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Away Game | Tucson

A Fresh Look At Tucson

February 2011

Off the pristine back patio of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at Dove Mountain in Tucson, two legends of the Sonoran Desert created a prickly situation for developers of the $300 million resort. The pair of saguaro cacti are estimated to be more than 250 years old, their side arms a picture-worthy spectacle as the sun sets on the neighboring Tortolita Mountains. The original plans for the resort, which opened in December 2009, had to be finessed and the 253-room hotel moved to make sure the cacti would be unharmed. Now they're a celebrated centerpiece of the landscape. But that wasn't the only clash of old versus new I stumbled upon in Tucson.

When the World Golf Championships match-play tournament moved from La Costa, which is below sea level in Carlsbad, Calif., to the high desert of Arizona, Jack Nicklaus was commissioned to design a test for the best. The Golden Bear finished Dove Mountain in early 2009, right before the course's first Accenture Match Play that February. Thus, the focus group for this 7,849-yard brute was the top 64 players in the world.

Surprisingly, length wasn't the issue. Elevation at the course varies from 2,400 to 3,200 feet above sea level, which gives golfers about a 5 percent increase in distance. (Nicklaus estimates it plays more like 7,500 yards.) What caused the tour players trouble were the severe undulations in Dove Mountain's greens. "Jack knew going in that the course was going to be used for the Match Play," says Chet Williams, a Nicklaus Design senior associate. "So it's safe to say he juiced the greens a bit."

Some felt Nicklaus went too far in his defense of par. Shortly after the first Match Play at Dove Mountain, the tour asked him to come back to make some of the pin areas larger and soften some of the slopes on the putting surfaces. "I don't know that the untrained eye would notice the difference," Williams says, but in 2010, more pros approved.

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Any time a designer comes back to soften some of the putting slopes, it's also good news for us, the avid amateurs. Playing from 7,200 yards, I noticed some of the small greens were tough to hit and were still tough for me to putt, but as advertised, the elevation helped me off the tee, and the fairways were wide enough to consider the overall golf experience fair -- and more important -- fun.

Jacob Rogers, 26, a local pro who's chasing The Dream (playing on tour), joined me mid-round. On the eighth hole of the Saguaro nine, an uphill, 576-yard par 5, Rogers took a Tiger line off the tee, over 290-yards of cacti and collection area. He hit 7-iron into the green and made the eight-foot putt for eagle. Those two old saguaro cacti might have won their clash with construction, but based on what I saw from Rogers, the Bear might want to come back and shape some more slope into the greens.

The Saguaro and Tortolita, in that order, are used for the tournament 18. As good as they are, the Wild Burro nine gets local votes as the favorite, probably because it was designed with the resort guest in mind. A fourth nine has been routed, but it was put on hold until the economy recovers. You won't be bored playing any combination of the three nines multiple times throughout your visit. I'd also caution not to hunt for lost balls: Wildlife is wild in the high desert -- I came uncomfortably close to a bobcat -- and the razor-sharp vegetation isn't exactly tame.

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