The Buzz: The Tribal Council of the Gila River Indian Community spent several years developing a plan to make use of land southeast of Phoenix that would generate revenue to support its people, while preserving its beauty and respecting what nature provided. The initial structure was a golf course, the first of two designed by Gary Panks, which was named Devil’s Claw and opened in 2000. What has grown up around it is the Sheraton Wildhorse Pass Resort & Spa, one of the most impressive resorts in Arizona with its elegant hotel, casino, pristine landscaping and tributes to ancestors who walked and worked this land 2,000 years ago. “We worked long and hard with the tribal cultural committee to stay true to the land’s heritage,” Panks said.
Devil’s Claw put the tribe’s best foot forward. It has more turf than you will find on other desert courses, meaning ample fairways, but the tiered greens demand that you be accurate with approach shots. The course that hosted a Nationwide Tour event in 2001-02 remains one of the quality layouts in the Valley of the Sun, and if you have an appreciation for Native American history, golf here becomes all the more meaningful. It begins on the second hole, a somewhat short par 4 at 399 yards from the back tee and the No. 17 handicap hole.
All holes on the Devil’s Claw and Cattail courses have a name and this one is called “Where the Dog Spoke.” That is translated to “Math heg Gogs am Niow” in Gila vernacular and comes with a story: This hole faces “Vee-cum Gahk-Woot”, also known as the Superstition Mountains, which are among the Valley’s most majestic landmarks. In the O’odham story of creation, there is a chapter that tells of a great flood in which the people turned into stone. Just prior to the flood, a dog spoke to the people urging them to move higher on the mountain to escape the flood waters. Anyway, you get the idea this isn’t just about birdies and bogeys, although the golf is outstanding.
Among the memorable holes is No. 7, Dragonfly Falls (“Vag che dagi Shudagi”), a 160-yard par 3 over a lake where you can hear the sound of cascading water. Legend has it that an oriole discovered colorful dragonflies enhancing the sound with the furious flapping of their wings. Don’t become too engrossed because you need to hit a shot carrying that entire lake, which wraps around the front and right side of the green. There is bailout area left, also over the water, but don’t go too long or you’ll reach one of the two bunkers, leaving a shot across a slick green and toward that same water hazard. No. 16 is another stunning par 3 backdropped by Komatke Mountain, which is one of the most culturally significant peaks in the Gila community.
There are many more memorable holes on this course and also on Cattail, which is the tougher of the two. Devil’s Claw has four sets of tees, ranging from 5,539 to 7,017 yards, and is rated at 72.7 with a slope of 127 from the back tees. Whirlwind also is home to the Bird Golf Academy with PGA and LPGA teaching pros. A 9,000-square-foot clubhouse is well-appointed, including locker rooms, showers and the Sivlik Grill, which includes a restaurant and lodge that serves up tasty Southwestern food and offers excellent views of both courses and three mountain ranges.
Practice facilities are equally impressive and, if you are fortunate enough to stay at the resort/casino, be prepared to indulge. Amenities include the Aji (“Sanctuary”) Spa, an onsite equestrian center called “Koli,” and the resort’s signature restaurant, Kai, which means “seed.” While there is plenty more to do and see around this area, Whirlwind stands as an all-inclusive golf escape filled with memorable holes, history, culture and “Aji”.