Golfers have no 'reservations' about Native American clubs in the Southwest

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

PHOENIX - There's a new player in the modern golf game: devoid of cookie-cutter Sun Belt subdivisions, endless rows of condominiums and all the undesirable trappings of the modern golf course development. And they have become so popular with golfers their tee sheets are typically filled weeks, even months in advance. They are so beloved by golf writers and architecture critics nothing bad is said or written of them.

They are "reservation courses" and they're hotter than a summer afternoon in the Southwestern United States.

Over the past seven years, a slew of Native American owned golf facilities have opened stretching from New Mexico to California, many sporting layouts from big-name designers and big-time price tags.

With the opening of the Devil's Claw and Cattail courses at Whirlwind Golf Club on the Gila River Indian Reservation and the We-Ko-Pa Golf Club on the Ft. McDowell Yavapai Reservation, the trend has hit the Valley of the Sun big time.

"It is a phenomenon that is not going anywhere for a while," says golf course architect Gary Panks, principle designer for the Devil's Claw and Cattail courses. "We are getting so that we seek those types of projects out. We had great success in Albuquerque (N.M.) on the Santa Ana Pueblo and so far so good here."

So far so, good from a design perspective, but the business side of the equation is just as, if not more important for the Native American tribes that get involved in owning and operating golf courses. So why have a handful of Arizona tribes opted to make a go at the business of golf, when the casino industry has yielded substantial profits? We-Ko-Pa general manager Jeff Lessing says that tribal business objectives are not that different from those of private developers entering the golf course fray.

"Golf courses have a way of attracting other business and serve as a good centerpiece," says Lessing. "In the case of tribal lands, it's not residential development but rather casinos and hotels they are looking to promote and stimulate through golf. And while the courses aren't the main money makers, they still make a profit."

We-Ko-Pa is one of the most talked about properties currently, written about and regionally revered courses to hit the Valley since Grayhawk and Troon North stormed Scottsdale in the mid 90s. The course is the craft of Phoenix-based architect Scott Miller, who also designed the Golf Club at Eagle Mountain and Kierland Golf Club.

Sports Illustrated selected We-Ko-Pa as one of the top 10 new public courses in the world shortly after its December 2001 opening. It was also the national winner of Golf Inc.'s 2002 Development of the Year in the stand-alone course category.

"We knew it was good," Miller says. "But the reception it's gotten has surprised all of us. One of the best things about it is that there are no other land uses nearby."

Building courses with layouts or routings not dictated by real estate is a concept referred to by architects and developers these days as "core" golf. Miller and Panks - both particularly known for their ability to mold a course with its surroundings - say designing reservation courses eliminates many of the usual constraints they have to deal with in private residential projects.

"There's more freedom and there is the sense that you are designing a golf course for golf's sake," says Panks.

But Panks points out contrary to popular belief, reservation courses still adhere too many of the same environmental regulations as other Valley courses. Since the 1980s, Arizona has restricted new courses to 90 acres of irrigated turf and another 20 that can be used for transition areas of rough or saving bunkers outside the fairways.

"It has been our experience that they (the reservations) regulate the courses they build as well as any outside agency would," says Panks. "Reservations may or may not fall under the 90 acre regulation. A lot of people think that we are limited to 90 acres of turf on our courses and that is not what the law says. It allows enough water to grow turf on about 90 acres. It could be more or less, depending on the project."

We-Ko-Pa, with its lush, wide, wall-to-wall grassed fairways, falls towards the "more" side. Adding to the overwhelmingly green feel of the course is the fact it has only 75 bunkers, and four holes have no greenside traps. The sheer amount of grass on the course is no mirage - the Yavapai Nation granted Miller 700 acres on which to build two 18-hole golf courses (the second course has already been routed and is in the design stage).

Like Miller, Panks was handed a large chunk of earth at Whirlwind. He is quick to point out, however, that he wasn't given carte blanche to design rambling, turf-mongering layouts. Both Cattail and Devil's Claw feature plenty of grass, but they also strive for a sensible economy of turf.

"With reservation courses you are usually going to have to be cognizant of significant cultural sites," Panks says. "That was the case at Santa Ana and the case at Whirlwind. We worked with a cultural committee and the routing at Devil's Claw was designed to take advantage of views to sacred mountains from the tee boxes. Reservation officials don't want you to plant grass over every inch of their lands because of the culture and history involved with the site."

Amid the many concerns of cultural and environmental considerations, Panks and Miller have stumbled upon a successful formula for creating memorable desert golf courses. The question remains: how profitable the courses can be for the Native American tribes that own them?

"One thing you have to remember is that the casino here was profitable and doing just fine before the golf course," Lessing says. "The course is just one piece of the puzzle."

Panks agrees.

"First and foremost, the tribes aren't any different than a developer in that they want the golf course to be part of an overall master plan," he says. "Our experience is that they are very astute about putting qualified professional teams together to plan the projects and they know full well what they are getting into and plan to be successful."

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 from 1997 to 2003.

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