Cactus Call: “Old Pueblo” Soars With Scenery and Value
TUCSON, ARIZONA, the Grand Canyon State’s second-largest city, is a kaleidoscope of desert diversity. By different turns, one encounters cactus-covered slopes, jagged mountain peaks and Old West ambience side by side with sybaritic spas, acclaimed museums and exceptional golf courses.
SITUATED 110 MILES southeast of Phoenix and just 70 miles from Nogales on the Mexican border, the “Old Pueblo” possesses a singular blend of Native American, Hispanic and Western influences. As for the golf, the secret has been out for a while, but it bears repeating: Tucson is home to some of America’s most spectacular courses — and some of the nation’s best bargains.
Saguaro-Studded Trophy Tracks
So why Tucson, rather than nearby Palm Springs, which is also blessed with multiple upscale courses that bask in mountain panoramas? In a word, “cactus.” Saguaro cacti are what you can’t find in the California desert. Those stately, thorny, slow-growing tree-like plants form an almost welcoming presence, their arms extending sideways and skyward, as if to say, “howdy, pards!” Handsome and unique, yes — but don’t venture too close.
For a deep dive into Saguaro country, start at Ventana Canyon Golf & Racquet Club. Both Tom Fazio designs, Mountain, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2024 and Canyon, five years younger, sit astride two top hotels, Loews Ventana Canyon Resort and Ventana Canyon Club and Lodge. Each course is awash in Sonoran Desert splendor and loaded with elevation changes, cactus-dotted hillsides and mountain panoramas that are particularly majestic when your shots are airborne.
While both courses are worthy, Mountain is the pick, thanks in part to its unforgettable par-3 third hole, called “Hole in the Wall.” Measuring a mere 107 yards, the hole demands an all-or-nothing carry over a cactus-filled chasm downhill to a two-tier green engulfed by an amphitheater of saguaros.
Designed by Jack Nicklaus in 1984, not a single water hazard touches the 27 holes at La Paloma CC. Nevertheless, there’s an ocean’s worth of trouble throughout the journey. Deep sand traps, numerous forced carries over perpendicular hazards, huge mounds and lush desert flora awaiting missed fairways make for a relentless challenge. However, it’s all packaged so beautifully, amid the Santa Catalina Mountains, that you won’t mind taking the extra strokes.
The Ridge and Canyon nines form La Paloma’s Championship 18, but the Hill nine holds its own after a 2008 Nicklaus renovation. A combination of the nines will form the tournament layout in March 2024 when La Paloma hosts the PGA Tour Champions’ Cologuard Classic. David Toms will defend the title he won when the event was played in 2022 at the Omni Tucson National. La Paloma offers tee times to guests of the adjacent Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa.
For 27 more dazzling desert challenges from Jack Nicklaus, drive north for 22 miles to the Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Marana. PGA Tour fans might remember this facility as the Ritz-Carlton GC, Dove Mountain, which played host to the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship from 2009-2014. The course name changed in 2013 — though the adjacent Ritz-Carlton is as plush as ever — and the layout’s Saguaro/Tortolita tournament nines are ranked by one industry publication as the top public-access course in Tucson.
Created in 2009, this 27-hole expedition through desert mountain foothills displays the evolution of Nicklaus’ design style from his La Paloma days, with softened features from tee to green and a paucity of forced carries. The 7,849-yard tips on the Saguaro/Tortolita nines formed the longest course in PGA Tour history when it was the tournament venue. Of course, some holes soar to 3,000 feet, affording extra distance on drives and stellar city and mountain views.
Currently, the Saguaro nine is under renovation, to render it even more user-friendly. In June 2023, the rebuilding of all green complexes began, along with adding new bunkers throughout, additional tee boxes on every hole and clearing in-play desert vegetation. After completion, similar work will begin on the Tortolita and Wild Burro nines, reducing Dove Mountain to 18 holes until spring 2026.
Sticking with the architectural A-list theme, Arizona National is an affordable, thrill-packed Robert Trent Jones Jr. creation where Stanford’s Tiger Woods once dueled (and lost) to the University of Arizona’s Ted Purdy. Hardly a slog at just 6,785 yards, it’s another chamber of commerce postcard of saguaro forests and eye-candy mountain views, together with memorable holes such as the wild, semi-blind par-5 11th and the par-5 18th, where the views extend for 75 miles into Mexico.
Tucson’s west side is light on golf, though strong on desert ambience. The two merge seamlessly at Starr Pass GC at the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa. Located at the edge of Tucson Mountain Park, Starr Pass hosted the PGA Tour during the 1980s as a TPC-branded facility and was best known as the venue for Phil Mickelson’s first win, in 1991, accomplished as an amateur. Today, its Bob Cupp design has been altered and added to by Arnold Palmer, yielding a 27-hole spread that teems with variety.
Near the University of Arizona campus is Blue Willow, where since 1978 a good day has started with the breakfast special of corn tortillas scrambled with eggs, chicken, green chiles, tomatoes, cheddar, salsa and sour cream. Head downtown for a Mexican lunch or dinner at the original El Charro Café, an Old Pueblo institution since 1922, where according to legend the Chimichanga was created. El Charro’s upscale beef and seafood emporium, Charro Steak and Del Rey, is located nearby.
For the classic steakhouse experience, Bob’s Steak & Chop House at the Omni Tucson National Resort will satisfy any carnivore. If it’s rustic atmosphere and mesquite-grilled meats you crave, Li’l Abner’s has been getting it right since 1947. Near La Paloma and Tucson National, the Union Public House serves up craft beers, small-batch whiskies and inspired comfort food. And, as a loyal University of Arizona graduate, I’ll point out that acclaimed Arizona hoops coach Tommy Lloyd hosts his weekly radio show at Union on Monday nights in season. And if you’ve come to Tucson, you must try a fully loaded Sonoran Hot Dog. Any of El Guero Canelo’s locations in town will work perfectly.
Parkland and Value Picks
If you’re seeking a break from all the spiny shrubbery, or just want to walk in famous footsteps, Omni Tucson National Resort is where to touch down. Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Phil Mickelson are among those who captured PGA Tour titles at Tucson National’s Catalina course.
Measuring 7,262 yards and playing to an unusual par 73, this 60-year-old graceful parkland-desert hybrid features wall-to-wall grass, tree-lined fairways and mountain vistas. A PGA Tour Champions venue from 2015-2022, Catalina rolled out one of the circuit’s toughest holes, the 443-yard, par-4 18th, with lakes flanking either side of the fairway driving zone and an elevated green.
For more parkland flavor with mountain views at bargain prices, Tucson City Golf Courses provide Tour-tested designs, muni-level green fees and Troon service and conditioning. Randolph’s Dell Urich is a character-filled romp in the heart of the city designed by Ken Kavanaugh that has hosted two LPGA Tour events. Its sibling, Randolph North, witnessed Nancy Lopez, Annika Sorenstam and Tom Watson win tournaments over a layout that’s now 98 years old. El Rio played host to the Tucson Open from 1945-1962, where winners included Jimmy Demaret and Tommy Bolt; among the runners-up were Ben Hogan, San Snead and Byron Nelson.
But you don’t have to be a hall of famer to find a memorable Tucson golf course that fits your budget. Just keep it out of the cacti.