Stone Canyon comes to life

No. 18 at Stone Canyon, ranked 85th on the Modern list.

ORO VALLEY, Ariz. – The sun is just making its way over the Santa Catalina Mountains to the east. From Mount Lemon on the north side to Push Ridge at the other end, the entire range rises out of the Sonoran Desert and provides a dramatic backdrop to all of Oro Valley community.

Having arrived the night before at a nearby casita, I hardly could wait to come over early enough to watch the golf course at Stone Canyon wake up. So here I am, making my way by foot down the 18th fairway and up the path to the back tees so that I can see a rock garden in the desert come to life.

The teeing grounds are small. Good thing, I realize.

Otherwise, they’d look out of place. They’ve been fitted snugly and modestly into the rocky hillsides, making them seem like natural viewing platforms – which, in effect, they are. As the light breaks over the Catalina Range and reaches across the floor of the desert foothills and underbrush, I’m privy to a theatrical production of plant life, rock forms and animals.

What is happening before me is a kind of condensed journey through a time tunnel of evolution and erosion. Shapes assume coherence and color as they emerge from the shadows and penumbral light. I’m watching the world transform from a blurry, black-and-white prehistory to a sharply honed, up-to-date technicolor tapestry of recognizable forms. Millions of years seemingly have materialized before my eyes.

Now I’m looking down the length of the 18th hole. The yardage marker at my feet denotes 463 yards. But as I look toward the distant Catalina Range, scanning the rocky hill that forms a natural box canyon for the fairway below, what captures my imagination is not the playing surface but everything that frames it from behind.

Like the colorful chuparosa, or hummingbird bush, with its bright orange-red flower that seems to spark life throughout the desert. Or the hopseed bush, with its taller, dark-green arms and soft puff of misty flower that blooms white in spring. And then there are the stately giant saguaros, their vertical trunks in stark contrast to the desert floor, some of them sporting arms all twisted akimbo, as if signaling different letters of the Sonoran alphabet. In fact, what these amazing trees convey is how persistent and resourceful nature can be. Few plants are better designed to fend off natural predators and hoard their own water.

As I look intently into the desert, more cactus plants take shape: the barrel cactus, which resembles a stodgy keg; ocotillo, with its thin but wildly arrayed branches, like Albert Einstein’s hair; and the prickly pear, an aggressive grower that is amusingly cartoonish in its dog-eared shape.

Animal life is evident, too. I spot a bird’s nest in a hackberry tree. And on a path that leads toward one of the back tees I discover some “night soil” – droppings from a bobcat or coyote. Both are commonplace here, as are mountain lions, though with less frequency. Rabbits and quail are hopping everywhere, and, with luck, I might spot a desert tortoise. I might even find myself near a rattlesnake.

I walk on, behind the 18th tee and down the path toward the ninth hole. Another mountain range is about to light up to the north – the Tortolitas. As I watch the light make its way down the hillsides toward the green swaths of fairway, I’m suddenly aware of activity all around me. The maintenance crew is scurrying around. There’s the whirl of small utility vehicles, the buzzing of mowers, trimmers and chainsaws. The gardeners have arrived to do their work. I realize that I’m hungry and in need of a third cup of coffee.

So I head east down the length of the 18th hole toward the Catalina Range, now bathed in light. Far behind the green, the clubhouse also is bustling as employees attend to their tasks. And as I look to the right, toward the practice range, I see a worker bend over and pour what turns out to be a perfect pyramid of lily white golf balls – eight square at the base, 204 in all. Who, I wonder, would want to take the time to practice when such a beautiful golf course is sitting there ready to be played? A lovely walk in the desert garden awaits.

Just another morning at Stone Canyon.

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