How 'bout that We-Ko-Pa? Original Cholla course still a Scottsdale golf favorite
FT. MCDOWELL, Ariz. - Sometimes it can seem like the original We-Ko-Pa golf course is trailing Arizona residents around the country.
If you go anywhere with a lot of golfers and they find out you have a place in Arizona, it's amazing how many times We-Ko-Pa Golf Club gets brought up. It sometimes seems like every golf vacationer has played the Scott Miller desert design that started it all at the now two-course complex on Yavapai Nation Indian land.
And their comment usually runs along the frame of that famous Dallas Cowboys line. How 'bout that We-Ko-Pa!
"I did really like We-Ko-Pa," Illinois golfer James Jercich told me at Erin Hills, a course in the middle of Wisconsin farmland. Yes, you cannot even escape the We-Ko-Pa effect in corn country.
This golf course gets around more than Madonna. In fact, when We-Ko-Pa first opened in 2001, it built its early legend largely on word of mouth buzz, like an indie movie that just wouldn't die. It's the Juno of Phoenix-Scottsdale golf.
Seven years later We-Ko-Pa Golf Club's original course is now called Cholla Course, and it's ranked the 35th best public course in the entire country by Golf Magazine. So it's a good time to pay a return visit and see if this course still lives up to the hype that helped make it a near Arizona golf institution in such a short period of time.
After all, it'd be easy to rest on laurels and dial it back a notch when the tee sheets are routinely full. But things haven't fallen off at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club. And houses haven't gone up.
Cholla Course still plays out as a grueling jaunt through up-and-down desert where Miller is going to intimidate you from the tee with more snarl than one of those Ultimate Fighters and you're going to be staring off at strikingly remote scenes that many people don't realize exist this close to the fifth largest city in the U.S.
This reviewer prefers We-Ko-Pa's newer Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw design, the Saguaro Course, with its more wide-open walking vistas replacing Cholla's forced carry tests. But the debate is like picking between two super models.
"Cholla is definitely more visually intimidating," We-Ko-Pa Director of Golf Operations Derek Crawford said, standing on the club's patio on one of those picture perfect late Arizona afternoons. "A lot of times it makes you think the shot is tougher than it is."
That's because Miller can make the desert framed fairways appear tighter than a turn at a NASCAR race. Once you actually get out onto the fairway, you'll often realize you had more room than you thought. Of course, this info doesn't help when you're back on the tees, sweating rain storms like John Daly at confession.
We-Ko-Pa Cholla is hardly all illusion though. You get legitimate pain from this 7,225 yarder. This is a desert course that really takes you deep out into unspoiled terrain where every type of cacti and desert plant imaginable (and some prickly beasts that you've never even dreamed of) serve as creeping obstacles.
There are holes that could make John Wayne weep. Everyone likes to tell you that the 605-yard par-5 eighth runs downhill. But it's still 605 yards, wrapped around desert with a forced clear about 120 yards from the green that should really make you think of playing it like the three-shot par 5 it's supposed to be.
There's also a 578-yard par 5 (No. 17) that doglegs around with mountains looming overhead and cacti beckoning for golf balls.
It's man with silly-looking clubs vs. ancient desert at We-Ko-Pa, and the historic sand seldom loses.
Then again, neither does the golfer looking for that round that takes him away from the everyday mundane.
"I forget what my wife's been nagging me about when I'm out here," We-Ko-Pa player Frank Curlin said, laughing. "Look at this place. It's beautiful."
Seven years hasn't changed that.
The verdict on We-Ko-Pa's Cholla Course
It's easy to recommend We-Ko-Pa's Cholla Course. There are more than 200 golf courses in Phoenix-Scottsdale, and this is one of the rare ones you'll want to play two or three times. Your score improves as you get a better read for the subtleties Miller built into the course, and the desert views never lose their allure.
We-Ko-Pa is a challenging course that remembers that golf is still supposed to be fun. For all the forced carries and desert climbs, there are also a number of drivable holes that let average golfers go for the glory. This starts right at No. 1, a downhill 351-yard par 4, and includes the delightfully fun 327-yard par-4 15th.
Despite its early blockbuster success, We-Ko-Pa maintains the feeling of a place committed to making sure golfers enjoy themselves. It helps that experienced golf nuts like Crawford are there, still putting in the hours, determined to build on what they thought could be a special retreat from the beginning.
They haven't blown up the greens fees like too many golf courses that pick up accolades by the truckload do either. You can still play We-Ko-Pa Cholla for $180 in the prime of Arizona's winter vacation season. That's not cheap, but it's cheaper than some other high-end courses here that aren't in its class.
If a golf course is going to follow you around, it turns out that We-Ko-Pa isn't a bad one to deal with. You never have to lie for it and pretend it's something it's not.
The Radisson Fort McDowell Resort & Casino is close to We-Ko-Pa and is affiliated with the course. But unless you're looking for a real escape from it all - We-Ko-Pa is really out in its own houseless desert world - you're better off using Scottsdale as a trip base.
It's hard to do better than the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess and its 24-hour pools and lively top-notch restaurant scene.
November 11, 2008