Tee Up in Tucson
by Brian J. Pederson
Tucson’s sporting history runs back more than a century, from the first athletic teams fielded by the University of Arizona to a variety of minor league teams. Perhaps the richest corner of this history centers around professional golf. Tucson’s golf scene has it all, and the area’s most famous courses continue to foster great stories to tell today. Tucsonans have been hitting the links since at least the 1930s when El Rio was the region’s first full-service country club. Now one of five municipal courses – along with Dell Urich, Fred Enke, Randolph North, and Silverbell – El Rio served as host for Tucson’s first PGA Tour event in 1945. The first-ever Tucson Open saw a field of 47 duffers vie for a $5,000 prize pool, with Ray Magnum edging out the legendary Byron Nelson for a cool $1,000. That started an ongoing run of more than 75+ consecutive years of pro tournaments in the Tucson area, with this year’s PGA Tour Champions Cologuard Classic being held at Omni Tucson National’s Catalina Course, February 27 - March 5, 2023, and boasting a purse: $2.2 Million, with $330,000 and 330,000 Charles Schwab Cup points to the winner.
A variety of other courses have hosted a version of the Tucson Open in that span, including Forty-Nine Country Club, Randolph North, and the Tournament Players Club at Starr Pass (now called Starr Pass Golf Club). More excellent golf experiences arrived in the 1980s, including El Conquistador Golf & Tennis, the Ventana Canyon resort courses, and La Paloma Country Club, a 27-hole gem designed by Jack Nicklaus. In 1991, 20-year-old Phil Mickelson became only the third amateur to win a PGA TOUR event when he birdied the 18th at Starr Pass while Tom Purtzer made a double bogey to finish one shot behind. Tucson’s newest course is the Sewailo Golf Club at Casino Del Sol. The 7,400-yard layout was designed by Notah Begay III, a college teammate of Tiger Woods, who is also the only Native American to have played regularly on the PGA TOUR. Sewailo is also home for the University of Arizona men’s and women’s teams, ensuring Tucson’s rich golf traditions endure.