By Jeffrey A. Rendall
Courtesy of GolfTheMidAtlantic.com
MARANA, AZ – “This is a place where elegance meets adventure,” said Head Golf Professional Jeff McCormick, commenting on a golf resort that generously fits his description, the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain, near Tucson in southern Arizona.
Some might say Dove Mountain’s ‘adventure’ is due in large part to the resort’s hosting of the Accenture World Match Play Championship every February, or perhaps because its golf courses were designed by golf legend Jack Nicklaus – but those attributes only add to the ambiance of the place. For those visiting Arizona, the Ritz-Carlton layout characterizes all the pleasant stereotypes of the southwest – primarily with its beautiful desert surroundings populated with hundreds (if not thousands) of saguaro cacti.
McCormick’s ‘elegance’ factor is added by the Ritz-Carlton brand itself, and by the fact that playing at Dove Mountain feels like you’re visiting a high-end private club, from the finely accented clubhouse to the excellent service, to the every-detail-is-taken-care-of staff.
We initially became interested in Dove Mountain because of seeing it on TV, with the top 64 professional golfers participating in the Accenture Match Play Championship (which, prior to moving to Arizona, was held for years at La Costa in Carlsbad, California). Upon arriving at the resort, however, we realized there was much more to it than what you see on a broadcast – after all, TV only reveals so much.
As alluded to above, the most striking feature at Dove Mountain is the abundance of saguaros – a type of plant that’s completely foreign to anyone not from around these parts. I’d honestly admit – having seen them only in advertisements or occasionally in movies, you’d almost believe the saguaros are more from legend than reality – but not only are they ‘real,’ they’re truly unique, beautiful and plentiful in this part of Arizona.
Dove Mountain’s golf course isn’t bad either, and it hardly takes a back seat to the setting – or the cacti – but it all comes together to make for a memorable golf visit.
The Dove Mountain story begins in the early eighties, when Tucson developer David Mehl purchased the property (in 1983) – 1,300 acres of desert land from local homesteader Eugene ‘Cush’ Cayton. McCormick takes the story from here – or should I say, from the very beginning: “The history of this property actually goes back a couple thousand years to the Hohokam Indians, though no one’s sure how they came here or how they vanished.”
McCormick continues his history lesson: “From about 300 B.C. to 1450 A.D., the Hohokams made the Sonoran Desert bloom. They excavated complex canal systems to irrigate their fields of corn, beans and squash. They dug wells to tap underground water sources. They cultivated fruit bearing cactus and other desert flora and maintained sprawling plantations of agave for food and fiber.”
They also left behind some traces on the Dove Mountain property, namely roasting pits and remnants of a village square and twenty-six pit houses – clues that this property once was the scene of a major population center. Petroglyphs are apparently still visible on the property as well. The natives clearly recognized beauty and made their homes there.
Moving forward a couple hundred years, the European-originated settlement of the area began in 1697 when Jesuit Father Kino ‘discovered’ the Tucson basin. “Kino and subsequent missionaries found the area supporting the heaviest concentration of Native Americans in southern Arizona, primarily the Tohono O’odham people,” McCormick explained.
Colonization and settlement evolved rapidly after that, with natives and settlers recognizing the land’s rich potential for farming. In the 20th century (specifically in 1926), ‘Cush’ Cayton purchased the property on the advice of a surveyor and established the T Bench Bar Ranch. According to McCormick, Cayton throughout his ownership hosted a wide variety of colorful western characters – and then passed stewardship of the beautiful land on to Mehl. “It was a choice they made with loving and thoughtful consideration of the land,” McCormick added.
Mehl’s long-term goals included golf and an upscale residential community.
Mehl knew Jack Nicklaus from a project that they’d collaborated on during the mid 80’s, so it only made sense that when he was ready to move on the Dove Mountain endeavor that Nicklaus would be a good one to help bring the idea to fruition. At the same time, Mehl was familiar with a number of the Tucson Conquistadores (the group that formerly put on the Tucson Open, and now is the leadership team and sales arm of the World Golf Championships) and was in discussions with them to move the Tucson Open to Dove Mountain when it was completed.
The Conquistadores then began exploring the possibility of hosting the World Match Play – and the likelihood of having a higher-quality venue at Dove Mountain was a big part of attracting the PGA Tour’s attention, including bringing in the Ritz-Carlton brand.
And the rest is history. The Ritz-Carlton hotel is set to open in the near future (late Fall 2009), the final piece of the puzzle that will assure Dove Mountain’s place in Arizona golf lore.
For now, Ritz-Carlton Golf Club includes 27 holes, with the Saguaro and Tortolita nines being used for the Match Play – the third nine is called Wild Burro, with a fourth nine in the works for the near future.
The golf holes occupy some pretty rugged land at the base of the Tortolita Mountain Range with a wealth of desert flora all around. It’s evident from a first glance that this was ripe ground for golf, and according to Nicklaus Senior Design Associate Chet Williams (Nicklaus’s project manager at Dove Mountain), that was their first thought too: “We really liked the site from the start, especially the area where holes 11-12 and 14-16 are now located (numbers 2-3 and 5-7 on the Tortolita nine), due to the proximity of the mountains. Other areas of the site were also very interesting since we had the existing arroyos (creeks), and natural vegetation (saguaros) to play around. We were excited about the natural gifts – the mountains, arroyos, cacti, palo verde and ironwood trees – it was quite a lot to work with.”
Williams said the biggest challenge of working at Dove Mountain was blending a golf course into the environment – making it look as natural as possible. This was somewhat easier said than done because of the 404 washes (creeks) that run through the property. Though it may look like a desert – when it rains, the water coming off those mountains has to go somewhere.
Because of environmental regulations, Williams says they weren’t able to touch the washes at all – but they did work many of the golf holes around them since they were quite dramatic in some instances, such as in front of the greens of the first and ninth holes on the Tortolita nine.
How about the saguaros?
“The saguaro cacti weren’t really an environmental issue, but we did try to work around them whenever possible,” Williams explained. “The ones which had to be removed for golf play were replanted in new areas on the course or in other areas of the development.” (Editor’s note – saguaro cacti are often over a hundred years old and are protected.)
While the scenery is spectacular, the golf course is a Nicklaus classic – good enough to test the best professionals in the world, and ‘gentle’ enough to allow resort players to have a good time.
Williams describes the Nicklaus philosophy: “Jack follows the strategic school of golf course design, which essentially means if you hit a good shot, your next shot will be easier. If you hit your tee shot to the preferred place in the fairway, you’ll be rewarded with an easier approach shot – and likewise, if you hit to the preferred spot on a green, you’ll have an easier putt.”
Williams says the Saguaro nine’s par four first hole is a good example of how they tried to incorporate the natural features into the strategic plan – meaning, if you successfully play close to the trouble, you’ll have an easier follow-up. There’s an arroyo that runs the entire length of the hole on the right – and if your tee shot favors that side, you’ll be rewarded with a better angle on the second shot.
And of course, there’s always the ‘fun’ factor. “Members and guests will be able to encounter shots they have seen the pros play in person or on TV, and attempt to equal or better their results. We feel that if members and guests play from the correct set of tees the course should be a fun and playable experience,” Williams added.
It was indeed fun to walk in the pros’ footsteps, and while we did move one set forward from where the pros play (the Tour tees stretch out to over 7,800 yards and carry with them a rating of 77.1, which is a bit much for us), we did manage to hit a few shots that professionals would be proud to claim.
On the Tortolita nine’s par three third hole (#12 in the Match Play), I hit it to within six feet from 203 yards – a shot I’ll remember every year when watching the pros on TV. I missed the putt, of course, but the memories will always be there.
Other hole favorites included the Saguaro nine’s par three third hole. McCormick describes it: “It’s a dramatic downhill par three across a man-made lake that’s surrounded by native boulders. At over 200-yards from the tournament tee, any approach that finishes on the green is a great shot.”
Saguaro’s par five eighth hole is a strategic gem. Rated the nine’s #1 handicap hole, you’ll need to pick your spot off the tee and second shots to set yourself up for a good chance at birdie. There’s a massive bunker favoring the right side off the tee, and the closer you get to it, the shorter the next shot becomes. The hole’s probably only reachable in two for the pros – for the rest of us, it’s a terrific thinking player’s three-shot hole.
We also enjoyed Tortolita’s par four sixth hole. It’s the fifteenth hole during the Match Play – a short, uphill par four that’s reachable depending on the placement of the tees. Naturally, club selection off the tee is critical – and the better your tee shot, the more likely you’ll have a birdie (or eagle if you hit it long) try on the tricky green.
(Note: We didn’t get a chance to play the Wild Burro nine on our visit.)
Naturally, with a facility of this stature, the clubhouse and practice facilities are first-rate. The clubhouse functions as both a place for resort golf guests to spend some time in Ritz-Carlton style and a members’ private place to gather (club memberships are available). Match Play participants and the media take over one week a year – and the other 51 belong to members and guests.
We’ll let McCormick have the last words: “Our wish is that each and every player leaves us with a sense of belonging. From arrival to departure, they were treated like a member during their time at The Club. We want to create an experience that in turn creates guests for life.”
And they’re darn close to accomplishing that goal, too.