Native American Communities Offer Memorable Experiences
Posted on May 26, 2021
As chairman of the Ak-Chin Indian Community in Maricopa, Ariz., Robert Miguel frequently hears from other tribal leaders in the state and around the country. While he oversees a wide array of business operations, including a hotel, casino, entertainment center, and farms, it’s another asset that gets most of the attention, according to Miguel.
“I get phone calls from people outside of the Community, and our golf course (Ak-Chin Southern Dunes) is usually one of the first topics of discussion,” he said. “It gives us an opportunity, not just for employment, but also to bring visibility and recognition to our Community.”
Ak-Chin Southern Dunes is one of six Troon-affiliated properties — in Arizona, California, Connecticut, and New Mexico — that are owned by Native American tribes. All provide a pure golf experience, with few homes along fairways that instead are teeming with views of the surrounding natural landscapes. Here’s a look at this superb sextet of courses.
The Ak-Chin Indian Community had already created one of the country’s largest farms and built a casino by the time a golf course called Southern Dunes opened in 2001 on land adjacent to its property. But in 2010, the Community annexed that property back onto its land and the highly regarded layout became known as Ak-Chin Southern Dunes.
Now, as the course celebrates its 20th anniversary, raves continue to come in both for the playing conditions and customer service. Ranked No. 12 on Golfweek’s 2020 Top 50 Casino Courses, Ak-Chin Southern Dunes has a singular ability to challenge better golfers while remaining fun for higher handicappers. The Ak-Chin connection is strong as well, with storyboards on the property that tell the Community’s story; framed baskets created by Community elders hanging on the wall in the Arroyo Grille; and hole names on tee signs that appear in both the Ak-Chin and English languages.
“We had to overlay pieces of the Ak-Chin culture to what was already in existence at the course,” said General Manager Brady Wilson. “That was a challenge, but I think we’ve done a really good job with that. Any golfer playing here for the first time knows that when they are done they have played a Tribal-owned facility and have gotten a little taste of the Community’s culture.”
When the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation began its gaming operations in 1986 with a single bingo hall in the southeast corner of Connecticut, few could have predicted the explosive growth that would follow. Today, Foxwoods Resort Casino is the second largest of its kind in the U.S. For the past 15 years, golf has provided yet another amenity on the property, with two highly regarded courses at Lake of Isles.
The 36-hole complex features two layouts designed by Rees Jones: the public North Course (ranked No. 24 on Golfweek’s 2020 Best 50 Casino Courses) and the private South Course, which Troon Privé® members can access. Both feature signature par 3s at the 11th hole, have demanding finishing holes, and offer spectacular views, with the North Course providing the more challenging test overall.
“The Tribe has trusted us during this COVID-19 ordeal to use our expertise and run the courses to the best of our abilities,” said General Manager Chris Campbell. “To have the golf and food & beverage operations be somewhat profitable, even with a pandemic going on, is a great story. The Tribe has supported us all the way and trusted us to do what we needed to do to get the job done. That’s been very impressive to me, and a sign that the relationship we’ve built over the years has been good for Troon and the Tribe as a whole.”
The relationship between the Gila River Indian Community and Whirlwind Golf Club starts with the names of the two Gary Panks-designed courses, located just 12 miles south of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. But “Devil’s Claw” and “Cattail” aren’t related to the desert topography or animals (wild horses still have a presence here). Instead, both refer to basket-weaving patterns used by the Community, examples of which can be seen in the clubhouse and throughout Gila River Hotels & Casinos Wild Horse Pass.
Cattail, which opened in 2002, is longer with rolling terrain and more water hazards than its counterpart. Devil’s Claw is the older layout, having opened in 2000. It features elevation changes, challenging bunkers, and small greens. The layouts are ranked No. 43 and No. 45, respectively, on Golfweek’s 2020 Best 50 Casino Courses.
The 36 holes are part of a sprawling resort complex that also includes the 500-room Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass, the 242- room Gila River Hotels & Casinos – Wild Horse Pass (which is adding 240 more rooms this fall), Aji Spa, Kai (the only AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Five Star restaurant in Arizona), the Koli Equestrian Center, and the Wild Horse Pass Casino.
Located just 15 minutes east of Interstate 15 in Northern San Diego Country, Native Oaks Golf Club has been owned by the San Pasqual Economic Development Corporation since 2013.
Formerly known as Woods Valley Golf Club, the 6,707-yard layout offers pleasant views of the surrounding hills and valleys and is centrally located near three destination casino hotels:
the tribe’s own Valley View Casino & Hotel, the Harrah’s Resort Southern California, and the Pala Casino Spa & Resort.
The golf shop and the Shawii Kitchen restaurant have been recently renovated; cart paths and bridges have been repaired; and agronomic standards have been elevated thanks to superintendent David Vastola and his team.
“We’re very excited with the improvements and progress at Native Oaks Golf Club,” said Hellyaachwehay Quisquis, president/CEO of the San Pasqual Economic Development
Corporation. “OB Sports Golf Management was the perfect choice to manage Native Oaks Golf Club for us. They’ve already made some amazing enhancements and I know they will take Native Oaks Golf Club to the next level in golf as well as the experience.”
Just 10 miles north of downtown Albuquerque sits Sandia Golf Club at the Sandia Resort and Casino. Both facilities were developed by the Pueblo of Sandia, one of 19 Pueblos in New Mexico, as part of a reservation that covers 22,877 acres on the east side of the Rio Grande Valley. The property includes a 228-room resort, a casino with 110,000-square-feet of gaming,
10 drinking and dining options (check out the clubhouse grill for some homemade green chili bread), and the Green Reed Spa.
The nearby Bien Mur (“Big Mountain” in the Tiwa language) Indian Market is the largest retail arts and crafts store in the Southwest and offers handmade Native American jewelry, rugs, paintings, and pottery, among other items. As a bonus on your visit, you might catch a glimpse of the Sandia buffalo herd roaming a 107-acre preserve just east of the Market’s parking lot.
Golfers are drawn by the 18 holes of Sandia Golf Club, designed by Scott Miller in 2005. The OB Sports-managed facility is ranked No. 22 on Golfweek’s 2020 Best 50 Casino Courses. Long-distance views are plentiful, especially from holes 14 through 17, while the closing hole — a 505-yard par 4 with water left and long, plus two bunkers on the right — provides a
memorable finish. Matt Molloy, senior vice president of operations for OB Sports, was general manager of the course from its opening in 2005 through 2018.
“The playability of Sandia is a departure from what most people are used to seeing,” he said. “Many players told us they shot their lowest rounds here.”
Located approximately 90 minutes northeast of San Francisco, the 11,000-acre property of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation has become a full-fledged destination since opening its doors in 1985. Pronounced “Yo-cha Dee-hee,” the property features a hotel casino called Cache Creek Casino Resort (which added a new 459-room South Tower last October, enhancing existing stay-and-play options), a spa, restaurants, an entertainment venue, and a superb course that is ranked No. 18 on Golfweek’s 2020 Best 50 Casino Courses.
Sacramento-based architect and former PGA Tour pro Brad Bell created the layout, taking care to safeguard any sacred grounds. He worked with Tribal Council members to create hole names in the native Patwin language, starting with the first hole, “Sul Sah” (Eagle Eye), aptly named, as the tee box is perched 160 feet above the fairway and provides a panoramic vista of the valley floor.
Wildlife is the prevalent theme on the majority of holes, with names such as “Watak Kewe” (Frog’s House), “Tiwidl” (Rattlesnake), “Sedeo” (Coyote), “Pehtino Hoya” (Animal Gathering Place), and finally “Selai” (Bear) for the 18th hole, so named because of its standing as the No. 2 handicap hole on the course.