Ventana Canyon Golf & Racquet Club: Tucson's answer to the pampered Scottsdale resort golf experience

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

TUCSON, Ariz. - For a college hoops fan, a trip to Tucson is a pilgrimage.

Ventana Canyon Golf and Racquet Club - Mountain course - hole 18
Tom Fazio's Mountain course at Ventana Canyon Golf and Racquet Club.
Ventana Canyon Golf and Racquet Club - Mountain course - hole 18Ventana Canyon Golf Club's Mountain Course - hole 3Mountain golf course - Ventana Canyon - 14th hole
If you go

The Lodge at Ventana Canyon - Mountain Course

5 stars out of 5 (based on 1 reviews)
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A classic desert-style, target course, the Mountain has many changes in elevation and several elevated tees. Putting is a challenge because the greens are undulating and typically fast.

18 Holes | Resort golf course | Par: 72 | 6898 yards | Book online | ... details »

The Lodge at Ventana Canyon - Canyon Course

3.5 stars out of 5 (based on 2 reviews)
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The Canyon Golf Course winds through the inspiring beauty of Esperro Canyon and incorporates the massive rock formation known as Whaleback Rock.

18 Holes | Resort golf course | Par: 72 | 6836 yards | Book online | ... details »

The man responsible for the University of Arizona Wildcat's success -- head basketball coach Lute Olson -- resides just a smooth 3-iron from the swanky Ventana Canyon Golf & Racquet Club tucked into the lush Sonoran desert of Tucson's northeast side. Despite the presence of two nationally ranked Tom Fazio-designed resort courses, Olson sightings around here are few and far between these days.

"Can't say I have," says one outside-services employee when asked if he's ever prepped Olson's cart for play. "But I've heard that he used to play here quite a bit.

Word around Ventana Canyon Golf & Racquet Club is that Olson used to be something of a regular until the Wildcats adopted Arizona National Golf Club, situated just 10 minutes east at the base of Sabino Canyon, as their official course. Olson's allegiance to the Cats' home track hasn't kept celebs such as Chevy Chase, Vince Gill, Clint Eastwood, or even former President George Bush from knocking it around the Mountain course and Canyon course at Ventana Canyon Golf & Racquet Club.

Why all the high profile guests? Turns out recording artists, movie stars and ex-Presidents know what most savvy traveling golfers have known for years: Ventana Canyon Golf & Racquet Club's 600-acre desert playground is Tucson's one real answer to the pampered Scottsdale golf experience.

First, a point of clarification - Ventana Canyon Golf & Racquet Club is a separate operation from Loews Ventana Canyon Resort. The comparatively diminutive golf club is situated just below the behemoth 398-room Loews hotel and is a mere foot wedge from the first tee of the Mountain Course. Some travelers enjoy the large scale resort experience while others dig the intimacy of a boutique operation. To each his own.

Wherever the head hits the bed is incidental to where the clubface meets the ball. For most guests, that would be the aforementioned, highly decorated Mountain Course. The Canyon Course - a more subtle, playable circuit - is actually the preferred layout of many resort employees and a healthy faction of members. Heck, the real Ventana cognoscenti is so bold to suggest that the Canyon's back nine and the Mountain's front would form the ideal desert golf course.

But it is Ventana Canyon's Mountain Course, in all its cactus-washed glory, the traveling golfers come to see. The gawking starts in earnest with the par-3, 107-yard third hole, once trumpeted as the most "photographed hole west of the Mississippi." Around here, it's also recognized as one of the most expensive. Over 20 years ago, the hole (which consists of four tee boxes, a green, and five miles of biotherm tubing) cost more than $1 million to build. Today.

"I have no idea but it would be a lot more than that," says Robert Bryant, the Lodge's group sales manager. "A lot of the cost came from the heating and cooling unit under the green. It is in the shade in the winter and in the summer, the rock base under it heats it up."

In addition to "Most photographed" and "Most expensive", No. 3 also answers to "hole in the wall" and "Tom's folly." The former because the hole was literally bore out of a rock wall. The later because Tom Watson once four-putted the hole in the final round of the Merrill Lynch Shoot-Out and went on to lose to Fuzzy Zoeller.

Rumor has it, Watson complained about the green's severe, two-tiered construction and the putting surface was subsequently morphed into a gently sloping mound. Pro shop officials disavow any cause/effect relationship between the two events.

But, enough about No. 3.

Ventana Canyon Golf & Racquet Club's Mountain Course has plenty more to offer, starting with the par-5 fourth hole. A wise golf course architect once said a good resort course never met an elevated tee box it didn't like. The fourth fits this axiom, especially from the 598-yard black tees.

The teeing area is located on top of a jagged butte just across from the third hole. From there, the tee shot is over a road to a narrow, leftward bending fairway some 200 feet below. A lake on the right comes into play on the second shot and water slips around the back and right side of the green. Toughest hole on the course? You betcha.

It's nearly impossible to pigeon hole the remainder of the Mountain Course. However, a couple of common threads do run throughout: Fairway landing areas are as narrow as Christina Aguilera's jeans. If you miss them you're in trouble (bunkers if you miss, desert if you really miss). And the greens - basically all 18 of them - are fast and undulating.

If the above description paints a picture of a course that is postcard-pretty yet extremely exigent, then justice has been served. Many local "good sticks" consider the Mountain Course to be one of the toughest tests in town. It plays to 6,907 yards from the black tees and to a card-wrecking slope rating of 147. Don't prefer the tips? Mountain is still no pushover from the Gold tees - 6,281 yards and 137.

And traveling golf couples take heart: both the Canyon and Mountain Courses have traditionally garnered much praise from the ladies. The 4,939-yard (Mountain) and 4,676-yard (Canyon) Copper tees are manageable and forced carries are kept to a minimum. Moreover, the resort even has official Arizona Golf Association ratings for three sets of women's tees on each course: Copper, Turquoise and Silver.

Back at the Lodge, both sexes can chill with a variety of spa treatments, sweat it out in the fitness center, or feast on some continental fare at the Hearthstone dining room and Sierra Bar. Go-getter types can pelt the felt on one of the Lodge's 12 lighted tennis courts or journey off campus for a jeep tour, horseback ride or hot air balloon ride. And for college basketball fans - you know who you are - the McKale Center on the U of A campus is about 20 minutes to the southwest.

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 from 1997 to 2003.

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