Hidden Golf Destinations: Three-Day Golf Gorge in Tucson

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

Tucson, Ariz. - Ah, the changing of the seasons. First the air gets crisp and the leaves turn colors and watching football on Sundays just feels that much better. But then the leaves fall off, the sky turns gray, and golf courses across the country begin to shut their doors for the winter.

Golf Club at Vistoso
Tom Weiskopf designed the Golf Club at Vistoso amid the beautiful Arizona mountains.
Golf Club at Vistoso
If you go

For many folks, the onset of winter is a welcomed reprieve from the dog days of summer. For golfers, it is the prelude to a four-month depression that will entail countless hours of watching the golf channel and rolling putts on the Astroturf rug in your basement.

That is, unless you simply pull the trigger on a three day golf gorge in the boundless sun of Tucson, Arizona. Tucson may not have as many high end daily fee courses as the "Valley of the Sun," but what it lacks in quantity, the "Old Pueblo" can more than make up for in quality.

Need more encouragement? Golfers with little tolerance for five hour rounds will find that Tucson is not nearly as inundated with players as Phoenix or Scottsdale, and the Old Pueblo's lack of serious traffic issues will enable you to get from one course to another in a much more expedient fashion than on the grid-locked freeways of Phoenix.

Here is a three-day golf gorge, trip plan to Tucson that will have you teeing it up on the area's best golf courses, eating at out of the way Mexican joints and steakhouses, and bedding down in the best, most affordable digs in town. The plan is divided up into three sections - "Where to Play," "Where to Eat," and "Where to Stay." The trip is based on an extended weekend stay of three days, and a steady diet of 36 holes a day. Because each golfer has his own agenda, we'll leave the precise daily itinerary up to you, but we have included a recommended day-by-day plan that is heavy on efficiency and fun.

Where to Play

Time was, finding a good high-end daily fee course in Tucson was like finding the city's precious Arizona Wildcat basketball squad in the midst of a losing season - it just wasn't going to happen. But since the mid-90's the golfing landscape has changed dramatically and there are a number of great upscale courses around the valley and foothills.

The Lodge at Ventana Canyon - Ventana (520-577-4061) 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.

The Westin La Paloma - La Paloma (520-299-1500) is home to three nine-hole Jack Nicklaus designed courses, and yes, they were all built in the 80's during the Golden Bear's "I dare you to par this hole," 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 are veritable elephant burial grounds, and fairway landing areas are generous and visible from the tees.

The Golf Club at Vistoso - Paloma and Ventana are golf resorts, but the Golf Club at Vistoso (520-797-7900) 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 Catalina Mountains.

The Raven Golf Club at Sabino Springs - The Raven (520-749-3636) is one of the newest 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 you desert golf mettle by playing the course from the back tees where it weighs in at nearly 7,000 yards. The par 3 No. 4 hole overlooks the entire city of Tucson and on a clear day, golfers can see all the way to Mexico. The Raven is a favorite among Arizona Diamondback players when the team is in town for spring training.

If You Have More than Three Days...

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, and memorable.

The Gallery - Easily one of the best courses in southern Arizona. Would be in the Golf Gorge, but tee times are doled out on a very limited basis. John Fought and Tom Lehman designed the course will be open to the public again on October 16.

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 upon arrival. Old west atmosphere of 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.

Where to Stay

Money no object? Simply book a room at Ventana or Paloma for your stay. But if you are looking for the most affordable golf package, try Tucson Golf Vacations at 800-324-3692.

Recommended Trip Plan

Day One - morning round at Ventana's Mountain Course, afternoon round at Canyon Course, and dinner at El Minuto.

Day Two - entire day at La Paloma's 27 holes, quick lunch at Rosa's between after 18, and dinner at Little Abners after 27.

Day Three - morning round at the Raven, afternoon round at Vistoso, and dinner at Daisy Mae's.

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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