FOUNTAIN HILLS, AZ - We-Ko-Pa Golf Club is just another example of how the white man might have out-foxed himself.
Surely, when the United States government created the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation by executive order on September 15, 1903, it thought the mighty white man had given the Yavapais a 40-square mile reservation that was virtually without value - a rocky, desert landscape.
But when the golf course opened on December 14, 2001, the last laugh was heard by the Yavapais, a Native American nation of 900. Needless to say, the excellence of the golf course, financed by the Fort McDowell Casino, is a source of great pride among tribe members.
Today, the white man is ooing and ahhing, saying golf architect Scott Miller has created a target-golf course that will soon be mentioned in the same conversations with upscale daily-fee desert award-winners such as Troon North, The Boulders, Grayhawk, Legend Trail, Talking Stick,Ventana Canyon Mountain and The Raven at Sabino Springs.
"We want to position ourselves as one of the best daily-fee golf courses in the Valley," said head pro Brian Jones.
Many believe We-Ko-Pa is already there - one reason - no housing development and there never will be.
The name, chosen by the tribe, means Four Peaks Mountain, inspired by the surrounding mountains, including the Four Peaks, McDowell Mountains, Red Mountain and the Superstitions. The desert terrain is contrasted by the Verde River, which flows north to south through the reservation. Thirty miles east of Fort McDowell, the Four Peaks rise from the desert floor to an elevation of more than 7,000 feet.
Scottsdale-based Miller, a protégé of Jack Nicklaus for more than a decade, has created a "playable" target-styled golf course. Some golfers think the words playable and target translate into an oxymoron, but, the challenging 7,225 yards from the back tees transition smoothly into larger target landing areas from all tees.
More positives? Small amounts of dirt were moved in construction meaning the holes blend with the natural landscape. Miller was an artist by situating greens into natural draws or arroyos and box canyons, then framing them with sculpted bunkers, waste areas, centuries-old saguaros and rock outcroppings. He also masterfully used some elevation changes, just enough to make the layout more fun. Another 18 holes have already been routed by Miller.
And talk about an economy of bunkers - there's only 75 of them and holes 1, 2, 8 and 13 don't have any greenside traps. Approach shots on 13 through 18 have zero bunkers in front creating an opening to run your Pro V1 up with a pitch or the Texas wedge.
"It's a hidden beauty," Jones said. "The views are amazing, the golf course is playable and it's in great condition. I think it is Miller's best work."
Signature hole? Just try and pick one. It won't be easy. It also won't be easy to find an out-of-bounds stake - there aren't any.
No. 8, a 587-yard par-5 is dowhill dogleg that runs along a box canyon. In front of the green the landing area seems tiny with an arroyo waste area left and a pint-sized piece of fairway sloping down to the putting surface. If you lay up back from this section of the fairway you are on a severe downslope. This could be the most photographed hole so far.
The par-3s are definite challenges, playing at 178, 207, 220 and 177 yards from the back tees. One can also challenge the par-4, the 345-yard 15th hole, but anything weak and left is gone - a deep arroyo lines the entire side. Once on the green you face 13,500-square feet of putting surface.
The finale is special and tough if it is into the wind. This 432-yard par-4 presents a downhill risk-reward shot to a split fairway that is fronted by an arroyo forced carry and two huge traps. If you go safely right, the approach shot must carry water and sand.
Perhaps the major feeling that We-Ko-Pa is bound for honors comes from the rush the golfer gets from just teeing it up hole-after-hole.
"I've played all the Top 100 Courses You Can Play in Arizona," said Dan Bowers of Chicago, "and I think I enjoyed We-Ko-Pa just as much as any of them. You know you have something special when you step on every tee box and think about the beauty of the views and the value of the shot you are about to hit. I love target golf. I could play this kind of course every day without getting bored."
Another characteristic of the golf course is the vast amount of saguaros, natural palo verde, mesquite, shrubbery and desert vegetation that sprawl through the arroyos and canyons of We-Ko-Pa, creating a luxuriant desert feel.
Located in Maricopa County about 23 miles northeast of Phoenix, We-Ko-Pa is still virtually a secret. Stop just a few miles away and ask for directions. Many locals have never heard of it.
The PGA has heard of it - they already sent Justin Leonard, Mark Calcaveccia, Scott Verplank and Mike Weir out for a promotional ad for USA Network.
Managed by OB Sports, based in Scottsdale, We-Ko-Pa also features a "theme". It was designed to resemble ancient Yavapai communal grounds, native architectural styles, including a clubhouse designed by renowned Phoenix architect, Douglas Fredrickson. The 21,000-square foot clubhouse includes a large fire pit and water centerpiece, an outdoor patio, large middle breezeway and wood beams that create a canopy effect overlooking the desert vistas.
The Yavapai Nation gave Miller 700 acres to work with and told him to design 36 holes - a rare opportunity, Miller said. He certainly worked dilligently to incorporate the views on every hole and created a course that is playable, but difficult to score on.
Miller's other golf design projects have included Kierland Golf Club, The Country Club at DC Ranch and the Golf Club at Eagle Mountain in Fountain Hills.
We-Ko-Pa wants to build a 300-room resort hotel and there's even talk of building a casino near the golf course and constructing a par-3 course. All these projects are on hold pending future gaming licenses and financing. The existing Fort McDowell Casino is less than a mile away.
18200 E TohVee Circle
Fountain Hills, AZ 85264
Internet: WE-Ko-Pa Golf Club
Green Fees: $55 to $165. Arizona Resident Rate, High $100, low $40. Call for details. Cart path only golf course.
Directions: From Phoenix take U.S. Highway 87, Beeline Highway, to Fountain Hills. Go past Shea Blvd., 1.5 miles. Turn left just prior to the Fort McDowell Casino.
The Heard Museum is a private, non-profit museum founded in 1929 by Dwight B. and Maie Bartlett Heard to house their personal collection of cultural and fine art. The mission and philosophy of the Heard today is to educate the public about the heritage and the living cultures and arts of Native peoples, with an emphasis on the peoples of the Southwest.
Heard Museum, 2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85004-1480. Phone: 602-252-8848. Web Site: www.heard.org.
Practice Fac.: A
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: A
Pace of Play: A-
Overall Rating: A
February 11, 2002