With the Great Outdoors as the safest place to be, the area’s resorts combine golf, alfresco dining and desert beauty in delightful ways.
By Jon Rizzi
THANKS TO THE PANDEMIC, people across the country discovered golf in record numbers. But while fall and winter tend to drive Coloradans off the local courses, Tucsonans are teeing off in shorts and skorts, hiking saguaro-studded mountainsides and savoring sunsets on outdoor restaurant patios.
So why not join them?
Surrounded by five mountain ranges and doubly blessed with Saguaro National Park bordering the east and west edges of the city, the greater Tucson area justifiably prides itself on its wide-open spaces.
Those spaces brim with unique flora and fauna, but they also sport tees, fairways and greens.
With more than 40 courses, the spectrum of Tucson’s vibrant and varied golf scene ranges from its five municipal courses (including former PGA TOUR venues El Rio and Randolph North), to the magnificent Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Arizona National Golf Club adjacent to the Coronado National Forest, to The Stone Canyon Club, a private layout north in nearby Oro Valley that Phil Mickelson liked enough to add to his golf-property portfolio.
Luckily for visitors, resort courses comprise the lion’s share of Tucson’s golf bounty. Each of the following destinations offers the opportunity to avail yourself of high- end hotel amenities, dine safely outdoors and to play holes as spectacular as the surrounding scenery. Herewith a clockwise golf tour, beginning at Tucson International Airport.
After touchdown in Tucson, proceed due west to the must-see Mission San Xavier del Bac for some pre-round prayers before taking on Sewailo Golf Club. The showpiece of the resplendent Pascua Yaqui Tribe-owned Casino Del Sol hotel, the 7,400-yard Notah Begay/ Ty Butler-designed course bursts with botany and flows around numerous lakes and streams. This is the University of Arizona’s home course, and from the deck of Wildcats Grille, you can see it framed by the Tucson mountains.
North of Sewailo and connected to the lushly vegetated trails of Tucson Mountain Park, the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort rewards you with views of the Santa Catalinas from the three Arnold Palmer-designed nines (Road Runner, Coyote and Rattler) at Starr Pass Golf Club, which hosted the PGA TOUR’s Tucson Open from 1988 to 1995. Bookend the day on the Salud Terrace with an authentic Navajo sunrise ceremony and a Mexican tequila sunset toast, then head to the patio of Primo Restaurant for some locally sourced Italian-style fare or head inside for Signature Grill’s Southwestern heritage cuisine.
You’ll pass a Topgolf en route to The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain, which tucks into the hike-worthy Tortolita foothills in the town of Marana. The resort can help secure guests tee times at two former locations of the WGC Match Play Championships: the 27-hole Nicklaus Signature Golf Club at Dove Mountain and the two 18s at The Gallery Golf Club. Cayton’s Burger Bistro at the Dove Mountain and resort’s Turquesa Latin Grill both deliver appetizing alfresco experiences after a day on the course or exploring the canyons.
One of the area’s best outdoor dining spots awaits 15 minutes away in Oro Valley. Epazote Kitchen & Cocktails at El Conquistador Tucson, a Hilton Resort fuses inspired Southwestern dishes with breathtaking views of the 5,300-foot cliffs of Pusch Ridge in the Santa Catalinas. Conquistador’s Cañada, Conquistador and 9-hole Pusch Ridge layouts traverse memorably rugged and scenic topography. Mount Lemmon, home of the southernmost ski resort in the U.S., is visible from parts of the course and worth a closer look.
The highway to Tucson brings you to the Omni Tucson National, whose Robert Van Hagge/Bruce Devlin-designed Catalina Course will next stage the annual PGA TOUR Champions Tucson Cologuard Classic Feb. 25-27, 2022. The resort’s Tom Lehman-designed Sonoran layout provides a softer alternative to the Catalina. Après-golf, treat yourself to a beer and some happy-hour fare on the patio at Legends Bar & Grill.
A favorite of the Rockies during their erstwhile Spring Training days in Tucson, The Westin La Paloma serves up staggering views of the Santa Catalina Mountains and pulse-quickening hikes through the nearby Sabino Canyon portion of the Coronado National Forest. Designed by Jack Nicklaus, the La Paloma Country Club opened in 1984 with each nine—Canyon, Ridge and Hill—aptly named for its dominant geological trait. Food from Cuba, Spain and Mexico defines Contigo Latin Kitchen and its outdoor dining.
Last and east but certainly not least, Ventana Golf & Racquet Club spoils members and guests of the boutique Lodge at Ventana Canyon with two stunning Tom Fazio-designed championship courses, the Canyon and Mountain, which blend magically into the natural features of the Santa Catalinas. The views of the course and mountains from The Reserve, Ventana’s addition to the out- door service of the Catalina Dining Room and Ventana Bar & Grille, rate a visit, as do those from the deck of the Flying V Bar & Grill at the Loews Ventana Canyon, which perches above the pond bordering the Canyon Course’s 18th green.
Off the course, the city of Tucson—a UNESCO-recognized Creative City of Gastronomy—abounds in exceptional restaurants, many of which have adapted to health restrictions by adding outdoor dining or limiting hours or tables. Among the better patios, decks and courtyards are at Poco & Mom’s Cantina, Blue Willow, The Boxyard, Blanco Tacos + Tequila, Hotel Congress, Tay’s Barbecue, Saguaro Corners, Cafe à La C’Art at the Tucson Museum of Art and the restaurants at Mercado San Agustin. (For more recommendations, see visittucson.org/restaurants.)
A fretwork of trails of varying difficulty weaves through the area’s foothills, forests, parks and canyons. For nature lovers disinclined (or unable) to hike, the Sabino Canyon Crawler’s electric shuttles take as many as 60 passengers hourly on a paved road, while the company’s gas-powered Bear Canyon Shuttle taxis up to 21 riders to the head of Bear Canyon trail, which leads to the magnificent desert oasis of Seven Falls.
A tumbling cascade also punctuates the leisurely Bridal Wreath Falls trail through eastern portion of Saguaro National Park from a trailhead at the end of Speedway Boulevard. Although more heavily trafficked, the paved path at the University of Arizona-owned Tumamoc Hill takes you through a living museum of desert biodiversity offering glorious city views and sunrises and sunsets from its apex.
This article was also featured in the Fall 2021 Issue of Colorado AvidGolfer.