Omni Tucson National: Catalina Course

Marco Dawson won the Champions Tour event at Omni in March. Traditionally, the winner dons a conquistador helmet.
Marco Dawson won the Champions Tour event at Omni in March. Traditionally, the winner dons a conquistador helmet.

Professional golf has a long and storied history in Tucson. The PGA Tour has played here off-and-on since 1945, and The Chrysler Classic of Tucson was played at Omni Tucson National until 2006. The tournament was held at a number of courses before finally landing at Omni on the city’s west side – El Rio Golf & Country Club (1945-1962), Forty-Niner Country Club (1963-1964), and then Tucson National (1965-1980, with the exception of 1979 when it was played at Randolph Park). From 1981-1986, it went back to Randolph, and from 1984-1986, it was contested as a match play event held concurrently with the Seiko-Tucson Senior Match Play Championship. In 1987 and 1988, it was played at TPC at Starr Pass. There was no tournament in 1989.

When the event resumed in 1990, it was played on two courses until 1996 – TPC at Starr Pass and Randolph in 1990 and then Starr Pass and Tucson National from 1991-1996. In 1997, it changed to a more traditional format played at only one course. The tournament played as an opposite field event to the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship (an invitational for the Top 64 players in the world) through its final year in 2006. Then in 2007, the Accenture Match Play moved to Dove Mountain in Marana and stayed there until 2014. Now, the only Tour event held in Tucson these days is the Champions Tour’s Tucson Conquistadores Classic, played for the first time in March of this year and won by Marco Dawson (13-under).

The bunkering is one of the things that separates the Catalina Course. They are all strategically placed.
The bunkering is one of the things that separates the Catalina Course. They are all strategically placed.

There are two 18-holes courses at Omni – Catalina and Sonoran (2005, Tom Lehman). The Catalina Course was designed by Robert Van Hagge (who also designed the Blue Monster Course at Doral) and Australian professional golfer Bruce Devlin and opened in 1965. It’s the one all the big boys played. The Catalina Course has hosted over 30 Tour events. It’s a traditional parkland-style course with eight sparkling blue lakes, 80 bunkers, and was once list among Golf Digest’s Top 75 Best Golf Resorts in North America. With all of the watering restrictions in the desert today, you almost wonder if a course like this would still be constructed.

I’m a Tucson native, but in all the years I’ve lived in the Old Pueblo, I’ve never played the Catalina Course. The course plays 7,262 yards from the Blue Tees to a Par of 73, a course rating of 75.4, and a slope of 136. The wife and I were in town for a charity scramble benefiting the University of Arizona Police Department, and we played from the White Tees (6,610 yards). Here are some of the highlights of the round:

Holes Worth Writing Home About
As you would expect from a PGA Tour venue, there are a lot of great holes out here. The bunkering is one of the things about the course that makes it truly unique. They are moundy and purposefully placed. In the desert, it seems like good bunkering is hard to find. The sand is nice and fluffy, and the grass around them is well-manicured. The greens are Champion bermudagrass, and like the fairways, are soft and receptive.

The 18th hole just after sunrise. It was once considered to be one of the most challenging finishing holes on the PGA Tour.
The 18th hole just after sunrise. It was once considered one of the most challenging finishing holes on the PGA Tour.

The best hole on the front nine is probably the 436-yard Par 4 9th (pictured at the beginning of this post). There is water off the tee, and Dennis in the pro shop told me Champions Tour players hit hybrids to the corner of the dogleg right or just short of the water. From there, it’s still an uphill approach of over 180 yards to an elevated green complex. I hit a 4-iron through the green but putted it in from just off for a birdie three. It felt like stealing. Because it was a scramble, I tried to carry the lake off the tee and pushed the ball right and into the middle of the water.

The Par 4 18th is a great finishing hole at 443 yards. For a time, it was considered one of the finest and most challenging finishing holes on the PGA Tour. The reason why is the narrow landing area through which you have to navigate your tee shot. There is water short right and long left. But if you can get it on the fairway, you’ll be left with little more than a short iron to an elevated green.

There are a couple of other things about this course that really stand out. First, it’s a Par 73. I can’t remember ever playing a Par 73 golf course. Par 71? Sure. But not a Par 73. As you make the turn onto the back nine, you get back-to-back Par 5s at No. 10 and No. 11. That’s cool! Depending on where you hit your tee shot, they’re reachable in two, but lakes are strategically placed and come into play on both holes. When the Champions Tour was in town, they converted No. 11 from a Par 5 into a Par 4 and moved the tee boxes up so guys could hit it over the water. That made the course play to the more traditional Par of 72. One other thing you’ll notice by looking at the scorecard – No. 12 and No. 13 play an identical 404 yards from the Blue Tees. I’ve never seen that either.

Only in the desert would you find a piece of honeycomb
Only in the desert would you find a piece of honeycomb sitting on the tee box. It broke off from the hive in the tree above it.

Quiet Please…
Because we teed off so early and live on the east side of town, warming up wasn’t really an option. But if you’re going to be playing either course, allow yourself plenty of time to enjoy the practice areas at Omni. There are TaylorMade range balls, multiple short game areas, and a very nice practice putting green.

Unlike the PGA Tour, which closes its tournament sites to public play weeks and sometimes months in advance, you can play the Catalina Course right up until the Sunday before the Champions Tour event. Even when we played it, the greens were good enough to host a Tour event.

Oh, and if you’ve never played out here before, to get to the 10th hole, you have to cross back in front of the clubhouse left of the 9th green. The cart path wants to take you a different way.

Fore!
Other than the birdie I made from the fringe on No. 9, my best shot of the day came on the 425-yard Par 4 6th. After a booming drive, I hit a wedge to within two feet. That was a nice tap-in birdie for our team right when we needed it.

The Champions Tour converted the Par 5 11th hole into a Par 4 for the Tucson Conquistadores Classic.
The Champions Tour converted the Par 5 11th hole into a Par 4 for the Tucson Conquistadores Classic.

While We’re Young
Because we were playing a scramble, it took us 4:35 to get around. But I think the course can be played in under four hours depending on when you play it.

Next On the Tee
Longbow Golf Club in Mesa. Can’t wait!

This article has 3 Comments

    1. Tied for 7th – a whopping 15 shots behind University of Arizona Atletic Director Greg Byrne and the entire UofA golf coaching staff. Byrne’s pre-round speech probably sounded a little something like this: “Guys, if we don’t win, you’re all fired!” Just guessing, of course.

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