Starr Pass Golf Club has been on my short list of courses to play in Tucson for several years now. If you’re ever sitting in a window seat when you’re flying in, you can briefly spot the course tucked into the hills of the Tucson Mountains before the plane banks toward its final destination.
The club derives its name from the shoot-em-up days of the wild, wild west. In the early 1800s, the Richard Starr Stagecoach Line traveled through the mountain pass that is now the 6th fairway on the Coyote Course, Starr Pass’s signature hole, to downtown Tucson. The site for Starr Pass was personally selected by then PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beaman for its natural beauty and rugged terrain and then built into TPC at Starr Pass by golf course designer Bob Cupp (who also re-designed Moon Valley in Phoenix) and PGA Tour pro Craig Stadler.
The course opened in 1986 and hosted the Tucson Open between 1987 and 1996. It wasn’t renamed Starr Pass Golf Club until before the 1993 event. At the time, the 3rd hole (now #3 Rattler) and the 5th hole (now #5 Rattler) were rated two of the most difficult holes on the Tour, and the course ranked among the Tour’s toughest in scoring average. Legends Arnold Palmer, Payne Stewart, and Phil Mickelson have all played here. The course is located on Tucson’s west side, and I mean west of I-10. It’s only about five minutes off the freeway and very easy to get to.
When the J.W. Marriott was built in 2005, Palmer designed the nine new holes that became the Roadrunner Course, and the 27 holes were converted into three separate sides – Rattler, Roadrunner, and Coyote. I played the course with a guy I met on the driving range at Arizona National, and he was able to get me on for just $36. When we played it, the Coyote Course was closed, so we played Rattler/Roadrunner. The pairing plays 6,627 yards from the Gold Tees to a Par of 71, a course rating of 72, and a slope of 140. Here are some of the highlights of the round:
Holes Worth Writing Home About
The hole that caught my eye (and caught my attention) on the Rattler Course is the 510-yard Par 5 5th hole. When you’re standing on the tee, you might be thinking, “Short hole, reachable in two.” But it’s straight uphill, and on this day, it was also playing straight into the wind. The hole is right out in front of you, and what you see is what you get. I piped my drive down the middle but still had 260 yards in – and into the wind – so I decided to hit a 7-iron onto a plateau on the right side of the split fairway thinking I would have about 100 yards in or so. When I got to my approach shot, I thought I might be in trouble. I was on an upslope, in-between clubs, and had to carry a small ravine short of the green. Did I mention that I was into the wind? I hit my shot, and the wind caught it and blew it back into the desert. Double bogey. Thanks for playing. This was one of the toughest holes on the Tour when it played here because it wasn’t a Par 5, it was a long Par 4. Ouch babe.
When we made the turn onto the newer, Roadrunner Course, the views got even more stunning. I’m running out of words to describe the desert vistas I’ve seen over the past few days. The downhill Par 3 3rd hole is spectacular. And even though it’s 194 yards from the Gold Tees, it probably plays about three clubs less. I only wish I had known. I blew a 6-iron over the green on the fly and into the desert. Another double. But it was the indian, not the arrow. The bentgrass greens out here are smooth and fast too. This is a great and beautiful golf hole.
No. 9 Rattler plays right into No. 1 Roadrunner with 9 Rattler to the north (left) side of the J.W. Marriott hotel. It’s the deepest part of the golf course, and if you play Coyote/Rattler, it’s where your round will come to an end.
From there, it’s exactly a one-mile trek via golf cart along Starr Pass Boulevard back to the clubhouse. The good news is that there are plenty of signs pointing the way.
Coyote Course Revisited
The one nine I didn’t have a chance to play when I played Starr Pass in May of last year was Coyote. On this day (again in early May), the winds were gusting upwards of 25 miles per hour. It’s easily one of the windiest rounds of golf I’ve ever played and a day I wouldn’t normally choose to be out on the golf course. It was a 2-4 club wind depending on the direction we were playing.
The Coyote Course is desert golf at its finest. It plays 3,486 yards from the Gold Tees, but there are a lot of forced carries. It makes for a long and difficult day if you don’t know what you’re doing or where it’s going. That said, the best hole on the Coyote nine is the 435-yard Par 4 4th hole.
Off the tee, the first thing you’ll notice is the 150-yard carry over cactus and other desert brush just to get to the fairway. It’s almost a blind tee shot. When you get to your ball, the next thing you’ll notice is that exacting approach shot that’s required to reach the elevated green complex. The hole is in a canyon or pass and is in and of itself a beautiful, narrow ribbon of green.
Locals say these nine holes are the hardest. I think I agree! It was anything but an easy test of golf because of the prevailing wind and because I didn’t always know where to hit it. If I were to play it again, there were several things I would do differently, and that’s despite the fact I shot an even Par 36.
It was great to play both Arizona National and Starr Pass on back-to-back days. They were totally different desert courses. Tucson is framed by mountain ranges on all sides. Arizona National plays right into the base of the Catalinas. Starr Pass weaves its way through the Tucson mountains, which are more hills than mountains. The views are still great, they’re just different.
We played Rattler/Roadrunner because Coyote was closed, and I thought the Roadrunner Course (the newest nine) was incredibly difficult. The Tour pros never got to play that side. I do know why Starr Pass was one of the hardest courses on the PGA Tour when it was part of the rotation. When you play it, it’s easy to see why – guys must have hated playing here because there’s absolutely no room for recovery. None. The course rating is 72 from the Gold Tees. I disagree. I think it’s more like 73 or 74.
I definitely want another crack at this baby!
I hit a lot of bad shots, but I hit a few good shots too. I nearly hole-out my approach for eagle on the Par 4 1st hole on the Rattler course and had a tap-in for birdie. I was two-under par through my first four holes.
While We’re Young
We teed off a little after 1:00p and finished just after 5:00p for a loop of right around four hours. We could have played a little faster, but we spent a lot of time looking for golf balls. One of my biggest pet peeves is losing golf balls. I can’t stand it. So it’s nice to find a few every now and then. My playing partner and I each found our fair share. Remember, every ball lost is a bogey, but every ball found is a birdie.
Next On the Tee
Bear Creek Golf Club in Chandler. This is my designated practice facility at the Golf Academy. It’s been a while since I last played it, and every time I have, it’s been really windy.