We-Ko-Pa good, but not as great as lofty GolfWeek rating

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

Two years and two months after We-Ko-Pa opened to rave reviews in the sunsoaked winter of 2001, the Scott Miller designed course in fancy FountainHills is still all the rage. The "wow" factor, if you will, shows littlesign of going quietly into that good desert night.

We-Ko-Pa Golf Club
When it comes to scenery, We-Ko-Pa has few peers.
We-Ko-Pa Golf Club
If you go

Golfers dig it, competing courses concede it's quite nice, and this publication has heaped more praise on it than any other Scottsdale/Phoenixcourse over the past year.

Now it's GolfWeek's turn for an "atta boy."

In the magazine's 2004 ratings of America's Best Courses, We-Ko-Pa wasranked third in the state, trumping such royalty as the Troon Norths(Monument and Pinnacle), the Grayhawks (Raptor and Talon) and the Boulders(North and South).

The two Arizona courses ranked ahead of We-Ko-Pa?

Try Talking Stick (North) and Apache Stronghold. Yes ladies and gentlemen,the purists are in the building and the writing is on the fairway:don't touch that earth and show house hungry developers the door. Do so,golf course architect, and you might just have yourself a criticallyacclaimed tract of land.

Welcome to the new world order of golf course evaluation. Strategy and shotvalues are out. "Organic" green complexes and "minimalism" are in. Designerslike Tom Doak, Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw are vogue. Earth movers like ReesJones and Tom Fazio are passe.

Some newsflash, right? This less is more movement in golf coursearchitecture has been going on since Bandon Dunes and Sand Hills hit thenational scene a few years back. But We-Ko-Pa No. 3? The GolfWeek ratersmissed the mark on this one.

We-Ko-Pa is a lot of things and most of them are good.

• It is a must-play for traveling golfers. It's fun, fair and in incrediblecondition. At $180 in the high season ($95 for locals), it is actually agood value compared to the upper echelon of Scottsdale golf.

• It is an interesting course packed full of the sort of vegetation thatgolfers travel 2000 miles to see. The layout hop scotches native arroyosteeming with indigenous trees and prickly shrubs. A vast array of thornydesert plants and thick throngs of Saguaro cacti frame the airport runwaysized fairways.

• It is a scenic course with few peers. Off in the distance are vistas of theoccasionally snow-capped Four Peaks to the east (the namesake of thecourse), the McDowell Mountains to the west, and Red Mountain -- abrick-colored monolith that looms imposingly to the south.

But a truly great golf course in a state full of great golf courses mustconsist of more than closely cropped grass and pretty views. A great golfcourse should have real shot values, real risk/reward decisions and holes somemorable they stay with you the rest of your wretched golfing life.

We-Ko-Pa pulls up just short of the green on all three accounts. Here's why:

• To much of a good thing. Unfettered by local irrigation restrictions(We-Ko-Pa is owned by the Ft. McDowell Yavapai Nation) Miller used ininordinate amount of turf at We-Ko-Pa. At first blush, the result visuallystunning -- an endless sea of green juxtaposed against the craggy brownmountains of the East Valley.

At times, however, the sheer volume of grass takes away from the definitionof several key holes. Becky Larsen and Brendan McEvoy, both respectedwriters for this publication referred to We-Ko-Pa as a "target" course.Makes me wonder what course they played.

Case in point, the par-5 17th. The fairway landing area seems to spillindefinitely to the right, held in place only by two fairway bunkers.Exactly why the fairway needed to be this wide or what the two fairwaybunkers accomplish was a hot topic of conversation in my group. The par-413th also tumbles into this nebular niche.

• When you come to a fork in the road, take it. Alternate fairways havebeen in existence for decades. Miller's mentor, Jack Nicklaus, employed thetechnique successfully in a handful of his designs. The par-4 10th on thePGA West private course at La Quinta sports a split fairway that is asthought-provoking as it is challenging.

We-Ko-Pa has two holes with fairways split by islands of desert vegetation.The first is the par-4 seventh. The second is the par-5 10th. Neither holeoffers a clear advantage to golfers who chose one over the other. No. 7comes close, with the right side hinting vaguely at a better approach shot.

• Signature hole comes up short. The par-5 eighth, billed as We-Ko-Pa'ssignature hole, is easily the most frustrating hole on the course. Thelanding area for the second shot is on a severe downhill slope and theapproach usually calls for a long iron. Brutal.

One design triumph at We-Ko-Pa won't be denied, however, and that is thepositioning and raw look of the green complexes (dare we say, organic?). Itis almost as if the course was designed from green to tee. All 18 puttingstages have such an anatural feel, it is easy to overlook the fact that manyhave identical green entrances.

OB Sports - the management company that operates We-Ko-Pa -- recently did alittle tinkering with the layout to improve the design. The 588-yard par-5second hole was outfit with a new championship tee that helps long knockersfeel a little more comfy pulling driver. The 459-yard par-4 ninth hole wasdramatically improved by a new championship tee box that brings the bunkercluster back into play for big hitters.

The hillside that obscured the view to the green on the aforementionedeighth was blown out and replaced it with a bail out area. And on thedrivable par-4 15th, the tips were actually situated closer to the green (Istill think the hole fails in that it offers no disincentive for going forthe green in one).

Plans are in the works for another signature Miller circuit on Fort McDowellYavapai land. It will be interesting to see what he does this time around.By all means, the Scottsdale based designer has succeeded in creating a verygood golf course in We-Ko-Pa that should be sampled by any serious desertgolf groupie. Perhaps greatness will follow.

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 TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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