In early May, the American Junior Golf Association will conduct an event like none other in golf when it stages the inaugural I.R.I. Arizona National Mixed Team Championship hosted by Annika Sorenstam and Jim Furyk.
The tournament will be held at Arizona National Golf Club in Tucson, Ariz., home of the University of Arizona where Sorenstam and Furyk once starred. Duos of one boy and one girl will compete in 54 holes of stroke play with a different team scoring format for each round.
“The AJGA is trying to create some different formats that are fun, unique and will get our members excited about the upcoming season,” said Stephen Hamblin, AJGA executive director.
Not since the PGA and LPGA Tours gathered annually for their mixed team event, the JC Penney Classic, has there been an event that combines genders the way the AJGA will in May.
For the second straight year, the AJGA will look to the I.R.I. Golf Group as a partner in bringing national junior golf to Tucson. This year will mark the second straight year that Arizona National has served as the site of an AJGA event—and both parties couldn’t be happier about it.
“We have plans to make this a long-term and prestigious event,” said Jeff Silverstein, chairman of the I.R.I. Golf Group, which owns and operates Arizona National and 18 other golf courses across the country.
Home to the University of Arizona, Tucson is a relaxed but growing town of 900,000 residents and 35,000 students. Its Old West desert charm is palpable in every corner of the city. Also calling Tucson and Arizona National home are the Arizona Wildcats’ golf teams.
“We’re proud to have such a great facility as our home course,” said Greg Allen, head women’s golf coach at the University of Arizona. “And we’re always proud to show it off—whether it’s to other college teams when we host our tournaments, to young junior golfers or to the average golfer.”
Arizona National annually serves as the site of two national college events—the Wildcat Invitational for women and the PING-Arizona Intercollegiate for men.
A number of AJGA alumni currently compete collegiately for Arizona including Erica Blasberg, Henry Liaw, Lani Elston and Chris Nallen.
Sorenstam, the reigning LPGA Player of the Year and winner of the 2003 McDonald’s LPGA Championship, competed at Arizona from 1990 to 1992 before turning professional following her sophomore season.
Furyk, the 2003 U.S. Open champion and an AJGA alumnus, competed for the Wildcats from 1988 to 1992 and was named an honorable mention All-American in 1989 and 1990.
In addition to professional stars Sorenstam and Furyk lending their names and support to the event, tournament officials are going to great lengths to make the inaugural event special. Teams will compete in three different scoring formats over the course of the tournament. The opening round will be scored in the modified Scotch format, the second round will be alternate shot foursome, while the final round is a four-ball competition.
Also contributing to the quality of the event will be the condition of the course. Traditionally, early May is among the finest times of year for desert golf in Arizona, Silverstein said.
“The golf course will be set up like a major championship,” Silverstein said. “The greens will be slick and the rough will be up. It’s a time of year when you can do a lot with the golf course because everything is growing and the weather is not too hot.”
Designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., Arizona National is nestled against the foothills of Southern Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains. The adjacent mountainside is dotted with countless giant Saguaro cacti, whose blossom is the official state flower.
Its location just above Tucson allows for spectacular views of Arizona’s second largest city and the surrounding desert that stretches all the way to Mexico. While the scenery can be breathtaking at Arizona National, it is the golf that will leave most players in awe.
“This golf course is in one of the most striking locations you’ll ever see,” Allen said of his team’s home course. “But it’s the challenge it presents that will make it so special for the juniors.”
The course’s signature hole, the par-5 eleventh, is the longest hole on the course at 625 yards from the back tees and 550 from the middle tees. The fairway runs downhill—giving players the hope for a never-ending drive as a well-placed tee shot will seem to roll endlessly. A desert waste area sits just short of the green, guarding it against those brave souls hoping to reach it in two shots.
The list of rave reviews for Arizona National stretches long like a 600-yard par-5. The Arizona Republic listed it among its top five courses in the state. GolfWorld magazine said the course “is what desert golf should be,” while Golf magazine called Arizona National “one of the best desert courses ever built."
Tucson columnist Greg Hansen of the Arizona Daily Star consistently rates Arizona National as one of the area’s finest facilities and calls it “a ridiculously beautiful piece of turf between Sabino Canyon and the Catalina Highway.”
Come May, the nation’s top juniors will be able to add their own reviews to the course’s resume.