Set deep in the narrow canyons of the Tortolita Mountains in north Marana is The Gallery Golf Club, a 36-hole desert golf paradise. The North Course was designed by Tom Lehman and John Fought and opened in 1998. The more famous South Course was also designed by Fought but opened four years later. It’s more famous because it hosted the PGA Tour’s Accenture Match Play Championships in 2007 and again in 2008. If you remember, the course practically popped off the television screen in HD – lush, green ryegrass fairways bordered by golden, dormant bermudagrass rough in the middle of winter.
In the summer of 1999, I interned for the Sports Department at KGUN-TV, the ABC affiliate in Tucson. I still remember covering the Arizona State Amateur played on The Gallery’s North Course. The nines meander through two rugged canyons. Even then, about a year after it opened, the views of the Sonoran Desert landscape were stunning.
Although the course was yet to mature, it didn’t take long for it to get noticed. It was ranked No. 1 in Southwest Arizona by Golf Digest and was also named one of Golfweek’s Top 100 Modern Courses. Then the PGA Tour came calling. The North Course co-hosted the Tucson Open in 2001, and most recently played host to the 2014 Pac-12 Men’s Golf Championship.
On this day, I got lucky. Although The Gallery is private, there is limited outside play allowed. Each day, one course offers a select number of non-member tee times, and because the North Course was being aerated, I got to play the South. Both courses are managed by Troon (so you get a courtesy yardage book). The South Course plays 7,468 yards from the Dorado Tees to a Par of 72, a course rating of 74.5, and a slope of 145. Here are some of its most notable rankings:
* No. 88 on Golfweek’s Best Residential Courses list (North, No. 84)
* No. 25 on America’s 100 Greatest Courses – Best in Arizona (North, No. 11)
* No. 31 on Golfweek’s Best New Courses list
Holes Worth Writing Home About
The South differs from the North in both terrain and architectural scheme. Fought used the links style made famous by Donald Ross’ Pinehurst No. 2 as motivation when he designed the more difficult South Course. Although the rolling fairways offer generous landing areas off the tee and the greens are large, the rich texture of the natural desert landscape has been preserved. The course travels west, gently flowing downhill for the first seven holes before reversing and climbing back toward the club house for two loops in true “links” fashion.
The best news of all is that the greens at The Gallery are Dominant Plus, a blend of three different bentgrasses. They’re not fast this time of year, but it’s a rarity to putt on bent grass anywhere in the desert southwest. My favorite hole on the front nine was the 225-yard Par 3 3rd. The hole is surrounded by desert and has three bunkers, although the greenside bunker short and right is probably the only one that comes into play. From the Dorado Tees, you have to carry a fairly wide swath of desert to reach an undulating green. In contrast to the North, the greens on the South are large and elevated 3-5 feet with edges that fall away on all sides. If your shot comes up short or long, it will be turned away.
The elevation changes are fairly subtle until you get to the back nine when they’re a lot more dramatic. The Par 5 10th hole measures 534 yards, and if you hit a good drive, the green is reachable in two. I had 217 yards in and hit a hybrid, barely clearing the large, greenside bunker short and left. On this hole, you’ll probably want to favor the left side because there’s a dry wash that cuts through the fairway beginning at about the 230-yard mark. You can hit to the lay-up area on the right, but your approach shot has to carry the wash (again) and another bunker. I think there’s less trouble if you stay left.
The South’s most unique feature is the Par 3 14th. The hole plays anywhere from 150 to 200 yards because it has two separate greens. There’s also a tee off the 4th green so one can play from the opposite side and continue on to the 15th hole. Because the course doesn’t return to the clubhouse at the 9th hole, this is the only way to play a nine-hole loop. I have never played a course that maintains two separate, disconnected greens on one hole. Impressive.
On the Par 3 16th, the foursome playing in front of me waved me up. When I got up to the green, thankful for the play-through with a monsoon storm rolling in, I noticed they were searching for a ball down to the left of the green. That’s when I heard them talking about a rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes are a common sighting on Arizona golf courses. You’re in the middle of the desert, and you have to be careful when you’re looking for your ball. I never go searching without a club in-hand just in case. You never know what you’re going to run into. No golf ball is worth the price of a snake bite.
The Gallery has a great grass practice facility with Titleist range balls. If you make the trip all the way out here, you might as well put in some practice time.
My best shot came on the Par 5 10th hole. I played the hole aggressively, and after reaching the green in two, was rewarded with a two-putt birdie. I thought this was the most picturesque hole on the entire course. There’s even an old world stone bridge connecting the left fairway to the landing area on the right.
While We’re Young
I teed off a little before three o’clock and didn’t see anyone else on the course until the 16th hole. I was rolling off the course, just ahead of another summer rain, two hours and 15 minutes after I started. It’s not hard to play fast if you know where it’s going.
Next On the Tee
Randolph North. This Tucson original opened in 1925 and remains the city’s longest golf course, measuring 6,900 yards from the Championship Tees.