by Michael Cunningham
Riding by horseback in the 1880’s from Tucson to the Mexican border site of Tubac, Arizona was a two-day journey. Ancient mountain ranges, multi-limbed 40-foot Saguaro cacti miraculously staking their rightful place on the dry desert floor, endless reminders of the severity of the journey.
Chiricahua Apache Indians, under the leadership of Cochise and Geronimo, were orchestrating relentless raids on early colonizers. In the 1880’s, southern Arizona was truly the ‘wild west’ a land of adversity and conflict a time of desperados and law enforcers.
‘Tin Stars’ the likes of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Pat Garrett were “faithfully” serving out justice while improving the employment opportunities for morticians throughout the state.
How is it that within the generation of these mainstays of notoriety that a golf course would be developed. But in 1899, the prestigious Phoenix Golf and Country Club was constructed [the course’s permanent site was established in 1920]? With desert sand as fairways and oil to “level” the putting surface the dawn of golf in Arizona had commenced.
Less than thirty minutes south of Tombstone ‘The Town to Tough to Die” you discover the charming historical copper mining town of Bisbee. In 1908 early miners from the British Isles constructed a nine-hole course in the hills overlooking Mexico. Today, the course is known as Turquoise Valley Golf Club home of the “”10th longest hole on the planet, according to the UK’s Today’s Golfer the par 6 ”Rattler” at 747 yards.
Arizona’s boom in golf course construction commenced in the 1920’s following responsible management of water programs and the expansion of the railroad. Today, Arizona boasts over 300 courses, seventy-five between Tucson and the Mexican border.
Tucson’s earliest constructed and still operating course is the municipal Randolph Park. Now known as Randolph North, it was once a stop for the PGA and LPGA Tours. It is currently one of five City operated courses and the longest course in their system. Playing at 6900 yards, the parkland-style layout opened in 1925 with sand fairways and cottonseed greens. It was grassed in 1936.
In 1961 Randolph South was opened with a complete redesign in 1996 it is now known as the Randolph Dell Urich Course. At 6,600 yards it was the former host for the LPGA event. These two courses are the second most played public courses in the United States after California’s Torrey Pines.
Another historic golf course to experience is El Rio becoming the first grassed course, in 1936, in the region. Owned by the City of Tucson this course was built in 1930 and the site, for seventeen years, of the PGA’s Tucson Open. The course has many stories but of notable mention is respected lady professional Babe Zaharias in 1945 became the first time a woman made the cut at a PGA Tour event. It is also the setting for one of golfs most memorable moments when the legendary Jimmy Demaret, winner here in 1946 and 1947 lost the tournament by recording a 14 on the par 5, 18th.
Heading from Tucson to Tubac, what once took two days by horse now takes 45 minutes travelling south along Highway 19. There are numerous historical sights and points of interest along the way. Most noteworthy and a short distance from Tucson’s International Airport, is Mission San Xavier de Bac. This designated natural historic landmark is known as the “White Dove of the Desert”. The site is a mecca for many and considered one of the finest examples of Mexican Baroque architecture in America. Founded in 1692 by Jesuit Missionary Father Kino, it’s one of a series of missions constructed to be a ‘one-day ride’ between each site.
Continuing south you pass through the Santa Cruz Valley and the community of Green Valley. Settled for close to two thousand years the flags of Spain, Mexico and the Confederacy have flown here. Today this community is a haven for northern vacationers as the surrounding ancient mountains provide an ideal setting for the area’s six quality golf courses.
Twenty minutes further south on Highway 19, you reach the grounds of what USA Today stated is one of the “Ten Best Domestic Places to Escape the Cold’ – Tubac Golf Resort and Spa.
A prestigious member of the Historic Hotels of America the Tubac Resort has a rich history. In 1789, the King of Spain made a land grant to Don Torbio de Otero, who raised cattle and grew fruit to feed the Spanish army at the Presidio of Tubac. It became the largest cattle empire in Arizona.
In 1959, Bing Crosby and a few others purchased the property and began the process of creating a golf resort and spa that would host celebrities from John Wayne to President Gerald Ford.
The Resort features three nine-hole courses: Anza, Otero and Rancho. Each course is unique in its design with many holes providing lasting memories. Anza features the par 3 9th – a distance of 123 yards and reminiscent to the 17th at TPC Sawgrass. A favourite on Otero is the ‘driveable’ par 4 – 9th at 287 yards. It’s the definition of a ‘risk or reward’ shot as water protects the entire left side of the hole and a fairway.
The Rancho course features the ‘Tin Cup’ hole in which Roy McIvoy [Kevin Costner] attempts to hit, on the 568-yard Par 5 4th Hole, a water-protected green in two while caddying for Don Johnson.
Tin star lawman of the 1800’s to Tin Cup – from Tucson to Tubac, this is a region rich in history, golf and scenery.
Michael Cunningham is a former producer and host for the show GolfRadio as well as Editor and senior writer of two bestselling books: Spectacular Golf of Western Canada and Spectacular Golf Ontario.
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