The best senior players on the planet from the Champions Tour will find plenty of challenges awaiting them on the Catalina Course at Omni Tucson National Resort – which hosts the Tucson Conquistadores Classic, March 20-22.
Whether the firm and quick elevated greens; the 82 bunkers and six lakes; the large trees bordering almost every hole; the Bermuda rough – or just the raw distance – trouble abounds at the resort course in north Tucson.
The tournament is a new event on the Tour, bringing the senior professionals back to the course that most recently hosted the PGA Tour for the Chrysler Classic in 2006.
I have previously covered U.S. Open qualifiers on the Catalina Course but hadn’t yet had the chance to play there, so I set up a round with Director of Golf Danny Medina and Head Golf Professional Justin Bubser.
While the two pros played well and got it around their home course with relative ease – I now know why there were some big numbers posted at those qualifiers – it’s easy to make bogeys (or worse) at Tucson National.
Gorgeous track, big trouble
The parkland style course sits just west of the Catalina Mountains, with beautiful views of the mountains on the holes facing east toward them.
Add to that the tall pines, eucalyptus and other old growth trees that frame most of the fairways – and the course is very pleasing to the eye.
It’s the trees, bunkers and lakes that Champions Tour professional Tom Lehman said must be avoided to get around Tucson National with a good score.
“You have to hit the ball pretty straight out here,” Lehman said during Media Day Tuesday at the famed Tucson track. “Whether it’s the bunkers, trees or water – there’s plenty of trouble – and you can find yourself in some bad spots.”
“When everybody thinks about Tucson, they remember Johnny Miller shooting 20-something under par every year. Well, he was a real straight hitter, a great iron player and gave himself lots of chances. That’s really the secret I’ve found out here – hit the ball down the fairway and be a good iron player.”
Lehman will be one of 81 players teeing it up next Friday for the trophy – the Tucson Conquistador gold helmet – and a $1.7 million purse. He will be joined by some of the most famous names in golf including Tom Watson, Bernhard Langer, Fred Couples, Colin Montgomerie, Corey Pavin and many others.
While Lehman didn’t recall having trouble selecting clubs into the elevated greens, for amateurs like myself, shot after shot came up a half-club short, ending up in the bunkers or hitting into the banks in front of the greens and coming back short of the putting surfaces.
Throw a little wind into the mix and club selection for shots into the greens became even more challenging.
The most elevated green on the course – on the par-4 ninth hole – is usually into the prevailing wind out of the west. I should have hit at least one more club (if not two) to reach pin-high on my second shot there.
Medina and Bubser agreed that the shots into those raised greens made proper club selection difficult.
“Every hole plays a half-club longer, so that’s where you saw the extra distance,” Bubser said. “Every approach shot you’ve got to club up to reach those elevated greens. The ball also comes in a little flatter because of the elevation, so it becomes more difficult to hold the greens.”
“Clubbing up is key,” Medina said. “You also have to pay attention to where the flags are at and leave yourself in the proper places. As well as the greens rolled today, leaving yourself above the hole is typically not the best place to miss.”
The rye overseeded greens are near perfect, with downhill putts demanding exceptional touch not to get away and race past the hole. Players during the tournament will need to double check the slopes, as many of them are subtle and hard to see.
“They look pretty flat, but whether it’s toward the front of them or toward the back they do have some slope to them,” Bubser said. “With the natural topography of the landscape you have to see the elevation changes once you are on them.”
The fairways overall are mostly flat, with the exception of a couple of holes (No.’s 12 and 13) on the back nine.
“It’s a very traditional type golf course, but the undulations do sneak in there around the greens,” Medina said.
In the “fug”
The Bermuda rough will still be in the dormant stage for the Classic, but there are spots in the “fug,” as Medina calls it, that can be an issue if the ball settles down.
While many areas are matted down and won’t present players of this caliber any problems, twice I hit errant shots around the greens and had trouble getting the ball out of areas that were fluffy.
“If it’s not matted down and fluffy, it’s easy to decelerate and not get the ball out with any action on it,” Medina said.
“In those areas where it’s not matted down and kind of wispy, the ball sits down,” Bubser said. “The best way to play it out of there is like a bunker shot, like an explosion. It comes out with no spin, so you’re trying to judge how much that ball is going to roll out.”
I also struggled with the length from the back tees, where the seniors will be playing the course at more than 7,200 yards. After fairly short holes to start through the first five, players are faced with the holes six through nine, with two par-4’s 425 and longer, a 240-plus yard par-3 seventh and a 587-yard par-5 eighth.
The back nine will feature a converted par-5 11th, which the seniors will play as a par-4; the 610 yard par-5 15th; and one of the toughest par-4’s they’ll face on the Champions Tour this year to finish out the round – the 443-yard par-4 18th – with the drive having to be fitted into between two lakes to the left and right of the fairway.
The first round of the Tucson Conquistadores Classic begins Friday, March 20, with Pro-Ams Wednesday and Thursday at the Omni Tucson National Resort. Go to www.conquistadoresclassic.com for tickets and more information.
By Kevin Duke
Assoc. Editor – Golf Arizona