Under the Tucson Sun: Golf at the New Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain
Arizona is a sunshine factory, a state rich in culture, cuisine and more than its fair share of sunbirds and retirees.
Phoenix has the Fiesta Bowl and UFOs. Flagstaff has the Grand Canyon and Ponderosa forests. Sedona has its energy vortex.
Tucson, on the other hand, has the University of Arizona, bicycle-friendly streets and Saguaro National Park. Tucson also has the largest Ritz-Carlton in the continental United States, the just-opened Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, which repeated as host of the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship last weekend on its Jack Nicklaus golf course.
Tucson sits on a red-soil alluvial plain in the Sonoran desert, an hour north of Mexico and two hours southeast of Phoenix. The city is surrounded by five mountain ranges, including the Tortolita Mountains a half-hour to the northwest, which includes Dove Mountain and its master-planned community of 6,200 acres.
“We probably ought to be able to find a golf course in there somewhere,” Nicklaus joked last year when asked about laying out the golf course on all that land.
The Ritz-Carlton development owns the choicest 850 of those acres. On all that saguaro-studded land stands a 253-room hotel, a luxurious spa, a resort pool and the most stunning restaurant north of downtown, the hotel’s Core Kitchen and Wine Bar, run by top-toque Joel Harrington, who worked with chef Dean Fearing at Fearing’s in the Dallas Ritz-Carlton.
Where the land ripples the most, Nicklaus carved out 27 holes, which are played as three nines except during the WGC event. The PGA Tour prefers to use two of the three, called Tortolita and Saguaro, as its 18-hole tournament layout.
To a large extent, Nicklaus seems to have neither underpacked nor overpacked his crazy suitcase. Having designed hundreds of courses, many of which have hosted Tour events, he and his team know instinctively what to bring: 7,849-yard tournament tees (and a 536-yard par-4 on the Saguaro nine), rumpled fairways, a grab-bag of bunker shapes, greens that undulate in waves nearly too tricky to putt. Of course, they’ve also installed wall-to-wall carpets of Bermuda, and greens that disappear behind thick cactus linebackers or are defended by vast desert washes.
“What I was asked to do is a golf course that would house a Match Play tournament,” Nicklaus said in a press conference last year, “which means it would probably have a few more heroics at times on the golf course than you might see on some other golf courses. But I think in match play that’s what you do.
“I think that there’s a balance between spice and boredom, and you’ve got to have enough spice in the golf course that you keep your interest. You certainly don’t want to have some guy that says, ‘Gee, that was a nice golf course. Where are we going to go tomorrow?’ You want them to say, ‘Gee, that’s a nice golf course. What time can I get on here tomorrow?’”
One thing players don’t have to contend with is private residences, as there aren’t any on the perimeter of the course. The hotel is a low-slung affair, painted in chocolate browns and tans so that it melts into the Tortolita Mountains.
In 2007 and 2008, until Nicklaus’ Ritz-Carlton courses opened in 2009, the 64-player Accenture event was played up the street on the South Course of The Gallery Golf Club. Golf course architect John Fought designed both the South and North courses, assisted on the latter by pro golfer Tom Lehman. Each layout has a different feel.
The South Course has the flavor of Donald Ross’ Pinehurst No. 2. The North, with its sweeping high Sonoran views, slips through a mountain canyon like a thick snake. Both tracks are meticulously maintained as if they are perpetually groomed for a photographer to walk their fairways.
Tucson’s bone-dry air makes it inviting to stay outdoors all day, whether you’re a man or a machine. As a diversion from golf, head back towards the city and the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where you can get an up-close look at the world’s largest airplane graveyard and its thousands of military and civilian aircraft.
Saguaro National Park wraps around two sides of the city, a wilderness of statuesque cacti and the start of the King Canyon Trail, where you can stroll a few miles into seclusion or up to Wasson Peak, the pinnacle of the Tucson Mountains.
As the sun slinks behind the top edge of the mountains, the sky glows in pastel reds and tangerines. If you catch Wasson Peak at sunset, you might find yourself gazing upward at the starry sky. Instead, head to the mile-high Kitt Peak National Observatory, about 90 minutes southwest, for the Nightly Observing Program with an astronomer who will guide you through the universe and let you zoom in through one of their giant optical telescopes. The program begins an hour before sunset and ends a few hours later.
Back at the Ritz-Carlton, nightfall brings out fire pits, acoustic guitars and cozy private nooks at the hotel’s main restaurant, Core. The community table is rocking on most nights, crammed elbow to elbow with locals and hotel guests who seek out chef Harrington’s creative spin on Southwestern cuisine. He perfumes his table salt with smoke and chilies, grows herbs and citrus fruits in the backyard, and pairs his food with Arizona wines – the whites are crisp and bright – whenever he can. The Mohawk-spiked chef works the room like a pro, Dean Fearing style, shaking hands, serving food and discussing the menu.
Tucson has worked hard to shake its reputation as a waiting room for retirees and the elderly. Instead of the urban sprawl of other Sunbelt cities like Phoenix, Tucson has rehabbed older buildings and welcomed museums and the arts.
Now, with the Ritz-Carlton and its Dove Mountain golf courses on the scene, easy airport access from Texas and a vibrant Hispanic community, Tucson is poised to become a go-to destination for golfers.
The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain
15000 North Secret Springs Dr. Marana, Ariz. 85658
A version of this article first appeared in the February, 2010 issue of AvidGolfer Magazine