I’ll admit that Bay Hill has a field studded with stars and with the King himself presiding, it’s undeniably a great place to be. A worthy alternative? Tucson, Arizona.
The Champions Tour has come to home to visit an old friend this week, Tucson National Golf Club and the Omni Tucson National Resort at the inaugural Tucson Conquistadores Classic. Want to talk star power? Try an 81-player field with a total of 410 wins on the PGA Tour, including 19 players who have won majors, and seven World Golf Hall of Fame members. Even 65-year old Tom Watson is teeing it up, looking to go wire-to-wire, as he did here in 1978. In an effort to recapture youthful glories, the senior set has gone back to a venue that helped give rise to the legends they became.
Long before Bay Hill became a spring staple, Tucson National was a regular stop on the PGA Tour. Starting with Bob Charles’ win in 1965, Tucson National hosted or co-hosted the PGA Tour 30 times through 2006. That Bay Hill fellow? Arnold Palmer? He won here in 1967. Lee Trevino won back-to-back in 1969-70. Ben Crenshaw of Texas won the individual NCAA Championship when Tucson National hosted in 1971. Johnny Miller picked up the nickname “Desert Fox” when he won three straight times in 1974-76. Jack Nicklaus represented Tucson National when he first joined the Tour in 1962. Teeing it up at Tucson National is akin to a stroll through the Golf Hall of Fame.
The pros love Tucson National for a number of reasons. First, it’s a traditional parkland design, albeit with desert accents. Designed by Robert Bruce Harris in the early 1960s, it’s Midwestern golf with mountains. Miss a ball and you’re in grass, not desert. On this course, you don’t have to be Victor Dubuisson to recover from a missed shot. Second, its greens sport classic back-to-front slopes, with only subtle undulations. In other words, you don’t need a slide rule and GPS to read a putt. Many putts get made here, as evidenced by the low scoring in most years. Third, the pros enjoy coming back to a course they know from a time of their lives that was full of competitive fire and promise. My partner in the pro-am today, Billy Andrade, had several good finishes here in his heyday, and he said there was definitely a comfort factor in returning.
Nine different players who won PGA Tour titles in Tucson are competing this week, including Kirk Triplett in 2006. Triplett’s presence is especially significant because he had been the last to don one of golf’s most distinctive trophies, the golden Conquistador helmet. First awarded in 1968, the helmet was from Spain and made from raw steel. It weighed a skull-crushing five pounds. In later years it was made lighter and colored with gold-plated chrome. Triplett said, “I remember getting a note from Curtis Strange, letting me know that I now had one of the best trophies in golf. I thought for a second and then remembered that he had two U.S. Open trophies. How can a Conquistador helmet be as good as the U.S. Open trophy? I thought that was pretty cool.”
Reactions are mixed as to just how cool the Conquistador helmet trophy is. I asked Billy Andrade what he thought of it. “It’s kind of goofy, really,” he said, “but I’d sure be happy to wear it on Sunday.”
Sunshine, classic parkland golf in the desert and a silly hat for the winner. After a stormy eight-year run with the WGC-Accenture Match Play, it sounds like they’re back to having fun in Tucson.