La Paloma Country Club is a 27-hole private facility, open only to members and Westin Hotel guests, that meanders along ridges and through desert canyons at the base of the Catalina Mountains in northwest Tucson. Eighteen of the 27 holes (Ridge and Canyon) opened in 1984 in what was then the middle of Tucson’s high-end course boom.
Known simply as La Paloma, it was one of Jack Nicklaus’ earliest designs and earned the Signature distinction for Nicklaus’ “high level of involvement in the development of the course from start to finish.” The bunkering is classic Nicklaus. Golf Digest, Golf Magazine, and Conde Nast Traveler have rated the La Paloma Country Club course among the best in the country.
La Paloma is managed by Scottsdale-based Troon Golf, which started as a one-facility operation in 1990 and has since grown into the largest third-party manager of golf and Club operations worldwide with more than 250 courses (in 32 countries and 37 states) in its portfolio. La Paloma also has the distinction of being a Troon Prive’ facility, which provides members exclusive access to other private clubs for just a cart fee.
Until recently, I had never played La Paloma, but there’s a good reason why. This is where I start to feel old. I played golf sparingly as a junior, participating in the local Ricki Rarick Junior Golf Program one summer when I was 13 or 14. Now I can’t remember exactly how old I was, which is how long ago it was.
I do remember that my first set of golf clubs was a set of MacGregor Golden Bears, named after the great Nicklaus himself. The set came with a wooden driver and 3-wood, a 5-iron, a 7-iron, a 9-iron, and a putter. That’s all I had. I got the set at a neighborhood garage sale, and I still remember that the golf bag it came with had this really rough leather strap. We were too young to drive around in golf carts when we played so we walked, and whenever I carried that bag, the strap would rub my shoulders raw. It was so painful that I had to alternate shoulders.
But that’s not the reason why I’d never played La Paloma. The reason I’d never played La Paloma is because I didn’t really fall in love with golf until my sophomore year in college at Arizona State, and until now, I haven’t lived in Tucson full-time since I graduated from Sabino High School… back in 1998. That was 18 years ago now, and as you can imagine, I have a lot of catching up to do! A lot has changed since I left the Old Pueblo.
There are three nine-hole layouts at La Paloma: Hill, Ridge, and Canyon. Ridge and Canyon opened in 1984, followed by Hill, which opened in 1985. The three, equally-marked courses derive their names from their relationship with the three desert terrains in which they occupy. On the day I played, only the Ridge and Canyon nines were open. The Ridge/Canyon combo plays 7,088 yards from the Black Tees to a Par of 72, a course rating of 72.5, and a slope of 150.
There are seven sets of tees to choose from, including the purple Family Tees, which I think is great. It took me two days to play all three nine-hole layouts because La Paloma rotates which nines it opens for play. Here are some of the highlights of those rounds:
Holes Worth Writing Home About
I have to say that the starter on the day I played was fantastic! His name was Skip, and he’s from Connecticut. I could tell how much he enjoys working at La Paloma just by the enthusiasm he showed when I asked him about his favorite holes on the different nines. I love it when starters take ownership of a golf course. That kind of attitude is infectious. You can’t help but walk away from that interaction with a bit of a smile on your face.
I think the best hole on the Canyon Course is the 514-yard 2nd hole. The hole is a downhill dogleg right Par 5 from an elevated tee box to a fairway that slopes gently from left to right toward the green. The tee shot is pretty intimidating because of all of the desert landscape you have to carry. If I was a member, the Canyon would be a tough nine to play, but it would definitely make me a better golfer if I could stomach losing sleeve after sleeve of golf balls.
I say that because there are a lot of forced carries and several washes just short of greens if you don’t know where the hole (or your ball) is going. Depending on how far you hit it, the green at No. 2 is reachable in two, but you have to be sure to hit a solid approach shot to carry a canyon full of desert landscape. The heart-shaped green is slightly below the level of the fairway, so it’s actually a downhill approach shot. Don’t be surprised if your shot rolls through the green, because the greens are crusty and firm. I didn’t repair a ball mark all day.
Golf for Women recognized La Paloma as one of the country’s most women-friendly courses, but I think I agree with Skip who told me women hate playing the Canyon nine because “there are too many forced carries.”
Some of the best views on the entire property can be found on the Ridge Course. My favorite hole, hands down, is the downhill Par 3 4th. At 199 yards, it’s easy to simply stand on the tee and marvel at the mountain views in the background. But even though it’s downhill, this hole is hard. If the wind is blowing at all, which is highly likely because of the elevated tee box, you’re looking at hitting probably two additional clubs than you normally would.
Sure, it’s downhill, but the wind more than counters any potential advantage you think you might have. And you have to miss long. If you hit it short, your ball will come to rest some 30-40 feet below the green in a dry desert wash. Totally irretrievable.
There’s also a large railing to discourage you from hiking down. If you attempt the feat, you might not be able to get back up to course level. I’ve never played a hole with a railing just short of the putting surface, and I’m sure it’s come into play more than once. The railing does take away from the some of the aesthetics of the hole when you’re at the green, but they have to have it up for safety. This hole could just as easily appear on Canyon.
I would say that both of these courses would be difficult to walk because of the elevation changes and the distance between holes. Because the course is located in the Foothills of the Sonoran Desert, there’s wildlife everywhere. I saw families of baby quail as well as several baby ground squirrels. Have your camera phone ready!
The newest of the three nines at La Paloma is Hill, which opened in 1985. If Ridge has some of the best views on the property, Hill has the majority. It’s easily my favorite nine because I think it’s the most playable and because it’s the most scenic. The views of the Catalinas you get on Hill are unmatched on either of the other two courses. Like Canyon and Ridge, it’s probably easier to play this nine by golf cart rather than pull cart. It’s pretty hilly.
The best hole on Hill is the Par 5 7th. It’s 538 yards from the Black Tees, but from any of the elevated teeing grounds, you want to favor the left side of the fairway. There’s a wash running down the entire right side up to the green, which plays as a later water hazard should you get a little frisky and push your tee shot. Aim left young man!
From there, you have a decision to make: go for the green or lay-up for position. If you’re angle’s not great, you’re going to want to lay up. The wash that runs along the right side of the fairway cuts across in front of the green and there are bunkers guarding the green just beyond that.
It doesn’t take long to get the impression that Nicklaus intended this to be a three-shot hole. Even if you did manage to reach it two, it would be tough to hold the narrow, undulating green. This is a great side.
The one thing you’ll notice is that there’s no water (lakes, ponds, or streams) on any of the three nines. They don’t need it! There are still plenty of dry wash beds for your ball to find trouble.
La Paloma Country Club shares the 250-acre property with the 497-room Westin Hotel & Resort, one of Tucson’s most popular resort vacation destinations. In 2010, the property filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and in 2012 was purchased by Southwest Value Partners, a San Diego-based real estate company co-founded by Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver. Sarver is a Tucson native who also graduated from Sabino High (my alma mater) and then later from the University of Arizona.
Shortly after the purchase came a $35 million resort-wide renovation, $600,000 of which went toward redoing all of the greens and bunkers. Even Nicklaus himself, who played the first round at La Paloma after completing the original 18 holes back in 1984, came back to play it again in preparation for the redesign. Said Nicklaus, “Some holes I like better than others, but I didn’t see one hole that I didn’t like.” I wouldn’t call it a very surprising self-critique.
When the renovation was completed in the fall of 2013, all of the large bunkers, often well below the surface of the greens and typical of a Nicklaus design, had been re-filled with pristine white, USGA regulation sand imported from San Juan Capistrano, California. I can tell you from firsthand experience that nearly three years later, the sand is still fantastic. I don’t think there’s anything quite like it anywhere else in town. It’s a very nice consistency.
The most drastic change to the courses came on the putting greens where the surfaces were changed from bentgrass to a hybrid bermuda strain known as Mini-Verde Bermudagrass that’s sourced from nearby Casa Grande. While bentgrass is more sensitive to the dry, desert heat, the Bermuda grass thrives. It’s the same grass found on the greens at TPC Sawgrass, home of the recently-played Players Championship.
Mini-Verde eliminates the need to overseed in the fall like most Arizona courses. Instead, crews apply a dye applicant in the winter to keep the grass green and to maintain a consistent, pure roll year-round. The process saves water, avoids any course closures while the overseed fills in, and avoids those transition periods between grasses in both the spring and the fall.
The general consensus out here is that everything breaks from the Catalina Mountains to the north toward the city of Tucson to the south. I didn’t find that to be the case at all! The reads and the way in which each putt breaks really varies from hole to hole.
I did something I don’t usually do. I played really aggressively for never having seen either course. Flash back to the Par 5 2nd hole on Canyon. Faced with a downhill approach shot 214 yards over the desert, I decided to go for the green in two, not knowing what was on the other side of the desert if I came up short. My guts were rewarded with a little glory!
My shot landed on the back portion of the green and just rolled off the putting surface for an easy up-and-down for birdie. The only thing I can say here is that sometimes you just have to let it fly. And if you know me, you know how much I hate losing golf balls. Maybe Tucson is changing me.
While We’re Young
I started on the Canyon Course, and because I was playing by myself to get a feel for the course, it was a painfully slow loop time-wise. And it still only took me 1:40 to get around. I just felt like there was a lot of dead time. I was constantly waiting for fairways and greens to clear or for guys to find their golf balls.
When I made the turn onto the Ridge Course, my round really picked up. I played that side in about 1:10 with not another soul in sight. The Troon Time Par (recommended pace of play) on the card is 4:28, and I was able to get around in less than three hours. Pretty good.