El Conquistador Golf Resort: Canada Course

This weekend, the Golf Academy Club Golf Team is down in Oro Valley just outside Tucson for the National Collegiate Club Golf Association (NCCGA) Desert Regional Tournament at El Conquistador Golf Resort. The school has participated in three NCCGA events since March of last year, and because students have to qualify for the eight-man team each time, it’s a real privilege. The GAA usually pays for hotel rooms and a nice dinner.

Many members of the standing room-only crowd urged a rejection of the purchase and tax, but the council went ahead with both on 4-3 votes.
At a standing room-only meeting, residents urged the rejection of the purchase of El Conquistador and a sales tax hike. The Council voted 4-3 in favor of both.

I’m a Tucson native, but believe it or not, I’ve never played either of the courses at El Conquistador: the Conquistador Course or the Canada Course (pronounced Can-YAH-duh). It’s been a controversial few years out here to say the least. Following the damage caused by major thunderstorms in July of 2012, El Conquistador invested nearly $3 million to enhance the two courses.

All 103 bunkers were renovated with new drainage, liners, and filled with pioneer white sand. The washes running through the courses were reconstructed with new edges, wash bottoms were re-graded, and a total of 21 mesquite and Palo Verde trees were planted.

Then in December of 2014, HSL Properties purchased the El Conquistador Resort for $15 million, and things got really interesting. The town of Oro Valley, desperately in need of a community and recreation center, then purchased the country club portion of the asset: the two golf courses, 37,000 square-feet of buildings with meeting and exercise rooms, tennis courts, and two swimming pools from HSL for $1 million in April of 2015. The move was viewed as controversial because of the declining popularity of golf and because of the condition of the property.

Oro Valley identified $2.5 million in renovation projects to the community center and $3 million in projects on the golf courses over the next 5-6 years and didn’t have the money to pay for them. So when town leaders proposed a half-cent sales tax hike to pay for all the work, people went nuts. Troon Golf in Scottsdale is managing the facility and forecasts the operation will break even within four years, but a report released in September called Oro Valley’s purchase a “disaster.” Only time will tell.

The Canada Course was originally designed by Greg Nash and Jeff Hardin and opened in 1985, three years after the Conquistador Course. The Canada Course plays just 6,636 yards from the Black Tees to a Par of 72, a course rating of 72.0, and a slope of 135. Here are some of the highlights from round one of the tournament:

Free the tee box, the Par 3 8th hole feels next to impossible to hit. Miss the green, and you're in the desert.
From the tee, the Par 3 8th hole feels next to impossible to hit. Miss the green on either side, and you’re in the desert.

Holes Worth Writing Home About
The best and the hardest hole on the front nine (if not the entire course if you ask me) is the Par 3 8th hole. It says 183 yards on the scorecard, but today, because of a back pin placement, it was playing 194 yards. As I was standing on the tee, I was shaking in my spikes. Only later did I find out that the 8th hole, which overlooks the city, was once voted the toughest Par 3 in all of Tucson.

You’re hitting to an elevated, two-tiered green with deep bunkers short left and long right. Pull your tee shot slightly left, and you’re in the desert. Push it slightly right, and you’re likely to bounce one off the cart path, and again, into the desert. This hole is so hard, it’s almost silly. Oh, and did I mention that our foursome also had to contend with a swarm of angry bees? I wish I was making this up, but we had to wait several minutes for a hive in a neighboring mesquite tree to quit buzzing before we could even tee off. The hole is hard enough as it is!

In my opinion, the back nine is significantly easier than the front nine, although several of the holes felt really gimmicky. At times, the back nine felt like a mountain course that had broken out in the middle of a desert course. It’s almost as if Nash and Hardin were running out of room and decided to squeeze in a couple of accidentally short Par 4s. The quote of the day came from one of my player partners as we played our final stretch of holes. He remarked, “The guy who designed this golf course must have been laughing his a– off when he was laying it out.”

For example, holes 14 and 15 play almost straight uphill but are only 303 and 330 respectively. I hit a 5-iron off the tee on 14 and only had 125 yards in. I hit a 4-wood off the other. Holes 17 and 18 play exactly the same yardage: 384. How does that happen? One of the elements we’ve discussed in Golf Course Design with PGA Professional Ed Ekis is that as a golf course designer, you should strive to avoid having holes with identical yardages. I agree even more after seeing the course for the first time today. Mix it up will ya?

The 18th hole
The 18th hole plays slightly uphill to an elevated, three-tiered green.

That being said, if I had to choose a favorite on the inward nine, I would have to go with the Par 4 18th. You don’t get any gimmes out here, and after you’ve been beat down for a few hours, the 18th and final hole feels like a good way to finish off your execution. It’s not a bad hole, mind you. The fairway of the dogleg right is pretty wide, and a tee shot that’s slightly pushed will feed down the slope and right back onto the short grass thanks to a “punch bowl” effect. There are bunkers short right and left of the elevated, three-tiered green. It’s a great finishing hole, one that could decide a tournament.

Quiet Please…
I played the Conquistador Course on Friday (look for the course review following Sunday’s final tournament round), and I thought for a desert golf course, the landing areas were pretty forgiving. That’s not even close to being the case on the Canada Course.

If you miss the landing areas, you’re in real trouble, and when there’s nowhere to miss, it makes for a really uncomfortable visual. If you miss the fairway, you’re either in the desert or out of bounds. This course is super tight, way tighter than Conquistador, but features the same elevated ryegrass greens and fairways. I would say the greens are much faster on the Canada side of the property.

I’ve never seen a bobcat climb a tree in the wild… until today. Just off the fairway on the 391-yard Par 4 12th, the guy I was riding with pointed at what appeared to be a fairly large cat. Then he said, “No wait! That’s a bobcat!” I looked up just in time to see it disappear back into a small grove of mesquite trees, but I was feeling brave and drove the cart up for a closer look. The bobcat saw us coming, jumped up into the mesquite tree, and started climbing. It was a cool and unusual sight. The last time I saw a bobcat on a golf course was on the 3rd hole at Arizona National, but that was several years ago now.

Their 9th hole doesn’t bring you back by the clubhouse at the turn, and there’s no halfway house. In fact, there’s so much distance between holes, it might not be a bad idea to bring a gallon of water, a sleeping bag, and a maybe even a flare gun just in case you get lost and Search and Rescue needs help pinning down your exact location.

If you look closely, you can see a bobcat trying to camouflage himself in the branches of this mesquite tree.
If you look closely, you can see a bobcat trying to camouflage himself in the branches of this mesquite tree.

This is usually the part of the review where I recap the shot of the day by either myself or someone in my foursome, but today I feel a total round recap is in order. I shot a 75 having never seen the Canada Course before. I count it among the finest rounds of golf I’ve ever played, however, because I shot that number despite making three double bogeys.

It was tough to keep my round going since no one else in my group came close to breaking 90, but I managed to keep it together. I made five birdies, and it felt like I was pouring them in from everywhere. On the last hole we played (No. 4 because of the shotgun start), I read my birdie putt and just knew it was going in. I could see it drop before it actually fell. The guys I played with wanted to strangle me, but they also told me what a great round it was to witness. Love finishing with a birdie!

But back to the double bogeys. No matter how well we play, we can’t help but dwell on what we could have done better. That’s golf, I guess. I was one over par with four holes left to play when I pushed my drive on hole No. 1 into the desert. We found my ball, and I thought I could get a club on it. If I could hit a draw with my 52-degree wedge, there was a chance I could still hit the green.

I managed to get it out alright (barely), but not without a rock taking a sizable chunk out of my wedge! When I look back on the attempt, it was a pretty stupid play. Had I failed to hit it out, I would have had to drop it back in the rocks, and who the heck knows what would have happened? I had to try it though right? I mean, I had a good round going. Sure made for a good story.

While We’re Young
The shotgun tournament was scheduled to start at 12:30p, but it took us a while to get out to our starting hole, No. 5. I estimated that it was 12:45 by the time we teed off, and the first five holes took us a full two hours to play. It didn’t look like we were going to be able to finish, but then we picked up the pace and cruised home in about four-and-a-half hours. That was pretty good, I thought, for a tournament round on a tight desert golf course where guys were constantly looking for their golf balls.

Next On the Tee
The final round of the NCCGA Desert Regional Spring Tournament is tomorrow morning on the Conquistador Course, the same course where I played a practice round Friday. I’m currently in a three-way tie for 2nd, two shots off the lead, which is one over par. It’s time to go trophy hunting!

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