Omni Tucson National's Catalina and Sonoran golf courses: Two distinct courses, two distinct plays
TUCSON, Ariz. -- If you are a baby boomer, Omni Tucson National's Catalina Course might just have been one of the first golf courses you ever saw on TV. It opened on Jan. 3, 1963 and just two years later, Bob Charles won the 1965 Tucson Open here.
It has been a crazy busy venue ever since, and a new chapter begins in 2015 with the PGA Tour's Champions Tour hosting the Tucson Classic, featuring an 81-player field competing for a $1.7 million purse, as well as 255 Charles Schwab cup points for the winner.
The Tucson Conquistadores, a membership that ran the Tucson Open and is dedicated to continuing the tradition of professional golf in Tucson, will operate the March tournament and charity will benefit the First Tee of Tucson along with other sports teams in the area.
It is a welcome addition to the Tucson golf scene since the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play left The Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Marana for TPC Harding Park in San Francisco.
You know you are at a special place when you read the plaque on the first tee of all the Tucson Open winners -- Johnny Miller won three straight. Lee Trevino and Phil Mickelson won here twice. Other names include Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Miller Barber, Jeff Sluman, Larry Mize and David Duval.
Also, the redwood water cooler containers list names and years that tour members won.
Today the year-round golf destination has mature trees, saguaros, stunning views of the Santa Catalina Mountains and winter weather suited to make snowbound golfers want to visit.
Tucson National has evolved from the original 18 to another nine added in 1982. At that point the Chicago owner -- an Italian -- named the nines Orange, Green and Gold, the colors of the Italian flag.
In 2005, PGA Tour player Tom Lehman finished a new 18 that used the Green nine and some undeveloped eastern acreage to create the desert-styled Sonoran Course.
As you are driving to the first tee on the Catalina Course, be sure and glance to the right and take in no. 18, a 443-yard, par-4 beast that has a fairway with water on both sides. For all the years the Tucson Open was played this was one of the toughest holes on tour.
Catalina is a traditional-style layout with gentle contours and tree-lined fairways. It began as a private course designed by Robert Bruce Harris. Robert Van Hagge and Bruce Devlin, came in later to retool it.
It measures 7,262 yards at a par 73, but the PGA Tour played it to par 72. There are eight lakes, 80 bunkers and elevated greens. So if you try to hit short of the greens and run it up you will spend a day chipping from in front of the smooth, very fair greens.
"We have had the same superintendent for 28 years so things stay constant," said Danny Medina, director of golf. "Visiting golfers like that it is a traditional golf course, its playability, the conditioning and our service."
The course has hosted more than 30 PGA events (it was called the Chrysler Classic of Tucson for years), and is the annual host of the University of Arizona Invitational. It features fairways of Tifway 419 pollen-free Bermuda and Champion Bermuda greens. When the Bermuda goes dormant fairways and tees are over-seeded.
"If you visited Tucson in the 1970s, this was the place to play," Medina continued. "It was one of the founding courses in the city and continues to be popular with locals and travel golfers."
Champions Tour member Kirk Triplett, who holds the course record at 63, said "all the players on the Champions Tour are enthusiastic about returning to Tucson."
"Living in nearby Phoenix, I love desert golf, so I'm really happy about the event," he said. "And I was the last one to claim that Conquistador helmet they gave as a trophy."
Lehman's Sonoran Course desert design complements the parkland Catalina with 6,529 yards and a par 70 with plenty of cacti, native plants, wide fairways, 69 bunkers and elevation changes.
The 2006 Ryder Cup Captain took the old Green nine to create a fun experience with spectacular views of the desert. One major change was using the old Green's downhill 500-yard third hole and making two better holes -- a 175-yard par 3 and a short, risk-reward par 4.
"The Sonoran Course has become a favorite, and I think most like the wide fairways and use of the natural desert washes and vegetation," Medina said. "It is also very fair and playable with great views of the mountains and desert."
Omni Tucson National: Stay and play in luxury
Pick a stay-and-play package from the resort's Web site and enjoy an award-winning spa, 128 guest rooms, infinity edge pool and cabanas plus a lighted sports complex with tennis courts.
The fancy place to dine is Bob's Steak & Chop House and Legends Bar & Grill has outside seating to dine and enjoy watching golfers come up the famed 18th fairway.