Tucson's most scenic golf venues are breathtaking

By Brendan McEvoy, Contributor

Give an artist a blank canvas and his or her creative mind will generate a breath-taking product. The desert is that canvas for golf course architects.

With only elevation changes and panoramic scenery as givens, the architect is challenged to take advantage of the topography and maximize aesthetic beauty and strategic design. Some courses are visually superior to others because architects took enough time to quiet the right brain and listen to the feelings that enjoy horizons and sunsets. Of course, it helps to have property free of a real estate development or nearby commercial activity.

Tucson has a rich tradition in the history desert golf. It's hosted the PGA Tour events and major collegiate tournaments. Big names in architecture, like Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones, Jr., have brought their craft to this city. But even they play second fiddle to the unending panoramic scenery that Tucson golf courses have to offer.

Here's a look at the five golf courses with the best scenery in Tucson.

1. Arizona National (formerly The Raven at Sabino Springs): Robert Trent Jones, Jr. had to satisfy stingy environmentalists every step of the way during the construction of Arizona National in the mid-1990s. Every saguaro and cactus in the routing had to be uprooted and replanted elsewhere. The excruciating process was well worth the hassle because Jones took advantage of jaw-dropping panorama when laying out this course.

The view of the rugged rock formations and the Santa Catalina Mountains from elevations that range from 2,500 to 3,000 feet comes to a crescendo at the 18th. After reaching the green of the 515-yard par-5 finishing hole, golfers can see all the way to Mexico on a clear day. Trent Jones also routed holes over arroyos and across open desert. Arizona National is visually delicious and a must-play when in Tucson.

2. The Lodge at Ventana Canyon:
The Mountain Course has a reputation for being the toughest golf course in Tucson. But that label should be clarified: "toughest but most memorable." Golfers can deal with punishment, especially in beautiful surroundings. And if anyone is capable of creating a successful marriage between challenge and scenary, it's architect Tom Fazio.

The third hole on the Mountain Course has dramatic beauty, according to Ventana Canyon Assistant Pro Jason Smith. "It's the most photographed hole west of the Mississippi," says Smith. "But the shot is intimidating. All it appears you are shooting at is the green. The rest is desert."

Like Arizona National, it too has views that stretch over 100 miles into Mexico on its finishing hole. The Mountain Course's dramatic design is only enhanced by its seductive scenery.

3. La Paloma Country Club: The best advice anyone can give a golfer playing a Jack Nicklaus design is: "Keep your mind's eye focused." The course is routed through natural jagged rock formations and varied elevations. When Nicklaus designed La Paloma, he used the magnificent views of the Santa Catalina Mountains and downtown Tucson to distract the golfer on the toughest holes. Getting lost in the beauty of such distractions has messed with plenty of great players' heads. Because of its seductiveness and strategic effectiveness, the views along the 27 holes of La Paloma are some of the best Arizona golf courses have to offer.

4. Omni Tucson National: As the long-time home of the Tucson Open - one of the oldest stops on the PGA Tour - Omni Tucson National was an early part of the historical landscape in desert golf even though it appears to be a Midwestern transplant. Omni Tucson National was built before today's more restrictive turf irrigation regulations, and features wall to wall grass and thick strands of deciduous trees. But this course has withstood the test of time because of its throw-back design and its plethora of desert views. (And where else can you see pine trees in the desert?)

5. TPC at Starr Pass: With the emergence of new high-end desert golf courses in the west end of Tucson, Starr Pass has survived because it offers quality resort-style golf. That quality consists of impeccable conditions and its unusual design. But the aspect that keeps golfers coming back could be the views of the Tucson Mountains.

Two holes in particular stick out in Director of Golf Joan Fails' mind. "The fifth hole, looking back from the green is beautiful," says Fails. "You overlook the Tucson skyline and the Catalina Mountains tower over the city in the background. Our signature hole, the 15th plays straight through a mountain pass. You see no homes or other golfers. It's just you."

The views have not been impeded by a tastefully-done custom desert housing and condominium development. The scenery only enhances the drama of the high-octane design at Starr Pass design.

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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