Growing Native: Sewailo Golf Club

Notah Begay III designs a course at Casino del Sol Resort

The painted sky arching above the Tuscan-themed gaming and restaurant court recalls Caesar’s Palace. The GM describes the hotel’s sumptuous VIP suites as “Baby Venetian.” Palm trees border a sun-drenched, vibrant pool scene while the 4,000-seat amphitheater draws such stars as Gwen Stefani, Pitbull, Heart, Van Halen and Toby Keith. Indigenous plants and treatments soothe at the luxe spa. Halls filled with original oil paintings lead to palatial ballrooms. The steakhouse sizzles with urbane sophistication; Mr. An’s Asian restaurant dazzles with flaming, show-stopping sushi rolls; and the international buffet rivals anything you’d find on The Strip for a quarter of the price.

Even its high desert location—a 15-minute limo ride from the airport—evokes Las Vegas.

Such is the impression of the palatial Casino del Sol, a wholly owned enterprise of the Pascua Yaqui nation that rises majestically from the mesquite- and cactus-studded badlands six miles southwest of Tucson. In the two years since its grand opening, the property has earned multiple four-star awards from Forbes (the only Arizona casino with that distinction), four diamonds from AAA and the admiration of the local community for opening and thriving during a severe economic downturn.

“Eighty percent of the hotel personnel are tribal members,” reports CEO Jim Burns. “We have a quality product and are committed to driving economic development and bringing people to Tucson.”

As of December, a big reason they’ll be coming to Casino del Sol is the golf. Like much of the property, Sewailo Golf Club hints at Las Vegas (the course’s abundant water features suggest a nascent Shadow Creek) but its provenance and design is distinctively and decidedly Native American.

That’s because Notah Begay III, the first and only full-blooded Native American to compete (and win four times) on the PGA Tour, worked closely with the Pascua Yaqui leaders to lay out a course that, as he says, “expresses their culture and provides a world-class experience for every level of golfer.”

“Not to get stereotypical, but before first shovel was put in ground, we prayed to the land to let the story unfold. What you see is what has come about through a very productive collaboration through all parts.”

Teaming up with architect Ty Butler and Landscapes Unlimited construction, Begay created Sewailo, which translates to “Flower World.” Flowers or “sewa” are central to the tribe’s creation story, which holds that the deer dancer—“the most central ceremonial figure” in Yaqui traditions, according to tribal officials—emerged from a flower-filled spiritual world of natural beauty that lay under the dawn in the east. (Note: The Pascua Yaqui are an Arizona band of the Sonora, Mexico-based Yaqui tribe. “Pascua” is Spanish for “Easter,” as the Pascua Yaqui blend Catholicism into their beliefs.)

Access to a staggering 325 million gallons of water per year—four to five times that of the average Arizona course—helped Begay and Butler narrate the emergence legend. So did the salvaging of some 15,000 plants from the site during construction and the planting of thousands more. “The waterfalls, lakes and presence of lush vegetation on the first and last few holes is our representation of the ‘flower world,’” Begay explains. “The holes in between transition between streams, lakes and desert—eventually bringing you back to the lush flowers and vegetation.”

Not knowing any of this before playing the course this fall, I’ll admit my only cultural reference came after spotting a roadrunner and a coyote between two fairways. But as to how the course plays, there’s no doubt Begay and Butler have created something truly masterful and memorable.

That’s no small feat considering the flatness of the land. “We had to work that dirt to death,” Butler says of trying to create enough elevation and depth to allow peeks at the streams, lakes and hazards that make the course a constant weighing of risks and rewards. As my playing partner, Course Superintendent Jonathan Williams, explains, “Sewailo is the tale of two Johnsons: on some holes you have to play like Zach and lay up; on others you can rip it like Dustin.” “Zach” shows up on the 364-yard first, thanks to a stream that curls across the fairway 50 yards short of the enormous, undulant green that also serves the eighth hole—and, Williams confides, takes 66 minutes to mow.

After “Dustin” drives the green on the sweet 360-yard second, we arrive at the money-shot par-3 third. It’s all-carry over water to a peninsula green framed by a stone wall in the front and postcard view of the hotel and Tucson Mountains in the background. Breathtaking.

Water again lurks on the tough dogleg left fourth, and although it disappears completely until the ninth hole, there are nests of bunkers to avoid, doglegs to cut and plenty of dense Bermuda rough to elude. There’s also the hardpan of the desert.

Sewailo’s ninth recalls the 18th at Cherry Hills—a cape hole with a lake left and bunkers waiting to snare all but a perfectly placed tee shot. It preludes a stretch of three extremely challenging holes, starting with the 638-yard double-dogleg 10th and ending with the 430-yard left-dogleg 12th.

Sewailo’s final three holes—all par 4s—reenter the flower world and all its aquatic perils. The course’s 14 acres of lakes seem to concentrate here, forcing the make-or-break decisions that create the kind of dramatic thought-provoking golf worth playing and watching. By the time your final putt drops in front of the striking waterfall behind the 18th green, you’ll be itching to take another crack at it.

And that’s the way Begay and Butler want it. Begay, a economics major at Stanford, knows a course is not really in business until it sells that second and third round. “Do the math: Most golfers are double-digit handicaps who don’t want to get beat up too badly,” says Begay. “We want Sewailo to be a world-class experience for everyone.”

That includes challenging championship-caliber players like him. “I’m not averse to seeing some shoot a 65 or 66 out here,” says the author of a 59 in the 1998 Dominion Open. “We put five sets of tees on the course, and it can stretch as long as 7,400 yards. Our placement of back tees and hazards and the angles and lines make this a course that could easily host collegiate championships or a mini-tour event.”

With world-class lodging right next door and Troon Golf managing the golf operation, Sewailo appears positioned to land numerous events. Rumor has it the University of Arizona, which is hosting the Arizona Intercollegiate Men’s Tournament at Sewailo January 27-28, may make it its home course.

The customer, however, comes first, and Vice President of Sales Mark Scheller already envisions groups of golfers coming in for corporate outings, buddy trips, couples’ getaways. “We can customize anything for anyone,” he says, as we stroll the hotel’s elegant PY Steakhouse with its private dining room and 1,000 bottles of wine. “We have a Mercedes- Benz pick you up. Golf. Gambling. Spa. Steaks. Courvoisier and cigars by the pool. Maybe a concert. You can even hit golf balls at three in the morning on the lighted range. You never have to leave the property. We can arrange it because we don’t have to jump through any corporate hoops.”

Or any smoke rings. Although smokers fill the casino, the air is free of tobacco odor. And for now, it’s also free of craps and roulette tables, per Arizona law. There’s blackjack, poker, bingo, slot machines and other games, including “digital roulette” which resembles something you’d see at a Dave & Buster’s but with monetary payouts.

“One of the first things I learned at Stanford is win-win propositions are the best outcome,” says Begay, whose “turnkey solutions” have already produced golf courses for tribes with existing gaming operations in North Carolina and Kansas. “Adding a destination golf course to a gaming property is a great way to help make a tribe self-sufficient, develop their business and give full-time jobs and training for Native Americans.”

And, of course, it’s also a great way to add some Vegas-style glitz to the Tucson resort scene.

casinodelsol.com; 855-SOL STAY (855-765-7829).

Colorado AvidGolfer is the state’s leading resource for golf and the lifestyle that surrounds it. It publishes eight issues annually and proudly delivers daily content via www.coloradoavidgolfer.comJon Rizzi is the founding editor and co-owner of this regional golf-related media company producing magazines, web content, tournaments, events and the Golf Passport.

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