2006: Wigwam: Buffing up a desert classic

By John Steinbreder

Litchfield Park, Ariz.

The Wigwam Golf Resort & Spa opened its doors on Thanksgiving Day in 1929, and at that time it stood alone, literally and figuratively, in the Sonoran Desert outside Phoenix. The property was 15 miles west of town, and the dirt road that connected it with the city center often was impassable. The construction a year later of a nine-hole golf course not only made it one of the few Salt River Basin retreats where visitors could tee it up, but also one of Arizona’s first golf resorts.

My, how things have changed.

The old dirt track long ago became a spacious thoroughfare, and the Phoenix area has evolved into one of the great golfing destinations in the world, with dozens of top-notch courses and first-rate hotels, restaurants and spas.

For Wigwam, those developments have been good and bad. Good in that they made it much easier to reach the resort, which originally was built as a retreat for visitors going to the nearby Goodyear farming operation, where the company grew a special type of cotton used to strengthen the walls of its pneumatic tires. But bad in that the addition of all those high-end courses made competition increasingly fierce, and made it much more difficult for venerable Wigwam, which expanded its golf offerings to 54 holes over the years and added a number of amenities, to distinguish itself the way it once did.

The resort’s most recent response to that reality has been to sink $5 million into renovating its pair of Robert Trent Jones Sr. golf courses – known as the Gold and Blue and built by the master designer in the mid-1960s – while also enlarging the already vast practice facility and adding a Jim McLean Golf School.

But management didn’t spend only on golf. Wigwam also sunk millions into the construction of a 26,000-square-foot spa, which is set to open this spring. And in the past several years, it has enhanced other aspects of the retreat, which is set on 463 aces, has 331 rooms and suites, and also a third golf course, three restaurants, two pools and nine lighted tennis courts.

The end result is a nicely buffed upgrade of a classic destination, showing it not only has aged gracefully but brought itself fully up to speed by combining an extensive modernization of its facilities with a renewed devotion to that most appealing of old-world attributes – superior service.

Not surprisingly, I was most interested in checking out the golf when I arrived unannounced for an early January visit, so I ambled immediately to the Wigwam pro shop once I had checked in. I was a half-hour early for my tee time on the Gold Course, which measures 7,430 yards from the back tees, and as a single, I wondered how easily I would be able to get around that afternoon.

The man behind the desk said the Gold was fairly crowded. But he quickly added that the neighboring Blue was wide open and offered to put me out there in the next five minutes instead. Plus, he guaranteed me a tee time on the Gold the following morning.

The Blue is a rather ordinary, par-70 track that’s only 6,000 yards in length, with wide-open fairways and a slew of the raised greens Jones often favored in his designs. Unlike most Arizona layouts, it has an enticing parklands flavor that often gives players the sensation they are time zones away from the desert. It also possesses a rather odd starting combination, with three par 5s and two par 3s on the first five holes. There is a sense of quirky fun with that beginning before the course takes on more of a plain vanilla feel for the rest of the round. I liked the fine conditioning of the fairways and the greens that ran true and reasonably fast. And I appreciated that I had to work the ball on almost every tee shot if I wanted to position myself properly for second shots. Though many of my approaches required nothing more than short irons, they demanded a fairly high degree of accuracy if I intended to score with any sort of consistency.

On most days, the Gold commands a green fee ($150) that is twice as high as the Blue, and understandably so. It is longer, tougher and much more interesting, with old irrigation canals running through the layout and groves of eucalyptus and cedar trees lining some holes. The opener is a reasonable par 5 that doglegs slightly to the left. That is followed by a fairly straightforward par 4, but then things get serious, thanks to the 272-yard, par-3 (no, that’s not a misprint) third, followed by a 654-yard par 5. And they stay that way throughout the round, culminating in a stern finish with a pair of par 4s measuring 422 and 440 yards, respectively.

My sense after two rounds at Wigwam – I did not play the resort’s third course, dubbed the Red, which is generally regarded as the weakest of the trio – is that the Gold is a track I would happily play again and again. And while the Blue has many attributes, especially for resort golfers looking for a fun round between meetings or spa treatments, it is nothing I would shout about from a design standpoint.

As for other aspects of the Wigwam resort, they rank up there with the Gold in terms of being good enough to lure visitors back for another stay. The sprawling complex of adobe-style casitas, all painted a creamy shade of brown and laid out among well-manicured grounds, has the pleasingly calm allure of a quiet village. The room in which I stayed – located on the secondfloor and featuring a balcony overlooking a small courtyard and pool – was comfortable, efficient and had just enough of a Southwestern motif to seem authentic and attractive.

The resort’s signature restaurant, the Arizona Kitchen, dishes out wonderful regional fare, such as fish tacos and buffalo tenderloin, as well as some fairly potent margaritas And the breakfast I had one morning at the Grille on the Greens eatery just off the first tees of both the Gold and Blue was as enjoyable a pre-round repast as I’ve ever had, thanks to first-rate food and the delightful terrace setting that overlooks both courses.

But best of all was the service. Weeks before I visited, when I called the resort to arrange transportation from the Phoenix airport, some 25 minutes away, I was assisted by an extremely helpful and efficient staff member. Such nurturance continued throughout my stay, from the woman behind the check-in desk who gave me some choices for rooms (and steered me in exactly the right direction) to the starter at the golf course, who happily hustled back to the reception area after my round at the Gold so I could make my bus to the airport.

“Make sure you come see us again,” he said as he drove off.

With treatment like that, I recall thinking, I certainly will.

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