Arizona Golf, With Reservations

By Craig Stoltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 30, 2003

From the amount of cursing that filled the air at We-Ko-Pa, you'd never have guessed that it is considered holy ground.

But this implausibly verdant, visually spectacular golf course about 25 miles northeast of Phoenix is indeed situated on lands held sacred by the Yavapai Indian Nation. The course sits within the boundaries of the 40-square-mile Fort McDowell Indian Reservation, which represents just a sliver of the open desert the ancestors of today's approximately 1,000 Yavapai once roamed. They lived on the Sonoran Desert for the most part peaceably until . . . well, we all know how that part of the story ends: military defeat, the humiliation and squalor of reservation life, the eventual rising of tribal fortunes because of the gambling casinos Indian nation sovereignty permits.

And now, as tribes grow in sophistication and invest casino revenues into other tourism-related businesses, the story turns to golf. Four Arizona tribes based within driving distance of Phoenix operate upscale golf courses on reservation lands. They offer several advantages over the 150-plus other courses in the Valley of the Sun: a visit to remote, largely undeveloped land that surrounds greater Phoenix, a chance to absorb some of the tribes' cultural ethos and, thanks to favorable tribal economics, courses with vistas undisturbed by the greenside real estate that balances the books of most fancy golf courses these days.

I took a three-day, three-course trip to the Phoenix area this month, the early part of the tourist season that peaks January through April. Sure, Florida is plenty warm in winter and has more golf courses than it does alligators. Besides, it doesn't require the body-clock reset a trip to the Southwest does.

But in Florida you don't get to play holes like No. 6 at the Gila River Indian Community's Cattail course, a 135-yard par 3. It is named Chiadagi and described in the yardage book thusly: "It is said that once a Gila Monster bites you, it never lets go. While this hole seems docile enough, underestimate it and you'll find yourself feeling its bite for many holes to come."

I managed a bogey, and felt darn lucky to get out of there without a tooth mark on my hide.

But back to We-Ko-Pa, a course that's as sophisticated and full of challenges as any I've played. It has already become a major draw to the Very Serious Golfers who come to Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz., for some Very Serious Golf.

The vivid language I heard along the way, however, may have had more to do with the fact that I was matched during my morning round with three retired cops from Orange County, Calif. They ranged from single-handicap to bogey golfers, and they were not the type to let each others' miss-hits pass without the sort of colorful insults they'd polished around the station house. (They regarded my inept lungings with a restraint possibly developed at the scene of so many other car wrecks over the years.)

We-Ko-Pa is the Yavapai name for "Four Peaks Mountain," the range that is 30 miles away and provides a tawny 7,000-foot backdrop for many of the holes. Others are framed by the Superstition and McDowell ranges. Unlike some Southwest golf courses that simply pave the desert with acres of sod and import plants and trees that make the snowbird golfer feel at home (of which more later), We-Ko-Pa is almost seamlessly integrated into its surroundings. Its holes are routed through a landscape of stony arroyos and sandy washes, with several greens tucked gently into natural canyonettes framed by native mesquite and palo verde trees.

Most tee shots must carry over some distance of beautiful, menacing desert scrub, inflicting immediate punishment on those whose ball doesn't get airborne fast enough. For those who clear it, however, the landing areas are generous, the turf immaculate and accommodating.

But playing We-Ko-Pa requires plenty of what serious players call "course management": Do you try to reach the green in two, risking a lost-ball search among cholla, barrel and prickly pear cacti and whatever unsavory creatures make their homes nearby? Or do you lay up with more precise shots and let the strokes accumulate?

Four holes feature split fairways, one near and one far, requiring a commitment on the tee box to humility or hubris. It was easy, for me at least, to survey the magnificent dominating landscape and choose the safer route.

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