By Robert Fagan
If you haven’t visited Tucson for golf lately, you are missing a wonderful array of interestingly different courses, but sadly the three nines at Dove Mountain, home of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship since 2009, are not at the top of my list.
Formally named The Golf Club at Dove Mountain and affiliated with nearby Ritz-Carlton, this is billed as luxury golf. I’ll take partial exception to that. It’s not bad golf, far from it, but it’s not worth the price and I can see why the PGA TOUR players recently ranked it next to dead last among their 52 favorite venues.
The future of the event staying at Dove Mountain is highly suspect. Doomed is more like it. First, there are scant crowds for the Match Play event held here annually in February. With just one road in and out of the facility there can be traffic issues.
Next it is hard to follow golfers as the golf course is spread out on a huge plot of land with few holes located near one another. Trekking between holes is not a good idea with the rocks and desert cactus waiting so your only smart choice is to stay on the cart paths.
It’s bad enough that the tournament immediately follows one the PGA TOUR’s “favorite courses,” Riviera, but this manufactured Jack Nicklaus-design restricts the player’s use of the driver and then teases them with funky, overworked putting surfaces and lots of fall-offs and false fronts.
One might expect a desert target style with reduced green surfaces because of water scarcity, but between the bunkers, routing up hills, and more, the layout is simply too penal throughout for resort play. Many will call Dove Mountain just another stylized desert course in Nicklaus’ image. And yes, he has been back to tweak the course, but even his personal favorite nine is the third one that is not played for the event. It’s position on the schedule has exposed it to sometimes-dicey weather and add in the fact that the title sponsor, Accenture, is leaving along, and it is no wonder that the WGC Match Play’s days are numbered here.
My own day here was interesting to say the least as I experienced two bizarre incidents. It was just two months before this year’s (2014) event on a nice crisp day in December. It was my final round of a 9-course golf trip. As is the usual protocol for a media/retired PGA person, I always call ahead to introduce myself and see if I can play – I take nothing for granted nor assume that I will get invited, let alone expect someone to “waive my fees.”
In this instance, I asked to speak to the Director of Golf who shall remain nameless. I tried twice and talked to a total of three different people. Each answered, “He’s not here. We don’t know where he is.” The tone in their voices shouted with disdain. I left a message for him with my phone number indicating I was a golf writer hoping to do a story about the facility as well as rate the course for a major publication. No response. With time running out, I called a third time and met with the same response only this time I asked if there was someone else who could help me. At the worst case, I might still play somewhere else if I was turned down at Dove Mountain. I informed them that I had not received a response from the Director of Golf and this time I got a quick, polite, friendly “Yes, that would be fine, Mr. Fagan, and we can get you out first thing Friday morning.”
Needless to say, I was excited.
Upon showing up, I looked for this mysterious Director of Golf as I believe that is the polite courtesy to introduce oneself. There was the secondary question about the charges for me though that was never a”big deal” for me. Surprise, again the Director of Golf was nowhere to be found – he was late according to his staff, but was expected. With a frost delay, I asked and was granted permission to go out and take some photos of the course. Once on the course, I received a message through my cart summoning me immediately back to the Pro Shop – the Director of Golf wanted to see me. Was there a problem I wondered?
As I showed up back at the Pro Shop, a man quickly approached me. It was the Director of Golf. No sooner had I smiled, extended my hand to him and we exchanged names, he proceeded to chastise me about my lack of manners and professional disrespect in not clearing my play through him. I started to tell him of my efforts to contact him, but he quickly, but politely cut me off. I realized that it wouldn’t be wise if I shared that his staff had shown a complete lack of respect for him on the phone always voicing their frustration with me in not knowing his whereabouts. The fact that I had for seven years taught calling ahead as part of “professional courtesy” to audiences of dozens of PGA Apprentices would have fallen on deaf ears. He continued his stern tongue-lashing for more than several minutes and clearly he was bent upon “teaching me a lesson.” I waited allowing him to finally talk himself out, and we moved amicably to other topics and common experiences. Whew! I’ve got thick enough skin and maybe I was wrong and should have nevertheless insisted on speaking to this “mysterious, absent” person before showing up, but often others have granted me access and if they don’t have that authority, they typically let me know. My approach has gained me many friends on more than 2,000 previous occasions, but not today. Anyway we exchanged business cards and parted cordially, and I was allowed to play. Sadly to say, the Director of Golf’s approach reflected the somewhat high-handed “we don’t need you” tone that came across by others at Dove Mountain that day. Oh well, at least I would soon be on the tee.
Still anxious to be able to play such a high profile attractive looking course for my potential story, I happily paid the fees and embarked on my 27-hole adventure set upon the dramatic Sonoran Desert hillside of the Tortolita Mountains – and no, my opinion of the Dove Mountain golf course was not affected by my less than pleasant encounter with the Director of Golf. Once into my round, I immediately recognized the holes from television. This is always fun, but I soon realized how much further the touring professionals hit it than I do. (Reality is finally setting in for me.)
As is the case for Augusta National and many other courses, television flattens out the terrain and this rocky desert, hillside layout was tighter and tougher than I had imagined. There were many gorgeous valley views. As was the case for the pros, from more forward tees, fairway bunkers in the midst of or pinching some hitting areas made for fun strategy and even had me reaching for a fairway metal sometimes though the layout was still plenty long. Present were the characteristic Nicklaus flashed bunkering and “over-worked” greens in my opinion – very penal in nature. The effective green targets are made exceedingly small as there is so much movement in them. For most golfers, Dove Mountain is a very difficult test with few level lies and not a single flat putt. That said, one solid hole follows another, but by about the fifth hole I was becoming totally bored – demanding golf, but not fun. Maybe I’ve visited too many courses, or make that too many more interesting courses, but I would not pay money to play here again. The course was becoming difficult without being sufficiently interesting – and there are many Nicklaus courses that I quite enjoy.
Many will call Dove Mountain just another stylized desert course in Nicklaus’ image. And yes, he has been back to tweak the course, but even his personal favorite nine is the third one that is not used for the Match Play event. Anyway, I can only envision average golfers losing many balls, finding many difficult bunkers, and then chasing strokes back and forth around the green complexes making for slow, frustrating rounds.
The quartet of par-threes are attractive and the one other hole that I did thoroughly savor was the drivable par-four 15th. What a fun risk-and-reward hole! I played the same up-tee that they play during the tournament (about 330 yards) and in the cool, dampish air with a hint of breeze against me, I struck a pretty nice shot. Suffice it to say that I cleared the fairway barranca, but did not come close to reaching the putting surface. A good pitch shot did register my second birdie of the day. Again on the 18th tee, I struck a reasonably powerful shot, but didn’t come close to where the big boys hit it. They are long and for the ones who score well here, their short-game touch must be incredible. Anyway, I accomplished what you must here: keep the ball out of the desert and my score was on the respectful side of average.
Next I was off to finish the third nine, Wild Burro, reported to be Nicklaus’ favorite. Another bizarre incident awaited. I started with a bogey, and then joined a two-some only to witness one of the men throw a full-blown temper-tantrum. A tall, handsome, neatly dressed, distinguished looking man in his late-50s playing a practice round for The Golf Channel’s Tour the next day started kicking the turf, spinning, jumping, and wailing his arms, and literally screaming. After a beautiful 320-yard drive on a reachable par-five he proceeded to completely miss the next eight shots. He finally picked up sixty yards short of the putting surface and continued his rampage. Should I hide my amused astonishment or call 911? (He was supposedly an 8-handicap and a member of multiple prestigious clubs in Phoenix and Seattle.) I’ve witnessed two fistfights, a wrestling match, and some extreme verbal altercations, but nothing quite this. It was totally bizarre – and on my first hole with them. Needless to say, I felt totally uncomfortable and I was about to quit, turn around, and head to the airport. Oooh, this guy was hot and it was only his second hole.
I said nothing, but offered to the other man that I could leave as I wondered if maybe my presence for his practice round had set him off?) The other man quietly said I should continue. I did. By historical standards, my golf has been embarrassing for the most part of 2013, but I proceeded to birdie four of the next five holes and on the sixth one, I made a hole-in-one against a stiff breeze. At 221 yards, it was as good a 3-metal as I’ve struck in a couple of years, but it was too far away for us to see it go in. Anyway, by this time we were all happily chatting and exchanging “high-fives” with one another. Golf had somehow exposed and yet smoothed out the rough edges. A par on the final hole and a totally unexpected nine of 31 ended a most interestingly “unusual day” and concluded my trip to Tucson.
Given such a finish, you might expect me to say that I concur with Jack Nicklaus, that Wild Burro was my favorite of the three Dove Mountain Nines, but unlike the other two, the soft, spongy greens made it much easier than the “Tournament 18” and the adjacent housing detracted somewhat from the experience. It was attractive golf, but nothing worth traveling a distance to play.
Before treating to my playing partners to a celebratory drink, I went into the golf shop as I usually do to thank the Director of Golf. (I wasn’t about to share my hole-in-one with him.) Big surprise, it was just after 1 p.m. and he was gone for day – or so his staff thought. Soon so was I.
Even with my third nine resurrection, Dove Mountain is “history” for me, but a day I’ll not soon forget. It’s another one of those beautiful, upscale faculties, but there are too many other engaging Tucson golf courses with friendlier folks and better values from my perspective. Without more improvements, no Doves or at least this Dove will not be returning there.
P.S. If you can manage, I highly recommend playing The Gallery, which is adjacent to The Golf Club at Dove Mountain. The pros enjoyed playing the Match Play at the South Course there previously, and I count the North Course as one of the best in Arizona. It’s the “Winged Foot of the Desert” with its gaping flashed bunkers and fabulous views!