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.
Along the way, many fairways are lined with huge saguaro cacti -- the tall, fat kind with multiple arms and holes drilled by gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers. My favorite hole was No. 7, a short (350 yards from the back tees) par 4 that features an oval desert garden smack in the center of the fairway about 220 yards out. A massive saguaro at least 30 feet tall punctuates it like an upraised middle finger daring the golfer to try to drive it over.
The biggest hitter in our group nearly cleared it. But he eventually found his ball about three feet off the ground, tucked into the crotch of a mesquite tree.
"What's all this [stuff] doing in the middle of the fairway?" he asked.
I'm enjoying the most culturally immersive Native American golf experience available in the Phoenix area, and from what I can tell, the temperature is about 102 degrees.
In the hot tub, I mean, the one I'm immersed in on the sweeping rear patio of the 500-room Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa. I'm slowly recovering from 18 holes (carrying my bag, thank you very much) on the resort's Cattail course, nursing a tweaky hip and an iced Dewar's in a plastic cup. The Sierra Estrella Mountains loom in the distance, the sky streaked with tones of mango and steel, the night air suddenly cooling.
For all this luxe indulgence, this resort on the Gila River Reservation -- the largest in the Phoenix area both by geography and number of members -- offers plenty of tribal culture. The Sheraton resort and the Whirlwind Golf Club -- which offers two 18-hole courses designed by local hero Gary Panks and managed impeccably by the upmarket firm Troon Golf -- enthusiastically embraces Native American themes.
The resort's domed main lobby features a two-story waterfall and a windowed wall facing the distant ridges of the South and Sierra Estrella ranges. In addition to golf, there is the Aji Spa (one treatment is called the Blue Coyote Wrap), an equestrian center, walking trails, a gift shop selling tribal crafts and other goods, and, among the six restaurants, the distinctly chichi Kai, which offers "a contemporary approach to Native American cuisine." One menu item features lobster wrapped in a puff pastry based on traditional Indian fry bread.
"From the beginning, one of the things most important to tribal leaders was that the project be an educational forum about the Gila community," said Gila River Indian Community spokesman and tribe member Gary Bohnee. "Details like architecture, words, terms, history -- we wanted that to convey the culture."
The place sure felt unlike any other Sheraton I'd stayed in when I visited, using the resort as my base of operation. My room was decorated with local tribal prints, the furniture and bed linens lined with geometric patterns suggesting ancient petroglyphs. A gas-powered (alas) fire pit on the lobby's expansive patio burned all evening.
The Gila River originally gave sustenance to the Pima and Maricopa tribes living near it, but it has since dried up into a wide, dusty gash. The resort has reconstructed a tribute to the late river, in the form of a snaking waterway that runs from the equestrian center to the golf course. Water taxis deliver and deposit guests at the spa, the outdoor bar, the conference center, the giant Gila-ruins-themed waterslide and the interpretive trail.
The next stage in resort development will be to construct a riverwalk similar to the one so popular in San Antonio, along the faux Gila. Tribal leaders have already visited San Antonio to take notes, Bohnee said. Plans may include specialty retail shops, restaurants, performance space and a smaller hotel.
Of course, the river also leads visitors to the Wild Horse Pass Casino, the source from which the tribes' current and future fortunes spring.
Arizona's Indian reservation golf got rolling on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, a 54,000-square-acre chunk of territory just east of Scottsdale, the tony northern suburb of Phoenix that serves as the area's Beverly Hills, only with more interesting geology.
But tony the Salt River Reservation is not. About 12,000 tortilla-flat acres are under cultivation by a tribal farming cooperative and 19,000 more are set aside as a natural preserve. A drive through the neighborhoods on the rest of the reservation confirms one's worst fears, however: trailers and cheap pre-fab houses surrounded by discarded furniture and household trash, fire rings encircled by broken glass bottles and just a scattering of small, well-kept homes. Many kids waiting for school buses are obese.
A beautiful new elementary school and a growing community center (with a cultural heritage museum) reflect how the wealth from the tribe's two Casino Arizona locations is beginning to trickle down. But it's also clear that there is a long way to go.
The golf courses at Talking Stick, however, are almost fully realized. True, if you didn't look up at the horizon to see the mountainscape you'd never know you were in the desert, the fairways' rumpled emerald carpets inexplicably rolled out across the sand and brush.
The courses were designed by Bill Coore and longtime PGA Tour player Ben Crenshaw as two distinct experiences, but neither is indigenous to the desert: The North Course is classic Scottish-links style (low, open and undulating, undecorated by trees). The South, which I played, is a more traditional parkland-style, with cottonwoods lining the fairways and some bunkers deep enough to shelter a Lincoln Navigator. On the South Course you're just as likely to lose your Maxfli in the water as you are in a creosote bush.
Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed my round at Talking Stick. It was well kept and a playable mixture of forgiving and challenging. It reminded me a lot of the better, traditional-style courses I'd played back in my own time zone. But, thanks to a (rare) midday rain, I was treated to my first desert rainbow: a vast arc of color that traced precisely the trajectory of the tee shots I always dream of hitting.
It seemed to make landfall not far from the giant white pavilions of the tribe's casino -- the proverbial pot of gold just out of reach of golfers and gamblers, and the source of all the good golf growing on Indian reservations in the first place.
handicapper tracks on the two-course golf clubs. As it turned out, however, using the packager saved me no money: The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass was not among the properties that have deals with the firm, so the cheapest price I could get at the Wild Horse was through Orbitz.
If you are flexible about accommodations, I'd recommend using any of the packagers to save money, get good course advice and have your tee times made for you in advance. The Web site www.golfarizona.com features ads for most of the major packagers in the Phoenix/Scottsdale, Ariz., area.
If you plan to play
The one Phoenix-area Indian reservation golf course I didn't play was the
Each of the Indian reservation courses is located near one or more