We-Ko-Pa Saguaro Course in Fort McDowell, AZ
Tee Time: August 7, 2015, 7:58, 101 F, partly cloudy
Designer: Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, 2006
Playing Partners: Ryan Cohan, Sean Cohan, Mike Harvey
Tees: Purple, Par 71 (70.2 rating/132 slope/6,603 yards)
Course Handicap: 10 (8.1 index)
Stats: 83 (41-42); 36 putts; 9/14 fairways; 9/18 greens; 1 penalty stroke
Four years in the desert and I finally made the trip out to We-Ko-Pa Golf Club with summer rates begging me to play. The pair of courses, Saguaro and Cholla, come heralded as two of the finest places to play golf in the entire Southwest. It’s always a battle between the two here and the two at Troon North for the top spot in many rankings. The best part about being a resident is I can play all four and judge for myself. We started with the Saguaro, and I’ll be sure to loop back for the Cholla shortly. The Saguaro course is younger by a few years, having been commissioned after the Cholla course proved successful. Saguaro was designed by the elite duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who have a “lay of the land” philosophy to designing the courses that has led to some world-class golf around the world. Just take a look at this resume! On top of the fantastic golf, We-Ko-Pa features some stunning desert scenery. I’d love to take my clubs and camera out for a twilight round and catch a radiant Arizona sunset over this layout. Even a morning with some rain produced some stunning photos. So stunning you might just look at the pictures and ignore all my three-putts.
The first is one of many lengthy par 4’s. At 443 yards, it doglegs left with a wash about 100 yards short of the green. On the other end of the spectrum, there are also a few short par 4’s at the Saguaro course. Take the 299-yard 2nd for example. Up here in the drier air at 1,450 feet of elevation, the ball goes a bit further. There are four holes under 322 yards that are theoretically reachable with a great shot. This one slopes and kicks to the right, with bunkers waiting on the front and left of the green. There’s your reason to lay up right there. The 3rd is a tough, dogleg-left par 4 where you can’t see the green from the tee. And then there’s the monstrous par-5 4th, weighing in at 609 yards. A good drive to the crest leaves a nice view and an open second shot to set yourself up for a good approach. The first par 3 is the 159-yard 5th. It’s a fairly straightforward par 3 with a slight false front. It’s also the site of one of my favorite pictures taken of a golf course to date (see above). That one’s going to look sweet on the wall.
The 6th is a rare “average” par 4, at 406 yards uphill a bit. The 305-yard 7th has a bunker to the front right of the green and also one in the landing zone right where it would be the best place to run one onto the green. The 8th is a fun, short par 5 of 498 yards with a good chance at hitting the green in two. Off the tee, the fairway is wide and there is some room for error with a fairway wood trying to reach, but that desert comes up quickly if you screw it up. The par-3 9th is a short 130 yards to a small green and well guarded on all sides by sand. Fortunately, these sand traps have some of the nicest sand in the state, even with a little rain in them. There’s room to splash under the ball and play any type of shot you want out of there. If you have anything resembling a decent approach to bunker play, you could easily save par 50% of the time in these.
The back side opens with a short par 4 of 322 yards, downhill and bending to the right around a large fairway bunker. This is one of the more attackable par 4’s with such an open landing area by the green. Might as well take advantage. The 194-yard 11th plays slightly uphill and a little longer to a deep green. The view of the mountains is one of the best on the course on this tee. The lengthiest par 4 of the scorecard so far is the 461-yard 12th. It also has one of the largest fairways and not much trouble near the green, but still, you’re looking at a long approach. The 13th is also a long par 4, this one measuring 457 yards. It doglegs a bit to the left and has a small bunker in front of the green. If you played the 12th okay, you should be good at 13. Just stay out of the desert (which goes for the other 17 holes as well).
The closing par 3, the 15th, is a mean 233 yards to a tricky green. The hole mercifully offers a bailout area to the right, with lots of fairway and manageable rough instead of the mess of desert and sand to the front and left. It plays a slightly downhill and maybe 10 yards shorter than you think, so that should take a bit of the intimidation factor away. The 16th is a 315-yard uphill, slightly right par 4 that once again offers a chance to get very close off the tee. If you have any accuracy with a driver, you should be able to fatten up on this family of short par 4’s that Saguaro features. If not, well, even a bogey would be a good thing if you miss off the tee. The 17th is a fun par 4 of 372 yards, up and over a right-to-left sloping ridge that is a slight preview of the closing hole to follow. That would be the 490-yard 18th, a beast of a finishing hole, especially on a humid, 101-degree day. If your grip hasn’t gotten slippery yet, you’ve got a chance at smoking a drive and still having the lions share to get to the green. Staying to the right keeps par in play because deep, nasty sand traps guard the left off the tee. From that angle it’s back over the sand sneaking in from the right onto a relatively flat green.
This course is Arizona golf at its finest. “Arizona golf” also being synonymous with “target golf”. It’s one of those courses that has a preferred line to get around the track. Very few times will a devation from the path result in a good or better score. Take what the course offers and it’s not a tough day. Try to power around, and this desert comes up very quick. Luckily We-Ko-Pa is located in one of the most scenic parts of this desert. Four Peaks is visible throughout the round to the east. Other formations of the Superstition Mountains stick out prominently in the horizons. There are very few bad spots to pause and take a picture here. Just point and shoot, making sure to get a good #nofilter placed on Instagram so everyone knows how good a photographer you are. And the best part is, it’s a fair, fun course. I might rank it ahead of Troon North’s duo because it doesn’t seem as punishing and the views are of raw desert, not million dollar homes. I guess I’ll have to come back for the Cholla course and see if this tag team can take the heavyweight crown from the Troon North Brothers (no one calls them that, and I hope it doesn’t catch on).
#14, Par 5, 527 yards, 2-handicap, My Score: 5
My favorite hole is the par-5 14th. It features the best kind of risk-reward. The tee hits to a split fairway, carved down the center by a rash of desert vegetation eager to stick a thorn in your playing partner’s bare feet. Conservatively played, a tee shot to the left has a much safer landing zone. The second shot will still have just under 300 yards to the green. There is plenty of room for the second shot to get close to any distance you prefer for the third-shot approach. The right fairway is the aggressive route. The margin for error is much less off the tee since this fairway is nearly half as wide as the safe route. But a good shot leaves between 225 and 250 yards to a yawning green just waiting for you to get home in two. Any shanked fairway woods will end up in the desert that cuts across this fairway, adding to the risk. My barefoot partner and I were already down a hole at this tee box when he pushed his drive right of the right fairway. I didn’t trust my drive to get anywhere close to that side, and found the left route much easier to make par and get the hole, evening the match.
Layout: A-; a good variety, different types of par 3’s, 4’s and 5’s to keep you on your toes
Amenities: A-; water everywhere, a nice range and spectacular clubhouse. Just needed some GPS on the carts
Staff: A; these guys are easy to spot, they wear uniform traffic cone orange polos that are almost visible from space. I’ll check later with NASA to confirm
Difficulty: B; as hard as you allow it to be on you, the greens are fair and reliable as is the sand, so it’s really the desert you’ve gotta look out for
Scenery: A; past the lush green fairways lies an expansive wilderness of raw, inspiring desert that just might inspire and kick-start the sequel to my book that’s been stalled
Value: A; as an AZ resident in the summer, it’s only $45. Obviously they’ll charge the out-of-towners in spring a king’s ransom. But for me this is a steal, the way they keep it looking and playing great in the triple-digit heat. Consider that TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium Course, with half the fun and none of the views, still charges locals almost twice as much right now, where would you rather go?
Overall GPA: 3.73 (A-); play here? Definitely. Now the great mystery… is Cholla as good or better than Saguaro as some have said? Only one way to find out.