How 'bout that We-Ko-Pa? Original Cholla course still a Scottsdale golf favorite

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

FT. MCDOWELL, Ariz. - Sometimes it can seem like the original We-Ko-Pa golf course is trailing Arizona residents around the country.

We-Ko-Pa Cholla Golf Course - No. 8
We-Ko-Pa Cholla's eighth hole offers a terrific view of the desert landscape.
We-Ko-Pa Cholla Golf Course - No. 8We-Ko-Pa Cholla Golf Course - No. 2
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We-Ko-Pa Golf Club - Cholla Course

4.5 stars out of 5 (based on 3 reviews)
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The Cholla course at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club is the original, Scott Miller design that plays to a challenging 7,225 yards from the tips. Though perhaps more challenging than the neighboring Saguaro, the Cholla features more forced carries but less bunkers, only 75 of them spread over the entire golf course. You’re far more likely to contend with the natural sand of the surrounding Sonora desert.

18 Holes | Public/Resort golf course | Par: 72 | 7225 yards | ... details »

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.

Phoenix-Scottsdale hotels

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.

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Cholla vs Saguro

    John Vitale wrote on: Nov 11, 2008

    I've played both We-ko-pa courses several times. I make Saguro a regular on my two to three trips out west a year. While Saguro isn't easy by any stretch it is compared to cholla. While both course are very beautiful, depending on the caliber golfer you are( I shoot mid 80's at about 6800) I think you'd enjoy Saguro a bit more. Cholla seems to always jump up and kick me in the butt. The 605 yard 5th, even if you can make it over the carry to the green in regulation unless the flag is on the back portion of the green you don't stand a chance. The green runs very hard front to back. I think the one thing that would make Cholla a regular on my list of courses would be to slow the greens up just a bit. All in all my experience with this course has been nothing but outstanding.


  • We-Ko-Pa

    Syd Boyd wrote on: Nov 11, 2008

    I have played We-Ko-Pa several times and have never been disappointed with the golf course or the service level of the staff there. Each time I play there, I like the course more. It is truly one of the best courses in the Scottsdale area. If I were to find anything to complain about, it would be their "cart path only" policy, which to be fair, isn't unusual with courses in Scottsdale. Regardless, I have discussed this issue with a number of greenskeepers and almost all that I have asked have told me that electric carts do not damage fairways, except in very wet conditions or during overseeding. With a large percentage of visitors to the area being, shall we say, approaching mature years, I think it would well serve We-Ko-Pa to rethink their cart policy. In addition, given current economic conditions, I would expect that their traffic will be severely reduced over the next while and perhaps for longer. If so, that $180 per round won't hold up either.