Nicklaus' desert mastery evident at La Paloma

Nicklaus' desert mastery evident at La Paloma

Reid Nelson Editor
image Photo courtesy of the Westin La Paloma Resort
The Santa Catalina Mountains provide a stunning backdrop for Nicklaus' La Paloma course in Tucson.

TUCSON, Ariz. – In his Hall of Fame career, professional golfer Jack Nicklaus won more than 100 tournaments, including 73 PGA Tour titles and 18 “majors.” But those numbers fall far short of the accomplishments of course designer Jack Nicklaus.

In total, his Nicklaus Design firm has contributed nearly 400 courses to the game, with the Golden Bear, himself, having been personally involved in 290 of those.  In the state of Arizona alone, 14 courses proudly sport the Nicklaus pedigree and, according to the latest Golf Digest rankings, exactly one-fifth of the 25 best courses in the state are Nicklaus designs.

In fact, it’s arguable that not since Field Marshall Erwin Rommel has anyone demonstrated greater talent for dealing with challenging desert terrain than Nicklaus.

So when the itinerary for a recent trip to Tucson included Nicklaus’ La Paloma Country Club, the anticipation level spiked accordingly. And after experiencing the 27-hole layout, well, let’s just say our heightened expectations were not unwarranted.

The country club course is part of the Westin La Paloma Resort, located just north of town in an area known as the Catalina Foothills. In addition to golf, the resort features a luxurious Westin hotel, an Elizabeth Arden spa, tennis and fitness facilities, conference and meeting space and a variety of restaurants and lounges.

Managed by Troon Golf, La Paloma Country Club is open to members and guests of the resort and though guests don’t get that true “member experience” – no lockerroom access, for example – there are still plenty of “perks” that let the traveling golfer know they are not at the local muni. The facility is well-presented at every turn, with lush Bermuda fairways and slick, challenging  greens grassed with Mini Verde, the modern ultradwarf Bermuda hybrid that tests the pros at both East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, home of the PGA Tour Championship, and the TPC Sawgrass, site of The Players Championship.

The attention to detail starts with the spacious and well-designed practice facility – a trademark of any Nicklaus signature design – and carries right through to your 18th, or even 27th, hole of the day. And from what we could surmise from our visit, it really doesn’t matter which 18 you play, as neither the Canyon, Ridge nor Hill nine could ever be labeled a stepchild among these three siblings.

Our media event had us playing the Canyon and Ridge nines that were part of the original La Paloma course that opened in 1984, the Hill nine having been added in 2008. A 7,088-yard, par-72 layout, the course makes the most of its setting in the foothills nestled beneath the scenic Santa Catalina Mountains, with dramatic elevation changes adding to the “wow factor” of many of the holes.

Golf architects, in general, and Nicklaus, specifically, hate the term signature hole because by singling out any one hole as the best on any course, by default, you are implying there is also a worst. And we would never use the term here, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some spectacular holes at La Paloma.

One is the second hole on the Canyon nine, a downhiller that, if viewed from behind the green, would look something like the letter “J.” At 514 yards from the longest of five tees, this is a great risk/reward par 5 where the small, thumbnail-like green can be reached with a bold shot over a deep canyon. From any of the other four tees, it’s a nail-biting par 4 with a shorter, but still nerve-wracking, approach to the same well-guarded target.

Nicklaus has often expressed a disdain for uphill par 3s, so, by inference, you have to believe he took particular joy in designing the fourth hole on the Ridge nine. A drop-shot par 3 playing 199 yards from the tips, the tee box on this stunning hole affords not only a perfect view of the target but of literally thousands of acres of Sonoran desert landscape, as well.

These are but two of the many outstanding holes awaiting the traveling golfer at La Paloma. We could describe the drivable par-4 sixth or the tough par-4 ninth, with its steeply uphill second shot, on the Canyon nine. We could mention the user-friendly, downhill finisher on the Ridge nine, a shortish par 5 whose bowled-out fairway seems to collect all but the most errant tee shots, leaving most players a chance to  reach in two.  There’s even the Biarritz-style green on the 454-yard, par-4 first hole on the Canyon nine – evidence of Nicklaus’ fondness of and appreciation for classic architectural convention.

But rather than go hole-by-hole, it’s best to simply to describe La Paloma as a collection of solid, scenic and strategically sound golf holes. One can easily see why its own members never get tired of playing it … which, when you think of it, is probably the best reason for any traveling golfer to want to experience the course for themselves.

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