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Club Selection: We-Ko-Pa Golf Club

When you snowbird toward Phoenix-Scottsdale this fall and winter don’t forget about We-Ko-Pa’s 36-hole award-winning complex. And certainly don’t forget about it when a new state-of-the art We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort opens next summer.

This casino and resort project has been talked about for 20 years and you can bet the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation is thrilled to make a great resort into an outstanding one.

We-Ko-Pa Golf Club might just be the ultimate example of what one golfer likes, another golfer might have a different opinion.

Don’t get me wrong both 18s at the complex have scored awards from every publication that gives awards, but which one is best – Cholla or Saguaro – is typically split 50 percent.

“One golfer will tell me he likes Cholla best and the next golfer will tell me he likes Saguaro better,” said Matt Barr, general manager.

The winner is the travel golfer and the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, which was created on September 15, 1903. The “white” man probably thought back then this 40-square mile reservation was without value — a desert, rocky landscape.

But when the Cholla opened on December 14, 2001, the last laugh was heard by the Yavapais, a Native American nation of about 950. Needless to say, the excellence of the golf courses, financed by the Fort McDowell Casino, is a source of great pride among tribe members.

Today, the white man loves the place, saying golf architect Scott Miller has created a target-golf course that is mentioned in the same conversations with upscale daily-fee desert award-winners such as Troon North, The Boulders, Grayhawk, Legend Trail, Talking Stick, Ak-Chin Southern Dunes, and the Golf Club at Dove Mountain and Quintero Golf Club.

But just to solidify its ranking as one of the best golf complexes in Arizona Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore added the Saguaro 18 in 2006.

The We-Ko-Pa experience

“Travel golfers love that there are no houses to be seen,” said Barr. “It can be tranquil and serene. And golfers enjoy that the courses are designed by two different architect firms. You can play all day long and get so much variety.”

The scenery is as good as it gets in Arizona. Views include the Verde River, McDowell Mountains, Red Mountain, Superstitions, Matazal Mountains and Four Peaks (We-Ko-Pa in Yavapai) rises 7,000 feet in elevation.

“Lots of people think we are way out in the middle of nowhere,” Barr said. But the 25 mile drive from Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport is worth the ride just for the rolling scenery of the Sonoran Desert.

Awards have blanketed both courses but Saguaro was recently named Golfweek’s Best State-by-State’s No. 1 in Arizona for the 11th time in 12 years.

We-Ko-Pa Saguaro

Saguaro has more traditional features than Cholla. “Tees are closer to greens, the fairways are wider and the rough creeps into the desert,” said Barr.  “Also the bunker fringes have more ragged edges.”

“This piece of land has some very interesting natural movement to it,” said Ben Crenshaw of the Saguaro course. “I think this golf course is unique for the desert. Golfers are induced to play different shots and find solutions to new challenges when playing this course.”

This routing allowed for a blend of short and long par four holes with less than 25,000 cubic yards of material moved.  That created 68 acres of turf that plays 6,996 yards at par 71 from the back tees. The prevailing southwest wind creates many crosswind situations.

Coore and Crenshaw have always debated the use of alternate fairway holes, but Coore thought about Red Lawrence’s 1962 Desert Forest design, 30 miles north in Carefree, when they laid out No. 14, which has an alternate smaller fairway right. This 538-yard par 5 allows you to hit to a left fairway, which is safer, but if you negotiate the smaller right fairway it gives you a shorter approach with a better angle. The course is all about attack angles.

We-Ko-Pa Cholla

Scottsdale-based Scott Miller, a protégé of Jack Nicklaus for more than a decade, created a challenging 7,225 yards, par 72, from the back tees that transitions smoothly into larger target landing areas from all tees.

Small amounts of dirt were moved in construction meaning the holes blend with the natural landscape. Miller was an artist by situating greens into natural draws or arroyos and box canyons, then framing them with sculpted bunkers, waste areas, centuries-old saguaros and rock outcroppings.

And talk about an economy of bunkers — there’s only 75 of them and holes 1, 2, 8 and 13 don’t have any greenside traps. Approach shots on 13 through 18 have zero bunkers in front creating an opening to run your Pro V1 up with a pitch or the Texas wedge.

No. 8, a 587-yard par-5 is downhill dogleg that runs along a box canyon. In front of the green the landing area seems tiny with an arroyo waste area left and a pint-sized piece of fairway sloping down to the putting surface. If you lay up back from this section of the fairway you are on a severe down slope. This could be the most photographed hole.

Saguaro’s Bunker Renovation

We-Ko-Pa’s Saguaro Course had extensive bunker renovation beginning in July of 2018. The project enhanced drainage and playability of all bunkers.

“Over the past 12 years, our flagship course has begun to show some signs of natural aging just like any golf course or outdoor playing field,” said Barr. “In order to maintain a high level of playability and consistency for the next decade, we decided to take a preemptive measure to ensure our guests experience the best possible playing conditions at our club, and an experience that matches Saguaro’s position as Arizona’s best public golf course.”

The three-step renovation process included removing all existing sand from the current bunkers to inspect the drain lines for damage. Once necessary repairs have been made to the drain lines and they are restored to original specifications, the maintenance teams will install new sand – a mixture of Augusta White and Arizona Gold – and inspect for consistency. The iconic Coore Crenshaw Inc. bunker design will remain intact and untouched.

“The renovated drainage system and new sand will make for a much better playing experience, especially out of greenside bunkers,” said Ryan Kreizenbeck, director of maintenance at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club. “You just have to know every 10 years or so, you’re going to have to do something with the bunkers to clean them up and make sure they’re draining properly again.”

Stay and Play

We-Ko-Pa Resort & Conference Center features 246 contemporary guestrooms and suites designed with Native American traditions. Amenities include Southwestern cuisine at Ahnala Restaurant, spa treatments and salon services at the Amethyst Spa and a huge heated outdoor pool with two whirlpools.

Fort McDowell Casino, right next door is for gaming, and there are numerous outdoor activities at Fort McDowell Adventures.

Until the brand-new We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort opens next summer (2020) check out golf packages with the complex at:

Story By David R. Holland