Pro golf in Tucson always used to have wiggle room. What do they call that in golf, a mulligan?
Tucson’s PGA Tour events have begun on New Year’s Day. They’ve been held between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Sometimes they spilled into March.
There were always options and always an invitation to be part of the show. The Tucson Open, in whatever form, was played at Starr Pass, at Dove Mountain, at Randolph North, at Forty Niner Country Club and at Tucson National.
The LPGA Tour encamped at the Randolph Golf Complex from 1981 to 2004. Even the PGA Tour Qualifying School made regular stops in Tucson and places south, such as Rio Rico.
For six decades, Tucson was golf paradise. Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam won here. Arnie’s Army did a victory lap at Tucson National.
Once, during the 1985 LPGA event, while in Tucson for a speaking engagement, the great Mickey Mantle walked into the media room and asked if Jan Stephenson was on the course.
Of course she was.
Twice, from 1984-86 and then again from 2007-14, the world match-play championships were staged in Tucson. One year, the tournament lasted from Monday through Sunday, with not only the top 112 players from the PGA Tour, but also the leading 24 players from the then-Senior Tour.
The game’s most-known golf writer, Dan Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, once joked that he spent more time in Tucson than he did at Augusta National.
The No. 1 player in the world, Tom Watson, was paid what was then a fortune, $150,000, for winning the 1984 Seiko-Tucson Match Play Championship on a muni track, Randolph North. He changed his golf spikes in the parking lot, standing unabashed in his stocking feet.
Nobody thought it was odd. Nobody imagined it would ever end.
Ultimately pro golf’s calendar went global and Tucson was among the first kicked out of the rotation.
The PGA Tour now plays in Mexico and China and Malaysia but not Tucson. There isn’t a vacancy in site. The LPGA Tour stocked its winter schedule with stops in Australia, Thailand and Singapore. It still swings through Phoenix, but few seem to care.
In a Tucson sports perspective, the difference between pro golf and pro baseball is that when the Diamondbacks, Rockies and White Sox checked out of spring training and moved to Phoenix, pro baseball ultimately checked out, too.
But the Tucson Conquistadores, bless their charitable soul, rescued golf from commissioner Tim Finchem’s long-feared end-run to San Francisco (and now Austin, Texas). They make it possible to watch John Daly, Fred Couples, Bernhard Langer and scores of their colleagues who used to play in the Tucson Open.
For the third year, the PGA Tour Champions circuit will be played at Tucson National. There is no bills-paying corporate title sponsor, but it’s pro golf and $1.7 million is at stake.
It’s not Tiger pumping his fist in a comeback for the ages to win the 2008 Match Play title on Dove Mountain, but it is our lasting link in a sports lineage that dates to the 1945 Tucson Open at El Rio Golf Course, starring Ben Hogan and Sam Snead.
At some point, the Conquistadores could make some significant changes to make the Champions tour weekend in Tucson more appealing.
They could move it to the Randolph Golf Complex, which would be more spectator friendly and centrally located, but before that can happen someone is going to have to spend a bundle of money to get the North course up to PGA Tour Champions standards.
It’s not 1984 any more, except at Randolph, which hasn’t changed a bit.
Or, after the Champions tour’s yearly championship, the Charles Schwab Cup, completes its two-year contract at Phoenix Country Club, the Conquistadores could bid to move the early-November showdown to Tucson.
The trouble with pro golf in November is that it runs adjacent to college and pro football. Is that any better than the Conquistadores Classic butting heads with the first weekend of March Madness?
The LPGA Tour has a vacancy the first week of February. Would that be better than the Champions tour? For whatever reason, the LPGA seems to have lost significant visibility the last decade, and no longer has a Nancy Lopez or Sorenstam to spike TV ratings or sell tickets.
So the Conquistadores continue to pursue the best option, the Champions tour — Freddie and Big John — while contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to Southern Arizona charities.
In modern pro sports, you can’t do much better for $29 a day. And, unlike Pac-12 sports, you won’t have to stay up till midnight to find out who won.