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Under the Tucson Sun

A relaxing sojourn in southern Arizona’s golf mecca

By Joe Passov

It took a nongolfing British rock star to put Tucson on the world map. In 1969 Paul McCartney and his bandmates released "Get Back," a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic. The song’s first verse featured these unforgettable if enigmatic lyrics: "Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona/for some California grass." But these days golfers are heading to Tucson’s grass, from California and beyond. For one thing, this city of half a million people in the Sonoran Desert, located just sixty miles from the Mexican border, offers a smaller, quieter alternative to the burgeoning Phoenix-Scottsdale area two hours north. For another, it’s blessed with views of jagged mountains in every direction and with abundant sunshine—by most accounts, nearly three hundred fair days a year. Tucson’s collection of boulder- and cactus-studded courses includes several current or former PGA Tour stops, including the Gallery Golf Club, home of the World Golf Championships–Accenture Match Play. Although Tucson will never equal Phoenix and Scottsdale for sheer quantity of courses (not to mention resorts, spas and restaurants), the city more than holds its own as one of the country’s finest warm-weather golf destinations.

Day One

Take a morning flight into Tucson International Airport, which is served by most major carriers, then exit as quickly as possible, because those runways are the scenic highlight of the city’s south side. A thirty- to forty-five-minute drive north puts you in the foothills of the Catalinas, on the edge of Coronado National Forest. Among the area’s many worthy lodging options (including the Omni Tucson National Golf Resort & Spa, Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, and the Lodge at Ventana Canyon), it’s hard to beat the Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa for its central location, southwestern Mission Revival architecture and access to the private La Paloma Country Club.

Drop your bags, freshen up and head out to the club. One of the desert’s toughest tracks, La Paloma is an early Jack Nicklaus design; it was built in 1985, at a time when the Golden Bear’s layouts were beautiful yet brutal. La Paloma’s three nines have been softened slightly over the years to enhance playability, but they are no less striking for the changes. Play the Ridge and Canyon nines if you can—they hold a slight edge over the third nine, the Hill—and marvel at their steep-lipped bunkers, aggressive mounding and fairways framed by untamed desert. Given the many forced carries over ravines, plan on losing a few balls, and exercise caution if you choose to go poking around in the cacti—the prickly native flora can pierce the skin of the unwary like fishhooks. The course hits its stride on the Canyon’s 514-yard risk-reward par-five second, where the fairway slithers to the right amid stands of saguaros. Another highlight is the 445-yard par-four seventh, which plays to a green banked into a hillside.

With whatever daylight remains, head back to the Westin for a massage or some pool time—you can indulge the kid in you on a 177-foot waterslide. Afterward, wrap up the day at the hotel’s Janos restaurant, one of Tucson’s top-rated dining spots, which is named for owner and chef Janos Wilder, winner of a prestigious James Beard Award. The menu changes seasonally, but expect to find savory Southwestern accents in dishes such as pecan-encrusted slow-roasted chicken with chipotle molasses sweet potatoes, as well as roasted figs, foraged morels and serrano ham drizzled with prickly pear syrup.

Day Two

It’s a sightseeing day, with some great golf thrown in for good measure. Make a short drive downtown to Blue Willow Restaurant for breakfast. The specialty at this local landmark—tortillas with scrambled eggs, chicken, green chiles, tomatoes, cheddar, salsa and sour cream—is one of the best deals in all of Tucson.

That will provide plenty of fuel for a few hours of touring the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a slight misnomer for what is actually a botanical garden and cageless zoo. Located a half-hour west of downtown, this was one of the nation’s first nontraditional zoos, a place where all of the species are native to the region and the animals roam in "open" enclosures that simulate their natural environments. If you’re looking for an up-close encounter with mountain lions, diamondback rattlesnakes and Gila monsters, there’s no better place. And if you aren’t fond of the fauna, it’s still worth the visit for the education on desert plant life—for example, jumping cholla cacti don’t actually jump. For another dose of Tucson culture, backtrack to the city’s downtown for lunch at El Charro Café, where legend has it the nation’s first chimichanga was served. The restaurant, in its current location since 1968, dates back to 1922, and the founding family still owns and runs it. Go easy on the cerveza and tequila: You’ll need all your wits for your afternoon round at the Gallery.

Although the club doesn’t advertise its public access, it allows limited nonmember play on its two eighteens. If you can, arrange to play the North course, designed by John Fought and Tom Lehman and opened in 1998. With deep bunkers, forced carries and plenty of in-your-face encounters with the mountains and desert, notably on the back nine, the layout offers more drama than the South. To reach the inward nine, though, you’ll have to survive the 725-yard downhill ninth, a brute of a hole by any standard. Not only is it monstrous in length, but water challenges the second shot on the right and the slippery green is all too easy to three-putt. The Gallery’s South course, a solo Fought design, is the one that hosts the Match Play Championship. Fought modeled the greens after those at Pinehurst No. 2, with closely mown chipping areas that ring heavily sloping greens. He succeeded, as witnessed by the field’s reaction during the 2007 championship, won by Henrik Stenson.

Once you’ve relaxed and dressed for dinner, make a two-minute drive from your hotel to Terra Cotta, a celebrated locally owned restaurant. As its name suggests, this is another Southwestern place, but the atmosphere is a bit more casual and the food, though quite good, will be less ambitious than it was the night before. Terra Cotta is more of a grab-a-margarita-with-your-pals kind of establishment. Specialities of the house include the delicious wood-fired pizzas.

Day Three

Have breakfast wherever you please—but make it snappy so you can squeeze in thirty-six holes at Omni Tucson National, the longtime home of the Tucson Open. Start with the tougher and older Catalina course. Opened in 1962, it’s distinguished by its parkland design, which was common in the era before target-style desert golf, when Midwestern snowbirds were thought to prefer courses that resembled those they played back home. Hence, the 7,262-yard par-seventy-three Catalina features grass from wall to wall (so to speak), fairways lined by trees not cacti, and elevated greens. The course is hardly a pushover, but you should have little trouble keeping the ball in play—that is, until you reach the fearsome eighteenth. This 443-yard par-four—which decided many a Tucson Open—demands a drive slotted between two lakes, followed by a long, uphill approach to a well-bunkered green.

Although daylight is at a premium in late fall and winter, there should be time enough to duck into Legends Bar & Grill to eat a quick lunch before heading back out for round two. A 6,552-yard par seventy, the Sonoran course is a perfect complement to the Catalina. It’s narrower, hillier and shorter than its elder sibling. Plus, the layout’s many natural washes demand strategic play. Its handsome par threes, notably the 183-yard third and the 171-yard tenth, linger in the mind’s eye long after the round.

After so much golf, you’ll be ready for a hearty meal. Drive ten minutes into town to McMahon’s Prime Steakhouse, a modern yet clubby paradise for carnivores that boasts a sophisticated wine list and a heated patio for smoking cigars.

Day Four

You can’t leave Tucson without trying your hand on the ultimate hole in desert golf: the tantalizing 107-yard third on the Mountain course at Ventana Canyon Golf Club. Provided you can ignore the yawning chasm that separates tee from green, the task is rather simple: punch a wedge to a two-tiered putting surface tucked into a hillside of saguaros. The hole’s popularity unfortunately has drawn attention away from the course itself, a first-rate Tom Fazio design that opened in 1984.

If you have an evening flight home, it’s worth taking a trip thirty miles north to Oracle, Arizona, for an abbreviated tour of Biosphere 2, one of the most ambitious and costly ($200 million) privately funded science projects in history. This three-acre glass terrarium was built as an airtight living lab to determine how humans might function in space. No longer a sealed facility, its management was taken over this year by the University of Arizona, which plans to use it for hydrology and climate-change research. It’s a unique desert experience, much like Tucson itself.