An insider’s guide to the best golf courses in Tucson
| By Louie Christensen
As winter lingers in the northern half of the United States, thousands have to shovel themselves out of hazardous conditions. Here in Tucson, the only tool we ever need to escape our winter hazards is a sand wedge. When temperatures heat up, local golfers praise the earlier, later, and discounted tee times.
Tucson has a ton of top notch golf courses, making it difficult for visitors to feel like they are picking the absolute best spots for their limited time spent in town. So how do you possibly pick from the dozens of highly rated courses? To avoid any tee time regret, here are eight courses in Tucson that will make a big impression.
Omni Tucson National
RATING: 75.4, SLOPE: 136, LENGTH: 7,262
Home of Phil Mickelson’s first PGA Tour win and the PGA Champions Tour’s new Conquistador Classic, the Catalina Course allows you to test your muster against some of the best who have ever played the game.
While the Catalina course does provide views of the desert scenery, its design and style falls more in line with a classic country club course feel. Looking at the course layout, and its lack of desert-lined fairways, you may leave the course unsure of why you shot such a high score. But, you wouldn’t be alone. It is a tough course. You may not lose a ball to a prickly pear cactus, but the fairways are lined with enough tall pine trees and water hazards to keep you honest.
RATING 72.8, SLOPE: 143, LENGTH: 6,898
Consistently rated one of the top courses in Arizona and among the best course conditions in the United States, Ventana Canyon is a must play.
Winding in and out of the high Sonoran desert at the very base of the Catalina Mountains, both the Mountain and Canyon courses provide holes worthy of any golf magazine’s front cover, but the most photographed would be the short third hole on Mountain. Hitting back into the belly of the mountain, the green on the short par 3 is more craggy cliff and desert than it is a safe target.
AVERAGE RATING: 72.3, SLOPE: 146, LENGTH: 7,034
Local lore says that when legendary golfer and course designer Jack Nicklaus came to Tucson for the first time to design La Paloma’s course, his hosts did not show him a very good time. Being known for his sarcasm, Nicklaus took it out on Tucson by making La Paloma extra challenging. The three aptly named nine hole courses dip in and out of the steep hills, canyons, and ridges of the Catalina Foothills, providing some of the most intimidating, risk-reward, corner-cutting shots in the city.
Each of the three courses has a personality all its own. Ridge is the shortest, narrowest, and most crooked, forcing long hitters to choose between playing smart or fearlessly. Canyon is the longest, and there are a few carries and elevation changes that will punish players who don’t correctly judge their carry distance. On Hill, Nicholas gives you the tee shot for free but will make you pay if you miss the green.
There’s a good chance you’ve actually seen this course. It was the filming location of the tournament where Kevin Costner’s character Roy McAvoy had to carry his own bag in the movie Tin Cup when heat exhaustion struck his caddy.
If you are daring enough to take on the Golden Bear’s diabolical interpretation of target desert golf, this will be a golfing experience you won’t soon forget.
RATING: 73.5, SLOPE: 138, LENGTH 7,283
The newest addition to Tucson’s golf scene made a big impression when it opened in 2015, bringing home the #8 spot on Golf Advisor’s Top 25 Course Conditions in the United States list. The course has remained on the Best of Golf Advisor list since then.
The course plays long from the tips, but because the fairways are kept in living-room-carpet condition, you can get a lot of run if you catch one of the small swails correctly.
Where almost all of Tucson’s desert golf courses are located up against or in the mountain ranges that surround Tucson, Sewailo provides a completely different desert golf experience. The course sits in the wash basin on Tucson’s far southwest side, giving it an almost Las Vegas golf course vibe. There are water hazards on almost a third of the holes, which is very uncommon in water-conscious Tucson. While that may be many golfers’ personal nightmare, to others they will welcome the challenge and fall in love with the beautiful design and perfectly manicured course.
Arizona National Golf Club
RATING: 72.5, SLOPE: 143, LENGTH: 6,785
Named one of the Top 10 courses in Arizona by Golf Advisor, Arizona National provides a different look at desert golf. Located on Tucson’s east side, the softer mountain swailes are dotted with thousands of saguaros. The challenging course has played host to NCAA golf tournaments, and until recently was the home course for the University of Arizona teams.
Arizona National provides all of the desert golf course features that you’ll find at the nearby resort courses, but at a lower price. It’s hard to believe you can play a course in such great condition with such beautiful views at such low prices, but you won’t hear the locals complaining about it.
AVERAGE RATING: 72.1, SLOPE: 141, LENGTH: 6,812
If you talk to someone about golf in Tucson, and they don’t mention Starr Pass, they clearly aren’t a golfer. This desert classic weaves through the rugged hills near southwest Tucson. One minute you’ll feel like you’re lost on the edge of the wide open West, and the next you’ll be looking down onto Downtown Tucson and the rest of the valley.
The course is designed (by Bob Cupp, Ed Seay, and Arnold Palmer) to allow the rougher edges of the desert to bump directly up against the course, providing a challenging obstacle for golfers of every skill level.
Tee boxes are carefully positioned to allow golfers of all swing speeds a chance to not only challenge themselves, but the hole itself. This allows even the shortest of drivers to feel like they can enjoy and not struggle through a round of desert golf while still allowing longer hitters to let the big dog eat by simply bumping back a tee box.
RATING: 72.5, SLOPE: 139, LENGTH: 7,006
Don’t let its location within the Saddlebrook retirement community fool you, this course is no walk in the park. The desert sits just yards off of every fairway and rolling elevation changes provide nerve-racking carries over washes and high desert scrub. But, thanks to the stunning views of the Oro Valley side of the Catalina Mountains commanding the scenery, you can lose a whole sleeve and still walk away with fond memories.
Regulars will stress the need to play to the course’s condition. Those hills, doglegs, and island fairways may serve as eye candy, but you can also easily roll off the end of a fairway and into the desert if the course is playing a touch fast. You’ve been warned…this isn’t your grandpa’s retirement community course.
The Views Golf Club at Oro Valley
RATING: 72.5, SLOPE: 13, LENGTH: 6,715
If you’re looking to enjoy some desert golf but you don’t want to leave the course feeling beat up…The Views is the perfect course for you. With phenomenal views of the Catalina Mountains, The Views take the high intensity of most desert courses and dials it back a few notches, allowing for a more relaxing golfing experience.
You can also get a good look at some rather affordable golf course adjacent neighborhoods, and dream of enjoying the beautiful desert weather for years to come. Not a bad place to be while all your golfing buddies back home are practicing their swings in their garages.