I was warned, sort of.
As I lugged my golf clubs through the sleepy international airport in Tucson, Ariz., I spotted an awful novelty item, a T-shirt emblazoned with a cartoon-style snake and the slogan, ‘Send more tourists, the last ones were delicious.’
The snakes didn’t scare me off. Keep in mind, though, the desert does eat golf balls.
Even if you shell out for Pentas or Pro-V1s, it’s simply not worth wandering too far into the ruffage to retrieve a wayward ball.
“With the desert, it’s almost like looking at a picture or a movie for the first time. Playing in the desert and looking out into the desert, it’s almost like it’s not real,” said Bob O’Brian, director of golf at The Lodge at Ventana Canyon.
“You don’t go out into the desert too deep because the vegetation all has thorns, so you’re playing in a very refined area but your surroundings are so rugged. There’s so much vegetation and wildlife and things like that. It really is a different experience.
“Our golf courses are maintained perfectly, but you look around at the desert and it’s just a wild, natural state.”
You could say the same about the entire city of Tucson, which is surrounded by five separate mountain ranges. The result is a stunning backdrop for golf courses and memorable sunsets, made even better by the local slogan, ‘When the mountains turn pink, it’s time to drink.’
The mountains stand tall, but it’s the hub of Phoenix and Scottsdale — about 200km of interstate to the north — that casts a shadow over Tucson’s golf scene.
It seems like every Calgarian with a set of Callaways has teed off in the golf-crazed Valley of the Sun, but ‘The Old Pueblo’ remains a relatively underrated destination for birdie-seekers.
It’s a little cooler, especially in the summer months.
It’s a little quieter, except maybe when the University of Arizona Wildcats have a home game.
And if you’re looking for carpet-like fairways scattered across the prickly desert landscape, it’s a little slice of heaven, just like the big market to the north.
When you’re planning your next trip to Arizona for a winter golf fix, maybe it’s time to give Tucson a try.
“Tucson doesn’t have the history of Scottsdale or some of these other places, but we have four or five great golf courses here,” said Corey Baehman, head professional at La Paloma Country Club. “We just don’t have a hundred like they have up there.”
With connections from Phoenix and several other centres, getting to Tucson is relatively easy.
The toughest part for club-toting travellers might be settling on a spot to stay and play, since several of Tucson’s top tracks are private clubs that offer playing privileges for resort guests.
Guests at Loews Ventana Canyon have 36 holes of championship-level golf to choose from. It’s the same story at Omni Tucson National. At Westin La Paloma, you’ll find 27 fairways and greens.
Head a bit north of Tucson and you’ll discover the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain, home to three nine-hole loops and the site of the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship.
Wherever you choose to stay, stay the heck out of the desert. If you get too close to a Jumping Cholla, removing the barbs from your skin will hurt a lot more than accepting a lost ball and the penalty stroke that comes with it.
Don’t let the prickly stuff — or the snakes — scare you off, though. Spend a few days teeing off around Tucson and you’ll realize desert golf can be both fun and forgiving.
“Desert golf, in my opinion, gives you the flexibility to bend the shot as much as you want to because you don’t have any trees,” said Jeff McCormick, director of golf at Dove Mountain. “If you’re used to playing traditional golf courses with tree-lined fairways, a lot of times what surrounds the hole dictates what you can do with the golf ball, and I like the freedom of not having to do that out here in the desert.
“You can hit big sweeping hooks. You can hit big sweeping fades. You can hit it high, hit it low. Pretty much everything works out here and that, I think, makes golf in the desert a lot of fun.”
TUCSON, AS SEEN ON TV
Dove Mountain is synonymous with desert golf.
When you flick on your flat-screens in February for the latest instalment of the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship, you’ll see one of the most fascinating stops on the PGA Tour schedule.
The fairways are generous but as soon as the turf stops, it’s cacti for as far as the eye can see.
“This is one of the only places I’ve ever been that looks as good — if not better — in person as it does on television,” said Jeff McCormick, the director of golf at Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain, which is carved into the Sonoran Desert about a half-hour north of Tucson.
“But I think it’s important to note the golf course is only in that type of tournament condition one week out of the year. The greens aren’t quite as fast. The rough certainly isn’t as long. The fairways aren’t as tight.”
There’s no better advertising than having the best golfers on the globe invade your region for a few days and broadcasting all of the action in high-definition.
While there’s no doubt Dove Mountain — the longest layout in PGA Tour history at 7,833 yards — looks stunning on Golf Channel, it’s also important to note Tucson and surrounding area isn’t all prickly scrub and desert wash.
On the northern edge of the city, the Catalina Course at Omni Tucson National Golf Resort hosted a pro stroke-play event for parts of four decades before Jack Nicklaus designed the risk-reward setup at the Ritz as the new home for the annual match-play showdown.
A traditional layout with country-club conditions, the Catalina Course welcomed the PGA Tour’s Chrysler Classic of Tucson through the mid-1960s and ’70s and then again in the early-1990s.
The list of past champions of the since-scrapped tournament includes legends like Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson and current stars such as Phil Mickelson. Canadians George Knudson and Ian Leggatt also have their names on the trophy.
According to Tucson National’s director of golf Pat Miller, there’s still a steady supply of Canucks teeing off at the 36-hole facility. The Catalina Course is steeped in history, but the target-style Sonoran Course is usually the first stop for the snowbirds when winter hits.
“A lot of our members here are from Canada, and you can see it in the rounds,” Miller said. “For the first couple of weeks, they’ll be playing the desert-style course because it’s different and they kind of miss that. They’ve been playing something similar to the Catalina Course for so long. But then, they just kind of migrate back into the pattern of playing them both.
“They get the best of both worlds.”
Other tour-tested layouts in the Tucson area include El Rio, Forty Niner Country Club, Randolph North and Starr Pass.
If you head south of Tucson towards Mexico (along the only highway in the U.S. marked in kilometres), be sure to stop at Tubac Golf Resort and Spa, another course that gets occasional airtime on Golf Channel.
Now a 27-hole facility, Tubac was the filming location for several golf scenes in Tin Cup, including the spot Roy McAvoy (Kevin Costner) snaps every stick in his bag except his seven-iron. Plaques mark the points of interest.