Tucson's Top-Shelf Courses Shine - Golf Arizona Feature

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

TUCSON, Ariz. - So you have already decided to shun the hundreds of glamour courses in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area and trade in your golf vacation to Arizona's bustling metropolis for a visit to the far more rustic charms of Tucson - better known to locals as the "Old Pueblo."

If you go

Instantly, you are viewed as a golfing maverick - willing to take a risk or two on the quality and sheer volume of courses you could play to find that one hidden gem you can brag about when you get back home. But are you really such a rebel? After all, Tucson does feature a small lineup of resort courses that are continually recognized by national golfing publications such as GOLF Magazine and Golf Digest.

Moreover, Tucson has ridden the wave of new, high-end daily fee courses like few other cities in the United States, and this "sneaky big" city of over 450,000 full time residents has the top shelf tracks to prove it. So maverick, take heart - your playing partners will view you as more of a Jimmy Dean than a James Dean if you plan your golf trip to Tucson prudently.

Old Pueblo and the Valley of the Sun - Are They Really So Different?

The simple answer is a resounding, "yes." The Valley of the Sun boasts an almost exponentially higher number of upper end golf courses than its little cousin to the south. Names like Tom Fazio, Robert Trent Jones Jr., and Jack Nicklaus are thrown around golf circles in the Phoenix metro area like Jason Kid's assists during a Phoenix Suns' game.

In Tucson, on the other hand, the arrival of a new course designed by a big name architect brings more reason to celebrate than the city's precious Arizona Wildcat's hoops team advancing beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament.

But keep one thing in mind: this is not an apples to apples comparison. The Phoenix area is more than four times as large as Tucson in both population and area, so it only stands to reason that the Valley of the Sun would attract not only more golf courses, but more quality golf courses at that.

Make no mistake about it, by selecting Tucson over Phoenix as your Arizona golf vacation, you are taking the road less traveled, but it's not exactly a dirt trail into the middle of the Sonoran desert. Since the mid-nineties, Tucson has witnessed the opening of a slew of high-end daily fee courses, and is still the burg in which a number of first-rate golf resorts hang their proverbial cowboy hats.

The Pillars of the Old Pueblo

They are the courses that Golf Magazine and other national "pubs" seem to gravitate towards every year - almost as if these respectable magazines are content to never actually visit the area and get a check up on the new players on the scene. Namely, the resort in question is the Lodge at Ventana Canyon (520-577-4061), one of the most photographed resorts in the southwest that just happens to be home to two Tom Fazio designed layouts that annually receive kudos as some of the best in the country. Whether or not the pundits from national golfing magazines visit Ventana each year, the reality is that the resorts' two renowned courses continue to delight both visitors and locals alike with their unbelievable scenery and clever routings.

If the Mountain and Canyon courses at Ventana are not enough to justify your snubery of Phoenix golf, then book a couple of nights at the Westin La Paloma (529-299-1500) - a high end Tucson resort that houses twenty-seven holes of Jack Nicklaus designed golf course that will make any plus ten handicapper cringe in intimidation. While a select set of golfers with lengthy power fades may find the Ridge, Canyon and Hill nines just to their liking, most of us just try to get through a round at Paloma with our spirit in tact.

The other two golf resorts in the Old Pueblo may be as different as Tiger Woods and Tom Lehman, but do lay claim to one common thread. The TPC at Starr Pass and the Tucson Omni National used to share the first two rounds of the Tucson Open, until the TPC at Starr Pass fell out of the good graces of the PGA Tour.

Today, Starr Pass (520-670-0400) is not quite the course it once was in the mid-1990's in terms of conditioning, but is still home to the mountainous layout that made even the desert savvy golfer Phil Mickelson shake in his wing tip golf shoes.

Tucson Omni National, in stark contrast, is Tucson's answer to the call for a traditional, resort style golf course. Twenty-seven holes at this resort in the northwest region of the Old Pueblo feature good Ole fashioned grass running from tee to green, as well as large, mature trees, and a conspicuous lack of quasi-lethal desert vegetation.

Let's Get Daily

For the longest time, these resort courses were all that the Tucson golf scene could boast of in terms of top shelf golf. In fact, the fall off in golf quality in the Old Pueblo after the resort courses was as pronounced as the region's surrounding mountain ranges. If you didn't want to play a resort course in Tucson in the 1980's, then you were stuck teeing it up on one of the city's five municipal courses, or packing your bags for the retirement town of Green Valley twenty-five miles to the south. Enter the 1990's, and high-end daily fee golf in Tucson.

First, there was the Golf Club at Vistoso (520-797-9900), a Tom Weiskopf designed desert-style course located in the northwest portion of Pima County. Since opening its doors, Vistoso has reaped a number of awards including a reader write-in on Golf Magazine's "Top One Hundred Courses You Can Play" list. In terms of course conditions, Vistoso is the tops in the Tucson Valley and rivals many a high-end Phoenix course with its flawless bentgrass greens and manicured tee boxes.

And then the dam that was holding upscale daily fee golf in-check in Tucson crumbled like Colin Montgomerie in an American major. Robert Trent Jones Jr.'s Raven at Sabino Springs (520-749-3636) and Arthur Hill's Heritage Highlands (520-579-7000) opened to much critical acclaim, and the Old Pueblo was on the board, so to speak, with its version of Valley of the Sun level daily fee golf.

Are They Really so Different, Part II

The resort courses in Tucson, and the high-end daily fee courses, that is. In two words - yes and no. Vistoso and the Raven offer up course conditions and service that are second to none in Tucson, but neither course can lay claim to the amenities or sheer drama offered up by Ventana - although the Raven does come close in the later category.

If you are looking for an all-encompassing golf vacation in which you every need is attended to and then some, Tucson's resort courses are the way to go. If you are simply looking for a Motel Six, and a few incredible golf courses to knock it around on, then Tucson's small menu of high-end daily fee tracks should fit you like a Foot-Joy golf glove.

Unfortunately for daily fee golfers, the latest trend in Tucson golf revolves around the opening of two new private, desert style courses - The Gallery (Tom Lehman/John Fought), and Stone Canyon (Jay Morrish). The Gallery has been open to the public for over a year, but its privatization is eminent. Stone Canyon is entirely private, much to the chagrin of anyone who lays eyes on the brochure - it may become the premier track in Tucson.

So, whatever your choice, maverick, Tucson is sure to welcome you with open arms, even if you have been driving the ball below the flight deck. Just don't attempt a fly-by too close to Stone Canyon and the Gallery unless you want to fork the hardware over to the Iceman.

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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