Arizona National Golf Club in Tucson: Home of the Wildcats a wild ride for traveling golfers

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Most courses Tiger Woods has played have stories to tell, and Arizona National Golf Club is no different. The year was 1996 and Woods' Stanford golf team was in town for a PAC-10 match against the home-standing Arizona Wildcats. As the story goes, Woods sauntered up to the tee on the 513-yard par-5 18th, took one obligatory glance at the 200-foot drop, pulled driver and deposited his tee shot in the lake left of the hole.

Arizona National Golf Club - 16th
Arizona National Golf Club's 16th hole is a par 4 up the foothills to an elevated green.
Arizona National Golf Club - 16thArizona National Golf Club -- 11th
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Arizona National Golf Club

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Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains adjacent to the Coronado National Forest, the course at the Arizona National Golf Club provides stunning scenery as well as a challenging game. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the course’s design takes advantage of the natural terrain.

18 Holes | Semi-Private golf course | Par: 71 | 6785 yards | Book online | ... details »
 

The ball allegedly entered the drink about 20 yards in front of the green. You do the math.

Despite the errant tee shot, there were happy endings all around. The Stanford men's golf team went on to win the national championship that year, Woods turned professional shortly thereafter, and Arizona National went on to become one of the highest rated daily-fee golf courses in Arizona.

Heady times, indeed. But the present at this Robert Trent Jones II designed desert course in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains is nothing to scoff at. The course, clubhouse and practice range were purchased from Intrawest by the IRI Golf Group a few years back. IRI made the University of Arizona an offer it couldn't refuse -- a dedicated home course for its men's and women's golf programs.

"The relationship with the University has been win-win," says IRI Regional Vice President Dennis Palmer. "We are talking about one of the premier schools for golf in the world and they didn't have a regular home course. Now they have a place to call home."

Helping instill that homey feeling are two giant Arizona "A" logos, cardinal red golf carts (the schools primary color), plenty of U of A gear for sale, the Wildcat Grill and last but not least -- a men's and women's golf Wall-of-Fame.

"You stand in front of that wall and you understand the caliber of players that have come through these programs," Palmer says.

No doubt. How could a top recruit not be impressed by reading of names like Ricky Barnes, Jim Furyk, and Annika Sorenstam? But when the awe of the wall has worn off and the recruiting pitches come to an end, it is the golf course that has to do the talking.

"I think the teams really like the course and the way it sets up for them," Palmer says.

Evidently, it set up well for senior, first team All-American Chris Nallen, who posted the course record, an eye-popping 58. Those present that day say Nallen made every putt he looked at and made his way around the 6,785-yard layout with his head down and a serious look on his face, a la Justin Leonard.

With holes that play uphill, downhill, over hills and around them, Arizona National is not a course to be taken lightly. Its brawny 146 slope rating from the back "Raven" tees tells the story of a course where difficulty isn't predicated on distance.

"It's more about the shots you have to make," Palmer says.

One trip around the vintage RTJ II track and the obvious question is "sure, but how did Nallen make so many of them?"

Did he really hit a 270 plus yard cut drive on the 575-yard par-5 second hole over the creek and fairway bunker, taking the risk right out of risk/reward? And did he really hit short iron into the green on the 433-yard, uphill par-4 10th, rendering the daunting, desert arroyo guarding the hole helpless? Then there's the 625-yard par-5 11th hole, which a few members of the women's team have dubbed "Faith Hill" for the blind tee shot it requires over a small knoll marked with an aiming flag.

Let's not even go there.

The par-3 12th hole, a manageable 166-yard one-shotter from the white tees, is a pleasant reminder that golf at Arizona National isn't just about course records and collegiate pageantry. History and environmentalism also abound. The ancient Hohokom Indians built a spring fed pond on this site 1,000 years ago that sits just to the right of a giant, old Mesquite tree. The two-tiered green actually sits atop an old Hohokom dwelling.

"It's like a museum out here," said one maintenance worker when asked about the course's lush (yet precarious) vegetation. "I try not to touch anything but the grass and sand."

Good plan. Jones II routed Arizona National through one of the most cactus-rich swaths of central Sonoran desert. To appease local environmentalists and adhere to state regulations, 2,500 saguaro cactus and over 60,000 desert plants were uprooted and replanted. To this day, horticulturists walk the property measuring plants and cacti to monitor the modern day duffer's affect on the desert.

To paint a picture of Arizona National as totally anatural would be a slight injustice to prospective players. The course is surrounded by a myriad of single family homes, but most are tastefully done and set back far enough from the playing surface so as not to be a factor. For those who find themselves depositing balls into patios and pools, the Dean Reinmuth Instructional Center is open for business as of Jan. 12.

Stay and play

The Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort is a healthy drive away but worth the extra mileage. The four-star, four-diamond resort features 428 recently remodeled guest rooms, including plush suites with fireplaces, balconies and "heavenly beds." Kids of all ages (you know who you are) will enjoy the resort's 143-foot water slide and new "fantasy" swimming pool. Oh, and did we mention the golf? With 45 holes, El Conquistador is the largest golf resort in Tucson. The nine-hole Pusch Ridge Course winds around the resort property while the 18-hole Canada Course and Conquistador Course are just seven minutes away by shuttle.

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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