer at the course said, "It's Scottsdale the way Scottsdale used to be."

You're winding your way in and out of canyons filled with majestic saguaros and sculptured boulders that will remind you of The Boulders in the Phoenix area. Once upon a time, this was a cattle ranch, and there are remnants of that past - a cattle chute on one hole, remains of water cisterns elsewhere.

Director of golf Paul Nolen does advise "that you need to know how to get out of bunkers to play this course. A lot of players think that because of the high back lips, you need to hit upward, but really you have to hit down in order to get up out of there. The bunkers are part of the charm of the golf course."

What makes this course such a classic is that although it's desert golf, it's not really target golf, Nolen also says. "The fairways have wide, wide corridors," he says. "It may feel as if it isn't desert golf, but it is. I guess I'd call it traditional golf with a desert feeling. There are some forced carries, but they're not overly demanding."

You get a taste of those many-fingered, high-walled bunkers on the very first hole, a 399-yard par-4 where you have to avoid the right fairway bunker with your tee shot. This is a gentle but uphill dogleg right where you'll also find a trio of deep bunkers in front of a green with a ridge bisecting it. In fact, the greens have many of these ridges, tiers and humps. And the greens are very, very fast.

After working your way uphill for the first five holes, you finally come to the par-5 No. 6 (553 yards from the back) - a downhill hole. But to make up for the extra ground you can cover because rolling downward for a change, they've split the fairway in half in the middle with a great big ravine.

No. 9 on this course, a monster size dogleg left par 5 (725 yards from the back tees) was voted one of the world's greatest 500 golf holes by the editors of Golf Magazine in 2003. The hole is, in fact, rated the toughest on the course. The length is one thing to contend with here. There are also numerous bunkers as well here.

The par-3s are all quite imaginative, including the most difficult, No. 12 (239 yards from the back tees). First you need to make a giant carry over a sandy wash - close to 200 yards to get onto the approach if you can't make it to the green. Then be sure to go left to avoid the three-pronged bunker in front of the green. Then if the pin placement is in the back, you could spend three putts easily, if you happen to miss the rear side of the immense green, measuring some 16,000 square feet.

Paul Nolen's favorite hole is No. 15, a par-4 (422 yards) which winds its way through a rocky canyon. "It's just framed so beautifully with the hills and the surrounding mountains," he says.

Where to stay

Among local resorts is the Hilton El Conquistador in nearby Oro Valley. The resort is located to the north of the main part of Tucson in the Oro Valley, a spectacular setting of dramatic mountain peaks. This resort has two 18-hole courses and a 9-holer of its own. The address is 10000 N. Oracle Road; phone 800-767-3574. Web site: www.hiltonelconquistador.com.

Where to dine

The Gallery's dining room in its impressive clubhouse is decorated with spectacular works of art and is open to the public.

Where else to visit

Also off I-10, about 20 miles before you reach Tangerine Road, is Picacho Peak State Park, where a number of hikes ranging from easy to tough go up the distinctive peak that you can see from the freeway. Admission per car is $6.

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

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