LITCHFIELD PARK, Ariz. -- Over the past 20 years, I've probably been to the Phoenix/Scottsdale area more than a dozen times. Those trips often center around Scottsdale's wonderful resorts with jaunts to areas such as Carefree, Phoenix proper, Maricopa and Chandler, just to name a few. But until a recent December trip to Litchfield Park just west of Phoenix, I had never been to the 54-hole Wigwam resort, which is definitely a change-up from the other pitches in the area.
Golfwise, all 54 holes at The Wigwam resort are parkland, not desert golf, which makes for a nice contrast to the area's superb desert golf courses.
Secondly, the entire resort has been renovated, much of it back to its historical roots, which go back almost a century.
And thirdly, the area, often overlooked, shouldn't be. There's a litany of cool things to do, and getting there is pretty easy from the airport. Couple that with the recent reopening of the resort's signature Robert Trent Jones golf course, and there's plenty to lure golfers.
Three courses at The Wigwam, including 36 holes from RTJ
The first thing I did when I got to The Wigwam was witness the burying of a time capsule near the first tee on the Wigwam Gold Course . The reason? The course had just celebrated its 50th anniversary by reopening after a renovation by former PGA Tour player and architect Tom Lehman, who not only sought to restore the course to its Robert Trent Jones roots but to adjust it for today's golf club technology and top players.
The time capsule, which contained predictions on what golf and life would be like in the future, is scheduled to be unearthed 50 years from now when the course would celebrate its 100th anniversary.
But for now, the Gold is a championship course designed to provide scoring resistance for top players and make it easier for the average player to get around.
"There's been around 225 golf courses built in Arizona since then, but we're still here," said Jerry Colangelo, who along with JDM Partners bought the resort out of bankruptcy in late 2009. "There are four Robert Trent Jones courses in Arizona, and we have two of them. Our goal is that if you come to the area and play three or four courses, we hope (the Gold) is one of them."
The restoration included the removal of half the course's nearly 100 bunkers, including bunkers behind greens. The remaining fairway bunkers have been positioned to catch tee shots by players choosing to hit drivers on certain holes. And instead of desert on wayward shots, you get rough, which is especially thick leading up to certain events, such as the Patriot All-American Invitational, a collegiate tournament featuring some of the best amateur players in the world. (The 5-year-old Patriot All-American partners with the Folds of Honor Foundation. Each player receives a golf bag with the name and branch of a fallen or injured veteran, which they represent in the tournament.)
The Robert Trent Jones layout is the Patriot Course (formerly the Blue Course), which is named to honor other Arizona patriots from the police and fire departments as well as service men and women from nearby Luke Air Force Base. While the course is just 6,000 yards, it's certainly not a pushover. Like the Gold Course, there's plenty of water, including the signature island-green, par-3 15th, which shares a lake with the par-3 16th on the Gold Course. With lots of doglegs, trees and other hazards, it's hard to overpower. It loses much of its yardage on some short par 3s and a couple of short par 4s, and the front and back nine are quite different.
While the Patriot Course eases you in with a couple of par 5s early in the round, there are doglegs, trees, some large bunker complexes and plenty of water to challenge players throughout their rounds. Arguably the signature hole is the short, par-3 15th, which has an island green.
The third course at The Wigwam is the Heritage Course (formerly the Red Course), which measures 6,852 yards and is dedicated to the men and women who have shaped Arizona history over the past 100 years. Designed by Red Lawrence, this 224-acre course is set among pines and eucalyptus trees alongside ponds, streams and canals, and it can be a difficult test if you're not on your game.
The Wigwam's evolution
Once a cotton farm, The Wigwam resort was basically founded by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which discovered a century ago that long-staple cotton fibers actually extended the life of the company's tires. The resort began as a guest ranch in 1929, and the first nine-hole course was built in 1930, eventually extending to 18 holes in 1941.
When the original owners decided to build what is now the Gold Course, they looked to none other than one of the most prolific and most respected architects of the time, Robert Trent Jones, to build a course that would be an answer to industry rival Firestone and Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.
Over the years, the resort evolved, adding more rooms and restaurants, and, of course, it lost some of its historical attributes as it was modernized. In 2009, however, when the current ownership group of JDM partners bought the resort, there was an effort to uncover some of the resort's history as improvements were made to the dining, casitas, spa and golf courses.
The new owners include basketball legend Colangelo, who is the former owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks, as well as Tom O'Malley, who has been Colangelo's right-hand man in sports and and now serves as the resort's chief operating officer. JDM has put more than $25 million into the resort since purchasing it out of bankruptcy, and those improvements are evident at every corner.
They include remodeled luxury casitas; the signature restaurant, Litchfield's, featuring farm-to-table fresh seafood, vegetables and steaks as well as an extensive wine selection; and the new Red's sports bar, which features an extensive beer selection as well as really tasty appetizers, burgers and salads amidst dozens of flatscreen TVs featuring all the games. There's also one of the best tennis centers in the Southwest (with one of the area's best tennis instructors); four swimming pools; a luxury spa and fitness center; 29 fireplaces and fire pits; 45,000 square feet of indoor meeting space with 25 separate meeting rooms and 55,000 square feet of outdoor meeting space.
Lots of cool activities at and around The Wigwam
But the resort is just part of the story. What I found out during my visit is there's a lot to do in the area, and my hosts gave me the grand tour. It included something that normal folks don't often get to do, but it's worth more than a mention here.
With its ties to Luke AFB through the Patriot All-American and other patriotic endeavors, we were able to tour the base and even got to fly a multi-million-dollar F-16 flight simulator. For the ordinary golf writer, that's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, only to be complemented by some other cool stuff.
Litchfield Park is next to Goodyear, which is home to Goodyear Ballpark, the spring training home of the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds. There, the group of writers in attendance got to compete in a home run derby but not with baseballs and bats, rather they used golf balls and clubs. While it's not especially difficult to hit a golf ball out of the park with a nine-iron or even a wedge, the experience still rated as a major league moment. Additionally, we got to tour the facility, which includes a dozen practice fields, batting cages and weight room. Yours truly even took a little batting practice.
And if that wasn't enough, a tour of nearby Phoenix International Raceway, which hosts both NASCAR and Indy Car races, was also on the agenda. We even took a few laps in a pace car. Additionally, Phoenix University Stadium, home of Super Bowls and the 2016 NCAA national championship game, is also nearby. The point of all this is that there's plenty to do in the area, and if you're coming to Arizona for spring training, the Fiesta Bowl or an auto race, The Wigwam resort would be a terrific base.
"We believe in the future of golf on the west side," Colangelo said. "We're committed to the area."
Another 36 holes at the Arizona Biltmore
When JDM Partners bought The Wigwam resort, they also purchased the two courses at another historic property, the Biltmore in Phoenix, which is about 15 miles or so east. I got to play both courses on the last couple days of my trip.
The most historic is the Adobe Course , which was built in 1928 after chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. hired William P. Bell to design a golf course to go with the "Jewel of the Desert," the Arizona Biltmore Resort. Now a par 71 measuring 6,430 yards from the back tees, the Adobe Course is one of several dozen courses designed by Bell, whose portfolio also includes Bel-Air Country Club . The course is traditional parkland with a smattering of trees, a few water hazards and bunkers. The traditional push-up greens remain, and many of the holes are parallel, making it difficult to lose a ball.
The other Biltmore course is totally different. Though it's certainly not a links course, the Links Course at Arizona Biltmore Golf Club isn't a desert course either. With plenty of green grass and a few great views, the 6,300-yard Links Course, which opened in 1978, is the features more rolling topography, including a few elevated tees and great views of downtown Phoenix.
Designed by Bill Johnston, who still plays the course regularly, the Links Course has more elevation change on the back nine, which a tee box well above the par-3 15th green, where the hole plays typically 15-20 yards shorter than its advertised yardage. From there, golfers who play the back tees climb to another tee box on the par-4 17th, where the Phoenix skyline comes into plain view.
The club offers practice facilities, including a driving range and putting green as well as an exceptional full-service restaurant and golf shop in its expansive clubhouse.