Scottsdale-area Saguaro lives up to We-Ko-Pa Golf Club pedigree

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw's new Saguaro course at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club outside Scottsdale is radically different from the club's acclaimed original golf course, but every bit its equal.

Saguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa - Sixth Hole Uphill
Saguaro's sixth has you staring up at blue mountain sky, no green in sight.
Saguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa - Sixth Hole UphillSaguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa - Hulking CactusSaguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa - Golfer in Fairway
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We-Ko-Pa Golf Club - Saguaro Course

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The Saguaro course at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club is one of the newer golf courses in Scottsdale’s golf resort corridor, having opened at the beginning of 2006. A Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw design, it’s not a golf course where you can swing hesitantly: You need to be sure of your golf shots, and commit to them. Fairways and greens are maintained in excellent condition, and it’s a walker’s dream of a golf course.

18 Holes | Public/Resort golf course | Par: 71 | 6966 yards | ... details »

FORT MCDOWELL, Ariz. - The sky's bluer than blue, the fairways are greener than green, the cacti are larger than Andre the Giant and there's nary a condo in sight.

And that's just your first impression of Saguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa.

Probably the most anticipated new public golf course in the Scottsdale resort corridor in the last decade, Saguaro doesn't disappoint on first glance, second play or third thought. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw - the design team behind the near modern mythic legend Bandon Trails - follow another great course with stunning results.

When Scott Miller's We-Ko-Pa course opened in 2001, the buzz around it grew until it became an unexpected must play, a golf version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Saguaro will not have that out-of-nowhere surprise advantage. It's squarely in the spotlight from the beginning and must be great now.

"We sat here looking at each other when the first course opened, wondering if anybody would come," said Derek Crawford, We-Ko-Pa's director of sales & guest services. "We thought they would come. We knew the course was something people hadn't seen before. We talked ourselves into thinking they would come out here.

"But you never really know until that day your tee sheets start filling up."

We-Ko-Pa proved people would trek out to this Native American casino land that's about 30 minutes from downtown Scottsdale for high-end golf. Now Saguaro has to prove it deserves the same dedication.

It is certainly benefiting from its older sibling's rep: On a recent Friday groups were lined up near the starter's booth for a shot at a late-afternoon round.

Many of those pilgrims no doubt left surprised. Saguaro is as different from We-Ko-Pa as Rush Limbaugh is from Al Franken.

"It's hard to believe these two golf courses are in the same state, let alone the same acreage," We-Ko-Pa veteran John McKnight said.

Miller's We-Ko-Pa original confronts golfers with desert intimidation. It's a showy visual bully. Saguaro, on the other hand, gives golfers tons of green to look at and mostly gradual rather than sudden ups and downs. It's the difference between swinging in an action movie and swinging in a painting.

We-Ko-Pa tries to make you gulp. Saguaro attempts to make you whistle.

"This course is full of pretty holes," Saguaro rookie Roy Trailer said softly, looking out on No. 13, one of the long, long par 4s (470 yards) that seem to stretch almost as far as the ever-present mountains do.

Saguaro is designed to be gentler in feel. Keeping with their minimalist philosophy, Coore and Crenshaw didn't move a ton of dirt at Saguaro and they tried to create a walking course in Arizona.

Which is a lot like trying to get a Mormon Church started in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip.

Coore and Crenshaw succeed beautifully in crafting a course where walking is very feasible and the best way it enjoy the day. The club also stepped in with Speed Carts (electric push carts where you basically only push a button and your clubs are walking along besides you).

(Not that anyone takes advantage. On this packed afternoon I counted all of three golfers walking, myself included. It's an American-golf-culture thing.)

It's hard to imagine such a pleasantly scenic place busting your chops like We-Ko-Pa does, but Saguaro is no 6,912-yard smiley face.

There are mammoth par 5s (No. 4 measures 631 yards) and long par 4s (three over 465 yards). The plentiful forced carries dare you to try and cut the desert, and No. 8 makes you shoot around a hulking saguaro cactus that's practically in the tee box.

On No. 6, you're shooting straight uphill - all you can see from the tee box are mountains and blue sky. The 16th takes you even higher, to a panoramic plateau green that could double as a tourist viewing platform. And on No. 14 a huge swath of cacti splits the fairway neatly in two. Hit it straight, lose the ball.

"You get golfers who are surprised by what they shot on Saguaro," Crawford said. "They look at the scorecard, see more green and think that they'll be able to put up a great number.

"Instead a lot of times their score ends up being even a little higher than it was on the original course."

The verdict on Saguaro at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club

Saguaro stands up to We-Ko-Pa's original course (now called Cholla), which by definition makes it a runaway winner in its own right (Miller's original ranks No. 2 in's Arizona top 10). It's one of the most original courses you'll play in this hip desert-golf paradise.

The green fee runs $195 in high season, but that's still value for money in this high-roller region. And you don't often get house-free views like this anymore, not even at vaunted Troon North. Saguaro displays plenty of forward thinking while reminding you what Arizona golf used to be.

Scottsdale hotel tips

The Radisson Fort McDowell Resort & Casino is minutes from the course, and that's your only sign of civilization for a good 10 miles. Part of We-Ko-Pa's thrill is how out there it is.

Your high-end-accommodation escape hatch is the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. This sprawling AAA Five Diamond resort offers huge pool complexes that are open 24 hours a day. No more fitting your schedule around the pool schedule.

Scottsdale dining tips

We-Ko-Pa has a huge clubhouse with plenty of room for a big group to kick back and eat or drink after a round.

The Old Town Scottsdale area is home to several of the state's best restaurants. 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.

Fast fact

Saguaro's 138 slope rating from the tips drops a mere three points from the next set of tees, from which many golfers play.

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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