Omni Tucson National Catalina Course: A factory of PGA Tour memories

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

Watch out for the water while you're enjoying the history at Omni Tucson National's Catalina Course in Arizona, where Arnold Palmer, Johnny Miller and Lee Trevino have all won PGA Tour events.

Omni Tucson National's Catalina Course
Omni Tucson National's Catalina Course ends with a drama-packed hole.
Omni Tucson National's Catalina CourseOmni Tucson National's Catalina Course - Hole 4Omni Tucson National's Catalina Course - WaterOmni Tucson National's Catalina Course - Approach
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Omni Tucson National - Catalina Course

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Omni Tucson National Golf Resort & Spa's Catalina Course has a parkland-style layout that features numerous trees, both lining the fairways and scattered throughout. The traditional design is the more challenging of the two golf courses at Omni Tucson National with water hazards coming into play on eight holes and significant bunkering both greenside and bordering the landing areas.

18 Holes | Resort golf course | Par: 73 | 7262 yards | Book online | ... details »

TUCSON, Ariz. - History gets some people as much as the water. Those who watched the Tucson Chrysler Classic back when golf was just breaking into TV tend to have indelible memories of the event.

And they usually center around some famous name going splash. Or getting freaked out after they didn't splash.

Arnold Palmer won on what's now called Omni Tucson National's Catalina Course. Johnny Miller (three times), Lee Trevino and Tom Watson too. But the implosions are sometimes more visceral. Aaron Baddeley lost it on 18 - the hole with water on both sides of the fairway - after having made it to the green. Baddeley three putted and Heath Slocum had a gift-wrapped trophy.

"That one is still hard to believe," Tucson National Director of Golf Pat Miller said.

People don't have as much trouble picturing John Daly posting a 10 on Catalina Course's par-3 fourth - and then flinging his putter into the water.

That's the thing. For such a pretty parkland green course in the Tucson desert, Catalina can bring the pain. Water lurks, the greens aren't mammoth, like at so many newer resort courses, and the bunkering's intricate and sometimes downright devious.

At lot of times you're also playing against a memory of the course. Miller cannot even remember all the times people have come up to tell him how they always wanted to play the course from watching it on TV. A lot of times it's a father bringing his son or a grown up son bringing his father.

"People come here to play Catalina," Miller said, even though Tucson National has a second, much newer desert resort course, the Sonoran, that this reviewer thought was a better play.

The Tom Lehman-designed Sonoran Course doesn't have the PGA Tour pedigree though.

Or the plaques. Under Miller's direction, Tucson National does a better job than most courses with history of highlighting the moments. It had been taken down during this visit with the connected Omni Tucson National resort in the midst of a $90 million makeover, but there is a plaque listing the names of all the Tour players who've won on the Catalina Course.

Miller hopes to put more markers in, showing significant shots and moments around the course.

Water plays as big a part in these as it did in Baywatch - only David Hasselhoff cannot save you (not even if you're German). No, Catalina's eight water holes can sneak up on you in the turns of doglegs or just plain out intimidate you even when the hole is short and the forced carry shorter (see that 170-yard par-3 fourth).

Course architects Robert Van Hagge and Bruce Devlin designed Catalina to make you feel you're in a Midwest park rather than the middle of a rugged desert (mountains on the horizon regardless). They succeeded - complete with the flatness a Florida course could appreciate.

Of course after a few aqua plops, you suddenly may find yourself wishing for a cactus to tangle with.

But then you'd never get to play Catalina's 18. And 18 is theatrical enough to win a Tony. Not only is there that water on both sides of a fairway that starts looking skinny from the tee awfully early, but the hole doglegs and ends up on a green that's guarded by bunkers on three sides and gives a great view back at the resort. Did we mention the three water fountains in those dueling lakes?

The PGA Tour certainly didn't abandon Tucson National in favor of newer fancy courses down the road because of this hole.

If Donald Trump developed a golf course in the 1950s, Catalina 18 is what it would look like. The Trumpster wouldn't ever let you forget Arnold Palmer won here either. Thankfully, Catalina's staff has that same spirit.

The Verdict on Omni Tucson National Catalina Course

Tucson National Catalina would be a good golf course if no PGA Tour events had ever been held here. The fact that there have been more than 30 adds some mystique and aura to the 7,262 yards. You'll have nice green fairways to try and reenact the shots of legends and non-legends past, too.

About the only way Catalina will deeply disappoint is if you came to Tucson wanting a desert golf challenge. Then, you should save that $185 winter high season greens fee (it's $105 for resort guests now through May 26) for the Sonoran Course.

"Some people only want to play a desert course when they're out here," Miller said.

Those who go park green will get some short par 4s that are fun, but often also scorecard battering. Take No. 3. Catalina's third hole measures only 375 yards from the tips (350 from the tees most golfers play from), but the green's tucked back behind a lake on a corner.

The best play is to forget about trying to drive the green (you're not John Daly, except maybe on water par 3s) and hit a 3-wood or a long iron off the tee to take the lake out of play. How many smart, cautious resort golfers do you know though?

"I think this course suits my game too," vacationing golfer Felix Chow said. "Maybe I should be on Tour too.

"Nah, I'm just kidding."

Hey, you're playing the PGA Tour course. A few daydream moments are permitted.

Tucson hotels

Omni Tucson National is a good resort that's going to get much better once the renovation is completed around 2010. Right now, the guest experience can be a little uneven with construction annoyances, but the beds are already plush and the sense of retreat largely intact.

Fast Facts

Sonoran and Catalina rotate every day, with one being the members' course and the other for resort guests and the general public. So even in a one-night stay, you should have access to both courses with an early-enough arrival.

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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