El Conquistador Golf Club in Tucson: $1 million facelift adds to challenge

By Rodney Campbell, Contributor

TUCSON, Ariz. -- So maybe $1 million doesn't buy what it used to. But the folks at Hilton El Conquistador's Conquistador Course are happy with what it has brought to their course, an impressive 18 holes of country club style golf on the city's northwest side.

Hilton El Conquistador C.C. - Conquistador course - 5th
The par-5 fifth hole on the Hilton El Conquistador's Conquistador golf course.
Hilton El Conquistador C.C. - Conquistador course - 5thHilton El Conquistador C.C. - Conquistador golf course - 1st
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The golf course was shut down for nearly half of last year, reopening in November, 2001. Crews got a late start, so the course is still growing into shape. There are a few bare spots on the layout where the club is having more grass put down. But those are just small, temporary glitches on what is otherwise an impressive product.

One of the jewels of the course is the 532-yard 16th hole, where you're almost guaranteed to find a sand trap or two on your way to the green. Architects would probably have put a trap there if they could have gotten away with it. There are 16 (get it?) traps on the hole and several of them come into play right away from the tee shot off the elevated box. This hole wasn't quite as tough before the facelift because there weren't anywhere near as many traps to fall into.

In fact, crews added 36 traps to the course in the redesign. Over the years, members had requested that many pesky bunkers be taken away, and the club obliged. There were 60 fewer traps than originally built before the million dollar work began.

"We asked the architect to give us a more updated look," said Mark Bakeman, the club pro. "We added shelving to the greens and worked on the bunkers."

Bakeman said the course is about 75 percent of what he would like it to be.

The traps are tougher now, Bakeman said. Many of the bunkers just sat there in the old days, posing little or no challenge. They're deeper how and many have high lips, which easily swat down those line-drive sand shots. Bakeman is proud of his greens, too. Once saucer-like and inviting, the bumps and hills on some of the greens can be equally frustrating and deceiving.

On the 348-yard second hole, for example, shots that end up on the back right side of the green require a tricky putt over a ridge in the green. If you play it just right, your ball could end up snuggled next to the cup. Play the putt a little too far left and you'll be lining up another tough chance.

Three holes later, on the 541-yard fifth, another hilly green must be negotiated from the right side. Certain pin placements will tempt you to hit your putt softly. Problem is, you then give yourself no chance of getting down the hill and toward your ultimate goal. All this comes after you avoid water on the left front of the green, where first-time players at the course who go for it in two can end up. Unless you've played the course or are with someone with local knowledge, the water can't be seen from 250 yards out. Can you say splash?

There is some help to be found. Half of the course's carts feature Prolink, a global positioning satellite system that helps players know exactly how far they are from the hole. Guess that can be good news or bad news given your length off the tee. It could be rather disconcerting to sit 250 yards from the hole on a par-4 if your tee shot is a dud. Hey, the truth hurts sometimes. The system also includes tips from the pros on how to play the hole. We could all use a little help sometimes.

When the course reopened, it was renamed Conquistador after years of being known as Sunrise. So Bakeman and his staff also rebadged the tee boxes, naming them after Spanish explorers: Coronado (black), DeAnza (gold), Cortes (silver) and Balboa (copper). The club also works with the Tucson Conquistadors, a charitable group that organizes the PGA's annual Tucson Open.

"(Renaming the tees) tied the whole package together," Bakeman said. "We wanted the course to tell a story."

Right now, the Conquistador course and the nine-hole Pusch Ridge layout are the only playable ones at the club. The Sunrise 18 shut down in mid-April for work of its own. It won't open again until Oct. 14, when the course will take on more of a desert look to complement the greenery of the Conquistador. This won't be target golf, but it will feature many aspects of the best local courses.

"There will be more elevation changes," Bakeman said. "We wanted to give players a different look between the two courses."

When that course reopens, it will be known as Cañada, in recognition of the original name of the course when it was opened in 1983. Back then, it was La Cañada Country Club. The club eventually added another 18, and the 36 holes ended up being mixed and matched when the Sheraton bought it out. They were turned into the Sunrise and Sunset courses.

Greg Nash, the course's original architect, came back to work on the redesign.

The El Conquistador has around 500 members and welcomes play from the public and guests at the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador resort about 15 minutes down the road.

Package rates can also be found when you stay at the Sheraton. The 428-room resort offers packages from two to five days in length. The hotel enters its summer season on May 25. It gets mighty hot in the Sonoran Desert that time of year, so room availability often soars. That's when the locals and visitors from around the Southwest hit the course. Bakeman said the course is usually "wide-open" that time of year.

The hotel offers a shuttle service to the Conquistador course. It leaves the resort on the half hour and returns on the quarter hour.

The Sheraton has four restaurants: The Last Territory (mesquite grilled steaks, seafood and barbecue), Dos Locos Cantina (Mexican), Sundance (breakfast and lunch) and La Vista Restaurant and Lounge (American with French accents).

Food and fun abound. You'll like what you see from the "new" Conquistador.

Rodney Campbell, Contributor

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