I promise I’m not stalking Gary Panks. It’s just a coincidence that for the second time in less than a week, I played another one of the courses he designed. Last week, it was Omni Interlocken Golf Club outside Boulder, and today, it was Whirlwind Golf Club at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler.
Whirlwind is affiliated with the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and features two stunning 18-hole courses : Devil’s Claw and Cattail. Panks designed them both! The Cattail Course played host to the Nationwide Tour’s Gila River Golf Classic from 2000 to 2005, and both courses were designed by Panks and opened in the fall of 2000. They are challenging desert golf courses featuring gradual elevation changes. Thanks to the Gila River Water Settlement Act of 2004, the facility has unlimited watering rights. It’s green out here year-round, and it’s not uncommon to find a little standing water on the course in the middle of a 110-degree summer day. They’re not afraid to water out here!
Because Whirlwind is located in the heart of the Gila River Indian Community, the course, clubhouse, and teaching center were all sensitively designed to preserve the rich cultural heritage of the Pima and Maricopa Indians. It is Native American-owned, and each of the 36 holes is named after a significant legend or landmark of these peoples. Only plants indigenous to the Gila River and its surrounding desert were used, and the views of the Sierra Estrella Mountains in the distance are uncluttered to showcase the beauty of the natural, rolling desert terrain. You’ll find cottonwood trees, mesquite trees, palo verde trees, and saguaro cacti growing among native grasses.
Play tends to alternate between the two courses, and today I played the Devil’s Claw course, which is the shorter of the two championship courses. Devil’s Claw plays 7,029 yards from the Black Tees to a Par of 72, a course rating of 72.7, and a slope of 127. There’s a tee to accommodate every level of player. Whirlwind is gracious enough to offer a discount to Golf Academy of America students, so I was able to get out before noon for just $30. Here are some of the highlights of the round:
Holes Worth Writing Home About
As you would expect from a Troon Golf facility, the course was in phenomenal shape even as it transitions from winter rye back to bermuda grass.
The Par 3 7th hole, Dragonfly Falls, is Devil’s Claw’s signature hole, but my favorite hole on the front nine was the 441-yard Par 4 9th. The hole is called Eagleman’s Gamble. The yardage book says, “The Odham believe that the Eagle was a human being before he became a bird. In the legend of Eagleman, from the story of creation, it says that the Odham man who became the eagle was a gambler. The game he played and always won is ‘Gihns,’ which is played with four dry, flat, marked saguaro cactus sticks.” I hit driver to the left side of a fairway split by desert landscape, and that was probably a little too much club. The ball was really flying today! Even from the Black Tees, you can still hit 3-wood and put yourself in perfect position to have a short iron in. The greens out here have multiple tiers, and you have to hit your ball onto the proper tier to give yourself a chance at birdie.
The wind started to pick up as we made the turn. The last several holes down the stretch played directly into the wind, which made them play 1-2 clubs longer. The wind out here is sneaky too. Because it’s so open, sometimes it’s hard to feel how hard it’s really blowing until your ball is in the air, and by then, it’s too late. And then you get to No. 17. The 551-yard Par 5 is called Sanctuary Aji. In its description of the hole, the yardage book reads, “During early historic and probably prehistoric battles with warring tribes in the vicinity of ‘Aji,’ women and children automatically sought sanctuary on Aji when war battles occurred. All mountains that stand alone far from other mountains are called ‘Aji.’ From the top of Aji, people can see for miles in all directions.” The hole is spectacular. Off the tee, it’s 246 yards to carry the fairway bunker on the right, but 282 yards will put you in the fairway bunker guarding the left side. The sand in the bunkers out here is good, but the bunkers are deep, and there’s a good chance you’ll be left with a significant lip to get over just to extricate yourself. Your 2nd shot is where it really gets interesting. You have to decide if you want to lay-up short of the desert or give it a go from 220+. I missed the fairway and was forced to lay-up. Great hole. The best one on the back side in my opinion.
Devil’s Claw features gradual elevation changes, deep bunkers, and multi-tiered, bermuda grass greens. Don’t drive past the 2nd tee without picking up a complementary yardage book because you’ll need it to help you navigate the green complexes if you’ve never played out here. This is another nice touch courtesy of a Troon-managed facility.
Plan to come out at least an hour before your tee time to take advantage of the expansive practice area – pyramids of range balls on one side and a short game area and giant practice putting green on the other. In fact, there are multiple practice putting greens on the property, and they are all consistent with the speed of the greens you’ll find on the course.
The greens were recently aerated, but other than the holes the small tines left behind, you can hardly tell. The greens were rolled and then double-cut.
Bring a camera. The property’s 242-acres are teeming with everything from cotton-tailed rabbits to roadrunners, lizards, and prairie dogs. We saw hundreds of prairie dogs during our round (and nearly ran over a few with our golf cart), including several babies.
My best shot of the day came on the very first hole. I hit a perfect drive and hit a grip-down pitching wedge to within two feet for birdie. It only got harder from there. It was my only birdie, and I put my ball in some tough spots en route to a 4-over par 76. Again, I can’t stress enough the importance of hitting your ball onto the proper tier.
While We’re Young
Because Troon Golf Values Your Time, the Time Par out here is 4:33. We got around in a little more than three hours and didn’t see another group until we ran into a father/daughter twosome well into our back nine. Traffic may have been a little light today because the temperatures were in the upper 90s.
Next On the Tee
San Marcos Golf Course. It’s the oldest grass course in Arizona – established in 1913.