Located less than ninety minutes from Phoenix and ninety minutes from old Mexico, this gem of southern Arizona, Tucson boasts some of the nation’s top resort courses, including Ventana Canyon Golf Club’s Mountain and Canyon courses and the JW Marriott Starr Pass Golf Club — former home to the PGA Tour’s long-running Tucson Open.
The Lodge at Ventana Canyon Golf Club boasts two of famed golf course architect Tom Fazio’s best; the Mountain Course’s signature third hole, the aptly named “Hole in the Wall,” is one of the most photographed holes west of the Mississippi.
“These are Fazio’s first desert courses. We have a gated community with 36 holes of Tom Fazio golf. Unheard of. We have a 50-room boutique lodge. There are just ten properties in the US where you can walk outside your room and walk right to the first tee. It is a very significant, unique thing, “ said George White, CEO/GM of The Lodge at Ventana Canyon.
Uniquely situated against the Santa Catalina mountains, the Mountain course was built in 1984 and the Canyon layout in 1985. Both are Par 72 and tip out at about 6900 yards. While the fairways are wide and generous, the real test is around the greens.
“We are often rated high by women players because there’s not a lot of carry from the tee boxes, but male or female, once you get around to the greens that is where all the fun starts,” says Aaron Aguilar, Director of Sales and past golf pro at Ventana Canyon.
The native of Tucson offers some tips about scoring well at this layout that was voted Best Golf Resort Course in Arizona by Golfweek Magazine.
“Short right is always a good place to miss the golf ball. If you are long on his courses you will be in trouble. Up against the base of a mountain this is a lush thick desert course, so stay in play. If you find yourself in the desert you might as well take a drop and the penalty. And move on to the next one.
There is a mountain effect with chipping and putting. A lot of that has to do with the grain. You have to trust and understand things grow away from the mountains. You can be aggressive with shots going into the mountain, but more cautious away from it,” offered Aguilar.
In addition to an extensive swimming complex and tennis facilities, another activity this resort offers are specialized courts and expert instruction in one of the country’s fastest growing sports – pickleball (a cross between badminton, tennis and ping-pong played outside on hard courts).
With all that energy expenditure, the resort is prepared for appetites and tastes of all kinds. Members and guests will be served by one of the area’s best chefs. Award-winner Issa Moussa brings over 50 years of experience and a menu that varies and is reflective of dishes such as Mediterranean, Italian, New England, Pacific Northwest and New Orleans along with quite an extensive wine list.
An important part of the Ventana experience is their full range of spa services.
“As our day spa is smaller, we have a good one on one connection with our clients. A cozy feel,” noted Amber Silva, Spa Manager, who operates on the theme “Soak Up the Serenity”. And because they know how important it is for their golf guests to be in form come tee time, they also offer in-room massages so the player can get treated then roll into bed or take a bath and get rest for the next day’s round.
Knowing the value guests place on spa, health and wellness services, the resort executives revealed that expansion is on the radar.
“While we have a great spa with an extensive menu of services, I wanted to create a “day out” for our guests,” said Michele Smith, Vice President of Marketing and Sales. “They receive a facial or massage, a healthy lunch, full access to the eighty thousand square foot spa at Canyon Ranch.”
An outdoor enthusiast, Smith also encourages Ventana guests to take advantage of the bounty nature provides.
“What is so unique about this place is that we are nestled in these beautiful Santa Catalina mountains. In less than an hour’s drive you’re going from 2,300 feet elevation to 9,000 feet, you go through 7-8 different climate zones. It is thirty degrees cooler 30’ cooler at the top (Mt. Lemmon). There are so many hiking options, a lake, evergreens, ponderosa pines and snow skiing in the winter. Another world just 45 minutes away.”
Less than 45 minutes away is another premier all-inclusive golf resort – The JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa.
Located in the middle of Tucson Mountain National Park this sanctuary of flowering desert, rolling hills, winding dry riverbeds, craggy canyons and pine-topped peaks, the Marriott Starr Pass is really in tune with the local environment but also its cultural history as well.
“Most guests have pre-conceived ideas about The West, the desert, Arizona,” explained Dan Carraher, Director of Sales and Marketing for the Starr Pass resort. “We really speak to the trio of cultures – native American Indian, Hispanic and cowboy cultures. So, a lot of our rituals, menu items, furnishings are tied into being one with the local communities. Hikes, prayers, nightly tequila toasts which speaks to the historic Hispanic figure Pancho Villa who wanted to marry the daughter of a Mexican general and the story of who could drink the most tequila. (We’re) trying to tie in and enhance the local flavors to show we’re not trying to be different, but rather are blending in and using those experiences that guests have certain expectations about this destination.”
And when it comes to golf, expectations are met with the trio of brilliant nine-hole layouts on the property.
Starr Pass is a challenging 27-hole, Arnold Palmer world-class Signature Golf Club. The original 18 holes were designed in 1987 by Robert Cupp along with PGA Tour pro, Craig Stadler, and hosted the PGA Tucson Open from 1987 to 1996. Phil Mickelson’s first PGA Tour win, as an amateur in 1991, was at Starr Pass. It was re-designed in 2003 by Arnold Palmer when the Palmer Design Team added the latest 9 holes near the Marriott Starr Pass Resort. The 3 nines are called, the Rattler, the Roadrunner, and the Coyote courses.
The area surrounding each of the layouts preserve the natural environment which is very much a core part of the Palmer golf course building philosophy –
“To design beautiful golf courses that are fun to play while maintaining the utmost respect for nature.”
The hillsides are covered with giant saguaros, mesquite and palo verde trees, and various kinds of cactus. The Tucson Mountain Park, is a protected desert that offers miles of hiking and biking trails that lead through the northern part of the Sonoran Desert. The abundance of wildlife in the area includes coyotes, javelina (smallish wild pigs), bobcats, deer, roadrunners, quail, rattlers, rabbits, and hawks, among many others.
Todd Howard, the resort’s Director of Golf, echoes that commitment to protecting nature.
“The arroyos are protected wildlife corridors. They are protected by state fish and game agencies.”
One development the company has taken is to try and get more families involved in the game of golf.
“We now include in our resort fee the Coyote nine layout so guests can walk the course. Take their time not worried about upsetting experience golfers. I believe, we’re one of only two hotels in the United States that includes golf in the resort fee,” said Carraher. “It’s great for families to share the experience of the sport and not feel like they are holding up guests who are avid golfers.”
Those avid golfers will have plenty of challenges presented by the nuances of the Rattler and Roadrunner courses.
“Make sure you are playing from the tees that match your skill level set. Don’t try to be the hero and go back to the championship tees,” warned Howard. “(But) no matter which tees you play from, use our 150-yard poles as that is where you want to be, because if you can get there, you have a better chance of scoring. If you try to get within 100 it gets really narrow down in there. But the risk out here in the desert is very penal. Our desert is very difficult to play out of. Much thicker than places you may play in Phoenix or similar places.”
Different seasons offer different challenges out here. For example, the greens at wintertime can get pretty quick.
“We have to be careful about getting the green speeds too fast. For the average golfer getting to 11-12 range can make it very difficult to putt. We range for 10-11,” Howard said.
A distinct challenge/opportunity in the fall looms as the course operators in coming out of overseeding means they’ll have nine holes closed for two-week time frames, thus it becomes cart path only. So, from late September through November if you prefer not to walk a lot that is a good time for you.
Of course, everyone is aware of the heat the desert can produce during summer. However, Howard sees advantages in that.
“Everyone can manage the heat. It is not so unbearable that you can’t tee off at 2p if you have proper hydration. There are also great deals in summer time. Volume is down so if you’re looking to play a lot of golf that is a great time, especially with longer daylight hours.”
Also, the Starr Pass golfer benefits from monsoons that come in July and August. They really cool things down so you can go out and play in the morning and the desert that surrounds the course at this time of year is all green and lush. Whereas in other desert environments everything around the player is brown. They have to water their courses quite a lot, while the rainfall here really sustains the grounds nicely.
Often overshadowed by the offerings in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, Tucson is a somewhat undervalued golf destination. El Conquistador, La Paloma, Omni National and Tubac among others, there’s a bevy of high-end options for the golfer in this city with a small-town feel.
“The living experience here is authentic. That is why they call it The Old Pueblo. It is real. Down to earth. That ambience and feel carries through with this property,” said Ventana’s Smith. “There’s an authenticity. Different from other high end golf resorts. The word I like to use is that it is very unpretentious. You can come as you are both to Tucson and Ventana Canyon. You feel at home and relaxed.”