Arizona National Golf Club (formerly The Raven Golf Club at Sabino Springs): Plenty to Hold Your Interest

By Rodney Campbell, Contributor

TUCSON - If the folks at Raven tell you they don't really have a signature hole, just smile, nod your head and wait for the end of your round. Because if the 18th hole at the Tucson course isn't a special hole, we don't know what is.

In the grand tradition of saving the best for last, the club's 513-yard 18th hole is a wonder. Voted the best finishing hole in Arizona by the Arizona Republic and The Arizona Daily Star, the 18th features a tee box that sits some 200 feet above the fairway from the standard silver tees. You can actually see Mexico from up there.

The hole is a par-5 with water down the left side of the fairway but is reachable in two for the long hitters and three by the weekend player. Par here is a very attainable score and good players can write a 3 or 4 on their scorecards.

But back to that signature hole debate.

"We don't really have a signature hole," head pro Chip Johnson said. "But that's the hole that gets the most reaction."

There are many other holes to get excited about on this 6,776-yard masterpiece tucked away near the Santa Catalina Mountains. Johnson said his two favorite holes are the 575-yard second hole and the 187-yard 12th.

The second hole can be challenged in two by long hitters. The tee shot requires a carry over water that will require many average players to lay up. That may not be such a bad thing for weekend golfers because you need to be in good position for your second and third shots. No matter how good you are, one of those shots will require a carry over saguaro cacti, cholla, and brush before you land on the green. This hole isn't for the weak.

There's more than 1,000 years of history involved with the 12th hole. At first glance, it doesn't look like anything special. It's your standard par-3, which means any average player can entertain thoughts of birdie or par. There's so much more than meets the eye on this one.

The green was built on top of an old Hohokam Indian dwelling, Johnson said. The pond off to the right side of the main tee boxes was put there by the Native Americans generations ago for their livestock. When Robert Trent Jones Jr. worked on this course in the mid-1990s, he decided to integrate those artifacts. The Raven opened Jan. 1, 1996.

"I really like that hole because of the history," Johnson said.

Before you even get to the 12th hole, though, you must survive the rugged 625-yard 11th. Not surprisingly, the hole sports the No. 1 handicap designation. The tee shot is completely blind with only a directional flag offering advice about where to hit your ball.

The desert area on both sides of the fairway has to be a treasure trove of lost Titleists and Top Flites. Two forced carries over thorns and desert plants also serve as ball wastelands. Jones must have been in a foul mood when he built this hole, which one publication called "the best par six in Tucson."

Johnson said many of the Jones earmarks are all over the course. One in particular stands out.

"The bunkering here is typical of what you see in a Robert Trent Jones Jr. course," Johnson said. "You can see them from the tee box, but you can't really see them from the green."

That means a few of them can be deep. Not Scotland-deep or lose-your-playing-partner deep. But the weekend hacker many find himself needing a couple of shots to get out of a few of these bunkers. Just open that club face and swing away.

One of Jones' ideas was changed from the original plans. Johnson said the architect wanted to put more undulations on the greens, but the original Raven owner preferred puttable, "player-friendly" surfaces. This course would be a bear with up-and-down greens.

Speaking of player-friendly, Raven stresses that concept when dealing with players who take on this beautiful layout. It's hard to go more than three holes without seeing one of the course's golf assistants who are on patrol to make life easier for the thousands of golfers who play this course every year.

An example occurred when our foursome was playing the 184-yard fourth hole. Half the members of our group reached the green with their tee shots while the other two came up just short. By the time we drove our carts to the green, one of the course's assistants had already marked the two balls on the surface, clearing the path for the other two players to take their approach shots.

In fact, the assistant also raked the trap after one of our players blasted out of the beach onto the green. Impressive. No wonder the course was named one of the top five in the world for customer service by Golf Digest in its May 1998 issue.

"We have a little bigger staff than most courses," Johnson said. "We have a lot of intensive training in anticipating customers' needs. They go above and beyond what the typical ranger would do."

Members of the course's support staff are also only as far away as a button on the GPS System on the Raven's carts. But that's only a small benefit of the system. Using state of the art technology, the Raven provides global positioning that tells the player how many yards he or she is from the exact pin position that day.

No more searching for sprinkler heads or yard markers. This system handles all that. There are also tips from the pro, which offers advice on how to approach all 18 holes.

"We get so many first-timers out here and it really helps the pace of play," Johnson said. "We don't tell our players that they need to speed up. We find subtle ways to increase the pace."

There are other notable holes out here: the 321-yard third (tough uphill carry), 433-yard 10th (desert area just in front of the green), and 227-yard 17th (stunning vistas from the green).

Of course, all these amenities come with a price. During peak season, from Jan. 1 until April 30, the greens fees run $140 unless you have a discount card that is accepted by the Raven. Prices go down quite a bit during the "shoulder season" in May. Those rates are $90.

For those willing to take on the brutal Tucson summer heat, 18 holes here can be had for $60. For the snowbirds who want to get an early start on the mild Sonoran winters, it costs $90 to try this course from Sept. 1-Dec. 31.

If you don't mind shelling out the cash, this place is worth it. The scenery is stunning, dotted by thousands of saguaros and cholla. You may even catch a glance of desert wildlife. During our round, we saw several roadrunners. In the past, we even checked out a coyote walking through one of the course's wash areas.

So there is a lot more than a stunning 18th hole to hold your interest here. We just wish they wouldn't be so darned modest about what they've got.

Par: 71
Yardage: 6,776 (Raven), 6,342 (Silver), 5,839 (White) and 4,733 (Gold).
Sister property: The Raven at South Mountain (Scottsdale)
The Raven also features a pro shop, and bar and grill

Rodney Campbell, Contributor

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