Tucson rises to the needs of thrifty golfers

By Brendan McEvoy, Contributor

TUCSON, Ariz. - In the old days migrants came in droves on stage coaches and horseback. While the vehicles may have changed, the Tucson of the 21st century is still growing, and the suburban sprawl is swelling at the rate of 2,000 residents per month.

More than 750,000 people live in this desert oasis surrounded by four mountain ranges that receives 330 sunny days a year. Sunny, dry days, and more than 30 golf courses available to the public make Tucson a golfer's paradise.

But wait a minute.

Golfer's paradise is a moniker typically reserved for points north. Namely, the Valley of the Sun and the golfing hotebeds of Scottsdale and Phoenix. All the major hotels and resorts have the market cornered on golf in Arizona, right?

Talk to those from Tucson, and the answer is "no." The cities have a natural rivalry that stems from its two major universities (University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona State University in Tempe) and lifestyles that differ as much as ancient pueblo and modern stucco. When it comes to golf, their sentiments soften some but not entirely.

While Tucson isn't a major competitor of Phoenix or Scottsdale, it's a viable alternative. The quality of golf is comparable, the pickings are solid and the price is right. In terms of big-name designers, Tucson's roster reads like a who's who of modern golf course architecture: Jack Nicklaus, Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and Sr., Tom Fazio, Arthur Hills and Tom Weiskopf all have left their marks here.

"We have quality courses and you play in the mountains as opposed to the Phoenix area, where you play on flat land surrounded with mountains three to five miles away," said Joan Fails, director of golf at Starr Pass Golf Club. "We have anything from traditional Midwest style courses to the most Sonoran Desert golf experience possible. Down here, the desert plant life and wildlife are everywhere - everything from saguaros to coyotes, road runners, bobcats and deer. Tucson is still rural enough overall to experience a range of natural settings."

Even Phoenix-based golf officials don't deny that Tucson is one of the country's emerging golf destinations.

"It's a gorgeous area with mountains and natural terrain with a lot more opportunity than Phoenix," said Kevin Stockford, director of golf at Starfire Country Club. "But the airport has to make some changes to make it a huge golf destination."

While Stockford's point is well taken - Sky Harbor International Airport dwafs Tucson International in both size and passenger volume - it should be pointed out that several myths surround TIA. First, it's not a single engine airfield. Seven major airlines fly into Tucson airport: American, America West, Continental, Delta, Northwest, Southwest and United.

"I go to the Masters every year," said Dennis Palmer, Arizona regional vice president for the IRI Golf Group, owners of four Tucson area golf courses. "Until a couple of years ago, I had to drive to Phoenix to fly directly to Atlanta. Now, Delta flies directly from Tucson to Atlanta, and it's less than it was from Phoenix. And I don't have to drive."

Another prevalent Tucson stereotype holds that it costs up to $100 more and takes at least an hour longer to make a connecting flight. With the traffic surrounding the Phoenix area, the extra hour spent in a connecting flight to Tucson could be the same time it takes to get in and out of Sky Harbor. In the worst case, a plane ticket will cost $100 more to fly into Tucson, money that would have been blown in the first pro shop in Phoenix or Scottsdale.

"Everybody is looking for the best deal they can get," Palmer said. "I'd look for the nicest golf course I can afford. And with the world class facilities in Tucson, it should be extremely attractive alternative to Scottsdale or Myrtle Beach."

Start with the 27 holes at Omni Tucson National Golf Resort and Spa. Designed by Bruce Devlin and Robert von Hagge, this course has hosted the PGA Tour's Tucson Open since 1976 (now called the Chrysler Classic of Tucson). The pros rank the ninth hole on the Gold Course as one of the most challenging finishing holes on tour.

Starr Pass, a cunning design made to challenge PGA Tour players, will rank as one of the top resort courses in January 2005 when J.W. Marriott opens its 450-room hotel next door. Recently, the course underwent renovations to make it more playable to the average golfer. With Marriott making a move in Tucson, every course should benefit.

"If you come here for a week, are you going to want to play the same course every day?" Palmer asked. "I wouldn't. That's a boom for everybody down here."

Palmer even suggested that Marriott's presence could entice other hotel chains to bring their business to Tucson, creating more demand for more air traffic to Tucson and more direct flights for less money.

Regardless, the high-end courses will be the major beneficiary of the new hotel. The foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains are home to two of those courses, Arizona National and The Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa. Arizona National is a scenic desert design authored by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. The green fairway patches are surrounded by cacti and flourishing desert plant life. The dramatic views of mountains and canyons make for an unforgettable round of golf. La Paloma offers a similar scenic experience with 27-holes of architect Nicklaus at his best.

Other top resort golf courses include Tom Fazio's 36 holes at The Lodge at Ventana Canyon and Greg Nash's 54 holes at The Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf and Tennis Resort. Ventana Canyon, known as the toughest course in Tucson, but it's softened by views that on a clear day stretch more than 100 miles into Mexico. El Conquistador's two 18-hole parkland tracts meander though desert laced with mesquite trees and other native plant life. The nine-hole course plays up and down the mountainside.

The less-expensive golf is every bit as challenging as the high-end resort courses. The IRI Golf Group's courses in the Tucson-Green Valley area are well-maintained and easy on the wallet. San Ignacio, in Green Valley (30 minutes south of Tucson), rests naturally against the Santa Cruz River's arroyos and ridges. It is known for having some of the truest greens in the state. Back in Tucson, Forty-Niner Country Club has lush rolling fairways that are lined with mesquite, eucalyptus and weeping willow trees.

Tucson has some of the finest municipal golf in the state. The 36 holes at the Randolph Golf Complex celebrated its 75th anniversary this year. Randolph North used to be the home of the Tucson Open and currently hosts the Welch's/Circle LPGA Championship in March. The Fred Enke Desert Golf Course, Silverbell Golf Course and El Rio-Trini Alvarez Golf Course are completely different designs with challenging elements and solid conditions.

Golf is fun, but so are the various other diversions in Tucson like Saguaro National Museum, the Kino Sportsplex (home to spring training for the Diamondbacks and White Sox), Colossal Cave Park, the Tucson Raceway Park (home to NASCAR events) and the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Tucson is also known as the best city in the country for spas. The Zagat Survey rated Miraval Spa as the best in the United States, with Canyon Ranch tied for second. The downtown night life has a wide variety of bars, pubs and restaurants.

With more than 30 quality golf courses, green fees $50 to $200 lower than in Phoenix and Scottsdale, sunny weather, and plenty to keep you busy, Tucson is an emerging golf destination.

"It's on its way," Palmer said. "The word about Tucson and its quality golf courses and prices has to get out. We have more bang for your buck."

Brendan McEvoy, Contributor

Brendan McEvoy spent five years with Times Community Newspapers, a Reston, Va.-based chain of 18 weekly newspapers covering the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

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