Whirlwind Golf Club: Part of Valley's Most Ambitious Resort Project

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHANDLER, AZ - The South Mountains flank the southwestern side of the Phoenix valley like a giant, medieval castle wall. The ancient Gila River sits just south of the mountains - a sometimes on again, mostly off again dry riverbed that was once the lifeblood of the Gila River Indian Community.

On most days, the dust blows from the bottom of the river like it does from the surrounding Sonoran Desert floor, its waters tamed, and then purged by a burgeoning population of residents, new and old, that has shown no signs of letting up and probably won't until the Colorado River looks about the same.

With the River becoming nothing more than a massive, arid ditch generously represented by a thick, meandering blue ribbon on the map, the Gila River Indian Community has turned its attention to new lifeblood - golf.

Devil's Claw golf course at Whirlwind Golf Club opened just over a year ago as part of a $125 million project that includes a 500-room resort hotel, and another 18-hole golf course set to open this fall. The course was designed by Gary Panks, and has already added a Buy.com Tour event to its impressive resume.

The project is the result of years of research conducted by the Tribal Council of the Gila River Indian Community, and is funded by profits from the Community's casinos. Before embarking on the project - one of the most ambitious undertakings in the Valley in the past ten years - Community leaders visited Las Vegas, NV., Albuquerque, NM., Palm Springs, CA. and San Antonio, TX., where Native American-owned golf courses had been successfully operated since the early 1990's.

"The concept here is to have a totally self-contained experience," says Ryan Howard, Whirlwind's Director of Group Sales. "This is the most ambitious resort project in the Valley in close to a decade. They are really going after the conference market, and with everything just 15 minutes from the airport, it is an attractive option for corporations."

Howard is quick to point out, however, that the corporate dollar has all but evaporated from the Valley, and the national golf course economy. Drastic economic times have called for drastic measures from America's Fortune 500 companies, and Howard says that group outings are at an all-time low throughout the region.

"Right now at Troon (golf course management company), we've turned our focus back to the individual player and the locals because they are carrying us right now," Howard says.

When the corporate dollar does resurface, Whirlwind Golf Club and the Wild Horse Pass Resort are poised to become one of the Valley's most sought after golf destinations. Devil's Claw has already blossomed into one of the area's best tracks, for the money.

The entire course is set against the backdrop of the South and Estrella Mountain Ranges on 242 acres of desert, stocked with indigenous grasses, plants, and stands of Mesquite, Saguaro, Palo Verde and Cottonwood trees.

And just as important, Devil's Claw offers golfers something they can find at only a select number of courses around the state - real estate free golf.

"There will never be homes out here, because of the Community," Howard says. "That in itself is enough to get golfers out here. Then when they see the course, they can't believe they have it to themselves."

The conditioning at Devil's Claw has flirted with perfection since the course opened its doors in 2001. The course makes a legitimate claim to being player friendly, as the landing areas for tee shots are as wide as the runways at nearby Sky Harbor Airport. The greens, for the most part, are medium sized and subtly tiered to provide golfers with some challenging rolls should they misplace their approaches.

The method to Panks' madness is to challenge players to avoid his deep, strategically placed fairway and green side bunkers. On most par four and fives, players will find that either the left or right side of the fairway is heavily bunkered, right in the heart of the landing area.

"A few players have complained that the bunkers are exactly where they drive the ball, between 230 to 250 yards from the Gold tees," Howard says. "But there is still a football field sized landing area to work with, on most holes. Panks had to do something to keep the good players from walking all over the course."

Howard and the Whirlwind staff consider No. 9 to be the course's signature hole, and a pretty good case can be made.

The hole plays 441 yards from the Black Tees, 393 from the Silver, and features a split fairway designed for different caliber players. To the right, the landing area is much more generous, requires a shorter carry over the brush to get to the fairway and sets up better for the average golfer.

The approach shot, however, will be up to a club longer if you miss it too far right, and the green will be harder to hit from the approach angle.

If you play the hole to the left side, the fairway is significantly tighter and requires a carry of 220 yards from the back tees just to make it over the desert waste area. The reward for the risk taken is a club less on the approach and a much better angle into the green.

A strong case for signature hole status can be made for the par three 16th, one of the most artfully designed one-shotters in the Valley. Panks blended the turfed bank behind the hole with the natural desert bluff on the left, and the effect is nothing short of surreal.

The backdrop for the hole is Komate Mountain - one of the most culturally significant peaks within the exterior boundaries of the Community.

"The par threes in general out here make the course in so many ways," Howard says. "They vary in length from long iron to wedge, and truly make you use every club in the bag all while providing some stunning views."

A second Panks Course, Cat Tail, is scheduled to open this fall, and Howard says the 7,000 yard layout will actually become the resort's flagship course, and will take over the Buy.com Tour event duties.

"Cat Tail will be a bit longer, and there will be water in play on a number of holes," Howard says. "It will be slightly more difficult for the average player, because of the water and not the extra distance."

Cat Tail will also feature some jaw-dropping views of the surrounding Ahwatukee and South Mountain Ranges, and a couple of holes will actually snuggle up against the resort hotel. For guests whom need a brief reprieve from desert golf, the casino floors await. The Gila River Community is home to two fully operational casinos that have provided the Community with the "silly" money needed to fund the entire project.

The resort will also sport a working, replica of the Gila River, which will carve its way through the property, allowing guests to travel between the hotel to the casinos by boat. The faux Gila will be close to 1.5 miles long, and will range from 12 to 30 yards wide.

How to Get There

Whirlwind Golf Club is located ¾ of a mile west of I-10 off Maricopa Road - exit 162. Take I-10 East to Maricopa Road (exit 162). Exit South onto Maricopa Rd. Travel for approximately ¼ of a mile to the first paved road to the right (west). Turn right onto North Loop Rd (no street sign - next to Firebird Raceway gate 2) and follow it to the end (approximately ¾ of a mile) to the golf shop.

Sharp Says: Simply put, the best new course for the money in the area. Summer rates dip as low at $43 and peak season rates stay below $150. Designed to host professional golf events, like its current Buy.com Tour stop, the practice facilities are awesome - check out the putting green right behind the clubhouse. The surrounding, low lying desert vegetation can't compare to the lush Sonoran desert settings of Scottsdale area courses, but the layout goes toe to toe with almost any of them.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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