TUBAC, Ariz. — There's off the beaten track and then there's off the beaten track, over the mountains and through the woods, to grandmother's house, and hidden among the desert mesquite at the far end of nowhere.
Welcome to Tubac Golf Resort. Where, exactly, am I? Probably still in America, although my colleagues and I did have to bust through a border patrol checkpoint on I-19.
Tubac is about 40 miles south of Tucson, which is technically southern Arizona even though some folks might call it northern Mexico. I didn't know there was 40 miles of America south of Tucson, but there is.
This is a sweet spot, possibly the epicenter of the Laid-Back-and-Chilled-Out Hall of Fame. Bing Crosby founded the Tubac Golf Resort back in 1959 when he and some pals bought land here. Now it's a cozy and quaint 27-hole golf resort nestled in a grassy, tree-lined low spot conveniently located right off I-19. If you're driving from Tucson and hit the Nogales border checkpoint, you've gone too far.
I was there to tee it up in the Tucson Media Classic, a loosely organized golf outing, and my roadmates were Sports Illustrated colleague John Garrity and Milwaukee radio host Chuck Garbedian. Garbedian drove, Garrity rode shotgun because he's 11 feet tall, and I wedged into the back seat of the aptly named Chevy Impala, virtually impaled by Garrity's seat back. Now I know what it's like to sit inside a fajita.
Let's skip the suspense, especially the part where Garrity suppressed the urge to speak French to the agent at the I-19 northbound security checkpoint — yeah, that would've ended well for us — and get to the good part: Two thumbs up for Tubac.
You probably hadn't heard of it but you've probably seen it. It was featured in "Tin Cup", the scene where Kevin Costner's Roy McAvoy caddies for Don Johnson in a match against Phil Mickelson and Gary McCord and gets ticked off because Johnson's Tour pro character wants to lay up on a par 5 whose green is guarded by water. The argument escalates, McAvoy says he could hit the shot, Stadler offers a ball and a glove and betting odds and, of course, McAvoy knocks it on the green and gets fired by Johnson.
When you're in the desert, as far off the beaten path as Tubac, you hold onto this pop-cultural touchstone because it's a reminder that you're still amongst civilization.
Anyway, your trio of golf legends found themselves in Costner territory at the fourth hole on Tubac's Rancho nine. Unfortunately, it was playing into the wind. We were playing a shamble format, which means we took our best drive in the group and all played the hole out from there. We were well short of the "Tin Cup" plaque in the right rough, marking the spot of McAvoy's shot, some 247 yards out, so we were all forced to lay up. And wind or no wind, nobody short of a Tour player would try to hit a relatively tiny green that's all carry over a moat. And I don't mean you, Garrity.
It's hard to describe Tubac. I was expecting desert golf but it wasn't that at all. There were trees, some really big ones, and shade and grass and even a few water hazards. There was a nice practice range and a huge putting green. There were two large short-game greens bordered by a white fence and some trees, and cattle meandered on the other side of the fence, occasionally mooing. I should say most of the cattle meandered on the other side; one large bull stood on the practice green side of the fence, 50 feet from where I intended to hit some chips. He made some cantankerous noises, maybe because he couldn't figure out why there was a fence between him and his pals. Maybe he overheard Garrity's conclusion that the bull had jumped over the fence using the Fosbury Flop, and felt the joke was in poor taste. Anyway, he plopped down on the ground.
The best thing about the Anza and Rancho nines are their playability. They are a nice mix of challenging and easy holes, unless you're a glutton for punishment — calling Mr. McAvoy! — and need to play the gold tees. From the tips, you finish the Rancho nine with a 254-yard par 3, a 651-yard par 5 guarded by a large pond, and a 430-yard par 4.
Most of us media hacks played the blue tees, a friendlier 6,374 yards. That 651-yarder was shortened to 595, and after we used a corner-cutting tee ball, we all hit hybrids right of the lake and had wedge shots to the green. This is where Garbedian Tin-Cupped a 30-foot putt for birdie on a stroke hole for net eagle that helped us en route to a team score of 10-under 61, a total not nearly enough to make us winners against a field full of media handicap banditos.
We played five par-4 holes that were 350 yards or less. In fact, a lucky bounce off a yardage marker (or some hidden rock) catapulted my drive forward and almost all the way to the green at the 309-yard first hole on the Rancho nine. So it's not U.S. Open-hard, but you're here at the end of the Earth to relax, anyway, right?
The "Tin Cup" hole will forever be Tubac's signature hole, but we all enjoyed the Anza nine's finisher, a semi-ode to the island-green 17th at Sawgrass. It's only 123 yards, but the green has an extensive moat around its front and sides and, best of all, it's right in front of the ranch-style clubhouse, so those hanging around can watch the train wrecks.
For our outing the pin was strategically located on the very front, right by the water, and it was downwind on a chilly day. It was a mere wedge, but the splashing made by the frolicking ducks in that pond (poetic license — those ducks weren't really frolicking) was soon matched by the splashing of our tee shots. My shot didn't splash but it didn't quite reach the green, either. A mere sliver of rough fronted the green and somehow, against all odds, my shot stopped there. We chipped close and made a team par, avoiding potential humiliation. It was a 3, Roy, but it was your 3 and it was beautiful.
Whatever. Our Tubac hosts had "Tin Cup" playing in the clubhouse, and we dined on some killer spicy barbecue chicken and warm peach cobbler. I'd come back to Tubac just for the food, let alone the golf. Tell Garrity I'm calling Shotgun.
Meanwhile, back at the Van Cynical Mailbag:
Van Cynical, What happened to Tiger at last weekend's shootout? He gaffed a four-footer to lose? — Jerome via email
It's called mortality. The guy is human after all. I'm not sure about Zach Johnson, though, after he jarred the shot from the drop area. That's ridiculous.
Vans, If the BCS ran the FedEx Cup playoffs, who'd win the Tour Championship? — Douglas via email
Either Tiger or Auburn. Probably Tiger because he plays better defense.
Sickle cell, I'm doing Tin Cup trivia questions for the bus ride back from Tubac. What did they use to pick up balls at the run-down range where Roy McAvoy gave lessons? — Kris Strauss, live at my table at Tubac
A beat-up VW Beetle, Kris. My uncle used to drive one just like it-minus the range-picker baskets. Here's another trivia question: Who sponsored David Simms, the golfer played by Don Johnson? Answer: He wore visors that said Nissan and Infiniti.
Van Cynical, Where does Tin Cup rank among the best golf movies ever made? — Chuck Garbedian, live and watching "Monday Night Football" from the couch in my hotel suite
It's not in the top five. In fact, most golf movies reek. "Caddyshack" and its hilarious lines that are still quoted 30 years later holds the top spot by default. "Happy Gilmore" had the classic fight scene with Adam Sandler and Bob Barker and a few other giggles. Glenn Ford as Hogan in "Follow the Sun" was stiffer than a metal shaft. I did love the golf scenes in "Pat & Mike," where Katherine Hepburn machine-gunned a series of teed-up balls on the range in impressive fashion, plus it was way cool to see Riviera back in the old days.