La Paloma Country Club: Stunning views and more in Tucson

By Rodney Campbell, Contributor

TUCSON, Ariz. -- A friend of mine has said Jack Nicklaus designs courses only Jack Nicklaus can play. I never questioned him because I had never played such a layout until recently.

La Paloma Country Club - Tucson
La Paloma Country Club in Tucson has been named one of the top 75 resort courses by Golf Digest since 1988.
La Paloma Country Club - TucsonLa Paloma Country Club - Tucson, Ariz.
If you go

But now that I have, I'm here to disagree. La Paloma Country Club in Tucson is one of those great combinations of challenging, yet forgiving courses.

The Golden Bear put plenty of traps (both sand and otherwise) on this 27-hole stretch, but he also included some things that make this a pleasant experience.

Maybe calling it a pleasant experience is an understatement. The course has been named one of the top 75 resort courses by Golf Digest since 1988 and the golf shop was among the best 100 rated by Golf Shop Operations in '90 and '91.

The course is split among three nines: The Ridge, Canyon and Hill. La Paloma's Ridge and Canyon courses opened in 1984 while the Hill was inaugurated in 1986. I played the Hill and Canyon layouts on a recent January day and found both to be enjoyable.

The only ways to get on the course are either to be a member or stay at the adjacent Westin La Paloma hotel.

The hotel offers deep discounts during the summer months, but more on that later.

If you're lucky enough to play the Canyon course during your 18-hole round, be prepared for the toughest of the three nines on the property. It's also the most scenic and there are even some nice design touches that make this course both a beauty and a beast.

"There's an elevation change on the Canyon course," said Dan LaRouere, La Paloma's director of golf.

"There are more elevated tee boxes. The other two courses are comparable."

All 27 holes here include a Nicklaus signature, LaRouere said. So a word of warning is warranted. Try to avoid bunkers as much as possible because they are deep. Nicklaus must have thought he was working on the Turnberry course in Scotland.

After all, that layout and La Paloma have something else in common. Both are among the more than 20 courses run by Troon Management, which bought La Paloma nearly three years ago.

There are so many good points to these courses. Players won't find many blind shots, the scourge of score-challenged golfers like me. Nicklaus also included a feature that will save an average player a few golf balls along the way.

He placed mounds along the outside of the fairways which gives a few holes here a bowl effect and sends many wayward shots back onto the fairway or low rough.

"(The course) is difficult, but not tricky," said LaRouere, who's in his ninth year at La Paloma. "You can see what's ahead of you."

What's ahead of you here is a number of stunning views of both of the Santa Catalina Mountains and downtown Tucson. Some of the better views are also on some of the toughest holes. The seventh hole on the Canyon course offers a tee box with an elevation of roughly 100 feet.

Try not to get too taken in by the beauty of the surroundings, though. While this 445-yard hole can be played as either a par-4 or 5, it's also rugged. Even if you hit your drive into the middle of the fairway, there's a carry over a ditch in front of an elevated green. The great players among us could still have a rough time on this baby, which carries the No. 1 handicap on this nine.

The ninth hole on Canyon offers views of the Catalinas and downtown, which was unfortunately obscured a little by haze during my round. The Westin resort also lines the right side of the fairway. It's still a nice diversion after a snappy little par-3 eighth hole, which measures 211 yards from the back tees. The green is a little thin in the landing area, but there's good room if your tee shot strays to the right. If you tuck the pin on the left side of the green, this hole gets tough.

Over at the Hill course, scoring comes a little easier. That doesn't mean there aren't many challenging holes. There certainly are. But birdies and pars are lurking even for average players.

The centerpiece is, once again, the seventh hole. What is it about Nicklaus and seventh holes here? Anyway, this version of No. 7 also features an elevated tee box and a mound of rocks off to the left of the green.

Those rocks came in handy during my visit when I hit an errant shot only to have it kick off the rocks and on to the apron of the green. Yeah, I planned it that way. This hole measures 538 yards from the black (back) tees.

The fourth hole is also a dandy. The par-3, 185-yard hole had a generous pin placement in the middle of the green during my round. Your tee shot will sail over a natural wash that flows between the fourth and fifth holes.

Speaking of the fifth, long hitters will need to use their length to set up a good approach shot on the 467-yard hole. Those playing from the silvers will have an easier time managing a 406-yard hole. Keep the ball a little right for your approach.

Too bad I didn't get a look at the Ridge course. The first two holes have elevated tees (always a plus) and the 459-yard sixth hole is described by the club as a "challenge." Well, maybe it's best that I didn't play that nine.

All three courses have five tees for varying skills of play. LaRouere warns that only the long hitters and best players should dare try the black tees.

He said most hotel guests, who make up 50 percent of the traffic on the course, play from the silver tees. The gold tees are available for players who want more of a challenge than the silver ones afford, but don't feel comfortable from the back tees. The yardage difference between the gold and silver is small on the Hill course (3,141-2,964) and a little more pronounced on the Ridge (3,323-3,020) and Canyon (3,312-2,991).

Women usually play from the jade tees or the more challenging copper ones. The day I played, the copper and silvers were on the same tee boxes.

As for staying at the 487-room hotel, business travelers take up much of the space during the gorgeous winter months, but there are usually rooms to be had.

The resort's summertime specials bring in folks from Phoenix, Tucson, and California who want to get away from home for a few days. In fact, some people who live in the Catalina Foothills of Tucson book weekend stays at the Westin just to get on the golf course, according to Nancy Allison, the resort's director of marketing communications.

"The best value is during the summer months," she said. "We get a lot of family business."

Allison said a room and golf for two went for as little as $119 a night last year. She said this year's special rates have yet to be determined, though they should be comparable to last year.

The specials usually run from Memorial Day through Labor Day and are sometimes extended into late September. October is when the business travel season gets hectic in the desert. That's when Tucson, Phoenix, and Palm Springs, California, start battling for corporate clients from Chicago, New York, and other Northeastern and Midwestern business centers.

"They mostly come from cold country," Allison said. "We do get some California business."

The hotel also offers stunning views of the Catalinas and the city. The hotel sits a little farther back from the mountains than other hotels in the Catalinas. Allison said the hotel uses this fact to its advantage.

"It's like the difference between sitting in the front row of a movie theater and sitting toward the middle," Allison said.

Wildlife abounds on the course and hotel property. Animals as small as quail and as large as mountain lions have been seen.

"Some of the best memories people take home from their trips here is the wildlife they see," Allison said. "People from the East Coast don't often get to see bobcats and pumas (mountain lions)."

The resort prides itself on being kid-friendly. Children can even get tips from the club's golf and tennis pros and take to the course or courts with mom and dad. There's a 177-foot water slide on property, a kids-only pool and a child-sized buffet. Children 12 and under eat for free with their parents and youths 18 and under stay free in the room with their parents.

Rodney Campbell, Contributor

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