The roots of Oro Valley’s oldest golf course trace back to a purchase made by a retired professional baseball player, a lawyer and a Chicagoan six decades ago.
That 375-acre parcel the trio bought in 1958 for $187,500 would go on to become the Oro Valley Country Club, which opened the following year.
The aforementioned trio of Francis Rooney, Joseph Timan and Hank Leiber envisioned the property becoming a major resort area, called Oro Valley Acres.
It would occupy a portion of desert land once called home by the Navajo, Hopi and Apache tribes, on the banks of the Cañada del Oro Wash.
Fast-forward six decades, and the Oro Valley Country Club is still standing, with the same lush green fairways and Bermuda grass greens.
Over the years, the course’s unique undulations and features have taken on a lore of their own, such as the famed “Whiskey Tree,” on the 225-yard 15th fairway.
The lore surrounding the mesquite tree sprouted after former club president Al Thorell, who lived in a hole-adjacent property, suspended jugs and bottles of the libation from its limbs so passing golfers could enjoy a beverage while playing a round.
Such traditions have lived on, despite the course changing hands from Oro Valley Country Club Inc. to Dallas-based ClubCorp in 2014.
The course’s new stewards made sure to preserve the club’s endearing qualities, while unveiling a new clubhouse and restaurant, as well as renovating club amenities around the property.
This year’s anniversary is especially sweet for Casey Faulkner, who serves as ClubCorp’s vice president of membership. Faulkner sees the course’s longevity as proof of the community’s open-armed embrace, not only of the sport of golf, but of the course as well.
“We’re inspired by our heritage and truly dedicated to the future of the club at the same time,” Faulkner said. “So, I think celebrating these milestones is both healthy to look back at the black and whites, and to really celebrate all the photography and the stories of members past, and then to take a look at what the country club or the community of the future looks like.”
The country club will in the future include a quartet of Pickleball courts, which will stand in the shadows of the current clubhouse facility.
The future will also include the same bread and butter that’s propelled the facility through the past 60 years: being a well-manicured and cared-for golf course.
Susan Baer, who has been a member since 2001, believes the course’s future is just as bright as its past.
According to the National Golf Foundation, roughly 200 courses across the country closed their doors in 2018, after 205.5 18-hole equivalent courses closed in 2017.
Baer, who serves on the private course’s board, believes the course was spared from the brunt of the downturn that several other local clubs have faced, including the Club at Vistoso in Oro Valley.
“I believe we were saved by a big, organized professional company like ClubCorp stepping in and finding us to be a desirable prospect,” Baer said. “We started as a private, member-owned course and we’re hanging in there, and then [the 2008 recession] happened.”
Baer said the club faced dire financial straits after the economic downturn before a club member recommended ClubCorp, which owns 204 courses in 26 states, Washington D.C. and two foreign countries.
Faulkner believes the success of the country club stems from its unique place in the community, with a full-service restaurant and bar to complement its 18-hole facility.
Such an assortment allows golfers and non-golfers alike to take solace in the air-conditioned dining area, connecting with their neighbors in a communal setting.
“Well, I think it’s such an interesting market,” Faulkner said. “And I think Oro Valley Country Club really serves as the kind of town hall where people come together and where neighbors become friends. And if you’ve been away for this season, that that’s how you come back and get reconnected.”
One of the keys to the club’s vitality has been the infusion of members, like lifelong Tucsonan Jon O’Shea, that understand the importance of the country club.
Baer believes the club’s inclusion of younger members, like O’Shea, has given the club new life, with more energy and vision from those that frequent the facility.
“We’ve gone from retired older people primarily to now we’ve got young executives and young families and they’re bringing their children and introducing them to golf,” Baer said. “We’re changing how we look and it’s awesome. It’s just awesome.”
O’Shea, who is the director of leasing and sales for Vast Commercial Real Estate Solutions, sees great value in the amenities offered by the club. Those amenities allow O’Shea and his family to connect with others their age, building the next generation of OVCC lifers.
Another reason for the club’s success, according to O’Shea, is the fact that it owns its water rights, and doesn’t rely on water companies to supply its lifeblood, like other facilities.
Those water rights allow the club to focus its attention on providing a top-notch golfing experience, according to O’Shea, which in turn drives membership numbers.
“You’ve got to have a great golf course, and OVCC’s always had that and they have it today,” O’Shea said. “And two, you’ve got to have a place where people are comfortable … And what it does is it creates, in my opinion, a tighter-knit group of members, which brings the overall experience for the membership up because everybody feels like they know everybody. It’s more of a community.”
Providing such a communal atmosphere in near and dear to Faulkner, who has an altruistic vision for clubs under the ClubCorp umbrella. From her perspective, the Oro Valley Country Club can remain an integral part of the town, both for golfer and non-golfers alike.
“I think that OVCC truly serves as being a catalyst for community and golf is just the medium,” she said. “…And so, I think that that’s just our heart, is just how do we make some country clubs truly lifestyle-based, where people can really get to know each other. And Oro Valley Country Club definitely has that type of atmosphere.”