Places to Play: Cholla Course, We-Ko-Pa Resort, Fort McDowell, AZ

This spectacular Scott Miller design has been around for almost twenty years and still delivers all the challenge and thrills anyone could want on a golf course.


Course: We-Ko-Pa Cholla Course

Location: Fort McDowell, AZ (on the outskirts of Scottsdale)

Architect: Scott Miller

Opened: 2001

Type: Resort / Public

Course info: Par 72 / 7225 yards / Rating: 73.4 / Slope: 138


The Cholla, and its sister course Saguaro, are part of a spectacular duo at We-Ko-Pa that rise and tumble through the hills, box canyons and arroyos of the Sonoran Desert northeast of Scottsdale. Like a lot of desert courses, one moment you’re standing on beautiful manicured fairways and ten steps away, you’re knee deep in scrub brush and sand that looks like it hasn’t seen a human footprint in a thousand years.

Both courses are part of the We-Ko-Pa Resort, the central piece of a massive 24,000 acre reservation owned by the Yavapai Indian tribe. The Resort features a casino, hotel and conference centre in addition to the two golf courses.

Cholla is the more awe inspiring layout of the two courses. It features dramatic elevation changes, wide twisting fairways and deceptively large sloping greens. Many of the holes offer several angles of approach, where one will be relatively conservative while another will present danger but also shorten the hole considerably.

There aren’t a lot of bunkers on Cholla (75) but with sand and scrub bordering every hole, more sand isn’t required. The greens themselves are often pushed up and have long sloping sides cut to fairway height where missed approaches can run off into deep swales, bunkers or even the desert.

As is common with desert courses, tall multi-armed Saguaro cacti populate the landscape and formulate an amazing picture – like an army of sentinels marching on and on as far as the eye can see.

The Bunker Squad

On this trip I was flying solo but was joined for several rounds at We-Ko-Pa by other members of the golf media. The consensus seemed to be that the Composite tees were the place to be. That included a mix of White and Purple tees and added up to 6,400 yards, which turned out to be perfect. Most of the risk-reward holes were tantalizing enough to make you go for it and in a lot of cases we were rewarded. On top of that, We-Ko-Pa is about 2,500 feet above sea level and the ball seemed to go a bit further, often hanging endlessly in the bright blue sky, especially from some of the mountain top tees. Course conditions were perfect.

Cholla is pretty generous in the landing areas and narrows towards the greens. However, the course is really all about angles. Even holes that appear pretty straightforward have a preferred line of attack, down one side or the other. You often hear pros talk about strategy and how they work from the green back. Cholla really demands that kind of thinking because the greens are angled or slanted so there definitely is an optimal spot to hit your approach.

Cholla Course No. 7 green

One of the things everybody commented on was the tremendous mix of holes. No two are remotely alike. In fact, it’s hard to even find two holes that follow similar lines. That’s due in large part to the landscape, which offers endless possibilities for elevation changes, forced carries over canyons or desert or enormous waste bunkers – even some ponds. There’s a hole with a split fairway (#7) and another with almost no fairway at all (#15) – just a tiny landing pad between bunkers and lost.

If I haven’t been clear about my feelings yet, I absolutely love this course. Architect Scott Miller has demonstrated what can happen when you take a magnificent site and apply some creative genius. It’s a course that will delight players of all abilities and one you could play over and over – and even play it in different ways each time out.

Favourite Holes

#2 is shaped like the letter Z – a long par 5 where you can cut the first corner but better be very careful trying to cut the second one. It’s really a hole that requires three good shots and the approach needs to be dialed in for yardage because putting this giant contoured green is no picnic.

The 7th hole has the split fairway. The hole moves uphill and to add to the difficulty, the right hand fairway slopes hard left into a stand of gnarly trees. It’s the preferred side to play if you can make the shot because it opens up the full length of the long green. If you opt to lay up in the left hand fairway, it’s in a valley, leaving a dramatically uphill shot over bunkers to a very shallow green. The hole may be short but it’s not an easy birdie by any means.

Cholla Course No. 8

#8 is the signature hole on the golf course. A recent $1.8 million dollar renovation turned this hole into a thrill ride. It starts on the highest point on the property and turns right, cascading downhill to a plateau, then left across a dry gulch to a long narrow green. The putting surface is reachable with two great shots but is protected on the left by the arroyo and on the right by a slope. Over the back is a long runoff area. I’d be happy to take a bucket of balls to the tee and play this hole all day long. The fairway is about 100 yards wide but stray too far right and you’re in a box canyon. Stray too far left and you’ll have to lay up to get around the corner. It’s one of the best risk / reward holes you’ll ever play.

I’m particularly fond of golf holes that give you options but also mess with your head. The 15th is another short par 4 that will be tempting to drive. It looks pretty benign but the entire left side from tee to green falls off into a canyon. The fairway slopes right and eventually runs off into more lost ball territory. For those attempting a layup, a pair of bunkers awaits on the right side, which is where any prudent golfer would try to be to avoid the canyon on the left. The huge green is relatively flat on the front but falls off on the other sides. Other than that, no problem.

On our Must-Should-Would-Could-Don’t scale, we rate We-Ko-Pa Cholla as a Must Play. It’s one of the best in Arizona and should be on everyone’s golf itinerary for their next trip to the Scottsdale area.


Rating Scale

Must: fake an illness, skip your wife’s birthday, pay any amount they ask but this is one you have to play.

Should: this course will be one of your highlights. You won’t ever be disappointed playing here.

Would: preferable to most other courses in the area. Definitely worth a return visit.

Could: nothing special but OK to play here.

Don’t: go to a movie, wash the car, this course is not worth the time or money.

Peter Mumford
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. He's played over 500 different courses in 21 countries and met some fascinating people along the way. He's also a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

One thought on “Places to Play: Cholla Course, We-Ko-Pa Resort, Fort McDowell, AZ

  1. These are great courses to play. The best part that I enjoyed was that there were no homes that border the golf course and the scenery was amazing. If you stay at the resort/hotel you will not be disappointment.

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