Where to play golf around Phoenix: Casinos keep expanding, and their courses keep pace
We-Ko-Pa, Ak-Chin Southern Dunes, Whirlwind and Talking Stick make for easy golf trips to Phoenix and Scottsdale-area casinos.
I’m not going to joke about dry heat. You already know the cliches. But for several holes at least, the only thing hotter than the June weather in this region known as the Valley of the Sun was my putter – and that’s as unlikely a statement as I have ever written.
Somehow it all seemed easy on the front nine of the Cattail Course at Whirlwind Golf Club in Chandler, Arizona, a short drive south of Phoenix. Thermometers blasted into the triple digits for the week in June, but the greens were rolling perfectly and even my normally tepid stroke somehow absorbed a bit of the ambient heat. Maybe I was too exhausted after four full days of golf, three of which included 36 holes, to keep wasting time with my standard misses. I can’t say they all went in, but it was fun to finally see a few putts drop as the morning temperatures rose.
After the golf, I sipped my eighth bottle of water that day as I cruised two miles to the Gila River Hotels and Casino at Wild Horse Pass to soak in something else heating up in the Arizona desert: the battle for supremacy among tribal gaming operators, many of whom are investing lavishly to upgrade their offerings.
Arizona’s gaming scene is expanding at a breakneck clip, luring in new customers with enhanced amenities across the full spectrum of hospitality. It’s especially true as new table games are introduced this year, with legal sports books scheduled to open around the state in September.
Golf is just one measuring stick for the various tribes, giving the resorts a chance to show off their land while attracting those visitors who prefer a kind of risk and reward not found in a casino.
And based on Golfweek’s Best rankings of casino courses, the layouts around Phoenix measure up quite well. Seven courses within half an hour’s drive of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport rank inside the top 50 casino layouts in the United States. Two courses at We-Ko-Pa, one at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes, two at Whirlwind and two at Talking Stick make the top 50.
Each of those is supported by tribal casinos that have either recently upgraded amenities or are in the process, adding hotel rooms and improving gaming floors to welcome a swarm of travelers as the COVID-19 pandemic eases in the U.S. and players of all kinds hit the road.
Recent changes to Arizona’s tribal gaming regulations certainly don’t hurt. The tribes and Gov. Doug Ducey signed a compact in April that allowed casino expansion: thousands more slot machines; new table games such as craps, roulette and baccarat; and starting Sept. 9, legalized sports gambling with 20 sanctioned sports books. That includes a sports book at TPC Scottsdale, home each year to the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Construction has continued even as casinos were closed temporarily during the pandemic in 2020 and many guests stayed away. Since then, most casino operations have resumed at full capacity. And with the new tribal gaming compact, investments will continue to grow as the Valley of the Sun woos more gamblers and golfers who arrive with heightened expectations.
“It’s the scope of the work, and attention to detail as well,” said Deliah Rose, director of brand and hospitality at Gila River Hotels and Casinos, which owns Whirlwind Golf Club and the Wild Horse Pass casino as well as several other properties. “When gaming began in Arizona 25 years ago, it was kind of like, just build some kind of casino and people would come, and they did. But as things evolved and expectations rose, there were more opportunities to give people a real experience and to compete with Las Vegas. Our tribal communities have really stepped it up and invested in much more than just having a few slot machines.
“It’s accommodations. It’s dining. It’s new games. It’s golf. It’s meeting space. It’s having a showroom to attract a great entertainer. It’s everything.”