“Walk?” My friends sound incredulous as they utter the same word, simultaneously. Given where we’ve been playing, it’s understandable.
“Trust me,” I reply, and, after nearly 30 years of comradeship, at least when it comes to golf matters, they do. And they don’t regret leaving the golf carts behind for a moment.
Estimable golf courses pepper the Arizona landscape, and We-Ko-Pa, just over the McDowell Mountains from Scottsdale in Fort McDowell, offers two: Saguaro and Cholla. The latter, by course designer Scott Miller, climbs and dives in an arroyo-leaping frenzy of target-style play. Both courses stand out for their complete lack of urban intrusion. Saguaro, our joyful jaunt this day, provides an eminently walkable routing cast through the cacti and dramatic rock formations of the Sonoran Desert.
How to play the course: Trust your eyes (and feet), Coore advises. “Look at the ground, at the contours and slopes, how the ball will react on the ground and you are going to be far ahead in terms of having a great time,” he says. “Saguaro is not a course that requires you to play from point to point in the air.”
Designer’s choice: A favourite child? Don’t ask. “I don’t have one,” Coore says. “They go together to make a great golf experience.” But he’s a softie for a sequence, pointing to holes seven through 10, a stretch that incorporates two angular par 4s a short par 3 that isn’t automatic and a reachable par 5: “Interesting, different, playable,” Coore says.
Links-like courses, by their very nature, exist in only a handful of places across the globe, and this ain’t one of ’em. The key to this course’s appeal is walkability and taking the land as it is found, rather than bulldozing its features.
“We took time-tested design principles and simply laid them on a desert landscape,” says co-designer Bill Coore. “It starts with landforms, and that includes elevation changes and different configurations of those landforms that can be adapted to golf. We walk, study the land and make notations of the interesting features that should be incorporated, then we let the land be the guide for the routing and the character of the golf course.”
Coore, with cohort and World Golf Hall of Fame member Ben Crenshaw, have produced renowned courses such as Kapalua’s Plantation Course on Maui, Cape Breton’s Cabot Cliffs and Saguaro. Formulaic, they are not, and restraint is a refreshing concept. The designers have left ego out of it. Where they’ve worked their magic, it’s not obvious. Nothing is done for “signature” purposes such as creating lakes around faux islands.
Saguaro isn’t remotely flat; it goes where the land dictates, so, if you choose to hoof it, you earn that walk. But tees are in immediate proximity to greens and there are no forced marches necessitated by rows of condos squeezed between holes. The designers passed on using higher parts of the property; as a result, golfers are generously presented with one gorgeous Kodak moment after another as they traverse the course. And, as Coore notes of Saguaro’s handsome sister course, “We felt such features [staggered elevation changes] were so well presented in Cholla, we wanted this course to be complementary.”
Getting there: WestJet flies to Phoenix 56 times a week from eight Canadian cities, and Mesa four times a week from Calgary and Edmonton.