These two tracks bring loads of challenges, even if they rest in the shadow of facilities’ top offerings

CAREFREE and FOUNTAIN HILLS, Ariz. (Dec. 16, 2020) – To the uninitiated or lightly informed, the “other” courses at 36-hole golf facilities are like “B” sides of old 45-rpm records. Good enough to be released, heard or – in the case of golf – played, they are often an afterthought, ventured upon when the more desired “marquee” tracks are too busy, too expensive or just unavailable.

Such might be the case at two Scottsdale-area tracks, The Boulders’ North and We-Ko-Pa’s Cholla, both built as their facility’s benchmark offerings but later supplanted by courses that have drawn more acclaim and a bigger word-of-mouth groundswell. 

But after playing these two “other” courses during a recent trip to the Valley of the Sun, it’s hard to see how either could be considered inferior in any way to their more-ballyhooed younger brethren. Both are superior examples of the best of desert golf and more worthy of attention and respect. They also serve as reminders that newer is not always better, especially when it comes to golf.

Boulders North

Boulders North rocks your world 
The Boulders’ site is as old as time itself. The colossal rock formations and huge stones, from which the resort takes its name, are the result of a cataclysmic geological upheaval more than 12 million years ago that ultimately led to the creation of the Grand Canyon. The Boulders is wild country, unspoiled, quiet and seemingly as far away from it all as one can get; actually, it’s in Carefree, only 15 minutes from Scottsdale. 

Most of the press you hear about the golf at Boulders centers on the South course and its venerated fifth hole, considered one of the top tests in Arizona. But a round at the older North, among the most demanding layouts in the Southwest, is memorable and exciting and can be completed in a lot less time because most of the play is on the South. 

North began as the nine-hole Carefree Municipal in 1969, and its original 18-hole layout wasn’t completed until the early 1970s. The course was fashioned by Jay Morrish and completed in 1985; Morrish returned for a bit of a reworking in 1999, and the results are rock-solid. 

North features bentgrass greens and fairways and offers spectacular views of Black Mountain as it meanders through desert and homes of Boulders’ community. The par-72 track stretches 6,811 yards from tips where it carries a 72.6 rating and 137 slope. 

The terrain varies from hole to hole, and, at times, even from shot to shot. The opener is an attackable 513-yard par-5, with desert brush and cactus fronting the tee. You’ll need to clear a like hazard area on your second shot, and the green is guarded right-front by four bunkers. 

Another forced carry is found at the 195-yard par-3 second, where shots from the right will bounce off a mound and left onto green. Nos. 7 and 8 are short par-4s – 347 and 356 yards, respectively, but each is protected by sand, native rough and rock outcroppings. 

North’s back nine is considered the tougher side, and with a quartet of par-4s of at least 425 yards, and two par-3s at 183 and 195 yards.

No. 13 starts with a forced carry and ends at an elevated, undulating green that sits at the end of a seemingly endless 404 yards of tight, lush fairway bounded by rocky, prickly, doom-laden desert. Try to get back a stroke or two at the 483-yard par-5 15th, but be wary of the bunkers on both sides of the landing area and the hidden bunker right of the green. Finally, the 18th is driven over the desert and turns gently to the left. It temptingly offers what seems to be a short-cut across the corner to the green, but don’t be fooled: the left side is guarded by water and cunningly placed bunkers. 

Keep your eyes open because the course and its surrounding areas are teeming with desert wildlife. You are likely to see a bobcat, rabbits, coyotes or a javelina while hunting for a wayward shot during a golf experience that’s a scenic and natural wonder. 

The Boulders Resort & Golden Door Spa is a one of those places where the spectacular scenery is just as much a part of the experience as is the luxury and opulence of the resort itself. Its two 18-hole championship golf courses have made the desert hideaway a repeated winner of Golf Magazine’s Gold Medal Award. In fact, it is one of only five resorts awarded the Gold Medal every year since its inception in 1988. 

Boulders Resort

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Glorious isolation at We-Ko-Pa’s Cholla Course 
Designed by renowned course architect Scott Miller, We-Ko-Pa’s Cholla Course has, in recent years, become somewhat overshadowed by the higher-ranked Saguaro course, which was built in 2006 on the same land owned by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation in the town of Fountain Hills, about 15 minutes east of Scottsdale. 

While Cholla still garners its own list of accolades, including being No. 38 on Golfweek Magazine’s 2009 Best Resort Courses, it can’t quite seem to catch up. 

We-Ko-Pa’s Cholla Course

The two courses at We-Ko-Pa (Yavapai for “Four Peaks”) are routed through unspoiled Sonoran desert, free from commercial or real estate residential. In fact, there is not an out-of-bounds stake to be found on this course where endless mountain vistas provide the backdrop.

Cholla is the original We-Ko-Pa course, opening for play in December 2001. It plays to a par of 72 and at 7,225 (some 300 yards longer than Saguaro), where it boasts a rating of 73.0 and a slope of 136. Here, nothing but distant peaks, gnarly cactus, scrub brush and desert border the fairways. 

Threading through an open expanse overlooking the Verde and Salt River Valleys, Red Mountain and the Superstitions, Cholla looks harder than it plays. That said be prepared as each shot asks for a high level of skill and gives no quarter. 

The first hole – a par-4 playing at just 351 yards – can be attacked but do so with a warning. Some will try to drive the green thanks to the elevated tee and wide fairway that sweeps to the left, but a massive waste bunker will gobble up a shot that ends up short. Play to the right and deal with a handful of pot bunkers that guard the fairway on the starboard side. 

No. 4 – a 469-yard tester – is the first of Cholla’s difficult par-4s. With a tee built into the side of a hill, your drive is one of the toughest shots on the course and is usually played into a headwind. A raised desert wash keeps most of the fairway hidden from view, but the landing area is wider than it looks. The approach is played downhill to a large green that gives players the opportunity to run the ball up the right center.

The fifth is a 207-yard par-3 that is all carry over desert; pay attention to the pin placement because the green is 39 yards deep. The 605-yard par-5 eighth is a true three-shot hole on which your layup must be precise in order to assure a clear view of the small, sunken green that seems cloaked by shadowy cactus and a dry creek bed. 

On No. 11, bunkers guarding the green on three sides present the challenge the 220-yard par-3 – the longest one-shotter at Cholla. Take one club more than usual because the putting surface is slightly elevated. 

Long hitters will love what they see off the tee on No. 15, which (at 327 yards) reigns as the shortest of all Cholla’s four-pars. Players will be tempted to swing away to a massive green. A blind second shot and a raised green are the real concerns at the 578-yard par-5 17th, so aim to the right side of the cart path off the tee and figure it will take three shots to get home. 

The work by Miller, who also designed the heralded layout at Coeur d’Alene Resort in Idaho, illustrates his prowess with different landscapes and emphasizes course management over bomb and gouge. Each hole is branded with its own separate strategic challenge, but all mesh together seamlessly. 

Cholla is definitely visually intimidating. A lot of times Miller’s design tempts you into believing a shot is tougher than it is, but once actually out onto the fairway you realize there was more room than thought. Thanks to all the forced carries, Cholla is quite a trial but is also fun.

We-Ko-Pa’s Cholla Course

Just days after the Cholla course opened in 2001, Sports Illustrated named it one of the Top 10 New Golf Courses in the world. That’s great stuff for a track that some believe is just the second-best on the property. 

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