Two generations of Nicklaus in Tucson: La Paloma and Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain


TUCSON, Ariz. -- La Paloma Country Club and The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club's Dove Mountain Course, home of the Accenture Match Play Championship, have a few things in common beyond their location about 30 minutes apart from one another in Tucson. 

Both are 27-hole desert golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus. And both courses are semi-private with luxury resorts and real estate attached. Each rank among Tucson's elite class of golf courses and are kept superb shape.  

But a lot can change in 25 years. 

From the time Nicklaus constructed La Paloma (1984) to the opening of Dove Mountain (2009), his maturation as a course designer is evident in his designs. 

Tucson has changed too. The differences between La Paloma and Dove Mountain illustrate the growth of golf in the area - and modern equipment. 

Omni Tucson National hosted the PGA Tour's Tucson Open and Chrysler Classic from 1965 thru 2006. But the traditional parkland course became a birdie festival for PGA Tour pros. In 1975, Johnny Miller won the tournament by shooting 61 in the final round. Don Triplett won the last event at 22-under par. 

Tucson simply didn't have a course that could host the 64 best players in the world at the Accenture Match Play Championship. 

But that all changed with Dove Mountain. It was further evidence that the Tucson golf scene was growing up -- and that over 25 years, Nicklaus the designer had evolved as well.

Little room for error at La Paloma Country Club

Nicklaus, as any ardent golf fan knows, was a terrific long iron player. So it's not surprising that many of hisearly designs, including La Paloma, require precise long-iron play.

On La Paloma's three nine-hole courses, each features narrow fairways, elevated greens and forced carries, particularly on long par 3s. It's as if Nicklaus thought every golfer could stripe a 2-iron.

Take the two par 3s on the Hill nine. The fourth hole is 185 yards, and at least 180 yards are all carry. Even worse, the drop-off is completely vertical. Hit a drive 178 yards, and it's lost in the desert. The same goes for No. 8, a 157-yard hole without a safe landing area. There's no bump-and-run option; golfers have to hit high and accurate shots, a Nicklaus trademark.

As for Dove Mountain, it may play over 7,700 yards and hosts the WGC Match Play Championship, but it's an example of Nicklaus thinking more about the average golfer. Unlike La Paloma (which plays 7,088 yards in its longest combination), the fairways at Dove Mountain are wide and welcoming. Nicklaus also cut down on the number of long, forced carries.

Consider The par 3s at Dove Mountain. There are six on the property, and five of them are at least 200 yards -- with the longest measuring 253 yards. But on each, Nicklaus gave golfers an out with either a safe area in front of the green or on either side of the green. 

At La Paloma, there is no such safe haven.

Dove Mountain demands stellar a short game

In designing Dove Mountain, Nicklaus seemed to understand that golf technology was taking the bite out of courses. So he fought back the only way he could: by making the greens unbelievably difficult to putt.

La Paloma's greens, while elevated, are soft and generally forgiving in their undulation and breaks. To say Dove Mountain's greens break a lot is like saying Rush Limbaugh leans a little to the right. Dramatic ridges often run through the middle of the greens, turning even 5-foot putts into an adventure.

'Jack's gone on record as saying greens really are a golf course's only defense anymore when it comes to the best players in the world,' said Jeff McCormick, director of golf operations. 'If you're going to have a golf course here in desert and not have 22–yard fairways and 6-inch deep rough, the greens need to be the challenge.'

Cavernous bunkers are commonplace at Dove Mountain, both on the fairway and around the greens.
Fortunately, Nicklaus had a soft spot for the average golfer. Many of the greens feature a backstop or sideboard that make it easier to access the pin, and the front of the greens are available for bump-and-run shots.

It's those greens, more so than the length, that distinguish Dove Mountain from La Paloma.