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Golf: Cactus Makes Perfect

On a breezy desert day in early December 2006, Ben Cren­shaw is tromping around the second green at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club’s new Saguaro Course with a furrowed brow. He has spotted what appears to be a slight deviation from his original plans on the front-left portion of the putting surface. “I might be wrong,” he muses, “but I think that little knob is smaller than we wanted it. I don’t know.”

Crenshaw knows, all right. The two-time Masters champion—considered one of the finest putters in PGA history—has hawklike powers of perception around the green. This same attention to detail is one of the traits that separate Crenshaw and his design partner, Bill Coore, from other golf architects. We-Ko-Pa’s Saguaro Course, the pair’s first design since the much-acclaimed Bandon Trails in Oregon, reflects this meticulousness, as well as an appreciation for old-fashioned functionality and aesthetics.

Situated on the eastern edge of Scottsdale, Ariz., on land owned by the Yavapai Tribal Nation, We-Ko-Pa is blessed with jaw-dropping mountain vistas in every direction. (We-Ko-Pa is the Yavapai phrase for Four Peaks Mountain, a sometimes snowcapped rock formation that looms to the east.) As with We-Ko-Pa’s five-year-old Cholla Course, Saguaro’s fairways offer a sense of isolation, framed as they are by stubby desert trees, thorny underbrush, and the layout’s namesake cacti.

Two characteristics, however, distinguish Saguaro from just about every other layout in Scottsdale. First, Coore and Crenshaw built Saguaro to be walked, a rarity among desert trophy courses. The designers routed holes so that the next tee box is only a short stroll from the previous green, and steep hill climbing is kept to a minimum, despite a wildly heaving landscape. Second, and perhaps even more appealing for pur­­ists, is that Saguaro is free of houses and roads, thus preserving its unobstructed views of the mountains.

Back on the second hole, a handsome and drivable 316-yard par-4, the emphasis is on a more subtle protrusion. “Due to the tilt of the ground,” says Coore, “what appears to be benign from the tee actually is a little more complicated.” And so it is that we return to the small bump in the green that Crenshaw thinks should be bigger. Because its function is to funnel imperfect approaches into undesirable areas, the bump lures good players into risking a drive down the right side, so that they can avoid the pesky knob on their second shot. “The entire hole is driven by that contour,” says Coore.

The remainder of the layout demands both shot-making skills and a bit of brawn, especially on the 508-yard, par-4 closer, which requires a steep uphill drive. At 6,912 yards, however, Saguaro is much more a test of maneuvering than it is a power hitter’s paradise.

My shining moment arrives after a comically short tee shot at the par-4 17th hole. On my second shot, I rip a 5-wood that lands 20 yards short of the green and then bounds up and stops 6 feet from the hole. Coore is ecstatic; he relishes the opportunity to witness the turf and contours having one of their intended effects. By enabling low-running shots to find their targets, the design elements make Saguaro playable for golfers of every skill level. “Make this putt,” Coore grins, “and I’ll buy you a beer.”

Alas, my putt for birdie lips out on the low side. Perhaps I should have asked Crenshaw for a line.

We-Ko-Pa Golf Club, 480.836.9000, www.wekopa.com

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