Tucson Open preview: Star search comes to Omni National

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

TUCSON, Ariz. -- For the past few years, the Tucson Open has had to compete with another simultaneous tour event for a share of attention from golf fans. And, to be frank, most of the big-name stars in the golf world do end up at that "other" tournament.

Omni Tucson National: Catalina golf course
Catalina Course is the more popular of the two courses at Omni Tucson National.
Omni Tucson National: Catalina golf courseOmni Tucson National Golf Resort - Sonoran course - No. 1
If you go

What the Tucson Open has to offer spectators, however, is a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, cheaper ticket prices and a chance to watch promising rookies and older favorites in action, maybe someone about to make a major career move.

This year's field of 144 players in Tucson includes: Cameron Beckman, David Berganio, Mark Brooks, Paul Casey, Brandel Chamblee, Brent Geiberger, Andrew Magee, Jeff Maggert, Robert Gamez, Tim Herron, Miguel Jimenez and Duffy Waldorf.

Despite having to share the limelight, the Tucson Conquistadores, who took over the staging of the tournament in 1962, seem undaunted. "It's a concept that's worked well for us," says Morgan North, the tournament chairman for the Conquistadores. The group uses proceeds from the tournament to help fund athletics for local children, including junior golf programs.

The Tucson Open is a venerable event that started in 1945 and is the ninth oldest tournament on the PGA tour. Its first winner, Roy Mangrum earned $1,000; this year's winner will take home $540,000.

What is now officially called the Touchstone Energy Tucson Open will take place from Feb. 18-24, 2002 at the Omni Tucson National Resort and Spa, beginning with various pro-am events and then kicking off the tournament itself on Thursday, Feb. 21. The Golf Channel will televise the Tucson Open.

On the very same weekend, many other players will be competing for a $5 million purse at the World Golf Championships - the Accenture Match Play Championship at La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, California. ESPN and ABC provide coverage for that golf event. It was only four years ago, actually, that the championship was placed head-to-head with the Tucson Open. Four other tournaments around the country also compete with the World Golf Championships.

"Even though we miss getting the marquee players here, our purse is still $3 million," says Tucson's North. "It's a wonderful chance for players who don't want to face Tiger Woods to make some big money."

The two tournaments occupy the last two slots on the PGA Tour's West Coast Swing. The player who accrues the most points during the nine-event swing will earn a $500,000 bonus, which Davis Love III did last year. After this, the tour moves on to Florida.

In a year when many big names like Woods and Phil Mickelson have either not shown up or often not performed as well as their fans would like, media attention has switched to younger players on the rise and older faces, surging back to the top of the leaderboard. So the Tucson Open can give a more up-close and personal look at some of these professionals.

The 2001 Tucson Open was won by Garrett Willis; it was his first tour victory in his very first tour event. "Here I am, a month out of Q school ... and now I'm a PGA winner. What a country this is," Willis, 27, told reporters after his victory. He shot a 273, 15-under score to win. Kevin Sutherland came in second, one shot behind.

So far this year, Willis has gotten off to a slower start. His best finish so far is 32nd, good for $51,000, at the Mercedes Championships in Hawaii.

Among past winners are Phil Mickelson, who won the Tucson Open three times (1991, 1996, 1997), including once as a 20-year-old amateur; Lee Janzen, who got his first win in Tucson in 1992; Craig Stadler who jump-started his then-dormant career with a win in 1982; as well as Larry Mize (1993), Andrew Magee (1994) and David Duval (1998).

The Omni National, in the foothills of the Santa Catalina mountains, is actually made up of three nine-hole golf courses - the Orange, the Gold and the Green. A combination of the Orange and Gold (par 72, 7,109-yards) is what the pros play in the Open. The two together are relatively open courses with gentle contours. The Omni National measures up well against any other course on the tour, according to North. "It's always in fantastic shape," he says. "Mike Petty, the superintendent, is renowned nationwide for maintaining a phenomenal course."

The most difficult hole in North's estimation is the par-4, 465-yard No. 18. It can make for a last minute swing in scoring results. "It's rated as one of the most difficult on the PGA Tour by players year after year," North says. "It's very tough to make a safe drive here and the green is difficult to putt."

The tee shot must be played left of a lake on the right but short of water beyond. Then players must contend with a well-bunkered elevated green that slopes from back to front. Par is an excellent score on this hole.

About 125,000 fans show up every year for the Tucson Open; that's in contrast with the 525,000 that attended this year's Phoenix Open at the end of January. "It's a long course," says North, "and it provides good viewing for the galleries, even though it's not built for spectators the way the Stadium Course at the TPC is (where the Phoenix Open is held). But there is plenty of room for people to move around. You can follow your favorite players all day if you like."

You might also want to catch a glimpse of actor Kevin Costner, headlining the celebrities playing in a pro-am on Wednesday, Feb. 20, at the Omni. Costner will make a live appearance that morning on NBC's "Today Show" from the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and then will buzz down to Tucson for an early afternoon tee time. Costner's connection with Tucson goes back to the movie "Tin Cup" in which he played a washed-up golfer. That film and another less successful Costner movie, "The Postman," were both shot in Tucson.

Tucson golf courses

In addition to tournament, another big reason for making the trip to Tucson is a chance to play golf on great courses that can cost a bit less and be less crowded than courses in Phoenix or Southern California. There are more than 30 golf courses in the Tucson area. Among possibilities are:

The Hilton Tucson El Conquistador, which has newly renovated its two courses: the Canada (6,713 yards with a rating/slope of 71.9/130) and the Conquistador (6,801 yards with a rating/slope of 72.7/126).

Starr Pass Golf Club, which opened in 1986, 10 minutes from downtown Tucson, winds its way through valleys and arroyos in the Tucson mountains. Starr Pass (6,910 yards with a rating/slope of 74.8/144) was host to the Tucson Open from 1987 to 1996.

Arizona National Golf Club was designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and offers spectacular Southwestern scenery.

Tucson dining

A key attraction in Tucson is the authentic Sonoran-style Mexican cooking featured in local restaurants. The chefs use papery thin, flavor-filled flour tortillas that are considered to be among the finest in the world. Here are some places that are favorites with the natives:

The El Charro Mexican Cafe claims to be the oldest family operated Mexican restaurant in the United States and was rated by USA Today as one of the country's five best Mexican restaurants. It has two locations in Tucson: one at 311 N. Court Ave. (520-622-1922), and the other at the El Mercado, 6310 E. Broadway Blvd. (520-745-1922). These restaurants are open daily.

The popular Las Margaritas Mexican restaurants are located in Tucson at 6011 N. Oracle Road (520-297-8341) and 3602 E. Grant Road (520-323-9880).

Lerua's is a Tucson landmark that opened in 1922 and is well known for its green-corn tamales. The restaurant, located at 2005 E. Broadway Blvd., is open from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Phone: 520-624-0322.

St. Mary's Mexican Restaurant and Tortilla Factory has some counter and bar service but is mainly a takeout restaurant located at 1030 W. St. Mary's Road, Phone: 520-884-1629. Customers stand in line to buy dozens of homemade, platter-sized flour tortillas, which can be filled with orders of carne seca and refried beans. Their green-corn tamales are also delicacies. This eatery is open from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

For a more Nouveau-Southwest dining experience, try the nationally acclaimed Cafe Terra Cotta, located at 3500 Sunrise Drive, Phone: 520-577-8100. Chef/owner Donna Nordin has won dozens of awards for her cuisine, including the 2001 Wine Spectator magazine award of excellence. Among possible dishes: mesquite-smoked lamb chops with mint and papaya salsa, prawns stuffed with herbed goat cheese and presented on a bed of tomato coulis, filet mignon wrapped with smoked bacon on a gorgonzola sage cream sauce with a sweet potato tamale on the side and grilled Angus ribeye with Oaxacan barbecue sauce and chipotle-cheddar scalloped potatoes. The restaurant is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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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