Tucson's golfing history a rich melting pot of styles

By Brendan McEvoy, Contributor

TUCSON, Ariz. - Standing on the first tee at Arizona National, Starr Pass, or any of Tucson's modern desert style courses, it is easy to forget how it all began. It wasn't always tee boxes as islands of grass amid a forest of cacti, fairways flanked by deep desert arroyos and green complexes surrounded by the lush (yet precarious) vegetation of the Sonoran Desert.

Tucson golf, at its genesis, was strikingly similar in feel and form to golf in Illinois, Michigan, or the Carolinas. Prior to World War II, Tucson's population was primarily confined to the valley floor. Water was in rich supply and the city's first courses featured wall-to-wall grass and thick strands of cottonwoods, eucalyptus and weeping willows.

Following the war, throngs of GIs and Midwestern transplants took up residence in the "Old Pueblo." Tucson's population swelled to over 120,000 by 1950 and nearly doubled to 220,000 by 1960. Developers met the demand for new housing by pushing residential development into the desert foothills.

Golf was soon to follow.

But as the Tucson metro area's population exceeded half a million in the mid 80s, the region's already limited water supply began to dwindle. New golf courses constructed during this time faced strict irrigation restrictions.

Less water meant less turf, and the majority of golf courses built in and around Tucson in the late 80s and early 1990s were of the desert target variety. The mid and late 90s saw a slight turn back towards the traditional, as golf course architects learned to soften the edges of these dastardly, desert layouts by minimizing forced carries and using strategically placed bunkers to keep errant tee shots from reaching the surrounding desert.

Today, Tucson is a melting pot of architectural styles. Golfers can settle into traditional, grassy layouts such as El Rio, Randolph and the Forty Niner Country Club; they can test their mettle on rugged, desert style courses such as, Arizona National, Starr Pass, La Paloma and Loews Ventana Canyon; or they can opt for something in between, like the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador or Omni Tucson National.

Tucson: a golf timeline

Built in the early 1930s, El Rio was Tucson's first full service country club. It's typical of the desert golf courses designed before the 1980s: relatively flat terrain, tight tree-lined fairways and postage stamp greens. It operated as a private club until the city of Tucson purchased it and opened it to the public in 1968. Today, El Rio is one of several strong city-run courses - Fred Enke, Silverbell, Dell Urich and Randolph North.

Many Tucson courses followed El Rio's path: starting private and becoming public. After 38 years of being exclusive, Forty-Niner Country Club became semi-private in 1999 when IRI Golf Group purchased the course and clustered it with four others as a semi-private club with multi-club membership privileges. Tucson National was a private golf club for 23 years before it became a resort course for Omni Hotels in 1986 (it has since been known as "Omni Tucson National").

El Rio and Omni Tucson National have something else in common: The Tucson Open.

Since 1945, the Tucson Open has played host to the best players on the PGA Tour. El Rio was the site of the tournament until 1965. The venue moved to Tucson National and has been there for the past 27 years. Johnny Miller earned his nickname, "The Desert Fox," after winning the tournament three consecutive years in the mid '70s and again in 1981. Past champions include Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Phil Mickelson, who captured his first PGA title there in 1991 as an amateur.

In the early-'90s, Omni Tucson National shared the Tucson Open with Starr Pass Golf Club, a former TPC course. Starr Pass was one of several challenging golf courses designed in the '80s when water restrictions forced architects to be more creative with less turf to work with. During this time, Pete Dye's demanding designs were all the rage. Some courses, like Starr Pass, might have pushed the envelope too far. With all the belly-aching from the tour professionals regarding the "fairness" of its unrelenting layout, the Tucson Open was returned exclusively to Omni Tucson National in 1993. Starr Pass has recently undergone renovations to make it more playable. It is now a popular high-end, daily-fee course.

But when did Tucson become popular with vacationing golfers? Its defining moment came in 1984 when Tom Fazio's Mountain and Canyon courses opened at Ventana Canyon. The delicate balance of difficult shot-making and beautiful scenery struck a chord with local players and golf publications. The Mountain Course has consistently ranked in the top half of Golf Magazine's "Top 100 Courses You Can Play" since 1996 and the resort, too, has been highly touted. High-end resort courses like the Hilton El Conquistador, a 54-hole design by Greg Nash, and La Paloma, 27 holes authored by Jack Nicklaus, opened around the same time.

As the water restrictions came into play, the golf landscape changed. Private clubs started going semi-private or public to compete with resort courses and high-end, daily-fee designs. In the mid-'90s, Robert Trent Jones's The Raven at Sabino Springs was a big hit on the high-end daily-fee circuit with its elevation change and dramatic views. It recently became the crown-jewel of IRI's Tucson cluster, and was renamed "Arizona National."

Arizona National is the home course for the University of Arizona men's and women's golf teams. The Wildcats have catapulted several PGA Tour professionals from their ranks including 2003 U.S. Open Champion Jim Furyk, Robert Gamez, and Rory Sabbatini, and LPGA Tour professionals Annika Sorenstam and Chris Johnson.

Tucson has produced and hosted the biggest names in golf and architecture. Noticing its future potential, J.W. Marriott will open a 450-room hotel at Starr Pass in January of 2005. Just another sign that Tucson will continue to grow at a rate consistent with its past as one of golf's most treasured melting pots.

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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