Sleepy Tubac about to wake up

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

For many Arizona golfers, the sleepy area of Tubac and Rio Rico in the southern part of the state never has gotten the recognition it deserves.

In the Santa Cruz River Valley along highway 19 south of Tucson, there are intriguing shopping areas, interesting restaurants, lots of historic sites - and relaxing and beautiful golf courses. Not to mention the fact that the temperatures here can be quite a bit cooler in summer than Tucson and Phoenix.

Of course, lots of people would like to see this area stay just about the same as it ever was - particularly in view of its reasonable prices. But now the bulldozers have arrived and change is under way - particularly at Tubac.

A few months ago, both the Tubac Golf Resort and the Rio Rico Golf Resort were sold to new owners.

The 46-room Tubac Golf Resort, with a par-72 course that opened in 1960, has been sold to a management group of 19 investors headed by Ronald D. Allred, a dentist who was an investor in Colorado's Telluride ski resort and who owns the Rancho Manana Golf Club in Cave Creek, north of Scottsdale. The group paid $7.28 million for the 400-acre Tubac property, family owned since 1988, according to Hotel Online.

A few miles south of Tubac, American Property Management Corp. of San Diego bought the 180-room Rio Rico Resort & Country Club, a resort and 18-hole golf club, for $5.49 million. APM, a large hotel company, also owns some Radissons in California, the Hilton Las Cruces and the Hyatt Regency Savannah.

Officials at Rio Rico say some changes may be in the works at their golf course eventually. But Tubac is already being renovated, according to Jonathan Rinkevich, the head golf professional at the resort.

"As we speak, the driving range is being nuked," Rinkevich said. "It's all-dirt now where we're creating a brand-new island green par-3. The 9th hole is also under construction - it's the lake hole."

Although the reconstruction is under way, it hasn't disturbed play. Plenty of golfers were on the links recently when we visited.

"We'll always have 18 holes open," Rinkevich said. "Even though the ninth hole is closed, we have a par-3 here that we used to call our 19th hole, and we're subbing that for No. 9."

The architect in charge of the project is John Harbottle III of Tacoma. How the holes will be reconfigured and where the new holes will fit into the old plan has yet to be firmed up.

"Once we're finished with the holes, we'll start work on the original 18. We'll be re-routing the cart paths, improving the bunkers and irrigation system. Some greens will be changed and some won't," said Rinkevich, who came to Tubac three months ago from Las Campanas Golf Club in Santa Fe, N.M.

Even if you never get to this golf course in Southern Arizona, you've already seen it if you've ever watched the golf movie Tin Cup.

The 16th hole on this course is a 575-yard par-5 that has a dramatic lake on it where Kevin Costner lost ball after ball trying to reach a green in the U.S. Open. The lake for this crucial scene in the movie was built by the film crew.

The tee box on No. 15, a 370-yard par-4, also was used in the movie for filming a scene where Costner broke most of the clubs in a golf bag.

The long-drive contest in the movie took place behind the clubhouse at Tubac.

All that Tin Cup ambiance is going to be preserved, according to Rinkevich, although other changes may be in the works. The clubhouse patio may be expanded to the east so that diners can keep a better eye on the golf course. A 200-seat conference center is being considered; 30 rooms could be added to the 46 casitas and suites already on the property.

"It's going to be spectacular," Rinkevich said.

If history is any guide, the project should turn out well. The Allred family previously bought a rundown golf course in Cave Creek, north of Scottsdale, and turned it into the scenically beautiful Rancho Manana. Rancho Manana is not a long course - just 6,000 yards from the tips, but it's famous for its scenery and tricky up-and-down target style of play.

As for Tubac, it currently measures 6,886 from the back tees and 5,352 from the forward. The front nine is fairly wide open. Another famous hole here is No. 8, a par-3 that requires a long iron shot from 185 yards through two cottonwood trees and over a pond. On the back nine, the most challenging holes are from the 12th hole on.

The original architect for this 1960s-era golf course was Robert "Red" Lawrence, best known for laying out one of the original nines at The Boulders and Desert Forest Golf Club, both located in Carefree, north of Scottsdale. Desert Forest was recently named to the Golf Digest list of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses for 2002-2003. It's considered to be one of the forerunners of the modern desert-course movement in Arizona. Tubac was originally a country club and Bing Crosby once served on its board of directors.

A summertime round here can be a bit more comfortable than it is in Phoenix. That's because Tubac is located at about 3,175 feet. "It's about five degrees less than Tucson and 10 degrees cooler than Phoenix," Rinkevich said. "Most people don't realize it, but you're going uphill as you drive toward the border."

How to get to Tubac

From Tucson follow Interstate 19 south for about 45 miles to Tubac. Take exit 40 and follow the frontage road south to the resort located at 1 Otero Road.

Where to golf

The Tubac course will remain open during renovation. The par-71 course measures 6,886 yards (71.8/126) from the back tees and 5,352 (70.5/120) from the forward.

The Rio Rico Country Club with spectacular views of Mount Cayenta is just a few miles south of Tubac on Highway 19. This par-72 course was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. is a bit longer than Tubac and measures 7,119 yards (72.9/128) from the back tees and 5,659 (70.9/128) from the forward.

Where to stay

Consider reserving one of those casitas or suites in the Tubac resort. There is a restaurant in the resort and lots more restaurants about a mile south in the town of Tubac.

The Rio Rico Resort is a bit more upscale with tennis courts and a fancy swimming pool. The resort is a few miles west of the golf course.

Other sights to see

Mission Tumacacori National Monument: In the Santa Cruz River area, people have lived for perhaps 10,000 years, starting with the prehistoric Hohokams and followed by the Pima and Papago tribes. The Spaniards came in the 1600s, led by Father Kino, who explored the area and established a mission, Tumacacori. Now the mission is a national monument, about three miles south of Tubac, just off I-19.

Visitors can take a self-guided tour and get a glimpse of what it must have looked like around 1820. The Park Service has developed an interesting museum, in addition to a 14-minute video presentation to assist visitors.

Tubac Presidio and village: The first European settlement in Arizona may have been in Tubac, very near Tumacacori, and the first Arizona state park was established there. Tubac Presidio State Park was once a garrison set up by the Spanish to defend the missions and nearby settlers against Indians. Today the quaint town of Tubac has more than 50 galleries and studios and many art festivals are held here annually.

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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