Tucson: Jack Nicklaus' new Ritz-Carlton course continues trend toward big-budget golf

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

A $92 million renovation of Omni Tucson National and the arrival of a Jack Nicklaus golf course to a brand new Ritz-Carlton resort are just two examples of how Tucson is transforming into a big-budget golf vacation destination.

Jack Nicklaus Course at Dove Mountain
Jack Nicklaus' golf course at Dove Mountain is already done, just waiting to open.
Jack Nicklaus Course at Dove MountainOmni Tucson National Sonoran CourseStarr Pass Course
If you go

TUCSON, Ariz. - Sleepy left these parts a long time ago - and didn't leave a forwarding address. If you're expecting a quiet little hamlet down the desert highway from Phoenix-Scottsdale, you're at least 15 years too late.

Tucson's all grown up, all sprawled out with the construction traffic jams on the expanding I-10 interstate to prove it. Now it's nearby satellite communities like Marana are taking off, too. Progress isn't necessarily bad, though. Especially if you're a golfer looking for new interesting places to play.

It's greater Tucson (technically Marana) and not high-profile, trendy magazine favorite Scottsdale that will have the most anticipated golf course opening in Arizona this year - the Jack Nicklaus course at Dove Mountain, which will host next February's World Match Play Championship and be the main lure to a brand new Ritz-Carlton resort.

Nicklaus putting on the Ritz is hardly the only Tucson development geared toward drawing the kind of visitors who read the Robb Report and lament the rising price of jet fuel because they have to fill their private planes. Omni Tucson National just reopened last winter after a $92 million renovation centered around making it one of the finest resorts in Arizona - including a completely new golf clubhouse and plenty of aesthetic tweaks on its two golf courses.

One of those - the Sonoran Course - has only been open since late 2005, making it one of the newer courses in greater Tucson, too. It's also 10-15 minutes down the road from the new Nicklaus course at Dove Mountain.

Suddenly, Tucson is becoming a hot place to push the luxury limits in Arizona, to reach out to golfers looking to play the best of the best. Even an icon dubbed the Golden Bear cannot help but notice the switch in the desert winds.

"For a while there, it looked like Tucson might be falling off the map a little," Nicklaus said at a site preview of his Tortolita Course at Dove Mountain. "Especially as far as the PGA Tour was concerned.

"But now it's coming back probably stronger than ever. Golf's really making a resurgence in this town, and it's good to see."

Tucson's comeback echoed in PGA Tour's view?

While Scottsdale's FBR Open still draws the record crowds and fosters the legendary party scene, there can be no debate about which city holds the more important pro tournament with the far superior field. It's, hands down, Tucson and the World Match Play - which gets Tiger Woods every year he's healthy, while Scottsdale never lands golf's ultimate difference maker. Compare that to Nicklaus' day when he only played once in Tucson, and the dramatic turn becomes evident.

Golf vacationers are not as concerned with Scottsdale and Tucson's PGA Tour rivalry as they are with the fact that it has helped turn Tucson into more and more of an upscale golf retreat. The days of Tucson being Arizona's Myrtle Beach - a place where you'd find much cheaper courses than Phoenix-Scottsdale - are long gone.

In many ways, Tucson's all about showcasing show-stopping golf now. There are two Tom Fazio courses at one plush resort (Loews Ventana Canyon). There is 27 holes of Arnold Palmer golf at another luxury retreat (the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa). Nicklaus is also already here with 27 holes at the La Paloma Country Club, a golf course available to visitors at the Westin La Paloma, a resort that's lavish and secluded enough for Tiger to stay there during the Match Play.

Now there's the newly redone Omni Tucson National and two new courses at the Ritz-Carlton, including Nicklaus' Tortolita Course, the 7,850 yard monster that will be the new World Match Play host. Tortolita's 18 holes are already done except for touching up, and the course is expected to open in November.

"There aren't many places where you have golf this good in what's still a pretty natural setting," said Tucson transplant and golf nut Bob Sereno. "Golf's still more important than night clubs here. I don't know if you can say that about Scottsdale."

It's no stretch to argue that a map of the greater Tucson area would be most effective if the major golf resorts were laid out as the beacon points, like historical sites are mapped out in Colonial Williamsburg. In fact, many Tucson hotels now hand out maps almost like this.

Golf has long dominated Tucson. Now it's big-budget golf, the fairways version of "The Dark Knight."

"You can see Tucson golf changing," Pat Miller, director of golf at Tucson National, said. "A lot of the lower-priced individual courses are struggling, while the big resort courses seem to be holding their business if not gaining a little.

"Even in this economy, when people go on vacation, they seem to want something a little special. I think they're looking for the type of courses they wouldn't necessarily splurge on when they're back home. Plus, it does help that we have a lot of European visitors."

Steak is in, and ground chuck is out in Tucson golf.

It's about big and bolder golf courses playing out over those dramatic Tucson landscapes. Literally bigger in the case of Nicklaus' new beast.

"They wanted me to build a course for the Match Play, and that's what I did," Nicklaus said. "But I think regular golfers enjoying saying they played those type of golf courses as well."

Visitors to Tucson surely do. It's all about the blockbuster in this desert mecca. Good luck ever bringing sleepy back here.

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Golf

    Ray Baronette wrote on: Jan 11, 2009

    Yes I love the game of golf, & still play to a seven handicap.Years back I had played at a course in Traverse city, paid 105.00 US, at that time it was named the ( Bear ). What a waste!
    Believe me folks I will never again pay big money , for the foolish endeavors, so as to cater for the chosen few. After having taken a winter holiday, I would like to return home & be able to afford to fill my Oil tank, Take Care Now