SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - There's a plaque in front of the first tee at the Saguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club that reads: "This old boney ground has some sting to it."
From that you can draw you own conclusions, but you shouldn't let course designer Ben Crenshaw's words scare you - unless you have trouble getting the ball airborne. Because while the Saguaro is certainly formidable, it's everything you want in a golf experience - a slew of really good holes, views of the surrounding mountains as far as one can see, great conditions and, most of all, no houses.
There is also plenty of forced carries even from the forward tees, so getting tee shots to fly a reasonable distance, no matter where you play from, is advised. Fulfill that requirement, though, and you're good to go.
The Saguaro Course, which Crenshaw designed with partner Bill Coore, opened in 2006, with high standards already set by the original, 18-hole, Scott Miller-designed Cholla Course. The former course opened in 2001, merely as We-Ko-Pa, and has received many accolades. Saguaro, which is ranked 67th on Golfweek's America's Best 100 list, may have already surpassed the original but not by much.
Saguaro's lofty ranking should come as no surprise since Coore and Crenshaw have collaborated on many superb layouts, including Golfweek's top-ranked modern U.S. course, Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Neb.
The two golf courses at We-Ko-Pa, which is owned by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, are night and day in terms of how they play: The Cholla Course has trickier tee shots, some of them blind, making club selection and accuracy paramount. The Saguaro Course, on the other hand, is right in front of you with fairways that appear to be generous. Never do you step to the tee and ask, "Where am I supposed to hit it?"
On the Cholla Course, there are opportunities to run the ball up on the greens. Many of the approaches on the Saguaro are all carry. Although if you miss a green left or right and don't find one of the bunkers, there are plenty of options, including using the putter. And sometimes, putting is the smartest move, especially if you tend to get a little yippy with your chipping stroke.
Some of the Saguaro's tee shots, however, can be fairly intimidating, which is why it's critical to play the correct tees.
For example, even if you play one tee up on the sixth, you will have to carry the ball some 200 yards to get it in play on this 609-yard par 5 (it's 631 yards from the back tee). If it's playing into the wind - and there really is no prevailing wind during peak season - it could play like a 230-yard carry, and the vast majority of handicap players don't have that shot.
Being able to move it off the tee, in fact, is a key for having fun on this golf course. This par 71 seems to play longer than the 6,966 yards on the scorecard, probably because there are several risk-reward short par 4s, which leaves several long ones that can almost be unreachable, even by single digit handicappers, when played into the wind.
Remember the sign in front of the first tee? If the wind is in your face, you get a good idea of what Crenshaw is talking about. During a recent amateur event, players talked about what clubs they hit on the first, which was set at 443 yards into about a 20-mph breeze. The common combination was driver, 3-wood.
"I hit both shots pretty well, and I was still 30 yards short of the green," one player told me.
Or how about the aforementioned par-5 sixth? You could pound your drive, then flush a fairway wood, and if this hole is playing into the wind, you might get to have a mid-iron or longer left into this green. Heck, some play this as a par 6, hoping to reach the green in four shots.
There are plenty of long challenging holes on Saguaro, but what really makes you want to come back are the views from almost every tee box, the shot values into and around the greens and the outstanding service, which you would expect at a course that charges two Benjamin bills or more to play.
Translated from Yavapai, the words "We-Ko-Pa" mean "Four Mountains," which provide plenty of perspective as a backdrop for giant Saguaro cacti and other natural desert landscape that surrounds the perfectly manicured fairways and greens.
For example, when you stand on the 15th tee and take in the view, it's easy to forget that you have to navigate some 230-250 yards off the tee to find the green below.
Additionally, you can also walk this course if you wanted to, and it's actually allowed. Except for a couple of holes, tee boxes and greens are fairly close together.
The facilities at We-Ko-Pa are also top shelf. The large practice range has plenty of target greens as well as a short-game area. The clubhouse, with a full-service restaurant and well-stocked golf shop, is as good as any in the Scottsdale, Ariz., area, especially when you consider the outdoor decks that overlook the courses and surrounding views.
January 12, 2009