$5-million upgrade has Wigwam Resort looking to compete in Phoenix-Scottsdale

LITCHFIELD PARK, Ariz. - The Wigwam Resort & Golf Club has long been one of those courses that faded into the clashing cornucopia of courses in the Phoenix-Scottsdale resort corridor. It could be as anonymous as a subway commuter, as easy to miss in the background as a movie extra in a gladiator epic.

That could be changing with a big-dollar renovation geared to restoring two of Wigwam's three courses to their Robert Trent Jones Sr. glory days. Five million dollars - what it cost to build an entire new course not so long ago - was pumped into the Gold and Blue courses at Wigwam to make them more buzz worthy.

Few have experienced the results yet. Mostly Wigwam members have played the Blue Course and its four new holes. And even those members itched to get on the signature Gold Course for its reopening on Oct. 29 to see how renovation architect Forrest Richardson recreated Jones' original bunkering by consulting old aerial photos from the 1960s. Both courses were closed for overseeding through much of October and are not expected to be at their best until mid-November.

That hasn't quelled the interest however. General managers and head professionals from other Phoenix-Scottsdale courses have been coming over to check out the results. Golf insiders are actually talking Wigwam again.

"Your competitors don't usually show up to see it, if they don't think you've done something right," said Craig Allen, Wigwam's director of golf.

The Blue Course had the most done in terms of new holes. No. 15 now features an island green. It's a short par 3, but as Allen said, "Put water around the green and golfers tend to freak out" and make it more difficult. No. 17 is touted as mirroring Augusta National's No. 16, a hole Jones famously redesigned himself.

Yet the Gold Course renovation, while not as dramatic in some ways, is liable to intrigue recreational golfers even more. For on the Gold all the bunkers have been completely redone to make it play like Jones designed it to play. These are now challenging traps with flair.

The Gold's also been lengthened to 7,300 yards, with two par 5s measuring in at over 600 yards (No. 4 and No. 10). Jones may not have envisioned this monster, but it's the kind of thing almost expected in this super-equipment age.

No. 18 on the Gold is now a new vision as well. Richardson moved the hole left of a canal, creating a dogleg approach in which golfers will try to clear the canal. He also increased the yardage on the par 4 to 400, transforming what Allen called "a weak finishing hole."

"Golfers used to just hit driver, wedge into 18," Allen said. "Now the canal's in play on two shots."

It is all part of the delicate balancing act of bringing in the new, while maintaining a celebrity golf architect legend's vision. Not to mention his tee-sheet drawing power.

"Our goal is not to redefine the experience," Richardson said. "Rather, we set out to bring back many of Mr. Jones classic bunkers and his tendency to ask the golfer to make 'hard pars and easy bogies' ... that was the philosophy of Robert Trent Jones Sr. and it should never be lost at the Wigwam."

In many ways, Wigwam's trying to remind golfers it actually has Robert Trent Jones Sr. courses, while making those courses more memorable for them to play. No one would ever argue the Wigwam was Jones at his best, but maybe it will come closer to belonging on such a resume on revamp memory.

"Robert Trent Jones Sr. has got some great golf courses out there,"Allen said. "You don't want to say it's in honor of him, but in a lot of way it is. You've got a good foundation and you don't want to mess with it too much."

Everyone long agreed the Wigwam driving range could use plenty of messing with. It used to have a measly 10 spots. Now, it can accommodate up to 50 golfers swinging away at one time.

All this renovation comes with a price tag for the average golfer too of course. Green fees are rising to $140 in the January through mid-April peak season, $75 and $85 during the Arizona shoulder seasons and $45 during the June through early September summer sizzle. Those are hardly sky high by Phoenix-Scottsdale resort standards, but they're still a significant increase for the Wigwam.

"We're still going to have our local players as a major component," Allen said. "But we're going to see groups coming in that wouldn't have thought of playing the Wigwam before."

Time will tell for sure. For now it's hype, a building buzz. For the Wigwam that's more than a welcome start.

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