"What am I doing in Tucson?" With Phoenix/Scottsdale and more than 3,600 golf holes just 90 minutes down the turnpike, it's a legit question. Isn't this sleepy college town better known for bacon-wrapped "Sonoran hot dogs" than it is for world-class golf and upscale resorts? What gives?
\nHold steady there, compadre. Before you get on the iPhone and start googling for a hitman to eliminate your travel agent, take a deep breath, widen your eyes to take in the blue skies and send flowers instead. You have just arrived at the Ritz-Carlton at Dove Mountain, and all is well with the world. Unpack, flip on the flatscreen and open those sliding glass doors onto a saguaro-studded desert tableau. Now chill.
\nThe Ritz opened its doors in December of 2009, but development in the foothills of the Tortolita Mountains has been burning steady for the past 25 years or so. Things geared up when Tucson developer David Mehl bought 1,300 acres from the legendary homesteader "Cush" Cayton, who'd been ranching here since 1926. Housing developments sprung up like wildflowers, followed by 36 holes dubbed the Gallery Golf Club, designed by John Fought with help from Tom Lehman on the North Course.
\nFought's links-style South Course played host to the Accenture Match Play Championships in 2007 and 2008, but the action moved up the hill in 2009 to 18 of Jack Nicklaus's 27 holes at the Ritz-Carlton. (Holes 28 through 36 are in the offing as well.) Thereby hangs a controversial tale.
\nAfter numerous players complained about the unreceptive, hard greens, the PGA Tour mandated some changes, and the stripping and softening began in earnest. After all, at 7,800-plus yards, the long approach shots needed a few receptive pin positions on the Saguaro and Tortolita courses, where the tournament is routed. Jack didn't accede without mild protest, but the changes were duly made, and the Bear confessed it amounted to an improvement.
\nOn media day this year, with the course set up to bare its tournament teeth, I'd have been hard-pressed to guess that it had been made any easier in the past year. Green complexes were still hard to hold but for the highest, most feathery approach shots, and even then the trouble was just beginning. Facing snaking downhillers that read 12-plus on the old Stimp was like putting on a green-tinted Colorado River. Putts don't just break here, they eddy and foam and spin drunkenly like a sailor on a weekend furlough.
\nThat said, the pain of perpetual three-jacks is thoroughly effaced by the jigsaw joys of this demanding desert layout. While your first trip around might confound your eye off the tee on various holes not knowing exactly where Jack wants you to drive the next time out is difficult but not dizzying. Nicklaus knew what he was doing, fashioning a design that would make aggressive amateurs flash back to what they'd seen the pros do on TV in February.
\n"You have the opportunity to relate to those players," Nicklaus has said, "and say, 'Hey, I saw Tiger here, he didn't get it up-and-down, and I did.' Those are the kind of things that I think make the game fun."
\nLanding areas are generous once you get used to the liberal bunkering, but there are daunting forced carries over desert wash areas on more than a few tee shots and approaches. Saguaros line the fairways and discourage players from seeking out ancient, lost Kro-Flites to pad the shag-bag. For comic relief, once-noble, 18-foot succulents are now studded with numerous errant tee shots.
\nIf it's unspoiled, hazard-free beauty that you hanker after, the 850 acres surrounding the Ritz-Carlton should fit the bill nicely. Twenty-five miles of improved trails ring the hotel, which you can mount on foot or mountain bike, then wind your way through the Tortolita Mountains and Wild Burro Canyon. The stillness is broken only by breezes, or the skittering of, er, scorpions and lizards and snakes; the air is clear and dry. Views go on and on and then some.
\nI don't know about you, but all that talk of hiking gets me hungry. Happily, just inside the resort's four-story main building made of adobe, clay tile, stucco and stone sits a culinary destination that alone is well worth a trip to the Sonoran Desert. The CORE Kitchen and Wine Bar is a stunningly sleek, glass-encased marvel, ably guided by the antic spirit of Chef Joel Harrington, whose Mohawk-hairdo and punk-rock aesthetic stand in stark contrast to the refined elegance of the room.
\nThe chef may be the walking definition of an enfant terrible, but the menu is a perfectly mannerly model of local-ingredients-first, regionally-influenced cuisine. A beyond-tender buffalo tenderloin is done with garlic fries and a celery root purÃƒÂ©e, and there's a lovely sweet potato bisque with a hint of chipotle that is as smooth as Steve Stricker's putting stroke. They also serve a damn fine order of fish tacos at the poolside Turquesa Latin Grill.
\nFor dessert, I'd skip the carb-fest and make your way down to the tranquil luxury of the Ritz's spa. While it may usually be true that a spa is a spa, the outdoor area here, where various treatments are offered under the azure canopy above, is a little slice of desert heaven. Not only that, I had a world-class deep tissue massage that straddled the line between pleasure and pain without sacrificing therapeutic benefits. Plus, the steamroom is big enough for a touch football game and emits copious clouds of healing vapors. Ahhhhhhhhhhh ...
\nYou may want to venture some 20 miles to downtown Tucson for a funky enchilada dinner and some rock and roll. Me, I was happy on Dove Mountain with the flagsticks and the saguaros and the multi-hued sunrises and sunsets. P.S., there's only 350 days of sunshine in this valley, so pick your vacation date carefully if you like rain.