Arizona Golf Vacations

We-Ko-Pa Cholla Course

By • Dec 8th, 2009

wekopaIf you’ve played any golf in The Valley, I’m sure you’ve heard of WeKoPa Golf Club. The award-winning 36-hole facility is home to two of the area’s best public courses, the Saguaro Course and the Cholla Course.

The newer Saguaro course, designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, opened in December of 2006 and has run away with all sorts of national awards, including #16 on Golfweek Magazine’s 2009 Best Resort Courses list, and numerous Top 10 lists by various noted golf publications.

The Cholla Course is the original WeKoPa course, opened in December 2001, and has somewhat been designated the ignored stepchild role compared to the Saguaro Course. Designed by renowned course architect Scott Miller, the Cholla Course has been moderately overshadowed. While it still has gathered a laundry list of accolades, including being #38 on Golfweek Magazine’s 2009 Best Resort Courses, it can’t seem to quite catch up. Cholla has recently been named #2 Best Public Access Course in Arizona behind, you guessed it, #1 ranked Saguaro.

I recently played Cholla for the first time and my view has since changed. Rather than the ignored stepchild, I might rename the Cholla Course as the bigger, stronger brother of the Saguaro Course at We-Ko-Pa. After all, at 7225 yards from the tips, it played almost 300 yards longer than Saguaro.

The Cholla course features exactly zero out-of-bounds stakes and no houses in sight from any point on the course. Nothing but mountain vistas, gnarly cactus and bunkers surround the pristine fairways.

What occurred to me as I navigated my tee shots around the doglegs of the Cholla Course was the simplicity of my surroundings contrast against the constant complications awaiting just about every shot.

It’s a course where even the simple shots have a degree of difficulty not typically found on ordinary golf courses. The first hole is a great example of a hole that can be attacked, even to the tune of driving the green for long hitters, but has plenty of awaiting peril for stray tee balls.

Stretching just over 350 yards, the first tee box at the Cholla course sits elevated over the wide but bunkered fairway below. The green sits invitingly accessible at the end of the dogleg to the left and can tempt the longer hitters to take on the desert on the left and the massive waste bunker that will gobble up a driver not hit far enough. Bail right and decently hit drives will surely find one of the numerous pot bunkers that dot the right side of the hole.

Most players will probably just try to get the ball into the fattest part of the fairway and leave a short iron approach, while the longer hitters might challenge the bunkers and try to reach the bowled-in fairway in front of the green. A birdie is never a gimme, but this multi-tiered green is difficult to judge with a short iron, so a pitch for your second is pretty darn enticing.

It’s a great example of how a hole doesn’t have to stretch 500 yards to become a good, fair test. But fear not, there are plenty of beastly par-4’s to test your long game.

The first of the beasties is the 469 yard 4th. The tee shot is one of the toughest visual shots on the course, and if it plays back into the wind like it did the day I played, you can get ready for a meaty second. The tee box is built into the side of a hill that traverses the left side of the hole, a raised desert wash keeps pretty much the entire fairway hidden from view, especially from the back tee. The good news is that there is actually a fair amount of room out there for your ball to find mown grass as long as you can get yourself to just focus and make good contact. Spray one here and you’ll likely just want to re-tee and take a mulligan and save the trouble of pulling cactus quills out of your socks.

The second shot plays slightly downhill to a large green that gives players the opportunity to run the ball up the right center. Which is only fair, given that finding anything but a long iron or fairway wood for your second shot will be left for the bombers who can bomb it strait.

While bombers certainly will have an advantage at the Cholla course, there are plenty of holes that will test even the best of players.

The 7th is the first of four holes that feature a middle-of-the-fairway obstacle. While these are not my personal favorite features on a golf course, Scott Miller did a good job of giving players options on either side of the obstacle and it’s like two separate holes in one.

wekopa-chollaFor all intensive purposes, the 7th should be a birdie opportunity. Leave your tee ball out of position and you could find yourself scrambling for bogey in a hurry. You have to pick a side to play your tee shot. Play to the left and two things happen, the hole gets longer and the angle to the green becomes cramped with bunkers guarding the front. Play down the right and the opposite happens. Needless to say, I think you know which side to attack.

Decisions like these may not be obvious standing on the tee, which is why you need to study the provided yardage card and pay attention to the bunkering and angle of the putting surface when considering which side of the fairway to play to.

Cholla is full of unique holes and the 8th is probably my favorite. This virtually un-reachable par 5 plays more than 600 yards from the tips and will test you on every swing. Standing on this tee for first time, you don’t have an idea of the difficulty you will face in the coming swings.

Find the fairway and you’ve got to place your second in a perfect spot to assure a clean view to the small, sunken green that seems cloaked by shadowy cactus and a dry creek bed.

You’ll likely play your third off a bit of side-hill lie to one of The Valley’s most beautiful green settings. The small narrow putting surface is set beneath the surrounding landscape, giving it a sunken stadium-like feel, with the dry creek wrapping around the front and left of the green, bunkers guard the right half, and a closely mown collection area awaiting shots hit long. Anything but a good shot will surely leave your ball in a heap of trouble. But given the small size of the green, if you can get your third on the green you should have a good look at birdie.

The variety that Scott Miller brought with him to WeKoPa Golf Club shows his ability to work with various landscapes and get the most out of them. I enjoy a course that gives you just as many long par 4’s as short, and just as many birdie chances as bogeys. The Cholla Course at WeKoPa certainly fits that mold.

One fantastic example of this is the 15th and 16th holes. The 15th reigns as the shortest of all the four pars, providing a fairly straightforward tee shot and a massive green that should provide a scoring boost. Then make the short hike to the 16th tee and be faced with a 472-yard mammoth that will make even professionals say a few prayers for pars on the tee box.

Move to the 18th tee box and while you might be already salivating thinking about the cold beer awaiting you in the grill you’ve still got a lot of golf in front of you.

Standing on the tee you might as well be sitting at a chessboard across from a grand master. The problem is there is no right move to avoid the trouble. You just have to face it head on and hope for the best.

The tee shot will typically be played down the right side of the fairway to avoid the bunkers, which will leave a long approach over the only visible water hazard on the course. The long hitters might try to pound it blindly into the left side of the fairway (a minimum 254 yard carry to reach the fairway), which does leave a much-desired angle. But a mishit at that route will be a likely double bogey in the making.

Get through this 432-yard finishing hole in four strokes or less and you’ve certainly earned your beer. Get around the award-winning Cholla Course in par or less and you might deserve a few more, which I’m sure you won’t have to pay for because you would have certainly beat your pals out of it.