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It's hard to imagine how "too-sahn" evolved out of "stook-shon" and eventually came to be spelled Tucson, but that's what happened. "Stook-shon", you see, is the correct pronunciation of "Stjukson," the name of a Papago Indian village that Spanish missionary Francesco Kino came upon in 1692. This fisher of men was in search of converts and new subjects for the King of Spain and had made his way to what we now know as southern Arizona from Mexico. (Since one translation of Stjukson is "water at the foot of the black mountain," thirst was probably another reason why he stopped.) The Indians the good Father met that day, however, were not the area's first residents. In fact, archaeologists have determined that Tucson is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in America.
Well, duh. Considering that the area is blessed with over three hundred days of sunshine each year, has an annual average daily temperature of 70°F, and is surrounded by majestic mountains, it's no wonder that people have been living here from as far back as 800 B.C. Just as Tucson is a great place to live, it's a wonderful spot to spend a week or a weekend as well. Some visitors come for the gorgeous weather, others come for the spectacular scenery, and still others come for the excellent food and nightlife. In between, a great many of them tee it high and let it fly - because, brother, Tucson is home to sensational golf courses.
West of the city is the 27-hole facility at JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa. The original 18 holes here (then called the TPC at Starr Pass) were designed by Bob Cupp and opened in 1986. From 1987 to 1996, it was the site of the Tucson Open on the PGA Tour. In 2004, Arnold Palmer's design firm upgraded the original course and added nine holes. Thanks to these additional holes, Starr Pass is basically three courses in one and each is an enjoyable test. The newest nine, Rattler, starts you off with a spectacular view of downtown Tucson. Like each of the layouts, Rattler is beautifully routed through the dazzling Upper Sonoran Desert. It features fairly wide fairways, good-sized greens, and a number of exciting shots over natural arroyos. The Roadrunner nine begins mere steps from the luxurious resort. Roadrunner is the course with the most elevation change at Starr Pass, with several tee shots played straight downhill to fairways and greens. It's also where you'll get the best views of the majestic Tucson Mountains. Coyote is the longest of the trio at the resort, and also where you'll have the best chance to catch sight of the desert's abundant wildlife, including jackrabbits, quail and deer. Of the three combinations, Rattler/Coyote is the longest at 7,002 yards from the tips. Roadrunner/Coyote is next at 6,753 yards, and a hair shorter is Roadrunner/Rattler at 6,731 yards. By the way, when this beautiful facility opened in 2005, the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa was the first of its kind to be built in Tucson in 18 years. It features 575 rooms, a 20,000-square-foot spa, a fully-equipped fitness center, three swimming pools, six superb restaurants and a Starbucks cafe.
Twenty minutes to the south of Tucson, in the town of Green Valley, you'll find two fine layouts that are definitely worth a visit: San Ignacio and Canoa Hills. Due to the area's higher elevation, both of these courses offer commanding views of the nearby Santa Rita Mountains and cooler temperatures during the summer. San Ignacio was designed by Arthur Hills and opened in 1989. It features a number of elevated tees, tight fairways and fast greens. There's plenty of trouble here, too - both sand and grass bunkers, grassy mounds and four lakes - but almost all of it is clearly visible. From the back markers, San Ignacio measures 6,704 yards - lengthy for most golfers but not back breaking.
Nearby Canoa Hills is routed over the rolling terrain and ravines of the Santa Cruz River Valley. It opened in 1984 and was designed by Dave Bennett. Like San Ignacio, Canoa Hills features great views of the mountains - including 9,500-foot-high Mt. Wrightson. Also like its neighbor, Canoa's fairways are quite narrow; many of them bordered by bunkers and mesquite trees. The greens here are large, well protected, quick, and considered among the best conditioned putting surfaces in the area. Rather refreshingly, Canoa Hills measures a very manageable 6,610 yards from the back tees.
Just east of Tucson - nestled between the Catalina and Rincon Mountains - is a very pretty layout no doubt named for the hundreds of gold seekers that came through this area on their way to California in the mid-1800s. It's called Forty Niner Country Club and it was designed by William Bell in 1961. Mr. Bell was the son of Billy Bell, a well known earlier course architect and the long-time collaborator of George C. Thomas, designer of such famous tracts as Riviera, Bel-Air and Los Angeles Country Club. In 1963 and 1964, Forty Niner was the site of the Tucson Open on the PGA Tour. Unlike most courses around Tucson, Forty Niner's fairways and greens are fairly flat. There are three lakes in play, numerous doglegs to deal with, and almost every hole is bordered by eucalyptus, mesquite, weeping willow and giant cottonwood trees. Quite unusually, both the 10th and 18th holes are par threes played over water. Forty Niner is a fun and fair layout that measures 6,681 yards from the tips.
Mere minutes northwest of the city you'll find the largest golf facility in southern Arizona: the luxurious Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort. In addition to 45 holes of enjoyable golf, the Hilton Tucson - a Mobil four-star and AAA four-diamond facility - offers 428 guest rooms, 31 lighted tennis courts, a fitness center, a spa and five restaurants. All three of the layouts here - the 18-hole Cañada and El Conquistador courses and the 9-hole Pusch Ridge course - are the work of architects Greg Nash and Jeff Hardin. Based on its course/slope rating of 72.2/140, the tougher of the two 18-holers is the Cañada Course, even though it's more open and a bit shorter than El Conquistador. It's also more typical of a desert-style layout, with holes winding their way around and over arroyos and ravines. From the back tees, the Cañada Course measures 6,713 yards. The El Conquistador Course, on the other hand, is a much more parkland-style layout in a desert setting. The fairways are tighter, too, many of them framed by bunkers and mesquite trees. And while the El Conquistador Course is longer at 6,800 yards from the tips, its much lower slope rating of 126 should tell you that it's a friendlier tract. Interestingly, the tee markers on this lovely layout are named for four of history's most famous conquistadors: Coronado, De Anza, Cortés and Balboa. The 9-hole Pusch Ridge Course at the Hilton Tucson is named for the real Pusch Ridge that rises above it, a 2,000-foot-high portion of the beautiful Santa Catalina Mountains. Don't let its back-tee measurement of 2,788 yards fool you, however: Pusch Ridge is not easy. Set as it is on the rolling terrain of the foothills, level lies are few and far between and the greens have some serious slope on them. Some visitors actually believe it's the hardest nine holes at this resort. In any case, Pusch Ridge is a great spot to work on your short game and a great way to get ready for the big courses at the Hilton Tucson.
North of the city there are four other fine layouts to consider. All were designed by some of the best architects in the business, and all offer spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. At the Westin La Paloma Resort you'll experience 27 challenging holes that were designed in 1984 by the "Golden Bear" himself, Jack Nicklaus. The three nines here - Canyon, Ridge and Hill - feature elevated tees and greens, lush rolling terrain, and eye-popping panoramic vistas. Almost every hole at La Paloma, however, is bordered by the unforgiving desert. Keeping the ball in play is a must but very do-able if you don't get greedy. The Canyon/Ridge combination is the longest of the trio at 7,088 yards from the back tees. Hill/Ridge is next at 7,017 yards. The shortest of the three combinations, but still quite lengthy, is Canyon/Hill at 6,997 yards. In 2004, Golf Digest ranked the Westin La Paloma one of the 60 best golf resorts in North America.
Since we're on the subject of bears ... welcome to the Golf Club of Vistoso. Designed by former British Open champion Tom Weiskopf and opened in 1995, Vistoso is one of the toughest courses in Tucson - if not the entire state of Arizona. From the back tees (6,952 yards), this gorgeous desert-style tract features a course rating of 72.1 and a slope rating of 147 (and that's with only one water hazard in play on the whole course!). That's a serious slope number, boys and girls (just 140 is considered high), and it means this course would be difficult for even a single-digit handicapper. From any of the forward tees, however, Vistoso is still quite challenging but also very manageable. The fairways are much wider than they appear from the tees, and most of the well-bunkered, good-sized greens are open in front - allowing you the opportunity to run the ball in rather than fly it all the way to the hole. Considered one of the best conditioned layouts in the Tucson area since it opened, the Golf Club of Vistoso is also teeming with wildlife - especially jackrabbits, roadrunners and quail. "Vistoso", by the way, means "beautiful view" in Spanish. You'll see why when you get here.
Sensational sights and excellent golf await you at Heritage Highlands as well. Like San Ignacio to the south of the city, Heritage Highlands is an Arthur Hills design that opened in 1997. Located at the base of beautiful Tortolita Mountain, this lovely layout also provides golfers with stirring vistas of the Santa Catalina, Rincon, Tucson and Santa Rita mountains and the city below. Unlike many courses in the area, Heritage Highlands does not feature the "target" game that's so often associated with desert golf. In other words, forced carries have been kept to a minimum. The two nines are also quite different; the front is routed on land that's fairly flat, the back is played over the rolling terrain of the foothills. Heritage Highlands is fun, fair and very playable, with a back tee measurement of 6,904 yards.
One other course to check out north of Tucson is Arizona National, formerly known as The Raven at Sabino Springs. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and opened in 1995, this very sturdy layout does feature the "target" game that's so often associated with desert golf. Forced carries are frequent and some of them can be quite lengthy - which is a very good reason not to play Arizona National from the tips. From the back tees, in case you're wondering, this demanding tract sports a course rating of 72.4 and a slope rating of 146. Since these are very healthy numbers (and all the evidence you need to know this course can be a brute), do yourself a favor. Move up to a shorter tee and leave the back markers to the members of the men's and women's golf teams of the University of Arizona. This is their home course, you see, and the last thing you want to do is hurt yourself trying to keep up with those long-hitting kids. Believe it: if Arizona National's one par five of over 625 yards doesn't break your back, one of its two par threes of over 220 yards will.
And that would be a shame. Because then you'd miss the rest of the great golf, great sights, and great times that are available at one of the most exciting destinations in America: Tucson.