La Paloma's Hill course, 6th hole
Dick Durrance II
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

There's nothing else like desert golf. If you've played only where the grass is lush, the trees are tall and the sand is all in the bunkers, you can't fathom the difference. Every golfer should feel the odd mix of fear and exhilaration you get looking from an elevated tee over a cactus-filled gully to that small patch of grass you have to hit -- or else.

Tucson is one of the desert game's capitals. On the northern edge of the high Sonoran Desert, Tucson is laid-back, beautiful and off the beaten track, though just an hour and 15 minutes from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. What Phoenix and Scottsdale were to golf a quarter-century ago, Tucson is today.

Phoenix-Scottsdale, now home to more than 3 million people, is sprawling fast. Tucson's population is about 950,000, and its growth has been gradual. There may be more top-level courses in Phoenix, but there are also more golfers competing for tee times. Climate and topography work in Tucson's favor as well: While the city is only 60 miles from the Mexican border, the temperature is usually about 10 degrees cooler than in the state capital. The area features a huge variety of cacti, which dot the mountainsides and washes. (Warning: Don't brush up against them or you'll be pulling spines out of your backside for a week.)

A half-dozen Tucson courses deserve special mention. Here's a tour, starting with my favorite.

About 20 minutes north of Tucson in the Tortolita Mountains, The Gallery Golf Club's spectacular North Course, a five-year-old John Fought-Tom Lehman design, winds around natural rock outcroppings. As the course climbs from Ruelas Canyon up Dove Mountain, you'll find yourself gawking at the views of bare hilltops above, miles of saguaro-studded desert floor below and the mesquite and multihued rocks everywhere in between. You're snapped back to reality on holes like the fourth and eighth, both par 4s, and the par-5 16th, which all call for long drives over gullies. But forced carries are the exception. "The North is as difficult or as easy as you want it to be -- 7,400 yards from the back, but only 5,300 from the front. Everyone has a chance," says The Gallery's general manager Wade Dunagan.

Locals say the best hole is the downhill ninth, which from the tips is -- let's just say insane. It's 725 yards(and a healthy 575 from the middle markers), requiring a long, straight tee shot that must carry 200 yards of scrub and avoid bunkers on either side of the fairway. The second shot has to elude more bunkers another 200 to 270 yards out and a large pond to the right. The approach then has to vault 30 yards of desert wash and a necklace of bunkers fronting a small, curvaceous green. It's a grueling but beautiful hole, and to Dunagan's knowledge, only one man has reached the green in two: John Daly, during the 1999 Touchstone Energy Tucson Open.

In January, The Gallery opened a second track, the 7,315-yard, par-72 South Course, designed by Fought to contrast the North. While not as imposing as its older sibling, it's sublimely beautiful, laid out in a forest of saguaro mixed with ironwood, mesquite and palo verde trees that make each hole a secluded enclave.

The Gallery is private, but you can play as a visitor until the membership fills up. The courses are open on alternate days, so check ahead. You can also buy a package that allows a foursome to stay at a courseside casita -- a cozy two-bedroom cottage with a kitchen and whirlpool tub.

Second to The Gallery North on Tucson's must-play list is the Golf Club at Vistoso, just north of town. The 6,932-yard Tom Weiskopf design is so smartly crafted that a high-handicapper can easily manage his game from the correct set of tees. Much of the course is secluded and wild, rich with jackrabbits, hawks, roadrunners and lizards.

Weiskopf excels at building risk-reward holes, and there are plenty at Vistoso, including the aptly named second, Double Cross, a 530-yard dogleg-right that tempts you with a dangerous shortcut to the green. On the back nine, there's the 14th, Risky, a bifurcated 350-yarder that asks you to choose between playing it safe or going for the green over trees. Average golfers have a chance here, provided they're able to resist temptation.

Next up are three nine-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed loops -- Canyon (3,534 yards), Ridge (3,554 yards) and Hill (3,463 yards) -- at the Westin La Paloma Resort north of town. The courses provide sweeping views of Tucson, and Nicklaus balanced narrow fairways with his trademark racetrack-like banking, which keeps wayward tee shots in play. La Paloma is no pushover, however.

"This was among the first dozen or so courses Jack designed, and one of his first desert courses," says Westin director of golf Dan LaRouere. "He created holes by taking a plastic mat out in the scrub and smacking balls to where he thought the fairways and greens should be." On opening day in 1985, with Nicklaus nearing the end of his prime playing days, he teed up on Canyon's eighth with club pro Don Pooley and tried to pull off a 230-yard carry into a stiff headwind. He didn't reach the fairway, and neither did Pooley. "What dummy put this tee box here?" Nicklaus joked, and promptly had it moved up. The old tee box still stands, unused, a monument to the Golden Bear of old.

In order to play at La Paloma you must stay at the resort. One of Westin's best hotels, it features an Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa, tennis, swim-up bars and the nouvelle cuisine of the Janos restaurant.

Another famed resort in the northern foothills, Loew's Ventana Canyon, hosts two more of Tucson's best circuits, the tough and inventive Tom Fazio-designed Canyon and Mountain Courses, at 6,819 and 6,907 yards, respectively. The front nine of the Mountain features one of the most photographed holes in the country, the 107-yard third, which offers a panorama across the Sonoran Desert to Mexico. The back tees are set on a 50-foot-high mesa, with a dramatic drop to the green on a lower mesa.

Crib Sheet
Arizona National Golf Club
Greens fees: $75-$165
520-749-3636; arizonanationalgolfclub.com

Canoa Hills Golf Club
Greens fees: $19-$55
520-648-1880; tucsongolf.com

Canoa Ranch Golf Club
Greens fees: $33-$59
520-393-1966; canoaranchgolfclub.com

Dell Urich Golf Course
Greens fees: $37-$47
520-791-4161; tucsoncitygolf.com

The Gallery Golf Club
Greens fees: $100-$170
520-744-4700; gallerygolf.com

Golf Club at Vistoso
Greens fees: $79-$159
520-797-9900; vistosogolf.com

Loew's Ventana Canyon Resort
Greens fees: $79-$209
520-299-2020; loewshotels.com

Omni Tucson National
Greens fees: $80-$200
520-297-2271; tucsonnational.com

Randolph North Golf Course
Greens fees: $37-$47
520-791-4161; tucsoncitygolf.com

San Ignacio Golf Club
Greens fees: $40-$70
520-648-3468; sanignaciogolfclub.com

Tubac Golf Resort
Greens fees: $45-$75
520-398-2211; tubacgolfresort.com

Westin La Paloma Resort
Greens fees: $149-195
520-742-6000; westin.com/lapaloma

The back nine of the Canyon Course, which winds through Esperro Canyon, is indelible -- particularly the 336-yard 10th, which incorporates Whaleback Rock, a geological formation that does indeed look like the back of a black whale. The rock chokes the left side of the fairway and the long, narrow green. The 503-yard, dogleg-right finishing hole wraps up this surreal test with a green backed by a shimmering artificial waterfall. The courses are open on alternating days, and you don't have to be a resort guest to play them. But you could do worse than to stay at Ventana Canyon, hailed by Architectural Digest as "the first environmentally conceived resort in North America." It also offers great amenities: tennis, swimming, hiking, horseback riding and a spa.

Rounding out the honor roll is Arizona National, a 6,785-yard Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout on the northeast side of town. Opened in 1996 and originally called the Raven at Sabino Springs, it's another mountainside layout in the mold of Gallery North, if not as sublime. Since it's home to the University of Arizona's nationally ranked golf teams, the clientele is young and casual. As for the golf, it's superb if a bit gimmicky (the championship tee on 18, for instance, perches 200 feet above the back tee).

The course meanders up the Santa Catalinas and overlooks the valley, offering spectacular views. Nine natural springs provide more water features than you usually see in Tucson -- including a spring on the 12th hole that supported a Hohokam Indian village about 1,000 years ago.

Those are the best of Tucson's modern courses, but there are several other worthwhile stops. Tucson National at the Omni resort has hosts a PGA Tour event, the Chrysler Classic, each year, and for that reason -- as well as for its famous water-guarded 465-yard 18th hole -- it's a worthy side trip. (If you go, play the Orange and Gold nines.) But for sheer inventiveness and beauty it has been eclipsed by a new generation of courses built over the past two decades.

If three or four days of high-end golf leave you tired of (a) the ball-sacrificing struggle of battling dry washes and chollas or (b) being fawned over, give yourself a break and head to one of Tucson's five municipal courses -- .particularly Dell Urich (6,633 yards) and Randolph North (6,863 yards), which abut each other in the center of town. Dell Urich was remodeled in 1996 and is the more challenging of the two, although both have hosted PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour events. Both tracks have huge expanses of grass, built before strict environmental codes outlawed parkland-style courses (Randolph North dates back to 1925).

A 40-minute drive south of the city, in the cooler, clearer climate around Green Valley, several developments offer some challenging golf. The San Ignacio Golf Club, designed by Arthur Hills in the mid-1980s, is a 6,704-yard high-desert layout with plenty of elevated tees to offer expansive views of the narrow and unforgiving fairways. Dave Bennett laid out the tight 6,599-yard Canoa Hills through a small canyon; the course rewards golfers who can hit it straight and control distance. Canoa Ranch Golf Club, a one-year-old course designed by Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley, may be the best of the bunch. The 6,549-yard design has lots of elevation, so it's terrific for playing near sunset for great views of the Kitt Peak National Observatory across the valley. Set within a retirement community, Canoa Ranch is beautiful, cheap and has a lively, convivial restaurant, Grill on the Green. Finding a hotel is tricky in this area, but the Inn at San Ignacio offers private suites.

If you're a history buff, make a side trip to Tubac Golf Resort. Its 6,533-yard course, designed by Red Lawrence in 1959, is nothing special but Tubac, originally a hacienda built on land granted by the Spanish crown in 1789, is a mile from a 300-year-old Spanish pueblo turned thriving artists' colony with more than 90 galleries, boutiques and studios. In the late 1950s, Bing Crosby and a group of Tucson businessmen bought the 500-acre property and turned it into a golf resort while preserving the original buildings. Lush fairways and tall cottonwood trees evoke the look of old Tucson.

From the old to the new and from high-end resort tracks to local munis, there's plenty to play in Arizona's other golf city. This is as good as it gets for desert golf -- a style every golfer should enjoy at least once.

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