Historic Wigwam near Phoenix on the rebound

Historic Wigwam near Phoenix on the rebound

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Historic Wigwam near Phoenix on the rebound

(Editor’s Note: This story appeared in the Jan. 30, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

LITCHFIELD PARK, Ariz. – Many of the Phoenix area’s best golf, dining, resort and entertainment options have clustered around Scottsdale and the East Valley over the past two decades. Now, however, there’s a new reason to make the drive over to the west side of town.

The Wigwam, a resort that dates back nearly a century, has been given a new lease on life, and it’s making the most of it. JDM Partners, led by former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, bought The Wigwam out of bankruptcy in 2008 and in recent years has poured $16 million into the 440-acre  property, which has 54 holes of golf and 331 casitas.

There’s a lot of history here. The resort began in 1918 as a retreat for Goodyear Tire & Rubber employees, then opened to the public in 1929. The first nine-hole layout opened in 1930, and another nine was added in 1941.

According to Wigwam lore, the first 18-hole round at the resort was played by some folks you might have heard of: Horton Smith, who won the first Masters; Lawson Little, who won the 1940 U.S. Open; Jimmy Thomson; and V.O. “Red” Allen, the resort’s longtime head professional, for whom the 19th hole is named. All four men were touring professionals at various times.

JDM last year spent about $1.2 million renovating the courses, with $800,000 spent on the Gold. It was money well spent. (A renovation is planned for The Heritage, the resort’s third course.) First thing to know about The Wigwam’s courses: They have little in common with the Phoenix-area courses we’ve come to know over the past few decades, with cactus-lined corridors and desert washes cutting through fairways. The Gold, and to a lesser extent the Patriot, are reminiscent of some of the great old parkland courses that one might find in the New York metropolitan area.

They’re easy to walk, as we did on the Gold on a lovely November morning. For some, that might not be the experience they want when visiting Phoenix; others might find it to be a pleasant differentiation from the typical desert fare.

Tom Lehman’s renovation of the Gold got a boost when superintendent Jason Snyder discovered Robert Trent Jones’ original drawings from the 1960s. The Gold seems wildly undervalued at No. 28 on Golfweek’s list of public-access course in Arizona.

“Twenty-five years ago when I came to Phoenix, this was absolutely the best course here, but you couldn’t get on it,” said Tom O’Malley, JDM’s chief
operating officer.

The Gold more than held its own against a strong collegiate field in December, when it hosted the annual, 54-hole Patriot All-America Invitational, one of O’Malley’s pet projects. Cameron Champ of Texas A&M finished at 7 under and won in a playoff.

As was the case on the Gold, Lehman removed many of the Patriot’s bunkers to bring it in line with Jones’ design work. At 6,000 yards – back tees are being added to stretch it to 6,373 yards – the Patriot might sound like a pushover. But if you want to refine your iron play, you’d be hard pressed to
find a better challenge than the Patriot’s perched, thumbnail-sized greens.

While Colangelo has been the biggest name in Phoenix sports for decades, The Wigwam is JDM’s first resort, and sometimes it has made running a
NBA team seem easy by comparison.

“The hardest thing is seeing how long it takes to make changes,” O’Malley said as we walked the Gold Course’s 16th hole. “If we need to change the scoreboard at a basketball arena, we’ll do that tomorrow.” At The Wigwam and other resorts, the pace of change is much slower, as is the pace of
adoption by the community.

O’Malley clearly is proud of the work that has been done to resurrect The Wigwam, but convincing local golfers and leisure travelers to give the
renovated resort another look takes time. If they do pay a visit, they’ll like what they see.

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