Notah Begay designed a golf course that cost about $25 million. Not in golf-mad Florida or along the posh 17-Mile Drive at Pebble Beach, but right here, in Tucson, on Valencia Road.
Do you know what used to be on that Godforsaken plot of ground? Dead snakes and sunburned cacti.
Begay ordered construction of 17 waterfalls, dug out space for 14 acres of lakes, and created a meandering path for a mile-long creek.
The stonework to support those waterways cost an estimated $4 million.
This is the type of course you’d build at Hilton Head Island, S.C., the type of eye candy you see while watching PGA Tour regulars at Kapalua in Maui.
Location, location, location does not apply here.
Begay built Tucson’s latest “world-class golf course” a few hundred yards from the Casino del Sol resort — address: Middle of Nowhere — at a time Tucson needed another golf course the way it needs another Modern Street Car.
He built it during a period in which the golf industry in Southern Arizona borders on funereal, in which two established golf courses, Canoa Hills and Santa Rita, have been shuttered, and three others, Forty Niner, San Ignacio and Arizona National, were temporarily closed, foundering with cash-flow trouble.
He built it when two muni courses, El Rio and Fred Enke, had their necks in a financial guillotine.
You can drive for miles on West Valencia Road and see neither a flower nor a green piece of turf, yet Notah Begay and the Pascua Yaquis named this $25 million venture “Sewailo.”
Building and funding Sewailo from casino revenues might have been the easy part. Attracting enough golfers to the first tee — and getting them back again and again and again — will be the trick.
It is expensive.
It is unusually difficult.
And it is a long way from anywhere.
Undeterred, Begay, a Stanford grad, stood at Sewailo’s 10th tee last week — it’s a ridiculously brutal 638-yard par 5 — and winked when someone asked him if “six golf balls” would successfully get him around the course.
“You might hit six water balls on the first few holes,” he said, laughing.
I recorded several impressions on my scorecard:
- Uphill green over hidden abyss.
- Big carry over water.
- Bigger carry over water.
But that’s golf. Which course doesn’t require local knowledge and a significant financial commitment?
Sewailo isn’t unique. It’s a mixture of Canoa Ranch, Starr Pass and the Dove Mountain Golf Club, minus the views. It’s Saddlebrooke Ranch Golf Club with an extra 300 million gallons of water.
Shade? It’s Gila Bend.
Sewailo isn’t likely to thrive charging golfers $100 a round. The stay-and-play guests at the resort at 5655 W. Valencia Road will disappear from May to September. (Who stays at a casino intent on playing golf, anyway?)
But what gives Sewailo a chance to be relevant is the potential to stage (and probably help sponsor) a Champions Tour event, a week with the LPGA Tour, and play host to several significant college and USGA tournaments. It has already arranged to stage a U.S. Open local qualifier in May.
Sewailo is operated by the Troon Golf management firm, which demands high standards and is among the best in the industry. It operates La Paloma and the Gallery Golf Club. In Tucson golf, that’s a strong endorsement.
UA athletic director Greg Byrne announced last week that Sewailo will become the school’s home course for at least 18 months. The Wildcats expect to have a separate driving range and practice facility there. But they essentially had the same at Arizona National.
That deal fizzled when Arizona National didn’t properly maintain the course and, in part, because it was so far from campus. Plus the course was relatively short for today’s college players.
Sewailo isn’t any closer to the UA, but is already on the map and gathering momentum. It played host to about 60 golf writers and other media sources last week, including those from Sports Illustrated and ESPN, as well as some from Canada.
When Begay prepared to hit a ceremonial first shot at last week’s opening, he was asked how many PGA Tour events he had won.
“I won Reno-Tahoe,” he said, proudly. “I won the St. Jude Classic. I won the Michelob-Kingsmill, and I won the Greater Hartford Open. I did all of that in nine months.”
He looked at those around him, as if to say, “I’m not a rookie out here.”
In 2001, Begay was sidelined by a serious back injury and never recaptured his form. He is now intent on becoming a course designer on a global scale.
Sewailo, his third project, seems an odd place for him to build a reputation.
“There was a lot of uncertainty when I became involved in this project,” he said. “Times were very tough, but nobody backed off and ran.”
Times are still tough in Tucson golf, but Sewailo is on the tee, taking a big swing. Let’s hope it can carry the water.