UA-ASU rivalry is heated, but the golf is just plain hot

Ventana Canyon

Ventana Canyon

TUCSON, Ariz. -- College football has plenty of rivalries of such intensity that they have martial overtones.

There’s the Civil War.

The Border War.

The Holy War.

And those “wars” don’t even include America’s greatest college rivalry, between the true warriors from Army and Navy. Yet the folks in these parts can make an argument that the annual “Duel in the Desert,” the in-state fracas between Arizona and Arizona State, is as storied as any other rivalry. The winner receives the Territorial Cup, first awarded in 1899, in what is billed as the longest-running trophy rivalry in the nation.

For your correspondent’s purely selfish reasons, it doesn’t hurt that the UA-ASU football game alternates between two cities that are synonymous with great desert golf. The regular-season finale in Tucson seemed an ideal time to become better acquainted with local institutions such as Ventana Canyon and Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain.

The latter, in the northern suburb of Marana, opened in December 2009, and two months later hosted the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

After that tournament, architect Jack Nicklaus returned to tone down the unruly greens. Still, no one would describe the elevated, wavy surfaces as tame, and the challenges are compounded if you have to scramble from the surrounding chipping areas.

Back in town two nights before the game, University Boulevard, on the west side of the Arizona campus, was quiet, allowing me to savor a Tucson Blonde – that’s a beer, mind you – in peace at Gentle Ben’s Brewing Co.

The next day promised to be a long one.

Ventana Canyon, in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, is home to 36 holes of Tom Fazio goodness. Those who think that all desert golf courses are indistinguishable would be dissuaded from that opinion if they spent a day on these two layouts, which are as different as their names: Canyon and Mountain.

The Canyon weaves through the property’s residential subdivision and, fittingly, offers more leeway for wayward drives. It’s a second-shot course, and the surrounding mountains make the greens as complex as the spread offense. “It took six months and three putters before I figured out the greens,” said assistant pro Brandon Smith. That’s saying a lot, given that Smith was the 2010 PGA Southwest Section champion.

Smith and fellow assistant Patrick McNew understand the UA-ASU rivalry from all sides. Smith is an Arizona grad; McNew hails from Arizona State. As we played through the Esperero Canyon, I quizzed them on the rivalry. Their take: The animosities extend far beyond the campuses in Tucson and Tempe.

“The city rivalries create the college rivalries,” McNew said. “Tucson wants to beat Phoenix more than UA wants to beat ASU.”

The conversation on college sports continued on the Mountain Course that afternoon with three members, ages 61 to 73, who had settled at Ventana Canyon. When Ed Kolakoski, a retired Exxon Mobil executive, moved here, he immersed himself, and his checkbook, in Arizona sports. “The U of A athletic program is really a big part of the whole lifestyle,” Kolakoski said.

So, too, is golf, thanks to courses such as the Mountain, a target layout with numerous forced carries. It’s best known for its par-3 third hole, which is the high-desert cousin of TPC Sawgrass’ 17th, only more authentic. After all, a force far greater than Fazio or Pete Dye was responsible for creating the canyon that separates tee and green. The third’s appeal is not that it is at odds with the Mountain’s other 17 holes, but that it so perfectly complements them. The 107-yard shot is nothing more than a sawed-off wedge, but the excitement it stirred among my playing partners was palpable as we approached the tee.

Around town that night, there also was a buzz in the air – more students milling about, more school colors, some RVs rolling around, readying for the next day’s tailgating on the mall near McKale Memorial Center. The 6 p.m. kickoff allowed time the next morning to visit the Wildcats’ home course, Arizona National. I thought nothing of having thrown on a Notre Dame golf shirt, only to be greeted at the first tee by an oversized man wearing a USC hat and with Trojan headcovers on his metalwoods. Fortunately, Greg Tellam had a sense of humor.

A former USC linebacker (Class of ’97), Tellam grew up in Tucson and now works there after a stint in Phoenix. Having been a part of the USC-UCLA rivalry, he said that crosstown feud doesn’t approach the “hatred”

between the chip-on-their-shoulder locals and the parvenus from Phoenix.

“The people up in Phoenix think people in Tucson are just laidback hillbillies,” Tellam said.

As we played, Tellam gave me a scouting report on the upcoming game and the tailgating scene, all the while building the anticipation for Arizona National’s closing hole. Drives on the par-5 18th are launched from a tee box 200 feet above the fairway, making the 513-yard hole potentially reachable even for players of modest length.

That hole, and the subsequent pregame festivities, proved far more entertaining than the first half of the game that night. In the normally sedate press box, the media wretches, lined shoulder to shoulder, grew

restless watching the inartful performance playing out on the field below.

“This is awful!” one scribe yelled to no one in particular somewhere around the 11th of a miserable 14 first-half punts. Nearby, another writer watching the ESPN feed on a monitor wondered, “Can someone change the channel?”

I decided to change locations.

At halftime I drove over to University Boulevard, where students gathered under heat lamps outside No Anchovies and Frog & Firkin to watch a thrilling second half.

In one of those quirks that seems only to enhance the lore of rivalry games, Arizona State blocked an extra point near the end of regulation to force overtime, then blocked another in the second overtime to secure victory.

The students along University Boulevard quietly filtered away, back to their dorms, while on the field, Arizona State’s Thomas Weber – a mere placekicker – punctuated the Sun Devils’ celebration by slamming the mascot’s pitchfork into the Arizona Stadium turf.

If the Wildcats need additional motivation as they try this fall to reclaim the Territorial Cup, they’ll surely find it in that image.

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