Hilton: So Much Quality Golf, So Little Time

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

Hilton Tucson El Conquistador ResortTUCSON, AZ - It would be worth visiting the Hilton near Tucson if for no other reason than to get up close and personal with Pusch Ridge, the big granite mountain behind the resort.

When you're riding down Interstate 10 from Phoenix to Tucson, you can see Pusch Ridge from a distance and it looks a bit intriguing. Then you take the Tangerine Road turnoff to Oro Valley to get to the resort, and the ridge looms larger and larger above some of the most lush saguaro and cactus desert in Arizona.

The ridge is named after pioneer George Pusch, who came to Tucson from Germany in the 1870s and built a ranch near the ridge that now bears his name. It's part of a wilderness area in the Santa Catalina mountains that includes the 9,000-plus foot Mount Lemmon where there's even a ski resort that operates occasionally when the snow gets deep enough.

Hilton was built northeast of Tucson, back in the 1980s when there wasn't much around except open desert. Now there are shopping centers, subdivisions and new roads zooming off in all directions. There are also a number of spiffy, new private and public golf courses in the area.

Perhaps in response to the competition, everything at Hilton- from the rooms to the tennis courts to the fairways - has been renovated since 1999.

According to Jamie Halverson of the Hilton's marketing department, the resort will soon finish redecorating all 428 guest rooms. Previously the decor was whitewashed wood with peach and teal color accents - sort of the Santa Fe look. But now, says Halverson, "Guest rooms reflect the warm earth tones of the Sonoran Desert and Santa Catalina Mountains."

We stayed in a newly redone casita with large living-dining room, separate bedroom, wet bar, fireplace and beautifully framed native American artwork. There was also a patio with a great view of one of the trickier golf holes on the property, where you could sit in the late afternoon and watch hacker after hacker hit balls into a little lake the same way that we had earlier in the day. Even if you don't get the golf view, every room in the resort has a patio or balcony with a vista.

Hilton Tucson El Conquistador ResortThere lots to do at Hilton - 31 lighted tennis courts, two fitness centers with spas and saunas, four outdoor swimming pools, and stables that take regular one-hour trail rides into the local mountains.

But for us, the biggest attraction was the 45 holes of golf open to guests at the resort, the public at large and club members. Hilton claims to have the largest golf facility in Southern Arizona; it's located at 2,700 feet so it's a bit cooler to play here in the summer than in many other places in Arizona. On the grounds of the resort itself is the nine-hole Pusch Ridge course. Five miles away at the Hilton Country Club are two more courses: the 18-hole Conquistador and 18-hole Cañada. When it was first built, the country club was called Cañada Hills and had a different owner. Sheraton sent golfers there to play regularly, however, and eventually bought the club.

For those interested in all three, here is a suggestion. Play Pusch Ridge first as a warm-up for the other courses; then play Hilton. Finally, take on the course with the most difficult slope - Cañada.

Hilton Tucson El Conquistador ResortIf time is short, and you can only play one, take on the 9-hole course; it's no pushover and it's a great test of thinking skills and your ability to hit targets. In fact, everywhere we went at this resort, people asked us if we had played Pusch Ridge. It could be the most popular of the three courses.

Renovation at the two 18-hole courses began in 1999, according to country club manager Terry Duggan. "There's new grass on the fairways, new grass on the tees and greens," he says. "We tweaked the irrigation system. We took the sand out of the bunkers and put in new sand. About the only thing we didn't touch were the cart paths. This is the first full year that we're back on both of the 18-hole courses - the first full year of normal conditions with good turf grass. Now we're looking forward to doing some more landscaping in the desert areas."

Greg Nash, a Phoenix designer, was the lead architect for Hilton's original 18-hole layout and also designed the 9-hole Pusch Ridge course. Nash came back to Tucson to do the renovations as well. Nash is also known for his design of the Anthem Golf & Country Club at the giant Del Webb development north of Phoenix and Club Terravita in North Scottsdale.

Hilton Tucson El Conquistador ResortSince Nash's original 18-hole layout had been split in two and combined with 18 "new" golf holes, Nash worked on some continuity issues between the two courses at the site. "Basically, we updated the design and improved the overall golf experience during our renovation project at Hilton," Nash says. "We tried to enhance the playability and add some visual drama with the new bunkers and tee box positioning."

Here is a rundown on what the courses had to offer:

Cañada course

"Cañada" is the Spanish word for canyon and this par-72 course (6,713 yards from the back tees and 5,093 yards from the forward tees) was true to its name.

Hilton Tucson El Conquistador ResortMost of the holes on the front nine were laid out in little canyons that rolled through patches of desert. It's important to downsize on clubs on this course. The fairways often look short as you stand on the tee, but they are also extremely narrow.

There are lots of great vistas from these holes; No. 7, a par 4 (431 yards from the back tees and 361 yards from the forward tees), had one of the best views of the ridge and of the city of Tucson in the valley below.

No. 8, a par 3, medium-difficulty hole (183 yards from the back; 87 yards from the forward tees), requires most golfers to fire long and straight across the desert, uphill to an elevated green. It's a tricky hole because it's so easy to hook a shot even slightly off to the left and lose your ball, and it's also a hole that's very tough on the landscape. A giant saguaro nearby is riddled with holes made by errant balls. Another saguaro that took a similar beating collapsed and died not too long ago, according to Duggan.

Hilton Tucson El Conquistador ResortThe back nine plays a bit easier because it's wider and flatter. But still there are lots of elevated greens, well-protected by bunkers. If you like to hit high flop shots onto the green, you'll love this course.

Yardage: 6,713, 6,183, 5,730, 5,093.
Ratings/slopes: 71.9/130; 69.8/126; 66.9/118; 70.8/125.

Hilton course

This par-71 course is a bit longer, wider and flatter than Cañada (6,801 yards from the back tees; 4,821 yards from the forward tees). It also has fewer elevation changes and more visible housing developments. "It's member friendly," says Terry Duggan, "but it's not a cupcake."

Although there are plenty of rocky desert areas on the sides of the fairways, many are sloped so that a sliced or hooked ball will bounce back. Greens here play very fast, and watch out, Duggan wants to increase the speed even further.

Hilton Tucson El Conquistador ResortThere are also a number of water obstacles on this course, like No. 5, a par 5 (541 yards from the back tees, 401 yards from the forward tees) that is the toughest hole on the course. Both a lake and a treacherous gully border the green.

There are some dogleg opportunities at Hilton as well like the par 4 No. 14 (407 yards from the back tees, 309 yards from the forward tees), the easiest hole on the course. A good tee shot here can take you over a brushy area to the green for a possible birdie.

Almost all the greens on this course are elevated. You'll want to increase the length of your irons when you're reaching for the green or you'll fall short into what is very thick, tall rough around the greens. It's grass tough enough for a PGA tournament.

Yardage: 6,801, 6,331, 5,307, 4,821.
Ratings/slopes: 72.7/126; 70.3/124; 67.0/119; 69.0/121.

Pusch Ridge course

Pusch Ridge could be the most beautiful nine holes of golf you'll ever play and probably the most challenging. "Everybody thinks it's going to be a pushover, but it isn't," says Steve Darcy, the director of golf at the resort. "The greens have too much pitch and slope for that."

Hilton Tucson El Conquistador ResortThe par-35 course (2,788 yards from the back tees and 2,322 yards from the forward tees) starts out innocently enough although the fairways are quite narrow. The real test comes on No. 5, the par 4 lake-hole (371 yards from the back tees; 334 yards from the forward tees). You may have to hit a great drive into the middle of the fairway (although there are a couple of trees that make forbidding obstacles), but then you have to make a long and soft shot onto a peninsula green in the middle of the lake. Bye-bye ball.

No. 6 is a test as well. It's a par 4 (366 yards from the back tees and 319 yards from the forward tees). You should be able to hit 200 yards off the elevated tee and then have a decent shot at the green, but it's as if you're hitting to the top of a skyscraper from the fairway because the green is on a platform with steep sides.

No. 7, one of three par 3s on this course (111 yards from the back tees; 84 yards from the forward tees), has a spectacular 360-degree view of the resort, the mountains and the city of Tucson.

Hilton Tucson El Conquistador ResortAfter going around once at Pusch Ridge, you'll feel like doing it again - if only to correct the mistakes you made the first time.

Yardage: 2,788, 2,579, 2,322.
Ratings/slopes: 65.6/110; 63.7/106; 63.7/106.

Where to eat

The Hilton has five restaurants, including its coffee shop, the Sundance Café - a good spot to have a Southwestern buffet-style breakfast before teeing off. We also tried the Last Territory Steak House and Music Hall, which serves cowboy-style steaks, seafood, chicken and even buffalo. Arizona has lots of these western bunkhouse steak places and this is among the best of them. There are saloon-style cancan shows on the weekends and country western singers on weekdays. Open evenings Tuesdays through Sundays.

Hilton Tucson El Conquistador ResortAnother sight to see: If you're driving from Phoenix to Tucson or vice versa, include a quick lesson in native American history in your trip by stopping off at the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in the town of Coolidge. Admission is $3, including a visit to the on-site museum and a tour led by a National Park ranger.

Hohokam Indians built a village here in the 1300s and then abandoned it by the end of the century. No one knows why they built it or why they left, but some experts theorize that they were forced to scatter because of a drought that made it difficult for them to farm the site. There are many ancient ruins on the site, but the most spectacular is a four-story building, now covered with a protective roof. Even the purpose of the building is a mystery. Was it a religious structure of some kind or just a tribal apartment house? If you're coming from Phoenix, take the Casa Grande exit off I-10 and travel about 15 miles to the site on Route 87.

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.


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