Two of us sat dumbfounded before a nickel slot machine in the Casino del Sol Resort on the outskirts of Tucson.
“Which button do you press?”
“Not sure. Let’s try this one.”
“Nothing’s happening. Try another one.”
At that moment, an elderly gentleman leaned over and quietly asked, “Need some help boys?”
The gentleman introduced himself as Ben and explained that he was a member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe. He had lived in the region his entire life. After patiently explaining how to play the nickel slots, we asked Ben if he played golf. That elicited a snort and a flat out no.
“I never played in my life”, he said. “I just come here for the gamblin’ but that golf course has been a blessing for us.”
The course in question is the Sewailo Golf Club, part of the Casino del Sol Resort, and it is built on Pascua Yaqui land. We had played it for the second time earlier in the day. The first time had been on an another trip a year earlier when we were fortunate enough to chat with course designer and former PGA Tour player Notah Begay.
In addition to keeping everybody up to date on his friend Tiger’s situation and adding colour commentary on the Golf Channel, Begay has also been designing golf courses, notably on tribal land where the course and adjacent infrastructure can create jobs for Native Americans. Sewailo had opened in 2013.
The course is built on some of the most barren desert land you’ve ever seen but Begay added ponds, streams, humps and hillocks to a routing that is definitely fun to play, especially if you play the correct tees.
The spirit of golf is to dare a hazard, and by negotiating it reap a reward, while he who fears or declines the issue of carry, has a longer or harder shot for his second, or his second or third on long holes; yet the player who avoids the unwise effort gains advantage over one who tries for more than in him lies, or fails under the test.
George Thomas wrote that when describing his masterpiece at Riviera. Begay has borrowed some of that same magic in his routing at Sewailo. There are a significant number of strategic holes that present you with risk-reward options over water, bunkers and waste areas. There’s a safe route too. That’s certainly part of the appeal at Sewailo.
This trip to Tucson was part of an annual media golf tournament that showcased a few key local courses. On the previous trip we had competed at Tubac, a course about an hour south of Tucson where some of the footage for Tin Cup had been shot and The Gallery North which was up on Dove Mountain.
On the latest trip, we practiced at Sewailo, then tested two local courses, La Paloma and Arizona National, before the final round back at Sewailo.
Here’s the skinny on Tucson. You can get a connecting flight from Toronto to Tucson but it’s a lot faster to fly directly to Phoenix, rent a car and head ninety minutes straight down the Interstate from the Phoenix airport. The two cities are very competitive. University of Arizona (Tucson) has a better college basketball team but Arizona State University (Phoenix) has a better football team. Phoenix is bigger but Tucson is friendlier, at least in Ben’s opinion.
The golf courses around Tucson are perhaps a bit more rugged desert than the manicured desert you find in Scottsdale, but they’re every bit as enjoyable. And they’re a heck of a lot easier on the pocketbook.
For both trips we stayed at the Casino del Sol Resort and Casino which seems like a great place to be based. Apart from the obvious, the resort has a massive pool, two hot tubs, a spa and enough places to eat a variety of foods that no-one ever has to leave the casino. But that’s kind of what they want, isn’t it? Best of all, the Tucson golf courses were all within an hour drive or less.
On our most recent visit, we also had a look at the Westin La Paloma which was about forty minutes on the other side of town. It too has everything you could want in terms of accommodations and a spectacular pool area overlooking the nearby mountains.
The La Paloma course is a 27-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature design that dips and weaves through canyons, drops off cliffs and meanders along valley floors until arriving quite sedately back at a stately clubhouse. It really is a case of building something out of nothing. The course is challenging but fair, although a second round would leave you better prepared to know where to aim on some holes. La Paloma is a private club but is available to resort guests at the Westin and Troon Golf members.
The Gallery at Dove Mountain is also a private club but each day makes one of its two courses available for daily fee play. The North course, designed by John Fought is carved out of the mountains with magnificent views over the Sonoran Desert. Some of the holes go so deep into mountain canyons that you’re positive you’re off the grid and expect to find grizzled old men with mules panning for gold. It probably looks more rugged than it plays as fairways are generous and greens quite large and receptive.
The South course is a John Fought – Tom Lehman effort and pretty much the opposite of its sister course. It’s a faux links layout with a flavour of Pinehurst and played host to the 2007 and 2008 Accenture Match Play Championship. Both courses are rated in Golf Digest’s Top 100.
The final stop on our Tucson Tour is Arizona National and their story is worth telling. In 2012 the golf course had its water shut off by the city of Tucson for non-payment. That’s not a good thing in the desert. The bill was eventually paid after a couple of months and the water was turned on but the damage was done. Faced with a major restoration project, the owners decided to find a buyer for the property and allowed the beautiful Robert Trent Jones Jr. course to go downhill even further during 2013.
In the Spring of 2014 OB Sports assumed management of the course and along with new owners began the process of restoring grass, re-building bunkers and cleaning up the native desert areas. We played the golf course in December 2014 and it was exceptional – no sign of the earlier problems at all. Arizona National has some truly spectacular holes, not the least of which are twin par-fives that come down the mountain towards the clubhouse. At green fee rates usually in the $60-90 range, Arizona National was our best value too.
There are other highly rated courses in the Tucson area and I look forward to playing them on a future trip but the five mentioned here, plus Tubac if you have the time, offer more than enough great golf experiences for a memorable week in the desert.