Standing out in the rich golf landscape of the greater Phoenix/Scottsdale area is a formidable task for a course. Doing so requires a great product, stellar service, and a memorable experience. And even with those attributes, it can still take time. Two decades after it debuted a pair of enjoyable Gary Panks-designed courses, Whirlwind Golf Club has a firm position among the best in the area.
“We’ve really earned our place on various rankings and lists of top courses in the area,” said General Manager Louie Unga. “For a long time we were kind of a best-kept secret. That is no longer the case.”
Located just 11 miles south of downtown Phoenix, Whirlwind’s two layouts— Cattail and Devil’s Claw — are similar in flow but differ noticeably on the greens. “The Cattail course is a little bit longer and has a few more water features,” said Unga. “But Devil’s Claw has two tiers on every single green, so that’s challenging on approach shots. The greens on Cattail take quite a long time to learn. I’ve been here at Whirlwind for a total of 15 years and they still fool me. Nothing breaks as much as you think it does, nor is there a specific break in any particular direction.”
Only slight tweaks have been made to the courses over the past two decades. A few holes on both were lengthened in advance of hosting the final stage of qualifying for the Web.com Tour in 2017 and 2018. And last summer a bunker renovation project was completed on Devil’s Claw. All sand was removed, bunkers were reshaped, and a capillary concrete liner was added to each one, offering superior drainage and improved playability. All tee boxes on Devil’s Claw were also stripped and leveled, creating a perfectly flat surface.
“The results of that renovation project and subsequent overseeding were fantastic. I have been involved with overseeding at Whirlwind 15 times and that was one of the best outcomes I have seen,” said Unga, who noted that the Cattail course will undergo a similar project in the future. “The hard work our team put into the course over last year’s long, hot summer really showed through.”
Stellar course conditions are maintained under the leadership of Jonathan Williams, director of agronomy. “He is one of the best young guys in Troon, full stop,” said Unga. “He’s fantastic, knows exactly what he’s doing, and we’re really fortunate to have him.”
The Whirlwind Golf Club’s staff has displayed their talents in other ways, too. Director of Golf Shawn Scott and his team star in some pretty funny Instagram posts (@Whirlwindgolf), while assistant pro Anthony Marquez built a nine-foot-tall Adirondack chair located right next to the practice putting green.
Inspiration for the chair came from a Troon marketing conference Unga attended last year. “There was a presentation on the use of social media and how some places had created unique and popular spots for photos. That made me think we could do something similar at our property. We tossed around a lot of ideas and settled on a giant chair.” Unga was looking online for plans to create it before Marquez made his skills known. “Anthony spoke up and mentioned he had worked as contractor and could build it. So he did, which was great. Now people love to plop down on it and take pictures. You can fit an entire foursome on it.”
During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the facility has received great support from local golfers. “They have really responded to the increased tee time availability that we have experienced this spring and summer,” said Unga. “It’s actually been really busy, and we’re thankful to all of the locals who have been helping carry us through this time.
All safety protocols, including using pieces of PVC piping in the hole on every green, removing rakes from bunkers, and making hand sanitizer available remain in place. In the clubhouse, the Sivlik Grill has been open for dine-in services — both inside and on an outdoor patio — with limited capacity since Memorial Day. Stay & Play packages are available at the nearby Sheraton Grand resort, which is also home to Kai, the only Forbes Five Star restaurant in the state of Arizona. That establishment is closed annually for the summer and is scheduled to reopen in September.
Much has changed for Unga, who first arrived at Whirlwind in the mid-2000s. “The area looks completely different now,” he said. “There’s the Wildhorse Pass development with a casino and resort tower, plus Rawhide (a Western-themed eatery and event center) and a Motorsports Park, so it’s not even recognizable compared to what it was when I first got here. But for me what’s most important is the rise in prominence of both of our golf courses. Whirlwind is now right up there with the best and we’re very proud of that.”