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Golf Course Review - We-Ko-Pa Golf Club (Cholla/Saguaro Courses)

11:34 AM, Apr 20, 2012   |    comments
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Fountain Hills, Arizona (Sports Network) - FACTS & STATS: Cholla Course Architect: Scott Miller (2001). Year Opened: 2001. Location: Fountain Hills, Arizona. Slope: 136. Rating: 73.0. Par: 72. Yardage: 7,225.

Hole-by-Hole:

1 - Par 4 351 Yds 10 - Par 5 566 Yds

2 - Par 5 588 Yds 11 - Par 3 220 Yds

3 - Par 3 178 Yds 12 - Par 4 390 Yds

4 - Par 4 469 Yds 13 - Par 4 420 Yds

5 - Par 3 207 Yds 14 - Par 3 177 Yds

6 - Par 4 436 Yds 15 - Par 4 327 Yds

7 - Par 4 350 Yds 16 - Par 4 472 Yds

8 - Par 5 605 Yds 17 - Par 5 578 Yds

9 - Par 4 459 Yds 18 - Par 4 432 Yds

Par 36 3,643 Yds Par 36 3,582 Yds

Awards Won: Top-10 Best New Golf Courses (Sports Illustrated, 2001), Rated as One of the Top New Courses in America by Golf Magazine, #1 Public Course in Scottsdale area by Desert Golf Magazine (2003), Top 100 Best Golf Shops in America (Golf World Business (2004-06), Rated 4 1/2 stars by Golf Digest - Best Places to Play (2004-06), #38 Top 100 You Can Play by Golf Magazine (2004-05), #3 public access course Arizona - Golfweek's America's Best (2009), Rated 10th - Best Casino Courses by Golfweek (2010), #46 by Golfweek - Best Resort Courses (2010), Rated #2 by Golf Magazine - Best AZ Courses You Can Play (2010), Ranked #3 by Golfweek - Best Courses You Can Play in AZ (2011), #3 public access course Arizona - Golfweek's America's Best (2011), #25 by Golf Digest - Best in State Rankings - Arizona (2011).

Saguaro Course Architects: Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw (2006). Year Opened: Dec. 16, 2006. Location: Fountain Hills, Arizona. Slope: 138. Rating: 72.4. Par: 71. Yardage: 6,966.

Hole-by-Hole:

1 - Par 4 469 Yds 10 - Par 4 337 Yds

2 - Par 4 336 Yds 11 - Par 3 197 Yds

3 - Par 4 416 Yds 12 - Par 4 476 Yds

4 - Par 5 631 Yds 13 - Par 4 470 Yds

5 - Par 3 178 Yds 14 - Par 5 538 Yds

6 - Par 4 442 Yds 15 - Par 3 255 Yds

7 - Par 4 331 Yds 16 - Par 4 328 Yds

8 - Par 5 515 Yds 17 - Par 4 402 Yds

9 - Par 3 137 Yds 18 - Par 4 508 Yds

Par 36 3,455 Yds Par 35 3,511 Yds

Awards Won: Ranked #3 Best Casino Courses - Golfweek (2009-10), #18 rated Best Resort Courses - Golfweek (2010), Must Play Course by Golf Magazine (2010), #19 rated Best Resort Courses - Golfweek (2011), #1 Best Public Access Course in Arizona - Golfweek (2009-12), Ranked #1 by Golfweek - Best Courses You Can Play in AZ (2011), Ranked 85th by Golfweek - America's Top 100 Modern Courses (2011).

Website: www.wekopa.com

HISTORY: During my first visit to We-Ko-Pa Golf Club, history was just beginning to be made in the Arizona desert.

The Cholla golf course had just been designed and was receiving rave reviews when it opened in late 2001.

The accolades continued, and then in 2006 the Saguaro course opened its tees to the public and the lore of We-Ko-Pa grew even larger.

Built on the edge of Scottsdale on land owned by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, We-Ko-Pa is the Yavapai tribe's way of saying "Four Peaks Mountain", as the courses pay homage to those who originally traveled and inhabited the land. The courses have few equals in beauty, vistas and settings.

The desert scenery is, as are most offerings like this in Arizona, of unparalleled beauty with amazing views of the mountains and the surrounding area. One is compelled to point out the conditioning of the courses and, finally, make careful note of the fact there are no homes, Starbucks or McDonald's nearby. That adds up to a golfer's paradise ... just golf.

"The lack of commercial development is one of the many things that sets We-Ko- Pa apart from the competition," said Ed Francese, President of OB Sports, which manages the courses.

Architect Scott Miller, mostly noted for his design of Coeur d'Alene Resort Golf Course in Idaho and restoration projects with Jack Nicklaus at Augusta National, Castle Pines and Muirfield Village, was given the task of designing the first course at We-Ko-Pa, the Cholla layout, and, boy, did he ever.

Miller moved over 500,000 cubic yards of land in crafting this beauty, utilizing the natural desert washes to create some unique holes.

In addition, even after its doors opened, Miller was able to make necessary changes to both soften and stiffen the layout.

"It's normal to modify a course after it opens," Miller said. "The Yavapai Nation was very supportive of the changes."

Not only did Miller and his design team add new teeing grounds on several holes, they rerouted cart paths, adjusted landing areas on a couple of holes and cleaned out some vegetation that had blocked certain views on the course and off.

The powers that be certainly didn't rest on their laurels, as they persuaded the renowned team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to craft the Saguaro Course just five years later.

As many know, the Coore and Crenshaw philosophy is to adjust their design style to fit the land, respecting the beauty and natural lay of the property.

Designs such as Sand Hills (Neb.), Hidden Creek (N.J.), The Dormie Club (N.C.) and Friar's Head (N.Y.) are stunning examples of their talent.

Saguaro is no exception to that rule.

The duo moved just 25,000 cubic yards of dirt, unheard of with most of today's course architects.

The end result was a par-71 layout, just under 7,000 yards on 68 acres.

"This piece of land has some very interesting natural movement to it," Crenshaw said. "I think this golf course will be pretty unique for the desert. People will be induced to play different shots and find solutions to new challenges when playing this course."

Where the Cholla Course features more of a target-style of golf, Saguaro makes you think throughout your round.

Either way, you'll be impressed with either track.

REVIEW - CHOLLA COURSE: We-Ko-Pa Cholla opens simply enough with a dog-leg left par-four from an elevated tee over a large waste area bunker, then to a wide landing area. A fairway metal will leave you with a simple wedge to the second-smallest green on the front nine, although it is 33 yards deep. It's a definite birdie possibility, unless the pin is back right.

The second is a monster of a par-five at 588 yards from the tournament tees. The hole bends to the right and finishes left at the green. A big drive over the right corner of the scrub will leave 270-300 yards from pay dirt. After a sensible lay up on the right side of the fairway, you are left with a gentle pitch to a narrow green. Missing left will leave a difficult uphill pitch to a very undulating surface.

No. 3 is the first of four outstanding par threes on the course. Not overly long at 178 yards, the tee shot must carry over desert land to a green protected right and front by sand and left by a large hill that serves as the fourth tee. Toss in a fairly impressive undulating green with a ridge in the center and you'll be ecstatic just making par.

The fourth is a rugged 469-yard par-four featuring a 230-yard carry from the tips. A not-so-simple long iron or fairway metal remains to a difficult putting surface (aren't they all?). There is no shame at this juncture in making bogey.

The difficulty on the fifth is not just the distance of 207 yards, but the narrow green, which is just 21 feet across and 37 feet deep. Toss in a quartet of bunkers right and long and a steep rise left and this hole adds up to trouble with a capital "T." To further complicate matters, the deep bunker that parallels the green on the right is a disaster waiting to happen.

The sixth is a great risk-reward par-four. Doglegging to the right, the player has the option of biting off as much as possible in efforts to leave a shorter approach shot. To cut the corner, the drive must clear the desert and a series of bunkers guarding the fairway. Gambling in the resort's casino has more appeal than that shot. Play it safe and 200-plus awaits. Hitting the green will be difficult at just 29 yards in depth, the smallest on the course. If you miss the surface, getting up and down should not be a problem as only long and left will produce a big number.

The seventh is certainly a "Fun and Gun" type hole. Just 350 yards from the tips, the hole bends to the right and features cactus, scrub and rock in the center of the fairway. From the gold buttons, a drive of 262 yards is needed to fly the mess; however, there is room right and left. Only a sand wedge is left to an elevated green that is the second-longest on the front side. Back and left is a difficult pin position as three bunkers play guardian to the two-tiered putting surface.

One of the most picturesque and challenging holes on the course, the eighth awaits those carrying cameras as well as clubs ... and it is long, so let it rip and have the telephoto lens attached. At 605 yards, you're a candidate for frequent flyer mileage, so just pull out the big dog and let it rip. The challenge on this dogleg right is your second shot. The problem here is that you are forced to lay up at the 150-yard spot as the fairway ends as rough and a dry creek bed take over. Yes, John Daly can get home, but us mortal folks need a better area for an approach. The downward slope from tee to green is, in a word, grand, leaving the player with a beautiful vista of the surrounding mountains.

Quite a sight. The outward nine closes with a long par-four and a split fairway divided by a series of three bunkers 260 yards out. Ample room right and left but missing off to the right could cause headaches due to one of only two water hazards on the course. The putting surface is slightly elevated and protected nicely by three sand traps. If you're not ready to sell your clubs, read on.

The inward nine begins with another split fairway. This time around, however, it's a par-five of 566 yards with a desert garden of saguaro (cactus) and sand 220 yards out. There's no chance at getting home in two, so lay up short of the fairway bunkers, right and left of the fairway and you'll have a simple sand wedge of 100 yards. The putting surface is very undulating and 42 paces in length, so an easy par ... won't be.

The longest par-three on the course, the 11th, is a personal favorite. There's mountain views behind the green, three deep and menacing bunkers, front and left, and a 38-yard-long putting surface. If each hole had a name, this one would likely be "Beauty and the Beast." Take some time to draw a breath as you reach what is possibly the easiest part of the course.

No. 12 is just 390 yards, and features a very wide fairway, although it narrows the further down you try to take it. Your approach shot plays right to a green that features a spine running down the center and a pair of bunkers guarding the entrance. An easy hole, but be careful because, as with most holes at We-Ko-Pa, rugged desert scrub awaits the errant shot.

The 13th is a straightaway par-four with an enormous fairway. Miss this landing area and you might want to shoot yourself, so just to be on the safe side, load up with blanks. The only trouble off the tee is a daunting tree in the right center of the fairway. The green is narrow at just 24 yards wide and elevated, but par should not be a problem.

The shortest hole on the course, the 14th is a downhill par-three with one of the bigger greens, at 44 yards in length. The surface is two- tiered, running back to front, and is guarded by two-deep and large bunkers left and back. Choosing the right club is of utmost importance, so if the wind is up, this could plays as one of the hardest holes instead of the easiest on the card.

The 15th is a blast ... literally. Only 327 yards, the back tee is situated 50 yards to the right of the cart path. Your drive is forced to carry 200 yards over desert and scrub to a narrow fairway protected by a pair of bunkers on the right. The other option is to let it rip and try and drive the green. Not only does the fairway open up closer to the green, the putting surface is the largest on the course at 54 yards deep and 36 yards wide - not a bad target. Go for it!

With just three holes remaining, these beauties could be defined as some of the best golf in the region.

The 16th is a massive, dogleg left par-four - target golf at its best. Stretching 472 yards from the tips, the tee shot must carry 250 yards past a deep, daunting bunker on the left corner. Cutting the corner is not an option, as desert and scrub await, so don't be cute. You'll be left with a long approach over a large waste area to an elevated green with an invisible putting surface. The green is relatively flat, with a slight slope from back to front. Once again, no shame in making bogey.

No. 17 is another long par-five that plays downhill all the way from tee to green. Bending slightly to the left, your tee shot must avoid sand left and a long bunker right, some 250 yards from the tips. Laying up is not so easy, as the fairway narrows in the landing area. A successful second will leave a wedge to a long (43 paces in length), but narrow green that slopes from back to front. Four is a definite possibility, but so is seven.

We-Ko-Pa concludes with a phenomenal hole featuring water, desert, sand and, of course, danger. From the tee the downhill 18th provides the player with a pair of options - go straight with a three-metal and dissect the two trees in the fairway, leaving a 150-yard second shot ... or, go left with the Big Dog, clearing sand and desert, resulting in just a simple wedge. The one catch with going left is water. A huge lake sits to the right of the left fairway and at the end of the right section of the split fairway. While the right side is quite wide, the left area is quite narrow. The sensible player (yours truly), played smart and had an eight-iron left to a long, slender green. The approach shot must clear the lake as well as sand to be successful. The putting surface is very tricky, especially with a back-right flag. You can now breath!

SAGUARO COURSE: Coore and Crenshaw wasted little time getting the player involved on the Saguaro course, as it opens with a wicked, 469-yard par-four. This dogleg left features a fairly wide landing area, but even with a successful tee ball, you'll still be left with a medium-to-long iron to a decent-sized putting surface. Sand guards the right, while desert looms left. Laying up short of the green is not a bad play, as this will leave a simple pitch and run for par. Make sure you clear the 20-yard desert wash that starts at the 90-yard mark or you'll have a rude awakening to start your round.

A bit of reprieve on the second, as this slight, dogleg right is just 336 yards in length. The difference here is that the fairway is tighter, slopes from left to right and has several bunkers strategically placed in the landing zone. Although you'll have a short iron in, the green is one of the longest on the course at 39 paces in length, with a ridge running from top to bottom. Avoid the right side, as sand will dictate your score.

The par-four third is a sweeping dogleg left, one of six par-fours over 400 yards in length. Try not to cut too much of the corner, as you may end up with the cactus. There's more room to err on the right and although you'll have a longer approach, it sure beats picking needles out of your hands. The putting surface is undulating, so make sure your approach is controlled or you'll be looking at a three-putt.

The longest hole at We-Ko-Pa, the fourth is a massive, 631-yard par-five that will hardly be reached in two, let alone three by some of us. The tee shot is critical, as fairway bunkers guard the left, as well as the right-center. If successful, fairway metal should be enough to put you in proper position to attach the hole. The green is circular in design and quite small at just 29 paces in depth. Anywhere on this putting surface and you have a shot at birdie.

No. five is a wonderful, medium-length par-three, just 178 yards long. The key is finding the putting surface, as the green is virtually surrounded by desert, not to mention a pair of front bunkers. Twists and turns on the short grass will keep you honest. Easy, but not that easy.

Another rugged par-four, the sixth reaches 442 yards and sweeps from right to left, as it plays uphill from the tee. Avoid the long fairway bunker down the left and you'll be home free. That is, until you reach for a medium-to-long iron in an effort to get on in regulation. The green is devoid of sand. That's the good news. The bad, is that it's long and narrow, so regulation might be an issue.

The seventh can best be described as fun and games. At just 331 yards, it can be driveable for the big boys, although it's uphill, while the not-so stout, can get home if they play the correct tees. If you decide not to "Mess with the Zohan" - yes, a little Adam Sandler reference - you can make birdie the old fashioned way. Just a long iron off the tee will leave less than a hundred yards in. So if you're accurate with the wedge, not a bad play. If you decide to go for it, you'll have to contend with a quartet of pot bunkers dotted near and in front of the green. At 38 paces, the putting surface is the longest on the front nine, but this is birdie time.

A very reachable par-five, the eighth can be had ... with a good tee shot. The landing area is comfortable, but the farther down the fairway you go, the tighter it gets. That's the real challenge. Having said that, the landing area and the green are open to attack, so play a sweeping draw and roll one up close for an eagle. Worst-case scenario, the greenside bunker on the left makes for an easy up-and-down for birdie. Although it's rated as the third- most difficult on the course, this hole will give up plenty of birdies. Don't get lost in the beautiful scenery in the distance. Stay focused and make a four.

The closing hole on the outward nine is also the easiest and shortest on the Saguaro course. Just 137 yards from the back tees, so figure a deuce on the card ... right? Well, not so fast. Although it's a short iron, you'll have to negotiate one of the quirkiest greens. Three bunkers guard the putting surface, front and both sides. The front section of the green is quite narrow, so a close pin will be tough to hit. The back portion opens up at bit, so go for it when the flag is deep.

No. 10 is a well-conceived dogleg right par-four. From the back tee, you'll need a drive over 200 yards to clear the desert wash to reach the fairway. Cut too much of the dogleg and you'll end up in sandy scrub. A successful tee shot will leave a short iron to a very long putting surface with a pot bunker positioned front and center. Avoid the trap and you'll have a birdie try.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the 11th, a fairly long par-three, reaching 197 yards. Although the scorecard reads the 18th-rated hole on the course, it is far from that. A long iron or fairway metal is required to reach the slightly elevated green, but that's just half the battle, as the putting surface is long and narrow with two bunkers right and chipping areas left and rear. This is where the course really heats up.

From one of the longest par-threes to the second-longest par-four on the Saguaro course, the 12th is a wonderful 476-yarder that requires two stellar shots for success. The tee shot is one of the toughest, as the fairway is quite narrow in spots and pinched within sand on either side. A fairly long iron or hybrid will be needed to reach the second-longest green on the course. The lone bonus on the 47-yard long putting surface is that it's devoid of sand.

Not much of a respite on the 13th, another lengthy par-four. Another carry over the desert to a fairly wide landing area, but beware of the diabolical bunker in the middle of the zone. Left fairway, although tighter, is the best side to play from. Again, a long iron or hybrid will be required to reach another long putting surface. A front bunker and chipping areas surround this green, making your attempt at par very difficult.

A true risk-reward, the par-five 14th features a couple options of play. With a split fairway in the shape of New Jersey, the bold player can shave some 30-40 yards with a drive toward the right, thus leaving a medium-to-long iron into the par-five. This is quite risky, as the landing area is completely surrounded by the desert. The safe play to the left will leave a longer approach into the hole, but still doable. If you're forced to lay up, this could get tricky, as the landing area is extremely narrow. Finally, the putting surface is long and narrow with several humps throughout. So if you thought that this short par five was just what the doctor ordered to help your score, well, as they say in Jersey, "Fughedaboutit."

A 255-yard par-three and it's rated as the 16th-easiest hole on the course ... really? Hard to believe, but that's what the scorecard says of the 15th. This is quite typical, as most course raters, put par-threes as the easiest on the card. What a mistake. Back in the day, this would have been a driveable par-four and even if you played from the white markers, it's still over 200 yards long. The one bright spot is that it plays downhill from the tee. However, the green is the longest on the course at 53 paces. There is no shame in making four here.

In contrast, No. 16 is a 328-yard par-four that has birdie written all over it. A dogleg to the right and playing uphill from tee to green, this shortie features a very wide fairway, so take out the big stick to leave yourself a simple approach. The green is oval and not very deep, so attack with the wedge. A tricky pin up front will bring two bunkers into play, so play past the flag and spin it back to get it close.

Although it's just over 400 yards and uphill, the 17th is also a birdie hole. Bending slightly to the left, this par-four possesses a wide landing area. In fact, it will take a blast over 300 yards from the tips to reach the right fairway bunker. The rolling fairway is framed beautifully by the mountains in the distance. Back to golf. A medium iron is left to a moderate-sized green with just one trap (left-front) to steer clear of. Not too undulating, so you realistically have a shot at three.

When you first look at the scorecard, you see that the closing hole is over 500 yards, so you think you're finishing with a par-five.

You would be sorely mistaken.

The tee shot on the closing hole is the key to conquering the 18th. This par- five, I mean four, features an offset tee box, so a sweeping draw is your best bet. This will leave a hybrid at best to get home, although it plays slightly downhill. Toss in a 40-yard green with sand right and rear and you have one heck of a finishing hole. Feel free to bailout left, as this is the side with the least trouble and will set up a solid chance for an up and down.

FINAL WORD: I could stop right here and say "great courses," but I would not be doing them justice. We-Ko-Pa is unique, awesome, lush, pure, immaculate and beautiful.

Let's start with the clubhouse. Designed by award-winning architect Douglas Fredrikson, the clubhouse is 21,000 square feet with a full service restaurant, bar and conference room, all of which sits above the course featuring amazing views of the surrounding mountains and desert.

Next, the golf shop, in just a short period of time, is ranked as one of the Top 100 in the United States. It's fully stocked with all of the necessities and much, much more.

The practice facility includes multiple targets, four putting greens, a chipping area, which includes a practice bunker and plenty of hitting stations. It's as immaculate as the courses.

The golf ... well, We-Ko-Pa has it all. The courses feature a great combination of brawn and beauty, doglegs and straightaway holes, deep bunkers and desert. Toss in a little bit of water (Cholla only), split fairways, saguaros reaching for the sky and you have all the makings of some of the best courses, not only in Arizona but in the United States.

Several resorts in the region boast two courses on its premises, Troon North, The Boulders, Grayhawk and Talking Stick to name a few, but few can compare to the outstanding layouts at We-Ko-Pa.

With the addition of the Saguaro Course, We-Ko-Pa moved to the forefront of golf in the Scottsdale area.

Don't take my word for it. Golfweek has rated the Saguaro course as the No. 1 public access course in Arizona and the Cholla layout No. 3.

From top to bottom, from tee to green, We-Ko-Pa's layouts are a must to play over and over and over again. The conditioning of the courses are second to none. Fairways are as green as emeralds, desert scrub as difficult as the Sahara and greens as smooth as glass. And beauty? Well, it's not Shadow Creek but it is one of the most scenic courses in the "Grand Canyon" state. At any time during your round, glance around and take notice of "Four Peaks Mountain" to the east or Red Mountain south and the McDowell Mountains to the west.

Let's not forget the reasonable price tag, $185 in-season and just $75 during the summer. You could always move to the area and you'd never pay more than $95, whether it's peak season or summer, or as little as $45.

Even if you're just visiting, the stay and play packages are outstanding, with accommodations at the adjacent AAA Four Diamond Radisson Fort McDowell Resort.

To me, the clincher is the playability of the courses.

Both courses offer four sets of tees, with the Cholla layout ranging from 5,334 to 7,225 yards and a composite set of markers at 6,436 yards, while the Saguaro, a par-71 course, starts at 5,061 yards and reaches 6,966 yards. In addition, the Saguaro, a great walking course, boasts a composite set of tees for the ladies at 5,786 yards.

The bottom line, We-Ko-Pa is for everyone, not just the scratch golfer.

Although Miller moved more ground than Coore and Crenshaw, crafting a more "target-styled" layout, he was able to create a wonderful venue without disturbing the natural vegetation, while using it to his advantage. Although water is evident on three of the holes, it realistically comes into play on only the 18th. What you see, is what you get.

With the addition of the Saguaro Course, We-Ko-Pa has been enhanced two-fold, as this course complements Cholla, in that it blends all of the natural vegetation into a wide variety of holes and a distinctive routing that allows for a great walk on a Sunday afternoon, or any day for that matter.

Strategy is key at We-Ko-Pa as even the best of players must be able to negotiate all of the variety thrown at them, including the hundreds of ancient Saguaro Cacti dotted throughout the property.

We-Ko-Pa Golf Club not only makes my list of best courses in the country but will continue to get my business on each and every trip to Arizona. Mssr's Miller, Coore and Crenshaw, my compliments for a job well done!

Aces, pars or bogeys, send your thoughts to psokol@sportsnetwork.com.

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