There are certain people, many wines, and a collection of golf courses that age gracefully, some better than others. But most folks eventually could use a nip and tuck here and there (though they won’t admit it); perhaps a vintage requires a little blending (again, only on a need to know basis); or a celebrated layout simply requires a tweak (for all the world to know). That last bit is what has been carried out at the We-Ko-Pa Golf Club. What was maturing nicely and was very, very good, was improved. Brilliant.
The 40-square-mile Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation reserve just outside Phoenix/Scottsdale is home to two of Arizona’s best golf courses – along with a fine resort/spa and the first casino in the state. Golf arrived in Arizona’s Valley of the Sun about 1910, and the first hardy players putted around on bunker oil soaked patches of desert that passed for ‘greens.’ What a difference a century and a bit makes.
The locals have it right when they say that from end-to-end, ‘Arizona is the state of golf.’ Well, climate plays its part. On average, the state basks in more than 330 days of sunshine per year. The air is dry. Winter temperatures are mild (the average high temperature January to May is 75.5 F), and rainfall is sparse at just 7.66 inches annually. When the unique desert topography is bathed in the crystalline sunlight just after dawn or just before dusk, it can be one of the most touchingly beautiful landscapes on the planet.
Decades of hosting visiting city slickers have elevated Arizona golf resort hospitality to an art form. The game of golf and the truly ‘recreation’ aspects of spas, luxurious accommodations, and superb cuisine are brought together at spectacular resorts like We-Ko-Pa Resort and Conference Center, that also offers truly arresting views of the McDowell Mountains, Red Mountain, Four Peaks, and the Superstitions. There is another bonus at We-Ko-Pa. Let General Manager Matt Barr explain.
“One of the big advantages that we have at We-Ko-Pa is that not only do we have two great golf courses – Cholla and Saguaro – but they are distinctly different. They are by different architects with differing architectural philosophies and are on two distinctly different landscapes. Cholla is a little more target style design. For players not used to desert golf, this is closer to what they envision – going from pod to pod. Saguaro is more of a traditional layout but in a desert setting.
“And from the two courses there are different views of different mountain ranges. On Saguaro there are views of the Four Peaks, and on Cholla golfers see more of Red Mountain and McDowell Mountain.”
The We-Ko-Pa Resort and Conference Center property is more than 460 acres and the expansive layouts – Cholla 240 acres, Saguaro 220 acres – create a wonderful sense of isolation. The golf courses have 140 acres of turf. Cholla opened in December 2001; Saguaro in December 2006. Last December the resort staged a simultaneous 15th and 10th anniversary.
For the traveling golfer, the names Coore and Crenshaw are like a homing device. Here the beeping is loud and clear. Ben Crenshaw called it ‘bony old ground,’ really raw desert where he and Bill Coore created Saguaro. The fairways are wider, a little more forgiving than on Cholla, designed by the renowned Scott Miller, but the greens are tougher – a Coore-Crenshaw trademark.
Miller’s Cholla was great, but the basic bones needed upgrading, and there was a need for a nip and tuck.
Last year the resort completed a full $1.8 million renovation of the Cholla course. All the bunkers were dug out and all the drainage replaced, and the bunkers filled in with a blend of tan and white silica to match the Saguaro bunkers. (Bright white sand is not a good idea in sun-drenched Arizona). All 18 greens were replaced with Tif Dwarf Bermuda, again to match Saguaro’s.
Nearly 2,000 irrigation heads, and all the controllers for those heads, were replaced. Almost seven acres of turf – areas that really didn’t come into play – was removed and replaced with native plants. Between the upgraded irrigation system and the turf removal, Barr estimates a savings of up to 12 million gallons of irrigation water annually.
“Although we have access to the tribal river running through the property [the Verde River that runs from the north and joins with the Salt River], we thought it would be environmentally responsible to do the project,” he explained.
The most dramatic of the changes is probably the 8th hole, a spectacular sweeping 605-yard dogleg right down a steep slope. In the original, heroic (or almost) second shots were severely penalized by an arroyo and native cacti swath that stretched across in front of the green. That ‘hazard’ is now a somewhat forgiving grassed slope that can keep balls, and rounds, in play. It is still a challenging— and very picturesque – second shot for anyone willing to try it. The green is walled on the left along a bunker that would be wonderful to plunk into rather than catch a rock edge; any ricochet is a guaranteed lost ball. Right is no bargain either. But now there is a lay up area.
Cholla has some great par threes. One that sticks out is #14. It’s a short downhill hole – 177 yards from the tips, 138 yards from the forward tee – with Four Peaks Mountain in the background. There are six teeing grounds, with the target a large palette-shaped tiered green with bunkers left and back right. It’s visually dramatic and fun to challenge.
The 10 par 4s are all solid, ranging from the welcoming 351-yard #1 to the daunting 472-yard #16. In fact, the three closing holes are superb. The 17th is a challenging 578-yard par 5 that runs along a ridge that drops off on the right and doglegs left. The aiming bunker on the left edge is 264 yards from the back tee, 218 yds. from the white tee, 118 from the forward tee. The narrow lay-up area is guarded by bunkers on either side; the green by three bunkers including a pot bunker on the left. The 18th is a dramatic 432-yard par 4 offering the option of laying up in front of the water on the right, or going for the narrowed fairway left of the water. Both routes leave exacting approaches to a challenging green.
Saguaro is visually stunning throughout, the lush fairways and greens in stark contrast to the surrounding desert. From the back tees, some carries are daunting, but Coore and Crenshaw offer four tees on each hole. The par 5 14th is a good example. From the Saguaro tees the split-fairway design plays 538 yards, and just 433 yards from the green tees. But from each tee, the choice between laying up to the short right hand fairway and leaving a long second shot, or driving it down the left fairway for a risk-reward chance at a birdie, makes it a fun hole.
At Saguaro, the par 3s are also superb and tough. The 15th plays at 255 yards from the tips, though it is downhill, and a smooth 114 from the green tees. The 18th is an excellent long par 4 (508 yards from the back tees, 470 yards from the whites, 411 yards from the greens) making for a dramatic finish. (At both courses, the Composite Tee configuration is a fun way to play.) Cholla and Saguaro are contrasting, yes, but each stands alone as a wonderful golf course.
The renovations and upgrades at We-Ko-Pa didn’t stop at the course.
In addition to the 246 contemporary guestrooms and suites at the Resort, new Golf Suites are now available as a convenient and comfortable lodging option for stay-and-play vacations. Each of the four newly designed golf-themed suites accommodates four to five guests in two deluxe rooms connected by a living room with a pullout sofa and kitchen.
“The Golf Suites are ideal for anything from casual buddy trips to corporate outings,” said general manager Barr. “They allow groups to gather together after the round and continue the fun in a spacious, comfortable setting.”
Other options include the Grille at the Clubhouse that was renovated last fall moving away from the traditional desert terra cotta schematic to light greys. There is now a refined feel with the new décor and lighting for evenings, but it retains the casual and comfortable post-round atmosphere.
The Casino itself, besides all the games, offers a selection of options including the all-you-can eat Red Rock Buffet, Noodles Sushiya, the Silver Platter for burgers and shakes, and the New York Deli. At the resort, the Ahnala Mesquite Room has been remodeled and now has a more casual feel with a blue and green color palette, golf course art, and a very creative and enticing menu from an array of appetizers to terrific steaks and other fine entrees.
Whichever option you choose, it’s a good time to think back over the round, the spectacular views, and plan the next day. When you walk off either course, it is almost impossible to resist setting up a tee time on the other one.
Story by Hal Quinn