Arizona National Golf Club

Arizona National is true desert golf. On holes like the Par 3 4th, there is no margin for error.
Arizona National is true desert golf. On holes like the Par 3 4th, there is no margin for error. Miss the green, and it’s bye-bye.

The best public course on Tucson’s east side, hands down, is Arizona National Golf Club (the best private facility is Tucson Country Club). Robert Trent Jones Jr. designed the course, and when it was built shortly thereafter by Larry Lippon, an archaeologist-horticulturist was on-hand to help the bulldozers navigate through the Hohokam Indian ruins in the area as well as uproot and re-plant 2,500 saguaros and more than 60,000 desert plants.

The course opened for business in 1996, and less than two years later when I was still a student at neighboring Sabino High School, I used to snake my way down the fairways on morning runs before school.

To the right of the Par 3 16th tee is a reservoir or spring-fed pond which was constructed by the Hohokam people over 1,000 years ago. The two-tiered green was built atop an old Hohokam dwelling, and with all of the environmental consciousness in the world today, it’s amazing this course was ever constructed.

It’s right at the base of the Catalina Mountains, and it’s a true desert course in every sense of the word. There is no margin for error. If you don’t hit the fairway, you’re in the rocks or desert brush, and depending on the time of year, you don’t even want to think about finding it because of all the rattlesnakes.

Usually, I like to book my tee times online at golfnow.com, but by far the best deals for Arizona National can be found at aznational.com. I made a tee time for 12:49p one day in advance and paid just $30! That’s a savings of 62% from the $79 they normally charge this time of year, and if you ask me, it’s like stealing. If you have a 2015 Sonoran Card in your possession ($149 for the year), it gets even better. You can play the course for as little as $23.

I say it’s like stealing because the course is still in winter shape. The rye grass greens hardly have a ball mark on them, and they roll more like bent grass. While some of the courses in the area are starting to aerate their greens, the guy in the pro shop told me there are no plans to aerate until June when the bermuda grass finally starts to grow back in.

The prickly pear flowers in the Sonoran Desert are in full bloom.
The prickly pear flowers in the Sonoran Desert are in full bloom.

The course plays 6,785 yards from the Black Tees to a Par of 71, a course rating of 72.5, and a slope of 143 because of the elevation change. Your journey begins at 2,500 feet and climbs another 500 straight up into the base of the mountains. Did I mention the views are stunning? Here are some of the highlights of the round:

Holes Worth Writing Home About
Bring your camera. In the Sonoran Desert, you’re going to see plenty of wildlife – rabbits, coveys of quail, doves, lizards (especially chuckwallas), and roadrunners. The cacti are just starting to bloom this time of year. Prickly pear flaunts bright yellow flowers atop their paddles while saguaros showcase almost iris-looking white and yellow flowers.

A family of bobcats used to live just off the fairway at the Par 4 3rd hole.
A family of bobcats used to live just off the fairway at the Par 4 3rd hole.

One of the best holes on the course has to be the 329-yard Par 3 3rd hole. It’s not a long hole yardage wise, and you can easily hit a 3-wood or even a 5-wood. But because it’s a narrow visual off the tee and it’s straight uphill, the hole probably plays 20-30 yards longer. There’s a fairway bunker left, and the greenside bunkers left and short right will certainly come into play if you don’t select the right club to hit to the elevated green.

It’s been more than ten years since I last played the course, and I’m sure the bobcat family that used to live just off the fairway has long since moved on. You won’t believe how much elevation change there is from one green to five tee. You’re really climbing!

The strangest hole on the back nine is easily the Par 4 16th. The hole measures 386 yards, but it’s a blind tee shot over a small arroyo. I didn’t know where to hit it off the tee, so I butchered the hole, but if I had it to do over again, I would hit driver, favoring the right side. The fairway slopes down to the left and the green is just up and to the right from there. It’s not a hard hole, but you have to put your tee shot in play to give yourself a real chance. On this course, everything breaks towards the city to the south.

The tee shot on the Par 4 16th is a blind carry over an arroy. Don't be afraid to hit driver here.
The tee shot on the Par 4 16th is a blind carry over an arroy. Don’t be afraid to be aggressive and hit driver here.

Quiet Please…
Things haven’t always been so hunky dory for this RTJ desert gem. The course started out as The Raven Golf Club at Sabino Springs. Then, in 2002, San Diego-based IRI Golf Group purchased the course for $7.5 million, a 42% depreciation from the $13 million it sold for in 1998. When the economic downturn hit ten years later, the wheels fell off for IRI.

On September 17, 2012, Tucson Water disconnected water to the course because of what it said was “nonpayment of bills.” The course was closed for nearly two months, until November 14th, when after a history of writing bad checks, IRI finally paid more than $250,000 to the water utility.

The course was put up for sale, and at a 2014 foreclosure sale, Canadian mortgage firm Romspen bought Arizona National and The Golf Club at Vistoso in Oro Valley for just pennies on the dollar. Romspen immediately spent $50,000 to landscape overgrown desert vegetation at Arizona National and another $600,000 to acquire new equipment.

The firm then smartly hired OB Sports in Scottsdale to run both courses. The golf management firm operates 19 courses in the state of Arizona and 45 courses nationwide, and the transition became official November 1st. The facility was in such a state of disrepair, it cost $75,000 for ice machines, refrigerators, air conditioning units, and on-course restroom repairs just to get the course back up and running.

There was a time when Arizona National was the University of Arizona’s home course, but the men’s and women’s golf teams have since moved to Sewailo Golf Club on the city’s west side. The move makes a ton of sense geographically because it takes about 35 minutes to get to Arizona National from UofA’s campus.

There are two things I noticed about the course that I should mention here. While Arizona National features a grass driving range, which I prefer because the range balls last longer and fly truer with their better dimples, there’s no real short game area for non-members to practice before teeing off. There’s a small putting green alongside the 1st tee, but that’s it.

The course is situated in a beautiful spot, and I think if there was a better practice area open to the public, you could easily spend several hours here improving your game. The only way you’re going to get access to the short game area and larger practice putting green at the back of the range is if you become a member. A large bucket of 60 balls will set you back $8, and there will be 6-7 bad balls in the batch. It’s been a while since they got new range balls. It would also be nice to be able to hit more than 60 balls at a time.

Much of the vegetation between the tee and the green on the Par 3 6th hole has been cleared.
Much of the native desert vegetation between the tee box and the green on the Par 3 6th hole has been removed.

Then there’s the issue of the $50,000 that OB Sports ponied up to landscape overgrown desert vegetation between landing areas. The wounds are still fresh and the desert will eventually regenerate, but it was a little disconcerting to see so much destruction.

On the bright side, players tell me they think it makes the course more playable and encourages faster rounds because there are fewer blind shots and less intimidating carries. Desert golf is hard! It’s totally different from anything on the east coast or even in the Midwest. Like I said, there’s no margin for error, and you’ll be lucky to find your ball if you miss the fairway. That’s part of the challenge.

Fore!
My best shot of the day was the 3-iron hybrid I smoked into the 223-yard Par 3 9th hole. I left myself an uphill 20-footer for birdie and just trickled it in. Sweet.

While We’re Young
We teed off right on time at 12:49p and finished in three hours and 50 minutes. We didn’t run into a soul until the 6th or 7th hole. This course has had its reputation battered over the last several years, but once the word spreads that National is back and better than ever, people will return in droves. The course is in as good a shape as I can remember, and perhaps as good as it’s looked since it first opened back in the mid-90s.

Next On the Tee
Starr Pass Golf Club on the west side of town. I’ve always wanted to play this course, and now I’ll get my chance before heading back up to Phoenix for the start of the 2nd semester on Friday.

This article has 1 Comment

  1. Strong review. You captured the “essence” of playing that course. Just an FYI – we have continued to see an occasional bobcat while golfing, and it’s not at all unusual to see numerous javelinas crossing the 3rd hole! I also enjoyed your touch of history on the development of the course.

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