The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Whirlwind Golf Club in Chandler go "Native"

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa is more than just home to Whirlwind Golf Club and the Aji Spa, it is perhaps the most unique, fascinating golf resort in the Valley of the Sun.

The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa - Pool
The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort has four pools and a 111-foot high water slide, all with views of the golf course.
The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa - PoolWhirlwind Golf Club - Cattail Course - No. 13Whirlwind Golf Club - Cattail Course - No. 15The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & SpaWhirlwind Golf Club - Clubhouse
If you go

CHANDLER, Ariz. - The Pima people (a.k.a. Akimel O'otham) have always been known for their hospitality. They never attacked any settlers or travelers, and when the Maricopa people (a.k.a. Pee Posh) arrived after being forced off their land in the S. Colorado River basin, the Pima welcomed them onto the land that came to be called the Gila River Indian Community.

In appreciation of the Pima's hospitality, peacefulness and support of the U.S. over Mexico in land disputes, the U.S. government ceded them water rights from the Gila River. The Pima depended on that water to irrigate crops, including the famed Pima cotton that is still the community's major export. Shortly thereafter, however, the U.S. government broke that treaty, as it did with most such treaties at the time. In 1887 the Pima and Maricopa sued the U.S. government for the promised water rights. The then chief imposed a gag order on his people, forbidding them to talk about the lawsuit or their history until the suit was settled.

In 2004 it was settled, and the Gila River Water Settlement Act was established, returning water rights to the people of the Gila River Indian Community. This means the Pima and Maricopa now control 52 percent of the water in Arizona. It also means they can share their history and culture with visitors.

The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa and its Whirlwind Golf Club are living, functional monuments to the Pima and Maricopa peoples: Every detail, every artifact, nearly every piece of furniture is imbued with some sort of symbolism, with some traditional meaning. For this reason, guests - especially the observant and curious ones - will find this to be a unique, fascinating golf resort in the Valley of the Sun.

Culture and history come alive at the Wild Horse Pass Resort

Ginger Sunbird Martin was born and raised in the Gila River Community. Her job as cultural concierge of the resort (and the only cultural concierge in the entire country) is to share with guests the history of her people and the significance of every aspect of the resort during complimentary tours.

"The Pima and Maricopa chose Starwood Resorts [parent company of Sheraton] to build the resort because Starwood allowed us to break 117 of their corporate rules so that we could tell our story," explains Martin.

Every aspect of the resort, owned by the Pima and Maricopa and managed by Sheraton, seems to be part of that story. Take the resort structure, as well as that of the clubhouse at the Whirlwind Golf Club and the separate Aji Spa: Each building has a circular design, with all main entrances pointing east, in the traditional Native style (olas'ki).

"The architects were the same ones who designed the Venetian Hotel and the Atlantis Resort," Martin says. "And they were very accommodating of what we wanted to do."

The meaningful architecture doesn't stop at the main structures. Upon entering the lobby, guests will notice Native paintings on the ceilings, and a display of boulders that is an exact replica of an actual archeological site in the community.

In the main stairwell from the lobby down to the restaurant level, guests will notice small, scattered windows. These are solstice windows through which you can track the seasons. Cultural artifacts are placed throughout the resort, all with explanatory signs, and the lower level includes a museum-quality walk-through of the history of the people and community.

On the grounds, only indigenous vegetation is planted, and every bush, every tree, is labeled (in English and Akimel O'otham) so guests can enjoy and learn. This is the only resort in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area without any palms, which are not native to Arizona.

The resort's Aji Spa continues the Native theme, featuring oils and rubs derived from local plants, according to traditional recipes. The staff comprises Native Americans, some locals and some from communities as far away as Montana and Michigan. Likewise, the resort's premier restaurant, Kai, offers a menu of "Native American cuisine with global accents." The olive oil is locally made, and the vegetables, chilies, lettuces and many other items come from the gardens of the nearby Gila Crossing Elementary School to benefit the children's agricultural curriculum.

Boats from the resort leave every 15 minutes for the adjacent Wild Horse Pass Casino, Rawhide Restaurant and Old West Town. While the casino is richly appointed, it is a casino; if you like that sort of thing, everything you expect will be there. The Rawhide Restaurant is an enormous, saloon-style family steakhouse with live music and mammoth portions (heck, they might be serving mammoth steaks, they're so big).

The Old West Town is a hit with kids of all ages. The recreation of an old mining town comes complete with costumed workers, a jail, bull-riding, shooting gallery, live-action shows, movie house, artists and more than a dozen shops.

Whirlwind Golf Club: Cattail and Devil's Claw Courses

Whirlwind Golf Club is named after one of the most prevalent basket weave designs created by the Pima and Maricopa. The two Gary Panks-designed championship courses, Cattail (7,335 yards, par 72) and Devil's Claw (7,029 yards, par 72), are named after important indigenous plants. Both are spaciously laid out over the resort's 2,400-acre property and feature wide-open fairways and clearly visible hazards and approaches.

The resort-style layout results in outstanding playability and forgiveness, the latter being especially uncommon in desert golf. However, it comes at a price: memorability.

I thoroughly enjoyed playing the Cattail Course, which used to host a Tour event, but had trouble keeping the holes straight in my mind. I do recall some broad details, for example that the greens were firm but rather slow and somewhat grainy, with a lot of subtle movement that took practice to read. Also, the rough is short but very wiry rye grass, making it extremely difficult to pull off delicate flop-shots around the greens.

This said, several holes do stand out. The number-one handicap hole is the 462-yard, par-4 fourth. The green is severe, so if you have to approach with a fairway wood, chances are you'll be trying to get up and down for par.

The 245-yard, par-3 10th hole is appropriately named "Hard and Tough." The deep green can add 15 yards to the hole, and a steep bank leading to water behind the green will penalize shorter players who take driver and end up crushing one long.

The toughest hole is the 611-yard, par-5 12th, with one of the more narrow landing areas off the tee, some of the deepest fairway bunkers on the course and water hard right of the green. You'll need a massage at Aji Spa after this beast.

The verdict on Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa

It is rare indeed to find a resort where guests can relax so much, play so much golf and also learn so much about the people who own the resort and the area in which it is located. The 500-room resort is an integral part of the community, not only serving guests but also training local young people for careers in the hospitality, golf, culinary and gaming industries.

Amenities are first-class, and I haven't even mentioned the four swimming pools and outdoor bar, waterslide and 1000-acre Koli Equestrian Center. Oh, and speaking of equestrians, lucky guests will enjoy sightings of the 1,500-head herd of wild mustangs that roams the property.

In short, the legendary hospitality of the Gila River Indian Community people is on full display at the Wild Horse Pass Resort. You almost feel like you're staying with a family, instead of at a resort.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

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