Wigwam Gold's revamp resurrects Trent Jones Sr.'s monster bunkers

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

LITCHFIELD PARK, Ariz. - On reaching the 10th tee at the newly renovated Gold Course at Wigwam Resort and Golf Club, you should be handed a cigarette and a shovel.

Wigwam Resort Golf Club Gold Course - No.10
The bunker's endless and tree-blocked on Wigwam Gold's revamped No. 10.
Wigwam Resort Golf Club Gold Course - No.10Wigwam Resort Golf Club Gold Course - GreensWigwam Resort Golf Club Gold Course - WaterWigwam Resort Golf Club Gold Course - Lake
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Wigwam Golf Club - Gold Course

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451 N Litchfield Rd
Litchfield Park, Arizona 85340
Maricopa County
Phone(s): (623) 935-9414
18 Holes | Resort golf course | Par: 72 | 7345 yards | Book online | ... details »

Somebody needs to brace you for what's ahead.

This is one seriously sinister hole, capable of severely arresting any development on your scorecard. You know restoration architect Forrest Richardson wanted to bring back the feel and intent of Robert Trent Jones Sr.'s original bunkering. You didn't know that Jones apparently wanted to bury you in enough sand to leave your wedge gasping for air.

"I've never seen a bunker that long in my life," local golfer Alex Cortez said.

There aren't supposed to be any beaches in landlocked Arizona. You might dispute that after playing the new No. 10 at Wigwam Gold.

Halfway down the fairway on right side is a bunker that could pass for the beachfront at Normandy. It's so long, it seems to have a prologue, a story and a postscript. It's so long that there's not just one towering palm tree in play, there's three. Two of them aren't technically in the bunker, but they butt against it as close as bumpers in a fender bender. They still block and play havoc with shots.

And that's just some of the sand found on a 630-yard par 5 that includes a pond partially blocking the path to a tucked-away green that from the tee looks to be as far away as Switzerland. Yeah, it's pretty safe to say that Richardson's restored some of the roar to Wigwam Gold.

The Gold, opened in 1961, long served as the showpiece of the Wigwam Resort's three courses. For a while now, though, it's been an afterthought more than a must-play, and the $5 million renovation completed in the fall of 2005 is crucial to its future.

Long the linchpin in a once-isolated West Valley golf zone, the Wigwam now finds itself located in what has emerged as the biggest growth spot in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area.

Home to several new courses and getting trendier by the day, the West Valley is where hackers tired of the usual Phoenix-Scottsdale scene can find a new experience. The Wigwam does not want to be left behind.

Enter Richardson. Enter the bunkers of revenge.

Anyone who's beaten up on Robert Trent Jones' largely flat track in the last decade - and there have been plenty - are going to find a course that forces more challenging shots. It hasn't exactly gone from puppy to pit bull, but Wigwam Gold can more than defend itself.

It's still a largely flat, almost parkland-style track. This is part of the Wigwam's charm: It's more like an old Palm Springs course than a new-age Scottsdale one. It goes back to the time when golf courses in the desert tried to make everyone forget they were actually in the desert.

"It's very different than the other courses around," Tucson golfer Jason Dickinson said. "It's nice to see all the green."Richardson builds on that by making the bunkers pop out more from the green fairways, reshaping some greens and adding dashes of drama.

Take No. 18. This used to be arguably the most vanilla closing hole in the entire Phoenix Valley. Wigwam's own director of golf, Craig Allen, called it "a weak finishing hole." Average golfers could play Tiger Woods on this short, short par 4, going in with driver/wedge with no more anxiety than a trust-fund teen dozing on his parents' plush couch.

Richardson stretched No. 18 to 440 yards from the back tees; more importantly, he moved it so that you have to clear a colorful desert flower area and a canal on your tee shot. The canal runs all the way down the right side of the new hole, putting it very much in play on your second shot as well.

Similarly, extending a lake on No. 2 and changing the routing turned a 391-yard par 4 into a risk-reward choice rather than a mundane par.

This is the best thing about the Wigwam Gold renovation: It adds strategic decisions to a round here rather than just focusing on making the course prettier.

"It has a few problems to work out," golfer Mary Turnbow said, noting the painfully slow greens on opening play. "But you can see it's going to be very nice. I wish I could get a makeover like that."For $5 million, you probably could.

The verdict

Wigwam Gold is still not roller-coaster, show-stopping golf. It was never meant to be. It will not take your breath away with its visuals. It's playing golf in a very green, level setting. The holes are relatively close together, and you're never going to forget you are at a resort.

That said, it's a revitalized and worthy play. Now that course after course in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area incorporates the desert, Wigwam Gold could actually be your different-look course on a trip here. Battling the bunkers is fun, even if you're liable to conclude that Richardson expanded them to personally torment your game.

The biggest question with Wigwam Gold is how the greens will turn out. On the opening day they were still a little ragged, slow and inconsistent. Richardson now reports that they were running a pinball-fast 12.5 on the stimpmeter in late January, perhaps double their earlier speed. Richardson took a gamble by largely sticking with the original 45-year-old greens and the slow Bermuda grass that went in when Wigwam lost its bentgrass in the 1980s.

How those greens hold up in the long run could be the key to whether Wigwam Gold puts itself into the regular Phoenix Valley golf conversation.

More holes were actually changed on the Wigwam's Blue Course renovation. Still, Gold's makeover is liable to leave a more lasting impact in overall feel.

Shovel talk included.

Dining out

The Wigwam Resort offers the only AAA Four Diamond-awarded restaurant in the West Valley, the Arizona Kitchen. Dinner here is an event: Older folks show up in suits, ties and their best dresses. But don't discount it in the morning - breakfast is just as tasty and a good value.

The greater Old Town Scottsdale area is home to many of the best restaurants in Arizona. Chef Nobuo Fukuda works wonders with his counter-side tasting menus at Sea Saw ((480) 481-9463), producing dishes every bit the equal of New York's more famous Nobu at a third of the cost.

Stay and play

The West Valley may be the new development spot, but the Wigwam Resort is surely old school. It's arguably the oldest resort in Arizona (there's debate with the Biltmore over the distinction), serving its first guests in 1929. Wigwam ((623) 935-3811) retains much of that historic feel with small ranch and two-story guest-house areas spread out across a sprawling campus that's almost collegiate in feel. This is not your typical desert resort. There's green everywhere. Yet the Wigwam is 21st century in comfort, putting in flat-screen TVs and plush linens as room standards.

A high-end alternative is the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess ((800) 257-7544). This sprawling AAA Five Diamond resort offers huge pool complexes that are open 24 hours a day. No more setting your schedule around the pool schedule.

Fast fact

It's been widely reported over the years that Wigwam Gold is Robert Trent Jones Sr.'s attempt at a West Coast version of Firestone's famed South Course. This is one "fact" only a marketing man could believe.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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