Resort Report: The Wigwam Resort

Posted on: March 17th, 2017 by Wigwam Golf |

The feeling that this is something special, that this is like no other Arizona resort arrives like a soothing and welcoming cool towel. The long driveway winds through a manicured, almost tropical garden setting to the concierge station that, remarkably, looks like it belongs there. The pathway is cobbled, passing under a flowered trellis, and leads to a doorway in a low-slung building with no garish signage, that looks more like the entrance to a friend’s cottage than to one of America’s finest resorts. From that first impression on, everything about the Wigwam Resort is understated but immaculately executed, a throwback to bygone era of civility but enveloped in state-of-the-art conveniences.

The Living Room, not the ‘lobby,’ introduces guests to not only the storied history of the building and the entire site, but to a reverence and respect for the past. The Room is appointed with antiques and photos and knickknacks worth lingering over. Unlike other resorts, with faux rustic lobby displays of an old lariat and some jade jewelry, at the Wigwam they are the genuine article and so interesting that there’s no rush to check in. But once introduced to the expansive rooms, pools, restaurants, three superb golf courses, and all other amenities, the dominant feeling is that there is no rush to leave.

The Wigwam is not just steeped in history; in fact it is the history of the area. A century ago, automobile tires were partly made with Egyptian cotton. When it was discovered that cotton every bit as good, and much cheaper, would thrive in the vast wastelands of the Arizona desert, the Goodyear Tire Co. established a cotton planation. In 1917, the local town was renamed Litchfield Park after Goodyear chairman Paul Litchfield who founded Goodyear Farms and propelled the development of the Wigwam. In 1918 an Organization House was built for sales reps supplying the ranchers. The Living Room is today part of that original building.

Gradually Goodyear executives came out to inspect the cotton operations and so bedrooms were added. The executives started bringing their families from head office in Ohio to escape Eastern winters, and so in 1929 the Wigwam opened as a winter guest ranch with room for two dozen visitors. It became a bit of a Goodyear retreat. A nine-hole course was added in 1930, and in 1935 V.O. ‘Red’ Allen – whose name lives on at Red’s Bar & Grill – became the first golf pro and expanded the layout to 18 holes.    

Today, Wigwam has 54 holes – two of the three championship courses were designed by the legendary Robert Trent Jones – on 440 acres with 331 casita-style guest rooms (including 72 suites), a 26,000 sq. ft. Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa, four swimming pools, and five restaurants and bars.

There were many turns in the road from cotton plantation admin building to ‘Historic Hotel of America’ and AAA Four-Diamond resort status. In 1987 Goodyear sold the Wigwam and property to SunCor Corp, which sold it in 1990 to Kabuto Arizona Properties. Current owners JDM Partners bought it out of bankruptcy in 2009 and are responsible for the stunning restoration of the resort and the golf courses.

“We spent the first six months doing what I called ‘living out there,’” said Tom O’Malley, Wigwam GM and JDM COO. “I’d meet people, introduced myself to the Mayor, go into the restaurants, and just watch and observe. We went and talked with the ministers and local business folks and young people and just asked: ‘What does the Wigwam mean to you and to the city?’”

The city of Litchfield Park, 25 minutes by freeway west of Phoenix in the aptly named West Valley (Arizona Cardinals and Phoenix Coyotes territory), is home to barely 5,500 souls, but the bordering city of Goodyear has a current population of over 400,000 and is projected as the fastest growing Arizona city over the next decade. From ‘living out there’ O’Malley and the folks at JDM learned that the Wigwam had not only sentimental but real value to the locals and the local economy.

“We then decided to renovate while capturing as much of the history and connection to the local community as we could,” O’Malley explained. JDM found a photo book and O’Malley gave copies to every architect and interior designer on the project and gave them an astounding directive. “We told them that whatever you do on the reno, you have to point out a photo and either have to reproduce what you see or be inspired by it,” he said. “We wanted to have people show up at the property and immediately love it and feel like they were in an historic place.

“It’s not old, it’s not cowboys and Indians, it’s not kitchy, it’s a modern resort with all the modern amenities. But it’s not a box where everyone meets in the lobby where the elevators open, it’s got its own historic character.”

So the work began, starting at the front gates right through to the drop off, through the ‘living room,’ restaurants and pool area.

“We’ve touched every inch of that property,” O’Malley said, without exaggeration, but with justifiable pride. “The previous owners had wanted it to look like every other hotel, and what we found was that a lot of things had been covered up, the 80-year-old wood beams in the ceilings, the intricate glass work in the windows. A lot of the history was gone.”

Thanks to the $30 million dollar (approx.) inspired renovation, the Wigwam is competitive again with all the top resorts in the Phoenix area.

And it was accomplished with care and creativity. O’Malley told all the designers that he wanted them to re-created the ‘collective experience’ fans had at JDM’s local arena, home to the NBA Phoenix Suns (formerly owned by the J in JDM, Jerry Colangelo). He told them that at a Suns game, fans paid $3,000 for a courtside seat, or $5 for one in the back row; they could have the finest cuisine or a hot dog and beer; whatever experience they want or can afford, they get, but they’re all there together. He wanted that feeling of shared experience at the Wigwam.

So that’s how the Wigwam is designed.

In all the resort’s open spaces there are different types of seating areas. There are high top tables with four chairs; there are outdoor fireside tables, long community tables. Litchfield’s farm-to-table is a brilliant upscale restaurant, but just one of many options. Outdoor seating is all near the new pool complex (that has both adult and family areas), but natural barriers separate the pool and open area. The space can be enjoyed as a single, couple, foursome, family, or as a large group. Everything happens in the main area – there is even a bandstand and dance floor, and a play area for children that are easily monitored.

“Every night there will be locals, members, guests from around the world; there will be music; they are having cocktails and beers; they are having dinner; there are expensive places and not expensive places,” O’Malley explained. “You are all, sort of, together creating an energy but you can have a unique experience if you want it, a private dinner if you want it; as high end as expensive as you want, as casual and low end as you want. And you’re doing it together, with everybody else.”

At some resorts, poolside, bars, lobbies, you get the feeling that things are sooo busy, a frenetic pace you’ve travelled a long way to escape. You see other people, guests you really don’t want to see in a Speedo, or elbowing up beside you at the bar, or engaging in that awful ‘weather’ conversation as you wait for the elevator. Your small room and CNN is the only escape. It’s the opposite at Wigwam. It’s all so spread out, tranquil, relaxed, civilized. It’s like you just moved into an idyllic community that you have always dreamed of and are in no hurry to leave.

O’Malley’s vision caught on, and the new-found popularity triggered the need to renovate the rooms. About $18 million later, all 331 rooms have been fully renovated. Because back in the 1960’s Phoenix resorts were 3-4 month winter havens for wealthy east coasters, the rooms are like small apartments, 600 to 800 sq. ft. (The standard hotel room is about 200 sq. ft.) The larger rooms, like the casitas along the first fairway, have kitchens and living rooms with fireplaces and big TVs.

The last stage of the full-blown reno was the three golf courses. The Gold and Patriot courses were fully renovated, and the Heritage just needed a little buffing – turf and irrigation.

“We are so lucky to have three great golf courses, just steps from the resort, that are challenging yet enjoyable,” said Director of Golf Leo Simonetta. “It’s not desert golf as people expect in Arizona, but beautiful parkland golf. And with a great old school designer like Trent Jones, it’s traditional and easy to walk over gentle terrain with the next tee box just a short distance from the green. You can’t see homes but on a couple of holes, a rarity in the Scottsdale/Phoenix golf universe.

“Of course for guests looking for desert golf, we suggest courses in the area. For the average golfer, desert is tough, for the higher handicap player this is just an easier environment. With three distinctly different courses, with all the tee options, most guests play multiple rounds here. You don’t have to go anywhere else.”

For generations, golfers have appreciated Trent Jones designs wherever they’re lucky enough to play one. Having two on one spectacular site is like winning the lottery. And just as the JDM-directed restoration of the Wigwam casitas and buildings has been true to the original, so too have the renos of the Jones Gold and Patriot courses and the Heritage course.

“The long tee decks are a Jones trademark,” said Simonetta. “Today most courses would break those up. It would be so much less maintenance for us, but we prefer to keep the original tees and keep that look of an old school golf course.”

The course renos – the Gold by Tom Lehman, tee to green on every hole – have earned the layouts Top 100 in America rankings. Over the decades the trees have grown and bunkers were added. In fact, when the original Jones designs were uncovered behind a boiler in the superintendent’s office they were able to go back to the future.

A great example is the par 4, 430-yd #13. In Jones’ design, it had no bunkers. When Lehman arrived at the course, it had six, four greenside. Lehman removed all six, restored the Jones green complex, and now the 13th green is one of the most challenging on the course. Jonesean once more.

So is the par 4 #5, one of Simonetta’s favorites. “You have to hit a very good tee shot on a short-ish hole [405 yds from Jones tees] to avoid a very well-placed fairway bunker where Lehman replaced three small ones with a large one and brought it out onto the fairway a little bit. On the tee, the hole is framed so well by the pine trees down each side, the way the bunkers are, the way the green is shaped at an angle, I just love the way that hole looks.”

On the Patriot course, 30 bunkers were removed and the remaining 38 were reshaped and the light brown sand replaced with white. As Simonetta said of the 52-year-old layout: “The Patriot looks and feels like a new golf course. It’s every bit as challenging as the Gold, just shorter.”

The Heritage, designed by renowned architect Red Lawrence, is longer than Patriot but not as long as Gold (7,430) and has all the charm and character of the two other courses. A mid-west traditional course, the greens are not as elevated and invite you to run the ball up if you have to. Heritage’s 7,200 yards can stretch to 7,500.

Thanks to Superintendent Jason Schneider – at Wigwam since 2014 after working at such stellar clubs as Winged Foot and Olympic – and his crews, the conditions are exceptional on all three. In January, he installed a system [at a cost of $250,000, not personal] of submerged electronic reading devices that provide data on every section of the greens – temperature, moisture level – so that he can water sections without flooding the rest of it. It also tells the temperature of the subsoil so Schneider knows when to put fertilizer down.

“For the fairways we just bought a fertilizer spreader with sensors reading the soil indicating what areas need fertilizer and which don’t,” explained GM O’Malley. “You just drive down the fairway and the spreader turns on and off, only putting fertilizer where needed. It saves money and areas that don’t need it aren’t over fertilized.” No wonder O’Malley says of his Super Schneider: “Jason has been a super star with us. He’s in hog heaven right now.”

Speaking of stars, Wigwam is within a 15 drive of eight Major League Baseball Spring Training compounds (of the multi-multi-million dollar variety) and there’s a NASCAR track nearby too.

The club recently introduced foot golf, and much to Simonetta’s surprise, it’s a big hit. “I was totally skeptical,” he admits. “So I talked to a lot of courses that were doing it, and the pros said they were skeptical too … before they tried it. So I said ok, and after watching it for a about a week, I thought, ‘we’re on to something.’ We have a lot of members and guests who come over with their kids who play foot golf while they play golf. With all the kids and families coming out, it’s pretty cool.” It was so cool during Christmas break that they ran out of soccer balls and Simonetta had to head to Wal-Mart and buy all the balls he could find.

After a day of golf, or a round of foot golf, there is no better place to head than Red’s Bar & Grill. There’s a big bar, and lots of TVs, and couches and tables, and a great patio. The menu has every post-round snack or sandwich or meal that you can ever crave. But once – once won’t end up being enough – you have to try The Jesse. It’s a delicious big burger with smoked bacon, tomatoes, lettuce, cheddar, and Red’s famous and secret sauce.

Best of all it’s named for Jesse Davis, the official greeter at Red’s. The Grill’s most popular burger was created in honor of Jesse being the longest serving employee at the Resort. He’s now in his 47th year at the Wigwam, has a street named after him too near the entrance to Red’s, and will josh with you saying: “I’m still on probation.”

Jess embodies what this unique place is all about. There is a feeling about it and makes you relax and want to just settle in. “We understand how important Wigwam is to the community,” said O’Malley. “We are the economic engine. You look at the restaurant menus and realize that these are not resort prices. It’s because we live inside a community, and this is their home.

You’ll see local residents at the restaurants, local members on the course and at the resort. It’s the heart of the community.”

That feeling pervades every aspect of the sprawling resort, envelops you on the drive in, and never leaves.

Story by Hal Quinn

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