Spring in Arizona filled with baseball and golf

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

TUCSON, Ariz. - This town is so used to playing second fiddle to Phoenix, it barely notices the music anymore. In fact, the Old Pueblo has made it its life's mission to be the "anti Valley of the Sun," whether it's touting its environs (smaller city, bigger mountains), its university (better basketball team, larger endowments), and even its Cactus League squads (fewer teams, bigger stars.)

There is one thing that Phoenix and Tucson have in common this time of year, however: the magical countdown to pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training. Anyone who has ever ducked out of the office on a weekday afternoon to bask in the sun of a minor-league ballpark will tell you without hesitation that there is nothing better. Doesn't matter if the office was on Central Ave. in Phoenix or on Stone Ave. in Tucson.

Oh, and throw in 18 holes on some sublime desert track in the morning to make it a true Southern Arizona rite of passage. Just don't expect your job to be waiting for you when you get back.

The Teams and Stadiums

The Arizona Diamondbacks: World Series champs from two years ago continue to retool their roster around All-Star starting pitchers Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. The snakes traded homegrown talent Erubio Durazo but signed all their arbitration eligible players and continue to work on contract extensions for Johnson and outfielder Luis Gonzalez. Arizona recently shored up its bullpen with the addition of relievers Manny Aybar, Ricky Battalico, Mike Jackson, and Ron Villone. Stadium: Tucson Electric Park. Atmosphere: new park with crisp lines, good eats and a terrible location south of downtown.

The Chicago White Sox: Tucson's oldest MLB Spring Training tenant is poised for a run at the top spot in the American League Central.

First baseman Paul Konerko is coming off his best offensive season and continues to develop into one of the better hitters in the A.L. The Chi-Sox added former St. Louis Cardinals reliever Rick White to the bullpen, picked up free-agent Brian Daubach from the Red Sox, and resigned closer Billy Koch to a two-year, $10.65 million contract. Stadium: Tucson Electric Park. Atmosphere: See above.

The Colorado Rockies: Flirted with the idea of trading long-time right fielder Larry Walker, but eventually stood pat. Acquired stud prospect Luke Allen from the Dodgers for Jason Romano and added veteran lefty Darren Oliver to the Spring Training roster. Strengthened infield with free agent signing of All-Star shortstop Jose Hernandez from the Milwaukee Brewers. Stadium: Hi Corbett Field. Atmosphere: older park with intimate setting amid lush park just five minutes from downtown.

The Golf Courses

The Lodge at Ventana Canyon: Ventana is the crown jewel of Tucson golf, and the resort features two splendid Tom Fazio designed layouts in the Mountain and Canyon courses. The Mountain course, with its par-3, third hole being the "most photographed hole west of the Mississippi," is the most sought-after play at the Lodge. But the Canyon Course is just as popular among locals and Lodge employees. Both courses play through the craggy foothills of Santa Catalina Mountains and feature incredible views and a good sampling of desert target golf. Tee times: 800-767-3574.

The Westin La Paloma: La Paloma is home to three nine-hole Jack Nicklaus designed courses, and yes, they were all built in the 80s during the Golden Bear's "impossible par, easy bogey" stage. Difficulty aside, the Hill, Ridge, and Canyon layouts are widely recognized as some of the best desert golf tracks in southern Arizona. In typical Nicklaus fashion, greens are large and overcooked with undulation, and fairway landing areas are generous and visible from the tees. Tee Times: (520) 299-1500.

The Golf Club at Vistoso: Paloma and Ventana are golf resorts, but the Golf Club at Vistoso is just a golf course - but man, what a golf course. This Tom Weiskopf-designed layout was a readers write-in, Golf Magazine's Top 100 you can play four years ago, and is a "sneaky" favorite among locals and visitors alike. The layout is nowhere near as penal as Ventana or La Paloma, and if you can find better greens in Tucson, let us know. Take note of the 166-yard, par-3 third hole - on a clear day (there are only 323 of them) you will catch an amazing view of the north side of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Tee Times: 800-767-3574

Arizona National: Arizona National, formerly The Raven at Sabino Springs, is one of the newer high end daily fee desert courses in Tucson, and one of the best. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the course is routed through arroyos, rock outcroppings and more saguaros that you can shake a putter at. Test your desert golf mettle by playing the course from the back tees, where it weighs in at nearly 7,000 yards. The par-3 fourth hole overlooks the entire city and provides vistas reaching to Mexico on a clear day. Arizona National is a favorite among Arizona Diamondback players when the team is in town for spring training and is the home course of the University of Arizona's men's and women's golf teams.

Extended Stay and Play

Tucson Omni National: Site of the Tucson Open, National features two traditional nine hole layouts, and one other new nine hole track that has a little more of a modern flavor. Excellent facilities, beautiful place to hang your hat.

Starr Pass: Once a TPC course that was the sister site of the Tucson Open, Starr Pass is on the rise again after a few lean years. Craig Stadler designed the course, and a number of the holes had PGA players and duffers scratching their heads.

Tubac Golf Resort: Used for the opening rounds of the movie Tin Cup. Traditional Red Lawrence designed course 40 miles south of Tucson in the village of Tubac. Worth every minute of the drive, the course is traditional, playable, affordable, memorable and under new ownership.

Where to Eat

Daisy Mae's Steakhouse - located out Anklam Road just west of the Starr Pass entrance. Best ribs in the state fall off the bone. Old West atmosphere with wooden floors and walls, complete with a gas fire out on the porch.

Rosa's - Some of the best Sonoran Mexican food in Tucson, and it is located right in the heart of a shopping center on the way to the foothills (on the southwest corner of Campbell and Ft. Lowell). Best Margaritas and chile colorado in town.

El Minuto - Favorite among downtown locals. Located at the northern edge of Barrio Historico, El Minuto is known for its hearty soups and carne seca (dried beef flavored with onions and garlic.)

Little Abners Steakhouse - located out in the sticks, LAS is a must chow if you have the time. Head out Silverbell Road towards Marana, and you will ultimately run into the best steaks in town.

El Terrero - head down to South Tucson for a taste of Mexico and Mexican food. Located on a small side street, El Terrero is known mainly to locals. Check out their famous cheese crisp, and savory chimichangas.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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