Desert Chill – Scenic resorts, great food abound in Tucson

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By Bill Huffman

TUCSON — Ask any savvy traveler what the secret to a successful trip is, and there’s a very good chance he or she will say of the destination they are visiting that you need “lots of local knowledge.”

That is especially true when it comes to golf trips, where courses and resorts/hotels are often booked based on their popularity or reputation because — let’s face it — locals rule.

Tucson is the hidden gem of Arizona golf, where it pays huge dividends to have lots of knowledge prior to your trip. Sure, most people know “the Old Pueblo,” as it is affectionately called by the locals, is the gateway to the Old West, and that the notorious cowboy town of Tombstone lies just south of the city. But did you know that Tucson’s modern-day gunfights are held these days on 30-plus golf courses that encircle its metropolitan area, with another dozen or so all within a one-hour drive?

The joys of Tucson by Arizona expert and noted travel writer Bill Huffman is just one of many destination features in the current Travel Issue of Golf Oklahoma. Click the magazine to read them all, or pick up a copy at your local pro shop.

Rick Price, who has earned the nickname “Mr. Tucson Golf” for his 30-plus years of growing the game in the city he loves, said the future could not be brighter for Arizona’s second-largest metropolis, which is located at 2,500 to 3,000 feet above sea level with a population that just tops a million.

“There’s no doubt that golf is way more affordable in Tucson than, say, Phoenix or Scottsdale,” said the easygoing Price, who has been the head pro or director of golf at six area courses, including the highly regarded Omni Tucson National Golf Resort, The Gallery at Dove Mountain and The Views Golf Club of Oro Valley, where he currently runs the show.

The Notah Begay-designed Sewailo at Casino Del Sol.

“I guess from a tourist standpoint, we’re not as crowded as the Phoenix metro area, which gives us more of a laidback vibe. One real positive is that the greater Tucson area has such a variety of courses; there’s very little sameness. And our best courses, are high-end courses — at least a dozen of them or more — and they definitely can compete with the best of the Phoenix-Scottsdale. Plus, we’ve got better views with all of these mountains around us.”

Price certainly does at his semi-private golf course, as The Views is carved right out of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains, with killer backdrops in every direction. The Views, which has a $110 green fee in peak season, is fairly typical of Tucson golf, which ranges from $90 to $200. By comparison, the big hitters in Phoenix-Scottsdale range from $185 to $450, the last price being the new number at the TPC Scottsdale, where the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open is held every year.

Ventana Canyon offers 36 holes designed by Tom Fazio. Don’t try to walk it.

Tucson National, where the PGA Tour once upon a time contested the Tucson Open (1945-2006), today is the host of the Cologuard Classic on the Champions Tour, and is one of those diverse courses that Price mentioned.

“I’m probably prejudiced because I was director of golf there for six years, but the championship course at the National makes everyone who plays it happy. It’s just a walk in a pristine golf park — with its big, tree-lined fairways. It’s not really desert golf at all,” said Price, a former University of Arizona golfer who once produced a golf magazine and radio show called “Golf Arizona,” as well as served as director of the Southern Southwest Section of the PGA, and as a golf coach at Pima Community College.

“But Tucson also has all of these highly regarded desert links like Ventana Canyon (36 holes of Tom Fazio golf), La Paloma (27 holes of Jack Nicklaus golf), Arizona National (18 holes of Robert Trent Jones Jr. golf), Starr Pass (27 holes of Robert Cupp and Craig Stadler golf) the Ritz-Carlton at Dove Mountain (27 holes by Nicklaus), El Conquistador (36 holes by the late Greg Nash, as well as a nine-hole executive) and Sewailo at Casino Del Sol (18 holes by Notah Begay).”

That’s 189 holes of really good golf to go with some mid-priced products that offer excellent conditions, tremendous service and lots of different looks, too. That list is headed by The Views, formerly a private club built by Nash called Sun City Vistoso, Crooked Tree (designed by Lee Trevino), Del Lago, Forty Niner, Quarry Pines (actually built in an old quarry near the suburb of Marana) and SaddleBrooke.

Starr Pass Resort and Spa.

In addition, there are four solid municipal golf courses that cost less than $75, led by Randolph North, which was designed by William “Billy” Bell, the same architect who created Torrey Pines in San Diego and Papago in Phoenix. And don’t forget the other muni at Randolph Park, Dell Urich. The Ken Kavanaugh design is a fun alternative, giving the city a very popular 1-2 punch for the locals, as well as those who come to visit.

Need more golf on your trip to Tucson? Just hop in your rental car and take I-19 south for 30 miles to the retirement community of Green Valley, where courses like San Ignacio, Canoa Hills and the Country Club of Green Valley will more than make up for the cost of your gas with a green fee under $100 and an outstanding desert-mountain landscape of golf.

Go 15 minutes further south down the I-19, and you can tee it up on 27 holes of scenic/serene golf at Tubac Golf Resort, one of the movie sets for the golf flick “Tin Cup.” The legendary Red Lawrence, “the Desert Fox” and the same architect that created famed Desert Forest in Carefree, built the first 18 at Tubac back in 1960, Kavanaugh added the third nine 10 years ago in what certainly is an idyllic setting in the heart of the Santa Cruz River Valley.

Naturally, you’ll need a place to stay, and in that regard Tucson also offers an abundance of four-star resorts such as the Lodge at Ventana Canyon and the recently updated Omni Tucson National Resort. If you like the very best and don’t mind paying for it, the Lodge at Ventana Canyon is very nature-loaded and a golf-oriented retreat. Ventana’s Flying V Bar & Grill draws rave reviews and the outdoor terrace of the Canyon Cafe is the ideal place to enjoy something Southwestern.

If you want that easygoing vibe that comes with Tucson, the Omni is the place for you. Among the many faces of Tucson National is its golf-themed Legends Bar & Grill, Bob’s Steak & Chop House (without question, the best filet mignon in Arizona) and the Sweetwater Cabana Bar, where morning Mojitos hit the spot in the big, heated pool (or sauna). Golfers also like the fireplaces and fire pits that both of these classy resorts go to great lengths to provide. Seriously, can you think of a better place for your group/partners to tell golf tales from the daily competition?

Westin La Paloma Golf Resort, hard by the Catalinas.

And if you’re looking for something really different, really Southwestern or really, really cowboy, make your headquarters the White Stallion Ranch just a little north and west of the city. The star-gazing and the steaks all seem more satisfying when you enjoy them at White Stallion, one of only four dude ranches still left in Arizona.

There are many other reasons to visit the Old Pueblo, which has become a bicycling mecca since the city built a 130-mile bike path called The Loop around the city. Need some local knowledge on what else to do in Tucson? Well, local sports columnist Greg Hansen of The Arizona Daily Star, an avid golfer who estimates he plays at least 120 rounds a year, has some pointers even if he would sooner talk golf.

“Golf paves the way, but recreational sports opportunities in Tucson also have become robust year-round,” Hansen said. “The Loop, which is shared use for walkers, runners, skaters, horseback riders and cyclists, was huge, as is the El Tour de Tucson (bike race) that draws 9,000 cyclists in November.

“Nearby Mount Lemon (a ski resort) now has a 19-mile Honeybee Canyon Loop that  is one of seven mountain-biking trails that stretch 84 miles at altitudes from 3,000 to 7,000 feet. And the running community also has ignited, featuring 24 annual events, from the socially festive Meet Me Downtown 5K to the 53rd annual Saguaro National Park Labor Day 8-mile run/walk.

“But make no mistake, it’s golf that continues to swing Tucson’s sports economy,” Hansen said.

Oh, yes, and one other thing, Hansen added.

“We do have some unbelievable Mexican restaurants that go a long way in bringing people to town. They bill it as `23 miles of Mexican.’ But it’s just not the quantity of offerings (over 50 cantinas), but the quality and diverse backgrounds of the restaurants and chefs.”

Yes, word has gotten out that the best place to go out after a round of golf in the Old Pueblo is those 23 miles designated by the city as an international gastronomical epicenter for those who like their tacos and margaritas. Restaurants such as El Guero Canelo, BK Carne Asada & Hot Dogs and BOCA Tacos y Tequila are superb. But there is one celebrated cantina that can’t be touched — the 100-year-old El Charro Cafe.

Along those lines, El Charro Cafe’s current chef, Carlotta Flores, has yet another local story that might pique your curiosity about Tucson.

“We still serve many of the same foods and recipes that my Great Aunt Monica (Flinn) served her customers when she opened the restaurant in 1922,” said Flores, who has won more national and international awards than you can list.

“And, yes, Great Aunt Monica invented the Chimichanga, which we still serve on our menu along with some very comforting food that comes straight from our heart.”

The only catch to getting a reservation at El Charro is that, as Flores pointed out, there are now four El Charros in Tucson, including another cafe at the airport as well as El Charro Cafe Vida, a vegan Mexican restaurant, and El Charro Steak & Del Rey. To sort out any confusion, you want to start with the one on Court Avenue near the University of Arizona campus and downtown.

Once again, you can’t get enough local knowledge for your next great golf adventure. For more of the same, go to visittucson.org for everything else that goes with golf.

Bill Huffman covered golf for the Arizona Republic and Mesa Tribune for over 30 years. He also wrote the book “Arizona’s Greatest Golf Courses,” and co-hosts a radio show on Fox Sports 910 every Saturday called “Backspin The Golf Show.”


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