Wigwam Resort: What a Long, Strange Trip it's Been

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

Wigwam ResortLITCHFIELD PARK, AZ - Take a half-hour drive on I-10 from Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, and you'll find you've traveled back almost a century into the history of Arizona.

There, on the fringes of the Phoenix metro area in the town of Litchfield Park is the Wigwam Resort. It sits on 75 acres with a sprawling main lodge and 331 rooms, three golf courses, nine tennis courts, two swimming pools and a health club and spa. Once upon a time, the resort was a virtual oasis by the roadside; now housing developments, shopping centers and motels and restaurants are springing up as neighbors.

It all got started back in 1916 when Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. of Akron, Ohio, bought 24,000 acres of land in the area to grow cotton for use in producing tires for automobiles and for airplanes. In 1918, Goodyear built a private company lodge for executives visiting the area. The lodge soon expanded to take 24 guests and became a luxurious vacation spot called the Wigwam that was opened up to the public in 1929.

Wigwam Resort History still permeates Wigwam. As it has grown, the lodge and the surrounding buildings still capture some of that Old Arizona feeling. It's a little bit like the mood of the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite or Old Faithful Lodge at Yellowstone.

Much of the Wigwam lodge is an expansion of what was originally on the site, but there are some original rooms that remain. A check of the many black and white historic photos hanging in the lodge, however, indicates that whoever did the redesign carefully repeated and maintained the decor of the original buildings - even including the light fixtures hanging from logs in the ceiling. All this has been beautifully complimented by paintings and sculpture from modern contemporary cowboy and native American artists.

The old photos are a fascinating look back at the past: guests driving up to the resort in boxy autos, going out on horseback trail rides, taking stagecoaches through the desert. "Those pictures really give you an insight into where we were then and how far we've come," said Craig Allen, Director of Golf at Wigwam.

The buildings themselves are adobe pueblo style with rustic wooden furniture inside and lots of stone and Mexican tiles. Guests can stay in individual "casitas" or little houses that have their own patios and private parking spots.

Wigwam Resort Wigwam has become a specialist in handling small conventions and big corporate meetings and has more than 30,000 square feet of meeting space with two large ballrooms. But even so, there is plenty of space at the resort for individual guests. It's the perfect spot to stop off for a weekend for vacationers on their way to Phoenix from the West Coast or for visitors to Phoenix who want a bit of an escape into the past.

Where to eat

There are three restaurants on the property, the most acclaimed of which is the Arizona Kitchen, specializing in dishes that use ingredients native to Arizona. Some possibilities: mesquite-dusted Chilean seabass with caramel-braised endive and golden beet and pearl-onion puree; cinnamon- and espresso-cured medallions of venison with apple and chile tamale with smoked duck chorizo and sundried strawberries; or braised veal shank with artichoke and queso blanco enchilada in a smoked red chile crepe topped with Arizona sweet corn sauce. The seabass probably isn't native to Arizona, but no doubt the venison is. Entrees average about $30.

There is also the Terrace Dining Room with a continental menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner and the Grille on the Greens at the golf course.

The courses

Guests at Wigwam will find that even the golf at this resort has a touch of history. The first nine-hole golf course was built at the resort in 1929. Now there are three 18-hole courses, designed by two prominent names in golf architecture. The Gold and Blue courses were both done by Robert Trent Jones Senior and the Red Course by Robert "Red" Lawrence, known for his work in Arizona.

Wigwam Resort The Red Course was actually named after Lawrence and after Vernon "Red" Allen, the first golf pro hired at Wigwam back in 1935, who assisted Jones in the design of the Gold and Blue courses. Red Allen went on to become director of golf and was followed in the job, first by his son Doug and now by his grandson Craig, the present director of golf. Red Allen is 90 now. "He still lives in the area and plays golf four days a week," said Craig Allen. "I guess that's why he's lived to be 90."

Wigwam claims to be the only resort in the state with three championship-length courses on its property. We played two of them: the Gold and the Red, which probably have the most strongly contrasting personalities, according to Ron Heraty, Senior Golf Professional at Wigwam. "The Blue Course," he said, "is a shorter version of the Gold."

The Gold Course: On the first tee at the Gold, you wonder if you're still in Arizona; everything on this course seems Texas-sized: really big trees, really big sand traps, and really, really long fairways.

The Gold Course offers the biggest challenge at Wigwam, and it's the course that experienced golfers yearn to play first. Designed in 1964 by Trent Jones Senior, known for his love of long fairways and elevated greens, this course is a traditional classic with a rich history. "If you're only going to play one course at Wigwam, I'd recommend playing the Gold without a doubt," said Craig Allen. "That's because of the way that Robert Trent Jones designed it. It's the kind of course that will have you playing every club in your golf bag before you're finished."

Golf began at Wigwam with a nine-hole course. Now when you stand on the first tee, and stare down the 551 yards leading up to the first hole of the Gold Course, you're likely to think that an entire par-three, nine-hole golf course could fit inside that one fairway.

Scorecard

Conditions: A-
Layout: B+
Service: B+
Club House/Pro Shop: B+
Pace of Play: A
Value: B+
Overall Rating: B+

The course is 7,074 yards from the championship tees, and because it was built back when land and water were less expensive than they are now, it has about twice as much acreage as most courses built in Arizona today. Even the forward tees for women cover 5,663 yards.

After aiming for targets and winding through the tight fairways on most modern desert courses in Arizona, the wide-open turf at Wigwam seems like an open invitation to take out a driver and fire away even if you have a slight slice or hook. At least, the first few holes do give you that feeling, but then things get tougher quickly.

A major problem crops up when you approach the greens. "You have to be accurate with your iron shots on the Gold Course," said Heraty, sharing some advice on how to play the course. "There are elevated greens and they're well bunkered. The course is wide open, but it's not easy by any means."

Those elevated greens are in excellent shape and also play very fast.

Heraty's favorite hole is No. 4 - a 571-yard, par 5 from the back tees - because it's long, but also "very, very straight. There are also no bunkers. So if you can hit it long, you can easily make a birdie."

Wigwam Resort The eighth hole (par 4 with 451 yards from the back tees) is the trickiest and has the lowest handicap. First you have to cross a creek twice to get in the vicinity of the hole. "The green has a decent length," Heraty said, "But it's narrow enough that it's difficult to hold the green." You can easily fly over that green and land in a grove of pines and palms. Or you can end up in one of several sand traps.

Still as you make the turn, you're probably thinking that you're handling this course pretty well even if you've already golfed across what seems like four counties of Arizona - probably you're almost at the California border by now.

Then you find yourself on No. 10 (par 5 and 605 yards from the tips). The second most difficult hole on the course, this one is a double dogleg, but it's impossible to cut across either leg because of all the sand traps hidden among the trees lining the fairway. Unless you're capable of hitting two 300-yard perfectly placed balls in a row, you have to play it safe and follow the turns as Robert Trent Jones designed them and be satisfied with a par.

Wigwam Resort Along the back nine, you may be batting your way out of more and more sand traps. Jones was known for his love of bunkers and he didn't stint on the Gold Course. There are almost 100 of them, and on the back nine, they seem to get bigger and bigger while the fairways get tighter and tighter. Later on, Jones helped remodel the course to increase the trees and add yardage to the back tees on some holes. Combined with the eight ponds on the course, it all makes for a long way home.

Overall, the maintenance of this course is excellent: velvety green fairways and some of the biggest trees you'll ever see in the Arizona desert.

The Red Course: The Red Course was created in 1972 by designer Robert "Red" Lawrence, who also designed Estrella Mountain Golf Course a few miles from Wigwam and the Camelback Golf Club in Phoenix. Although Lawrence is less well-known than Robert Trent Jones, he was something of a golf pioneer, creating one of the first real desert-style courses in 1962 at Desert Forest, a private club in Carefree, north of Scottsdale.

You have to drive a cart about four blocks through the resort to reach the Red Course, which is on the western side of Wigwam, where there are wide stretches of open land that builders are busily filling with mini-mansions. Also close by is Luke Air Force Base, where roaring jets often trace patterns overhead.

Scorecard

Conditions: B+
Layout: B+
Service: B+
Club House/Pro Shop: B+
Pace of Play: A
Value: B+
Overall Rating: B+

The Red, at 6,865 yards from the back tees, is almost as long as its mammoth cousin, the Gold Course. Still, the Red Course, just like the Gold, can wear out your woods, and what the Red lacks in yardage, it makes up for in creeks, lakes, doglegs and bunkers. According to Heraty, Senior Golf Pro at Wigwam, the Red Course is "the favorite of the members" at the resort.

Heraty warned that the last three or four holes of the Red would be the most difficult, as did Kevin Kassera, working the desk at the pro shop. "Do your scoring early," Kassera said, "because 16, 17, and 18 are tough."

Standing on the first tee, you look out on a wide, expansive fairway, perhaps not as impeccably green as the Gold Course; the rough is allowed to dry out into a slippery, golden fringe. In general, the course gives you an airy, open feeling, but it's trickier than you think. If you get off the beaten path, you have to blast extra shots through a minefield of bunkers and trees.

The first few holes prove to be moderately easy, as predicted. No. 4 is a bit more difficult. It's a long par 4 with a dogleg left (499 yards from the back tees, 453 yards from the forward or women's tees). The trick here is to thread the needle through a pair of matching bunkers midway down the fairway.

Wigwam Resort The greens on the Red Course are gigantic, requiring precise chipping and putting skills. Approach shots often land with a thud in the very soft aprons around the greens. By the fourth or fifth hole, you may find yourself reaching for a nine iron instead of your usual pitching wedge. But even though you need a little more club to reach the hole, you also need to make a soft landing as the greens are very fast.

The par 3 holes are often fairly long, but they seem easier than on the Gold Course. Typical is No. 5 (171 yards from the back tees, 149 yards, 140 yards); a golfer playing in front of us got a hole-in-one while playing from the middle tees. But he confessed that he plays the course twice a week.

The Red Course is dotted with ponds and rock-filled creeks. On hole No. 7 (386 yards from the back tees, 346 yards, 290 yards), a golfer standing at the tips needs to drive 200 yards to clear the pond in front of him. It takes 150 yards from the middle tees.

What about those difficult finishing holes? Were they really the obstacle they were billed as?

Wigwam Resort Sixteen is a long par 4 (454 yards from the back tees) that has both a lake and a giant bunker protecting the right side of the green. Hole 17 is a long par 3 with a creek meandering through it and a 30-foot long bunker on one side of the green. In fact that bunker seems to be almost as big as the green itself.

The trickiest was the 18th, supposedly the second toughest on the course, a hole which combined the best of the hazards the Red Course had to offer. First there was the length of this par 5 (591 yards, 549 yards, 516 yards). It has a fairway that takes a sharp dogleg left.

On your drive, you need to get to the bend in the dogleg or you run into serious water trouble while taking a second shot between a lake and a creek. One of our balls bounced into that creek and snapped up and down five times like a kernel of popcorn in a red-hot skillet. Great start on a double bogey.

The Wigwam
451 North Litchfield Road
Litchfield Park, AZ 85340
Resort: 1-800-327-0396 or 623-935-3811
Tee times: 800-767-3574
www.wigwamresort.com

Director of Golf: Craig Allen
Head Golf Professional: Ron Heraty

Gold Course
Designer: Robert Trent Jones Senior
Year Built: 1964
Turf: Tif dwarf, overseeded with rye
Slope/Ratings: 74.1/133, 71.2/128, 72.1/125
Yardage: 7,074, 6,504, 5,663

Red Course
Designer: Robert "Red" Lawrence
Year Built: 1972
Turf: Tif dwarf, overseeded with rye
Slope/Ratings: 72.4/126, 69.4/118, 71.8/118
Yardage: 6,865, 6,307, 5,808

Blue Course
Designer: Robert Trent Jones Senior
Year Built: 1929, remodeled in the mid-1960s
Turf: Tif dwarf, overseeded with rye
Slope/Ratings: 69.1/122, 67.8/119, 72.4/118
Yardage: 6,085, 5,724, 5,178

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.


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