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Stroke of Indigenous

With a strong link to nature, Native American golf courses suit the landscape to a tee.

We-Ko-Pa Golf Club’s Saguaro CourseAt We-Ko-Pa Golf Club’s Saguaro Course, the Usery Mountains take centre stage - thanks in part to the pared down course design. (Photo: Lonna Tucker)

At 7:30 a.m., standing on the first tee of the North Course at the Talking Stick Golf Club, it’s decidedly not shorts and shirt-sleeve weather in the still chilly desert. A pair of gloves would come in handy. But the bracing Arizona weather does not seem to faze my playing partners, Paul and Beverly Smith. “Do you always play this early?” I ask them, hopping from foot to foot. “Depends on the season – we’re here twice a week, all year,” Paul answers. So today’s early tee off time is to beat the summer heat? “Nope,” he says. “To avoid the slow players.”

This course is practically home to the Smiths. They are members of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, for which Talking Stick is its flagship enterprise, and have been living on this land for many a decade. Beverly has sat on the board of the golf club for the last 14 years. While we wander down the fairway – the dew glistening on the grass heads, the sun just now moving into the vast Spaghetti Western backdrop – Paul lets me in on a little-known fact. “Indians actually have a history of the game. It’s called thaka; it’s like a cross between field hockey and golf. But it’s mostly a women’s sport.” He nods to his wife. “Bev has played it for 60 years.”

Named after the traditional Pima calendar stick, an instrument that marked the tribe’s significant historic events, Talking Stick is also emblematic of an important development: golf courses being built on tribal lands. (On the 565 federally recognized reserves in the U.S. there are over 70 golf courses.) The two tracks here were created by the celebrated design team Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, renowned for working with what the land gives them rather than forcing a manufactured esthetic through earth moving or generic design elements. Reflecting their approach, the courses flow seamlessly across the open desert through creek beds and dry washes, as if they had been allowed to emerge from the dust and cacti.

Beverly and Paul SmithBeverly Smith goes with her putt instinct during a practice round at home with her husband, Paul Smith. (Photo: Troy Aossey)

The natural contouring becomes more dramatic 16 kilometres east at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club, on the lands of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. (We-Ko-Pa is Yavapai for four peaks, in relation to the four summits on the eastern horizon that are visible from every hole). As with Talking Stick, there’s a hotel and casino, but the golf club is unique among desert courses in that it’s designed to encourage walking, linking the golfer more closely to the land in all its subtleties.

“You never really see that since most tracks are built around pods of turf,” says general manager Brett Trenter. As we stand at the high point of the Saguaro Course’s 16th green, looking east to the Verde River that splits the immense valley beneath us, he lets his hand mimic the roll of the semi-mountainous terrain. “Here it’s about flow. That’s what the tribe wanted.”

Listening to the land and its inhabitants is second nature for Notah Begay III, the only full-blooded Native American to have ever played on the PGA Tour (where he won four times before being sidelined by back troubles). A roommate of Tiger Woods at Stanford University, he – unlike Woods – graduated, with a degree in economics. Now running his own course design business, Begay was a key player in two recent projects on tribal lands: Firekeeper Golf Course in Kansas and Sequoyah National Golf Club in North Carolina. He is also involved in another project about to break ground with the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Tucson, where he incorporated elements into the 18th-hole green site to celebrate the deer dance that’s sacred to the Yaqui.

We-Ko-Pa Golf ClubGolfers get the true sense of the lay of the land at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club.  (Photo: Lonna Tucker)

“We tend to be minimalists,” Begay tells me. “Native Americans have always lived in complete balance with our surroundings; that’s what we identify as a strength in our course design.” (Back at Talking Stick, Paul Smith proudly boasted that the property earned certification from the Audubon’s Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses from the start, making it one of the greenest courses around.)

In fact, this was the way golf course architects worked more than two centuries ago, when modern machinery and 3-D computer imaging didn’t exist to enhance (or, all too often, mess up) the design process. The rustic necessities from the early years of the game resulted in the Old Course at St Andrews, Augusta National Golf Club, Royal County Down Golf Club, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Royal Melbourne Golf Club – the world’s best, in other words. Golf could be returning to what have always been Native American traditions: to respect what the land gives you, to work with nature rather than against it.

The Smiths outside their homeThe Smiths outside their home. (Photo: Troy Aossey)

While exploring Talking Stick, I spot several elements native to the area: a traditional fire circle near the entrance to the clubhouse, which is itself constructed to evoke the “sandwich-style” mud-and-straw building practices of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. “Like the house I grew up in,” Beverly tells me, nodding out to the vast landscape.

Finishing up my round with the Smiths, I ask about the future of golf in their community. “It’s a game with rules and honour. You don’t cheat,” Paul says, pausing to mutter the name of someone he occasionally plays with before Beverly gives him a knowing look. “At least you’re not supposed to,” he adds. “Golf is about economic development, but it’s also about ethical development, an integrity inherent to the game. It teaches you a way of doing things that has to carry over, so our young people have a new way of looking at work and life.”

Write to us:

Travel Essentials

Firekeeper Golf Course
12524 150th Rd., Mayetta,
Kansas, 785-966-2100,

Sequoyah National Golf Club
79 Cahons Rd., Whittier,
North Carolina, 828-497-3000,

Talking Stick Golf Club
9998 E. Indian Bend Rd.,
Scottsdale, Arizona,

We-Ko-Pa Golf Club
18200 E. Toh Vee Circle,
Fort McDowell, Scottsdale,
Arizona, 866-660-7700,

Flight Planner
Scottsdale via Phoenix

Air Canada offers daily non-stop service to Phoenix from Calgary and Toronto. From there, Scottsdale is a 20-minute drive away.



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