Trip itinerary: Tucson offers great golf for players of all budgets

Arizona desert golf for all: Play the courses of Tucson on three budgets

Planning a Tucson golf vacation? It offers great golf for players on three different budgets, from La Paloma Country Club and Ventana Canyon Golf and Racquet Club on the high end, to El Rio Golf Course on the budget end.

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Though much smaller than the Valley of the Sun, Tucson's golf courses pack a major punch, with scores of courses ranging from executive casual plays to high-end, nationally recognized courses from the best designers in the game.

The high-end boasts many of the big-name architects: Nicklaus, Fazio, Jones. But even high-end golf in Tucson checks in on average considerably cheaper compared to many of the most expensive golf courses in Scottsdale, which can run between $200-$300.

Rest assured, there is no such thing as a $200-plus green fee right now in Tucson, though Scottsdale has come down in price in the last years more than Tucson has, mostly because Tucson never inflated itself as high.

Like most of the Southwest desert golf destinations like Palm Springs and Las Vegas, Tucson's course shines brightest from January-thru-April. This is when green fees and demand is highest. We're factoring in this season when listing prices.

Tucson golf on a high-roller budget:

Tucson's elite golf courses are all associated with luxury brand resort hotels.

Dove Mountain's Ritz-Carlton course, host of the WGC Accenture Match Play Championships, opened in 2008 and is the current big kahuna of the Tucson golf scene. It's Jack Nicklaus-designed 27 holes can play longer than 7,600 yards from any combination of tees.

Tucson's original Nicklaus design from 1984, La Paloma Country Club is a 27-hole course with plenty of elevation change and dramatic shot-making. It's also fresh off of a renovation and redesign by Jack, who added more contours and pin positions to the greens, though not much more length.

Tom Fazio serves up two dramatic desert courses along the Catalina Foothills at Ventana Canyon Golf and Racquet Club, a semi-private club that alternates daily courses that are open to the public, home to both the Loews resort and smaller golfer's Lodge at Ventana Canyon. The Mountain course winds up near the Catalina Foothills and boasts Tucson's, if not Arizona's, signature hole: the par-3 third. But the Canyon course is no slouch, winding on lower grounds through Esperro Canyon.

Omni Tucson National Resort boasts a smaller and more intimate resort in scale compared to most of the others in Tucson, plus courses that are polar opposites in style: the classic Catalina, a former PGA Tour stop for more than 40 years, and the modern, desert-style Sonoran course.

Part of the JW Marriott Resort, Starr Pass Golf Club is a former TPC facility with 27 holes designed by Robert Cupp and player consultant Craig Stadler. It's where Phil Mickelson won the Northern Telecom Open as an amateur in 1991.

Tucson golf on a mid-level budget:

If you're not picky about your start time, many of the top courses in Tucson offer p.m. discounted rates. For instance, Omni Tucson National charges the nine-hole rate at twilight after 2 p.m. of $102 vs. the $168-$188 morning peak rate.

Mid-level pricing in Tucson generally means "less than $100" for peak-season, morning tee times.

Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Arizona National Golf Club is one of the desert's best golf designs, though its conditions are a notch or two below the standard of semi-private clubs like Ventana Canyon and La Paloma.

For resort golf cheaper than the above category, head to the Hilton El Conquistador, home to 45 holes of traditional golf, tumbling fairways golf along the Catalina foothills.

Heritage Highlands Golf & Country Club is the relative "bargain play" of the Dove Mountain development, boasting wider-than-normal landing areas for a modern desert course and plenty of beautiful spots, especially around the boulders of the 13th hole.

The Tom Weiskopf-designed Golf Club at Vistoso ($95 peak a.m.) has seen brighter days after foreclosing, and the future remains up in the air, but the course is still open and was in good shape during our April 2010 visit.

Tucson golf on a bargain budget:

You can save significantly in the summer months, which are hot but cooler compared to the Valley of the Sun two hours north. Yes, going north means hotter weather and lower altitudes between Tucson and Phoenix. In fact, many Phoenix residents play their summer golf in Tucson.

But during peak season, Tucson is loaded with golf options for the low budget, too.

The municipal system is solid and offers non-resident green fees between $30-$80, and they're all walker-friendly. Dell Urich and Randolph North is the top city-run facility. Randolph North formerly hosted the LPGA Ping/Welch's Championship and plays 7,000 yards from the championship tees, while Dell Urich (formerly Randolph South) is a recently renovated design by desert golf specialist Ken Kavenaugh that is a par 70 playing more than 6,600 yards.

For a taste of historic Tucson golf, check out Trini Alvarez El Rio Municipal Golf Course, a course dating back to 1934 and the original host of the Tucson Open and plays just 6,400 yards. Another historic design by Francis Bell, Forty Niner Country Club is a former private-turned-semi-private course that is classically designed and walker-friendly.

One bizarre area bargain course that will certainly break the mold is the Pines Golf Club at Marana. If you've never played a quarry course, this is an affordable option that will leave your group talking afterwards with some spectacular holes on the back nine built within a quarry.

For more casual golf, Quail Canyon Golf Course is an 18-hole executive golf course with holes as long as 165 yards and water in play on three holes. You can play 18 for $15-$20 walking.

Private golf courses in Tucson:

If you have connections in high places in Tucson, there are a couple private clubs worth playing if you've got the hookup.

At Dove Mountain, the 36-hole Gallery Golf Club recently went fully private and have stopped offering public play for the time being. It hosted the Accenture Match Play Championships in 2007-08 before going to the Ritz-Carlton, which also hopes to eventually go private and be open only to resort guests.

Also in Tucson is Stone Canyon Club, a private Jay Morrish design from 2000 that gets plenty of local buzz for those fortunate enough to play a round here.

Brandon Tucker is the Sr. Managing Editor for GolfPass and was the founding editor of Golf Advisor in 2014, he was the managing editor for Golf Channel Digital's Courses & Travel. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and nearly 600 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at @btuck34.
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Arizona desert golf for all: Play the courses of Tucson on three budgets