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Redesign at El Rio lovingly executed

Citizen Staff Writer



The greatness of a golf course is not in its size, but in the lives it has touched; not in its swank, but in the quality of its memories.

Historic El Rio Golf and Country Club has gone back to the future, restored to the glory days when the West Side layout was the pride and joy of Tucson golfers, and where the most famous two-toned cleats and bad-fitting sweaters in the sport’s history traversed its fairways in the early years of Tucson’s PGA tournament.

Now the Trini Alvarez-El Rio Golf Course, in fitting memory of its late club pro, the 76-year-old course at 1400 W. Speedway reopened yesterday. Among the celebrities on hand were Alvarez’s widow, Edna, and family members.

El Rio was shut down May 6 for the renovation, including a new irrigation system, fairway turf, greens and trees.

“The course has been restored to its former elegance and grace,” Mayor Bob Walkup told a large gathering of golfers, fans, members of the Tucson Conquistadores and community leaders at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Brandon Johnson, a course designer for the PGA Tour, and Ken Kavanaugh, a Tucson golf course architect, have lovingly brought back the character of El Rio.

“I consider this among my best work,” said Kavanaugh, who also was responsible for the much-admired renovation of the Dell Urich (formerly Randolph South) Golf Course.

“I look at El Rio as Tucson city golf,” Kavanaugh said. “This is not a golf course; this is a museum.”

Johnson, a graduate of North Carolina State and Harvard, lives in Ponte Vedra, Fla., headquarters of the PGA. The pro tour involved itself because of the city’s commitment to the PGA’s First Tee project, which introduces boys and girls (targeting minorities) to the sport of golf.

“We donated the design and architect services,” Johnson said. “There will be a three-hole First Tee course within the driving range for youngsters to develop golfing skills.”

It will be a driving range in the morning and a youth course in the afternoons.

Noting that El Rio is an old-style course, Johnson said, “The hardest part of this project was making sure we did the right thing in bringing the course back to its original character.”

Michael McGrath, president of the Conquistadores, the organization that paid for the renovation, said, “In the 1940s and ’50s, El Rio was golf in Tucson. It was the place where people came together for social events, as well as learning golf.

“It will again be a community center and, thanks to the First Tee program, a place where young people will learn the sport as well as life skills.”

Jim Ronstadt first proposed the renovation of El Rio many years ago. The retired head of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department said, “El Rio means a lot to this community. It was originally our first country club. It was replaced by Tucson Country Club, at which time El Rio became a semiprivate facility. Later, the city purchased it, and El Rio became a municipal course.”

Leo Diegel was El Rio’s professional in the early 1940s, when he pitched the idea of a tournament in Tucson to the PGA. When the El Paso Open folded in 1945, Tucson replaced it. The Tucson Open was held at El Rio from 1945-62.

When Diegel died in 1951, Ricki Rarick formed the Tucson Golf Association and steered the tournament through 1965.

Ray Mangrum beat Byron Nelson for the $1,000 first prize in the first PGA Tour event at El Rio, in 1945. Jimmy Demaret then won back-to-back titles.

Ben Hogan, Sammy Snead, Lloyd Mangrum, Tommy Bolt, Arnold Palmer, Julius Boros and Billy Casper are just a few of the golfing greats to play El Rio.

The ninth-oldest tournament on the PGA Tour, known now as the Chrysler Classic of Tucson, the 2005 event will be held Feb. 21-27 at Omni Tucson National.


• Reopens: Today

• Course: Par 70; 6,000 to 6,400 yards, depending on tees

• Site: 1400 W. Speedway

• Fees: $15 Monday-Thursday, $18 Friday-Sunday. Cart extra.

• Phone: 791-4229

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