Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf and Tennis Resort's new management dedicated to golf

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

ORO VALLEY, Ariz. - "Welcome to the Shera-, I mean Hilton Tucson El Conquistador," said the smiling bellman, turning slightly red in the face. A full year after Hilton Hotels Corporation purchased and assumed management of the chic, Northwest side resort, the property's longtime affiliation with Sheraton still lingers.

The occasional slip aside, resort officials say it is time to set aside a prosperous past for an even more promising future. With Hilton at the helm, the resort hotel recently underwent a multi-million dollar renovation to its 428 guest rooms, four pools and 53,000 square-feet of meeting space. The new-look hotel is now on the level with the resort's recently remodeled 36-hole golf centerpiece, the El Conquistador Country Club, situated just seven minutes away.

"With Hilton you get a management company that is more dedicated to golf," said El Conquistador head professional Larry Helminen. "Sheraton was a good company, but this resort is defined in many way by its golf and it is important that the dedication to the product come from the top."

To wit, El Conquistador is Tucson's largest golf resort. In addition to the two aforementioned 18-hole layouts, the Canada and Conquistador courses, the resort is also home to the nine-hole Pusch Ridge Course, which meanders around the hotel property.

"Not many resorts in the state can say they have 45 holes of golf," said El Conquistador's director of golf, Steve Darcy. "We have quantity but we also have diversity."

The Arizona-based design team of Greg Nash and Jeff Hardin designed El Conquistador's (then known as Canada Hills) original 18-hole circuit in the 1980s. As demand surged around the turn of the decade, nine holes were tacked onto each course to create two full 18-holers. Nash returned in 1999 to perform extensive renovations both tracks and to improve the overall continuity.

"We've come a long way and I think we still have a ways to go," Helminen said. "We want to redo the cart paths and we have some landscaping improvements planned. These two courses have a lot of personality, and we want to build upon it."

The Canada Course, named for nearby Canada del Oro River, is the favorite among guests according to Helminen. Half of course's holes feature elevated tee boxes and the majority of green complexes are raised above the fairway landing areas to take advantage of the surrounding views.

While neither course could be described as "target" style, Canada has a decidedly more desert feel. The course's narrow fairways and hilly landing areas are lined with think strands of Mesquites. The various arroyos (dry river beds) and rock outcroppings of the Canada Del Oro also come into play on many holes, putting a premium on creative shotmaking. Canada plays to a par of 71 with yardages ranging from 5,093 to 6,713. With a respectable slope rating of 130, it is also three to four shots harder than El Conquistador.

This may explain why Conquistador is the preferred course of the club's 300 plus members. Its straightforward design and (comparatively) flat holes lend a sense of playability to the layout. And with a forward tee yardage of 4,821, Conquistador is a hit with the club's many female members.

"If you miss your spots you are going to have some difficult lies and stances," Helminen said. "For the most part it is easy to feel comfortable out there. The men love it and the ladies love it."

Nash spent the majority of his time on Conquistador restoring more than 60 fairway bunkers. The sand traps had deteriorated over the years and were gradually eliminated. For good measure, he sprinkled a handful of pot bunkers throughout the course - a move that would not have endeared him to the members had he not opened all 18 green fronts to allow for more creative shotmaking (and forgiveness on mishits.)

Golf-loving guests with more than a couple days to spend at the resort should do themselves a favor and sample both offerings. Despite some obvious similarities (same designer, property, and surroundings) Canada and Conquistador are different enough to make playing both a must.

And for low handicappers ready to dismiss either as hit-and-giggle resort courses, Helminen divulges a company secret.

"We are making a bid for the 2005 LPGA tournament (the Welch's/Fry's Championship) and I think we have a good chance of getting it," he said.

The Welch's/Fry's Championship has been held at Dell Urich (formerly Randolph North) in the heart of Tucson since its inception in 1981. But Helminen said tournament organizers are considering a new site with better access and a fresh face.

"Dell (Urich) is a great course and I am sure they will make a strong run at keeping it," Helminen said. "We have some good stuff to bring to the table."

Back at the resort, the pursuit of a professional golf event is the last thing on guests' minds. It's hard to focus on anything with a 143-foot water slide beckoning. The impressive water feature is part of a $3 million fantasy pool that has to rank among the best in Southern Arizona. If barreling down a slippery chute sounds a bit extreme, guests can opt for a signature Prickly Pear Margarita and a stunning view of jagged Pusch Ridge some 2,000 feet above.

Hilton Tucson El Conquistador has a generous menu of other recreational pursuits to fill the hours between tee times. Tennis-heads flock to the resort's 31 lighted hard courts and horse lovers can take advantage of the equestrian center. An on-site wellness center can help keep the frequent visits to the resort's five restaurants in check and a variety of treatments are available at the wellness center spa.

Where to Dine

Guests at a premier Southwestern resort should expect at least two culinary options: good Mexican food and a meat and potatoes steakhouse. Hilton El Conquistador delivers on both. Dos Locos, despite the quirky name, serves up a menu full of Latin American specialties that are anything but run-of-the-tortilla-mill. Last Territory Steakhouse is a throwback to the cowboy corrals of the Wild West with a full slate of steaks, chops, and ribs.

Off Course

It is hard to imagine running out of things to do at the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador, but if the need to leave campus should strike, head for the Biosphere II located 30 minutes north on Oracle Road. Tours are available most days from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Spring training is just around and Tucson is the Cactus League headquarters for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago White Sox and Colorado Rockies. The White Sox and Diamondbacks squads play at Tucson Electric Park, while the Rockies scrimmage at Hi Corbett Field.

Pusch Ridge Course no pusch-over

Diabolically arranged, frustratingly narrow short track or devilishly fun, unabashedly scenic resort course - the nine-hole Pusch Ridge Course at the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf and Tennis Resort has a reputation as both depending on whom you ask.

"I wouldn't say its love or hate," said Steve Darcy, El Conquistador's director of golf when asked about golfer's feelings about the course. "Some golfers play it and they immediately want to play it again. Others don't. It is what it is."

Fans and critics agree - the controversial 2,980-yard layout from Greg Nash adds another dimension to the resort's overall golf experience.

"It is perfect for the guys who need to settle a bet and for the family man that wants to play a round of golf but doesn't have four hours to spare," Darcy said.

Perfection, however, is in the eye of the beholder.

Some feel the course is too narrow for its own good, with a number of holes sandwiched between the seemingly endless strands of low rise condos and villas. Others contend the par-4s and 5s don't offer enough shot values and that a handful of landing areas provide terrible lies and stances.

It said here, get over it.

Sure, the tee boxes on the par-5 opening hole could be shifted to the right to promote more use of driver off the tee (isn't that what a par-5 is all about?). And yes, the rather large tree situated 50 feet in front of the tee box on the par-5 third hole could stand to be removed (apologies, Sierra Club, but some of us work the ball from right to left).

But as Darcy is quick to point out, golfers searching for a full 18-hole golf experience devoid of quirky, controversial holes have 36 to choose from less than two miles away.

"Pusch is a fun golf course," Darcy said. "It is by no means the centerpiece of our golf offerings but it is a great amenity to have. The locals love it."

Suffice it to say, Pusch Ridge is no pusch over. The course record on the 2,788-yard circuit is 32 - mere 3 under par. The course uses every means available, including over 175 feet of vertical drop - to protect itself against skilled players.

And for those settling pusched bets from the El Conquistador or Canada courses, the nine-holer has the ability to distill the match down to a putting contest. Pusch Ridge's putting surfaces are tiny, undulating targets that force more putter-wedge-putter shot sequences than any greens in town. (SS)

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment