6,534 yards, 133 Slope from the Black tees
Course: In Carefree, Arizona, north of Phoenix, resides Desert Forest. Robert “Red” Lawrence designed Desert Forest in 1962. During a time when the majority of courses were beginning to be built on length, lack of variety and were highly manufactured in a display of the increasing capabilities of course architecture, Desert Forest was an anomaly, instead showcasing the Sonoran landscape, its rolling terrain and desert fauna, all of which are an integral part of the round. While many desert courses fall into the rote of target golf and the majority of the round consists of jumping over and avoiding the desert areas from one area of grass to another, Red Lawrence embraced the desert in more ways than one. Consequently, the interplay with the surrounding nature provides endless variety for recovery shots. There is no OB on the course, so the randomness of the land dictates the degree of recoverability for wayward shots. On that note, the desert terrain is typically off the sides of the holes, allowing those who remain on the fairway the freedom to approach each hole with strategic prowess. As a result, I had shots perilously close to cacti, off the desert hardpan, and even a couple suspended mid-air in the desert scrub bushes.
Aside from the terrific incorporation of the desert, the course is challenging for its strategic qualities and green complexity. Shot selection off the tee is paramount to avoid the aforementioned desert, while the player can benefit from something less than driver on several of the holes. When you factor in that the course is subject to significant wind, shaping shots and staying on the green stuff is usually more difficult than it looks. But the greens set up most of the holes and all shots must be considered with them in mind. The greens are well-sized, but there are good and bad places to hit approaches and with how fast and firm they are, simply hitting the green on an approach is not enough to ensure safety. The subtleties of the greens are probably the most vexing aspect of the course, rewarding course knowledge for those who have already seen seemingly uphill putts race downward or those that seem to sweep to either side roll in the other direction, with authority. The greens and bunkers were re-worked a few years ago and as a result, the course has a lot more bite while the design philosophies implemented by Red Lawrence remain.
Despite the challenges, the slope rating is not as high as it should be in my opinion. Since there is no OB and no fairway bunkers, and the course distance is reasonable, the formulaic slope rating calculation keeps the ratings much lower than they probably should be. If anything, this fortifies the playing index of the Desert Forest members, while luring everyone else into a false sense of security.
Desert Forest is a course that serious golfers can appreciate and casual golfers can learn a lot from played from the appropriate tees. It is one of, if not the most, subtlety challenging courses I have come across. There is no visual intimidation here, just relaxing views of the nearby mountains and surrounding desertscape. The course is mostly just in front of you, ready to receive your shots, and while it looks easy enough, executing your shots and even knowing where to hit them is vital to scoring well. Indeed, playing well and scoring well at Desert Forest can be two very different things.
Desert Forest challenges every facet of a golfer’s acumen in a pleasing natural setting.
Desert Forest is ranked #44 on the top 100 Modern Courses in the U.S., it’s 35th in the top 50 courses built in the last 50 years by Golf Magazine (the only course in AZ to make the list), and has been in the top 100 US Golf Courses by Golf Digest in the past. The course certainly deserves these recognitions, as its beauty, challenge and intrigue are enjoyably complex, even if it takes a while after signing your scorecard to realize it.
The First is a 377 yard par 4 (from the Black tees). A sharp dog leg right with a fairway that starts uphill, then turns right and downhill, before once again climbing up to the elevated green. Off the tee, the dog leg can be cut, but is a fairly risky proposition considering the desert area off to the right. Most will want to hit just past the ridgeline of the fairway so their tee shot won’t overshoot the fairway off the left. There is a deep bunker on the left and a drop off on the right side of the green, with the green moving seriously from left to right and back to front. The hole typifies the theme here; you don’t get killed with distance but rather strategy and placement on the green is critical.
The Second is a 408 yard par 4. The fairway is a forced carry from the tee. The standout feature is the desert crater on the right, which juts the fairway on that side and needs to be considered off the tee. There’s more room off to the left than it looks like from the tee. The fairway is pretty wide and remains that way to the green, which is more wide than deep but is large. For some reason, however, it’s a tough hole to score on, whether it’s the tee shot or going long on the green. Tactic execution is clearly necessary here to score well, as anything off the sides is big trouble.
The Third is a 144 yard par 3. The raised green falls off on all sides and is surrounded by bunkers. Water to the left is not really in play, but seems to be a hot spot for wind, which was pretty much up every time we played the hole. This is one hole where hitting the right area of the green is critical to avoid shots on the green ending up either off or in a difficult area for putting. My only success on the hole came when I hit it short, then chipped close to the hole. The green is very difficult to hold. Based on its difficulty, the hole is referred to as the shortest par 5 in the desert.
The Fourth is a 391 yard par 4. A tough tee shot to a crowned fairway running a little downhill that plays a lot longer if the wind is up. Missing right off the tee gives you a better chance at recovery, whereas the left side falls off a hillside, making finding your ball infinitely more difficult. The green is slightly elevated and again, missing right is better than left in the bunker in my opinion. The right side at least give you the hillside to work with, but shots hit off the hillside run the risk of bouncing into the desert. Like many of the holes here, missing short is the best option. It’s an inviting green though and where staying under the hole is best. The desert mountain in the background provides an excellent backdrop to the hole as well.
The Fifth is a 397 yard par 4. This dog leg left goads from the tee to carry the tree line and cut the leg off to the left. A great risk reward shot and if carried out properly, you will be left with a shorter approach into a green that runs from right left. Shot shaping off the tee on this hole is almost mandatory, as the desert is too closely looming on either side to allow much of a straight ball, considering the angles from the tee. A bunker on the right and high side to the left of the green make it imperative to hit the green in the proper area to stay on.
I also found this to be one of the better holes to recover from. Perhaps the desert terrain is more level here, but balls were easier found and lies seemed to be more playable. Considering its shorter distance, it made it easier to have a manageable up and down once back on the green stuff.
The Sixth is a 346 yard par 4. As I say, the strength of the short par 4’s is a very accurate measure of how good a course is, at least to me. Desert Forest has two of them, with this one the first of two. Just like the Fifth but even more so here, tee shot placement is critical. There are more available options here, as longer hitters could have a nice pitch if they aim for the left side of the fairway. Any shots off to the right will likely roll off fairway to the right. On the other hand, shorter shots are rewarded on more level ground yet longer approach shots to a green that is surrounded by bunkers, is elevated and runs severely from back to front, with ridge lines abounding.
The Seventh is a 530 yard par 5. Options abound off the tee because of the split fairway, with the more conservative route off to the left and bolder avenue to the right. A well hit shot off to the right rewards you with a much shorter shot to the green while going left off the tee is much easier to hit and set up a second shot that will likely need to be placed at the end of the fairway, short of a wash that bisects the hole. During my rounds, I don’t think I ever saw anyone try for the right side. It’s a significant carry over desert brush and the shot is blind for the most part, so aiming at the correct spot and executing the shot takes a fair amount of course knowledge and skill. The wash must be accounted for and is one of the few forced carries on the course. Even if your ball ends up in the wash, it’s inviting enough to hit out of. As for the green, it’s elevated with bunkers running on either side of it. Anything downhill of the hole, or short of the green, should be relatively safe.
Based on the number of factors involved with this hole, the decision-making, course knowledge and placement of hazards, it was one of my favorite holes of the course.
The Eighth is a 194 yard par 3. An elevated tee shot to the green below, with the desert mountains behind, provides a terrific backdrop for the last par 3 on the front nine. The green is wide yet shallow and there is a pretty large short grass area in front of the green. The short grass area is inviting, but with the contours of the green and center front bunker, anyone who doesn’t want to challenge the green off the tee will likely face an equally difficult chip or pitch to the pin from short of the green.
Personally, this type of hole suits my eye very well. Everything is laid out in front of you sitting above the hole, with the width of the green and short grass area perfect components to catch any of my mis-hits. Despite this, I rarely scored well on this hole, usually ending up left of the left side bunkers. I finally started playing short of the green and fared much better. The one downside to being elevated is the wind will grab your shots more easily, which should definitely be accounted for.
The Ninth is a 494 yard par 5. Heading in the same direction as the Seventh and Eighth, the Ninth has you teeing off across the desert scrub to a generous fairway, angled off left from the tee. The fairway rises and falls before reaching the green, curled slightly right and below the fairway with sunken bunkers on either side. The green has multiple tiers with a fall-off collection area on the far right side, that will repel balls into the desert if hit into its slope. The shorter par 5 makes it one of the easier scoring holes on the course, yet just like any other hole on the course, it is also fairly easy to end up in the desert and pile up strokes. The shorter distance actually allows for plenty of strategic decisions and recovery out of the desert with a chance to salvage par. I enjoyed this hole a lot.
The front nine features a great set of par 3’s and par 5’s, along with a diverse set of shorter par 4’s. The routing was superb and the challenge of the Seventh comes at the right time in the round, even though it’s my understanding the nines were reversed at some point due to the setting sun becoming an too much of a distraction. Even if the Seventh came as the Sixteenth, it would still be in a good place during the round for the challenge it presents. I’d rank them 7, 6, 9, 1, 3, 5, 8, 2, 4.
The back nine starts from the clubhouse with the 371 yard par 4 Tenth. The hole dog legs right off the tee and must be cleared with the tee shot for a clear approach shot to the green. While the green looks inviting with a nice entry opening from the fairway, I found it to be one of the tougher approach shots on the course. Large bunkers pinch the green on either side and the contours of the green seem to repel shots towards them if not hit on the right parts of the green. Left center of the green seem to work the best with approach shots.
The Eleventh is a 553 yard par 5. A dog leg left with a generous fairway all the way to the back end of the green, it’s the longest hole on the course. The fairway cants from right to left aerial approach preferred with a few ripples here and there. I really enjoyed the green complex, which is pitched from the fairway and features a grassed in wash short of the green. While there are bunkers short and long of the green, most shots missing the green will end up some where on the short grass, creating an opportunity to salvage a good score and testing your acumen and creativity of the short game. The green runs left to right, so keep that in mind. Another great par 5.
The Twelfth is a 169 yard par 3. One of the smaller greens on the course whose size grows as it advances from the front of the green, with bunkers surrounding the green, except for the far side, where anything out that way will be in the desert. It’s rated as the easiest hole on the course, but calls for more precisions than a couple par 3’s in my opinion.
The Thirteenth is a 416 yard par 4. A slight dog leg to the left, the landing zone from the tee is generous, but starts to narrow as you get closer to the green, which is raised from the fairway and features some of the deepest greenside bunkers on the course. The green here is subtle, and fast. Combine that with the wind, which is typically against you, the slight uphill, and you have a sneaky beast of a hole that does not let up at all until the ball is in the hole.
The Fourteenth is a 297 yard par 4. The best, and most confounding, short par 4 on the course. The presentation of the hole from the tee makes the temptation strong to rip driver and get as close to the hole as possible, the fairway cants from left to right, pulling tee shots in that direction. The more left in the fairway, the more awkward the approach shot to a narrow but deep green that runs from back to front left to right, protected by bunkers on the right. The narrowness of the green makes recovery shots just off the green more tumultuous, especially those on the right. Placement off the tee, then placement on the approach, are vital. I hit at least three different clubs off the tee and countless different approaches into the green, from aerial pitches to bump and runs using the contours of the terrain. The options are limitless. What seems like a refresher hole and one of the easier holes on the course is one of the more interesting, fun and strategic.
The Fifteenth is a 372 yard par 4. A straightaway hole with a slope on the left side, which if hit from the tee, will bounce and roll down the fairway closer to the hole. The fairway appears smaller from the tee, but is actually quite generous. The green is of modest size ands bunkers on its sides. It’s quite a subtle green, running from back to front, yet switches directions through the mid point.
The Sixteenth is a 514 yard par 5. Another hole fraught with options and where course knowledge is a huge benefit, negotiating the large mesquite tree on the left dictates most of how the hole is played. Tee shots to the left are more conservative and leave a good angle to set up the approach shot, while the bolder line down the right side provides an opportunity for long hitters to try to reach the green in two. The width of the fairway after the tree also provides a lot of freedom to attack the green, which is perched above the fairway and is quite large, with proportionately large greenside bunkers on either side.
I didn’t play this hole well a single time. The visuals messed with me and I never felt comfortable hitting towards the right and always had an awkward lie on the left, which made for a difficult second shot, and not comfortable with the right, tried to challenge the mesquite tree for a heroic shot. If I were to play it again, I’d trust the right side on all shots and accept the consequences.
And that’s what is great about this hole. The challenge and variety.
The Seventeenth is a 159 yard par 3. The green is slightly below the tee while the one-shotter is a forced carry over desert flora and fauna. While ending up just short of the green is manageable, the green seems to slope away from each bunker, making most bunker shots more complicated. The green generally runs from right to left. Other than the front apron, missing the green means you’re in a bunker with said slope issues. A chance for a nice score after the brutal Sixteenth, a precise iron is still required for a safe opportunity at par.
The Eighteenth is a 402 yard par 4. One of my favorite views of the course is on this tee, looking out to the expanse. The course is integrated nicely into the natural landscape and from the tee, it looks like you can keep playing up to and over the mountains in the background. The fairway utilizes the contours of the terrain, gently rising then falling a little to the green, with a nice sized green that undulates in a few directions. It’s a nice closing hole that sets a peaceful ending to the round, neither overly challenging or necessarily easy, but for sure the heart of the battle is behind you stepping onto this tee.
Generally, the back nine features equally great routing as the front. I liked the par 4’s more and par 3’s slightly less, the subtle par 5 just as much and the wild par 5 a little less, but there is no weak hole on this nine whereas the Second and Fourth were my least favorite, both on the front. I’d rank the back 14, 11, 18, 10, 15, 13, 16, 12, 17.
In general, there are several layers to Desert Forest and like most great courses, it reveals itself slowly over time. Those layers are subtle and complex, yet its outward beauty and challenge engages you from the outset. Among desert courses, it is the best I’ve played, with Talking Stick North and Silver Rock below it. Red Lawrence certainly crafted an example of minimalist design at its finest that was certainly ahead of its time, which is a terrific example of how terra firma can capture some of the best golf more than trying too hard to manufacture it.
Gripes: If you’re not used to desert golf, be prepared to ruin a club or two hitting off the hardpan. I used my wedges.
Bar/Grill: Both an indoor and outdoor area, well sized, with the outdoor area overlooking the putting green and driving range.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Well stocked with a good club logo!
Practice area: A natural grass range and putting green, as well as a comprehensive short game area about 110 yards long with two green complexes and a total of four bunkers.
Nearby: Scottsdale…I think.
Update: September 2019. A lot more photos and corrected a couple above. I first played here a few years ago and ever since then, have beat the drum about how much this place should be talked about. It seems, however, that most who know about these things already know. For me, the course is true naturalism, strategy and the closest thing to links golf you can get so far from a body of water. What I mean is that the natural randomness of the desert is very much in play throughout the round, the ground game is very much in tact through the greens and wind can wreck havoc at any point, the course amenable to such conditions. Red Lawrence worked for Flynn and much of his style was derivative of Flynn finding strategy within the natural setting.
Here, you’re submerged into the desert surroundings. This last round, after a textbook opening tee shot, I hooked my approach into the desert. The hardpan was fraught with crevices and cracks, sloping hard into a swath of tumblewood and cacti. My lie was hopeless; hiding under tumbleweed, snuggled into the roots, about 15 yards of desert brush to clear just to reach any semblance of grass. I gave it the old college try, having some familiarity with these types of shots from my escapades here last time. The desert could care less. The ball slugged a few feet, this time next to a cactus. I had no stance without getting diced by said cactus. I invented some weird low sweeping baseball swing motion that went into the desert abyss. It took some time but I found it, again just as hopeless. This time, it was likely sheer desperation, the ball reached grass and I finished the hole, lamely. So much room on the right, I just had to hook that approach, like an asshole. Compare that with the Sixteenth. A belted tee shot moving towards the right side, more because of being misaligned than a bad shot. The ball rolled off the fairway into the hardpan but couldn’t see where it went from the tee. I get up to it and the ball moved downhill. Resting at the top of a slight depression with a clear look at the fairway, it was all teed up for me. That’s the beauty of the course and in general, the beauty of allowing nature to seep into play. Its randomness and its mystery are an adventure to themselves. Here, the course embraces its natural surroundings, making each round a different one altogether. On that day, I was attacked by a jumping cholla that took several minutes of tending to, a huge rattlesnake was near the Sixth tee (I took my group’s word for it, even though they urged me to come take a look I politely declined) and I swear a jackrabbit intentionally tried to shake me out of my tee shot at the Seventh. It should be noted there have been zero rattlesnake attacks here.
It was also more apparent to me this round just how rolling the terrain is. Fairways rumple, slope and fluctuate in width. Greens are substantially above or below and when the wind is on, simply trying to figure out your distances can be a challenge. And the greens. They remained fascinating to me. Some times subtle, some times bold. The fringes can get moody and send your ball off on a whim while interior slopes can get dramatic very quickly. Lots to learn here.
What Desert Forest does better than most is the manner in which it presents challenge. It’s not tedious, or intimidating or insurmountable. It’s a test of one’s skills for sure and there are several ways to go about getting around the place. And there’s always a chance for recovery. The challenge here is intriguing and enjoyable. You learn from it, relish it. Embrace it.
I picked myself up from that catastrophe of the First and cobbled together a decent scoring round. Calm, clear sunny weather, high 90’s yet didn’t feel oppressive. Tranquil. As we shook hands on the final hole and I eventually started my drive to the airport for the trek back east, back home, I looked out the plane window and saw the sun fading below the horizon until out of sight. It was then I knew summer had reached its inevitable end for me. The crisp, pastoral, temperate fall was edging my way, yet with the onslaught of work obligations ahead of me, I was never certain whether each round after this one would be the last of the season. It turned out, however, there was still some golf out there for me. That everlasting adventure continues, always finding a way.