Playing through - Golf in the Santa Cruz River Valley of Southern Arizona

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

From Green Valley to Rio Rico, the Santa Cruz River Valley offers up southern Arizona's finest golf, food, and lodging - a welcomed alternative to pricey tracks typical of the bustling urban areas of Tucson and Phoenix.

If you go

Tucson, AZ - Here's the situation: you're sitting in your office in Chicago, New York, Seattle, Denver, or even Flagstaff. You're surfing the net, looking for an early spring golf excursion that will provide you with a 36 hole per day diet of links, all the while leaving you with enough spare change to partake of some fine eats, some choice brew, and a little something-something for the better half.

You call your best buddy, who incidentally has been checking out every golf web site south of the Colorado border. Over the same old ham sandwiches, the beginnings of an epic golf weekend begin to take shape. Phoenix is tempting, but the last time you were in the Valley of the Sun, you were broke after two rounds, and got into a fight with some loser in a Cardinals jersey while waiting in line at the first tee box.

Tucson seems like a nice alternative, but the last time you were in the Old Pueblo two of your playing partners began throwing clubs at each other while "civilly" debating whether Jason Terry or Mike Bibby was the best point guard ever to play for the U of A. Of course it didn't help when you told them that they were both idiots seeing as how Damon Stoudamire was better than either of them. Besides, the early spring green fees in the Tucson rival those in Phoenix, and five-hour rounds are the norm and not the exception.

Surf no further. Call you buddy on his cell phone, real phone, or bat phone and plan your run for the border. South of Tucson and north of the Mexico border lies a golf panacea that has become a welcomed retreat from the many crowed, pricey tracks typical of the bustling urban areas of Tucson and Phoenix.

The setting is anchored by the lush Santa Cruz River Valley and boasts of architectural gems such as Robert Trent Jones Sr.'s Rio Rico layout. Hollywood hangouts, like the Tubac Golf Resort (a favorite of the late Bing Crosby and Tin Cup's Roy McAvoy) and notorious golf and eat bargains, such as the "Golf and Steak" special at the San Ignacio Golf Club in Green Valley. The lay of the land is lush (well, for Arizona), the scenery is Old West, and the atmosphere totally relaxing. Here's the 411 on where to tee it up, eat, party, and pick up a quick gift or two for the better half.

Rio Rico and Tubac

Anchor you're golfing binge through the Santa Cruz River Valley with two of southern Arizona's finest tracks, The Golf Club at Rio Rico and the Tubac Golf Resort. Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Red Lawrence have positioned these classic layouts on some of the most beautiful terrain in the valley. Complete isolation is the name of the game at these courses, so put your cell phone away.

Tubac is one of the great classic layouts of southern Arizona. As you make your way through wide fairways and scenic vistas of the course, some of the holes may look a bit familiar. That's because Tubac was home of the first round of U.S. Open qualifying in the movie Tin Cup. Designed in 1960 by Red Lawrence, Tubac's 6,839 yards play longer with holes like the par five, 575 yard 16th, which presents the go-for-it golfer with the green-side drink known as Tin Cup Lake.

The front nine meanders through the charming homes and villas of the Old Otero Ranch, while the back nine wanders the banks of the Santa Cruz River. Tubac's reconstructed bentgrass greens make for a challenging conclusion to each hole. The green on No. 9 has been completely reconstructed with an elephant buried under the back portion. And after you make the turn, pull your head up from your Budweiser a few times on Tubac's back nine, or you may miss out on the heroic challenges and epic scenery provided by the 15th and 16th holes.

At this point, Tubac has introduced you to the charms of the region, but its wide fairways and gently rolling terrain may have also lulled you into a false sense of security about the state of your golf game. Time to strap on your game face, steal a few range balls, and head for Rio Rico.

Not familiar with Robert Trent Jones Sr.'s work? Well this is no golf architecture seminar, so let's just say his layouts can bring it. Rio Rico is considered by many to be southeastern Arizona's trophy track, and was recently rated the third best golf resort in the state. Jones' layout embraces the lush Santa Cruz River Valley and the Cayetano foothills just north of the Mexican border, and includes some of the truly great "stretches" of golf in Arizona.

You must bring your 'A' game on the front nine: elevation changes that range from subtle to drastic culminate at the par four 8th, which is recognized as one of the toughest golf holes in the entire state.

Remember, you planned this trip so at this point in the round you may suddenly feel the need to rattle off some impressive information about the course and impress your gravy-training buddy and any other unfortunate souls playing with you on this day. Rio Rico is rated in the top 25 public access courses in Arizona, including rankings in the top 4 for best par-4 (the aforementioned 8th), best stretches (holes 5 through 8), and best front nine. If anyone is still listening to you, you're golden right about now.

The back nine settles down into the river valley, where risk/reward scoring opportunities abound and you can actually start dreaming of that elusive 90. Coming in, Jones has saved some of his best par-3's and par-5's for last. Rio Rico's finishing hole, the 602 yard par-5 18th, is simply a beast. If it's not humbling enough that you'd be happy to get on in four, water guards the entire left side of the green making the snowman a grim possibility.

Both Tubac and Rio Rico offer first class accommodations and eats. Book at night at one of Tubac's golf casitas and you will be in golf heaven. The casitas are huddled around a loop road located between the 1st and 2nd holes, and you can drive your cart right up to your front door to pick up your beer, er ... clubs.

After a grinding out a round through the Otero Ranch, dinner is not optional. Since Tubac is miles from any semblance of civilization, its a good thing that the venerable Montera House offers up tasty steaks, ribs and a great selection of fine wines and beers. For a bit more pampering, soak up the resort style atmosphere at Rio Rico. Like Tubac, Rio Rico's restaurant also serves up hearty chow. But unlike Tubac, the resort's setup is logistically challenging. The golf course is a solid five minute drive from the resort, so don't plan on just rolling out of bed and on to the first tee.

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 from 1997 to 2003.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment