The PGA Tour Champions Roar into Tucson
By Joe Passov
Arizona’s second-largest city is a kaleidoscope of desert diversity. By different turns, one encounters cactus-covered slopes, jagged mountain peaks and Old West ambiance side-by-side with sybaritic spas, acclaimed museums and exceptional golf courses. As to the golf, the secret has been out for a while, but it bears repeating: Tucson is home to some of America’s most spectacular courses. That’s usually reason enough to visit.
A distinguished past
There’s another compelling reason, however, for golfers to flock to the Old Pueblo come February-March. One of Tucson’s most scenic courses, the Catalina Course at the Omni Tucson National Resort, returns to center stage when it plays host to Tucson's annual Cologuard Classic on the PGA Tour’s Champions Tour. When the legends of the game mix it up on a classic course, there’s usually one result: Everybody has a good time—especially the spectators. If you’re a fan of history’s greatest golfers, a gorgeous golf course, outstanding weather and competitive action, plan a trip this March to watch the golf. Better yet, sign up for the two-day Pro-Am, then stick around for the weekend excitement, when the sport’s greatest golfers age 50-plus stir up the drama over a fabled venue.
Certain courses on the PGA Tour and Champions Tour exude an aura of pure fun. Tucson National’s Catalina is just such a course. Here, the PGA Tour enjoyed a rollicking, happy ride from 1965 through 2006, contesting 30 tournaments in all. The first winner was New Zealand’s Bob Charles, thanks to his left-handed putting magic. Another left-hander who wields a wand with wizardry, Phil Mickelson, grabbed the title while still an amateur in 1991 and won it two more times after that. Regardless of what side you putt from, you can tee it up and roll them in just like the pros do, because Catalina is a public-access resort course.
If you like following in famous footsteps, it’s tough to top Tucson National. Arnold Palmer posted an immensely popular victory in 1967 here and Lee Trevino won back-to-back in 1969–70. Ben Crenshaw of Texas won the individual NCAA Championship when Tucson National hosted in 1971. Johnny Miller picked up the nickname “Desert Fox” when he won three straight times in 1974–76. Teeing it up at Tucson National is akin to a stroll through the Golf Hall of Fame.
Getting acquainted with the course
What distinguishes Tucson National’s Catalina course from other championship layouts in the area is its parkland design, illustrative of its early-1960s roots, when Midwestern visitors and homeowners wanted their golf to look like it did back home. Hence, the 7,143-yard, par-72 Catalina dishes out wall-to-wall grass, tree-lined fairways and elevated greens. Yet, glorious panoramas of the Santa Catalina Mountains that ring the course (and which give the course its name) and a smattering of desert flora, including cacti, remind you that you’re in Tucson, not Toronto.
Bunkers, mounds and contoured putting greens provide much of the challenge, yet mostly, the playing corridors are friendly and fair—that is, until you get to the fearsome 18th hole, which decided many a Tucson Open. This 443-yard, uphill par-4 demands a drive slotted between two lakes, followed by a long approach to a huge, well-trapped, elevated green, complete with challenging undulations. A closing par here is well-earned.
Mingling with the pros
One tremendous advantage for Tucson National being a traditional-style design is that it’s walkable, which makes it a pleasure for both spectators and participants. That’s an important element of a prestigious tournament, something that sets the Tucson Conquistadores Classic apart. The 81 professionals will encounter a walking-only format, unlike most events on the Champions Tour, where cart use is permitted. That makes participating in the two-day Pro-Am even more enticing. You’ll get to walk side-by-side with the some of your favorite golf heroes. And with the event’s no-cut format, all of the players will be around all weekend. Golf doesn’t get much better than that.
The sponsoring Tucson Conquistadores, a civic organization that runs the tournament and assists in distributing proceeds to local charities, is emphasizing a theme for this year’s event of “The Boys are Back in Town.” The idea is to come watch past Tucson Open champions compete as seniors, names like Tom Watson, Lee Janzen and Kirk Triplett. They’ll join the Champions Tour’s biggest draws, such as two-time Masters Champion Bernhard Langer, Ryder Cup star Colin Montgomerie and Sweden’s colorful Jesper Parnevik, who made his Champions Tour debut in 2015. Watching these legends is a blast; playing alongside them is even better.
Having played in a two-day Champions Tour Pro-Am, I can attest that it’s the ultimate inside-the-ropes experience. The pros actually spend meaningful time with you. They offer playing tips and conversation during the round. You join them at meals and at parties. And, Tucson being a college basketball hotbed, thanks to the annual success of the University of Arizona, you’ll probably watch some NCAA hoops action together in mid-March. Of course, with average daytime highs during the golf tournament of 75 to 77 degrees, you may want to hang out poolside and catch all the rays you can, especially if you’re from the chilly Northeast.
Tucson’s myriad attractions, superb weather and unique cultural blend of Native American, Hispanic and Western legacies make the city an enviable destination at any time of year, especially in mid-March. Toss a new golf tournament into the mix where you watch the sport’s legends compete or even join them in the Pro-Am competition, and there’s no better place to be.