Rio Rico Country Club at Esplendor Resort: Fine RTJ golf among the bygone legends of the West


RIO RICO, Ariz. -- They call it the Southern Heart of the Old West, and when you come to play Rio Rico Country Club and spend a few days at the Esplendor Resort at Rio Rico, your mind might just drift to a day when conquistadors traveled here along with bygone legends such as Geronimo, Pancho Villa and Billy the Kid.

And even before Robert Trent Jones Sr. put his stamp on golf here in 1971, the area was used as a refuge for the U.S. Cavalry during the Apache Wars. The governor of Sonora, Mexico, once called the Santa Cruz River Valley home. Father Kino passed through before establishing the Tumacacori Mission just seven miles away.

'Anyone who has played a lot of golf in Arizona has a Rio Rico story,' said Jack Talmage, Rio Rico's general manager and director of golf. 'It is a very traditional golf course, and 40 years ago, when you hired Robert Trent Jones Sr., it was like hiring Jack Nicklaus today.'

Rio Rico's atmosphere is virtually unchanged since its opening -- you are 45 minutes south of Tucson and 15 miles from Nogales, Mexico. It is peaceful and quiet with gently rolling fairways, strategic bunkers and large, subtle greens that were challenging enough to host second state PGA Tour Qualifying four years in a row. Jones also planted pines that surround some greens making wind adjustments tricky.

The facility hosted U.S. Open qualifiers for the PGA and Senior tours, as well as the 1997 U.S. Amateur qualifying rounds. It was redesigned by Robert Trent Jones Jr. in 1975.

The 7,126-yard, par-72 course is surrounded by the San Cayetano Mountains, Madera Peak and the Santa Rita range, but you can't always gauge where putts will roll because of valleys, lakes or mountains.

'There are two par 3s with lakes on the front nine (No. 3, 176 yards and No. 8, 184 yards), and putts don't always break toward the water,' Talmage said. 'I think that's a throwback to old design techniques of Jones.'

No. 15 is a fun, 414-yard par 4 rolling downhill and left from the tee then climbing to an elevated green up against a hill with pines to the right. The 16th is a 484-yard par 5 that plays against the wind, and the green slopes from back to front. Anything past the pin is a slick putt to get close. 'Eagle putts can turn into pars easily if you are above the hole,' Talmage said.

Rio Rico Country Club: The verdict

Rio Rico Country Club is a hidden gem in southern Arizona. Talmage is eager to point out the back nine is more of a test than the front nine, and during the Tour Qualifying years, No. 17 -- a 439-yard par 4 -- was proven to be the toughest.

'I found a chart of the scoring for those years, and No. 17 had six who had double bogeys or more, and there were only six more of those sprinkled throughout the rest of the holes,' he said.

What makes the hole testy is placing a drive on the left side of the fairway. Everything kicks right, and trees can cause a bump back to the fairway, then water juts out from the right narrowing the fairway just before reaching the green.

At Rio Rico, one can schedule golf lessons and use the driving range, short-game area and putting green. Tennis is also available.

Rio Rico Country Club is also an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, and local high school shop students help build and install the bird nesting boxes.

Situated at 4,000 feet in elevation, it is not unusual for winter frost delays and cool mornings. But the afternoons in winter can be an ideal 70 degrees.

Where to stay: Esplendor Resort at Rio Rico

Esplendor Resort at Rio Rico has 179 Southwestern-appointed rooms and 13 one-bedroom suites. There are also some themed rooms -- Old West and cowboys, teepees, a Victorian bordello, a Mexican estate or American Indian touches. All rooms include private patios or balconies overlooking views of the mountains, valleys and Arizona sunsets or an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a hot tub.

For Rio Rico dining, enjoy the San Cayetano restaurant. Outside is where Steven Raichlen's Primal Grill was filmed. On the menu is his Cheese Steak, a signature dish the PBS chef created. The Santa Rita Grill is located at the golf course.