Desert Forest Golf Club is located at altitude in Carefree, Arizona, to the north of Phoenix and it was one of the earliest desert-style courses ever built. Desert Forest was fashioned in 1962 by Robert "Red" Lawrence who went on to shape numerous other courses in the American Southwest, consequently becoming known as “The Desert Fox” of golf course architecture.
Perched at 2,500 feet, Desert Forest offers welcome cool from the arid desert heat and the 7,035-yard course is routed over the landscape rather than through it with virtually no earth moving having taken place. The effect of this thoughtful routing has created a natural layout which rests in perfect harmony with its surroundings.
Desert Forest is unusual in that there are no ugly cart paths nor out-of-bounds markers. Missing also are fairway bunkers (they are redundant here) and there’s just one water hazard which must be avoided on the par three 3rd. Instead the golfer has carpeted Bermuda grass playing surfaces (bent grass greens), natural rock formations and the desert to contend with. It makes a pleasant and welcome change from the norm to play this spontaneous layout from either the immaculate surfaces or the desert itself.
At this altitude the Desert Forest topography is deliciously rolling with the natural valleys and peaks being used to maximum effect. Meghan Bolger won the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship here at Carefree in 2007, but following in her footsteps is not easy. Desert Forest is strictly private and exclusive, with membership levels set at about 250 you’ll need to befriend one in order to tee it up here.
Desert Forest is considered THE course that raised the status of golf in the desert. It was conceived by Tom Darlington and K.T. Palmer as part of the planned community of Carefree. Desert Forest was designed by Robert Red Lawrence, who began as an apprentice under Walter Travis and William Flynn, and became a partner in the design group of William Flynn and Howard Toomey. He worked on courses such as the Cascades at the Homestead Resort and Merion East. It opened in 1962 and for many years was considered both the best course in the desert as it appeared on top 100 courses in the USA, and as one of the best 50 courses in the world. It was known for incorporating the desert as part of the design rather than imposing “parkland” ideas into the desert. It was built in a “minimalist” style with very little dirt moved by a single shaper, Vernon Ward. The course is built naturally into the landscape except for the construction of tees, and the green complexes. There are no out-of-bounds markers, no forced carries, water hazards or bunkers on the fairways. Off the fairway, the saguaro, ocotillo, prickly pear and other cactus, flowers, and bushes such as staghorn, creosote, turpentine, palo verde and mesquite are incorporated as part of the “rough.”
Mr. Lawrence, was known as the “desert fox.” He did only one routing for the original design. Mr. Ward died in a barroom brawl shortly after completion of the course. The course was built for $275,000.
The course was so-regarded after it opened that the par 5 seventh hole was listed by one golf magazine as one of the greatest holes in the world. Holes thirteen and sixteen were also listed by another golf magazine as two of the top 500 hundred holes in the USA.
I went with a friend who had played it prior to the renovations in 2013 and was somewhat unimpressed and did not return until I suggested we play it. However the club did an extensive renovation project in 2013 under the direction of Dave Zinkland., a long-time associate of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. The bunkers were re-done either altered or moved, several holes were re-routed, every green complex was re-done, and every inch of rough was re-grassed. 2.4 million pounds of bunker sand was installed as well as 16 million pounds of 328 Bermuda grass was laid. Finally, a new irrigation system was added. All of this was done for less than $3 million. Only 67 of its 165 acres are turf.
We played it in April, 2019 and I was delighted with the golf course. My friend was so delighted that he decided to join the club even though he is already a member of one of the top-rated private clubs in the area.
Unlike courses at Desert Mountain, the two public options at Troon, Silverleaf, Estancia, Desert Highlands, and several others, Desert Forest plays as if it is a “flat” golf course, although there are gentle uphill and downhill changes in terrain. It is the rare course near Phoenix/Scottsdale that does not feature a lot of elevation changes as it is not positioned below or near the side of nearby mountains. The result is a course where walking the course is easy unlike the other top rated courses where generally you feel the right decision is to take a cart. In the greater Scottsdale area, only the courses at Talking Stick are flatter that I can recall. The distances between tees and greens are typically short.
It sits below the Black Mountain in the Sonoran desert in the town of Carefree, Arizona, a perfect location for this club and course. It lies at higher elevation of 2500 feet thereby being cooler than many courses in Scottsdale. Both nines end at the clubhouse with very good views of the mountain behind it.
The greens are built of a similar contouring – back to front sloping and push-up style. There are multiple ways to play approach shots into these greens by hitting either with a lofted shot or a lower shot trying to run it on. The green are generally guarded with bunkers on both sides, with the width of the gap being in proportion to the typical length of the approach shot. It is usually advisable to position the approach shot below the pin. There is also typically a fair amount of short grass around the greens offering a good chance to recover. What is absent is any micro-contouring in the green surrounds.
The fairways are narrower than many other top-rated courses in Arizona, although sufficiently wide, and often have ripples and mounds to consider from three feet to nearly twelve feet. On the tee one has to consider where they want to land their ball. They are bordered by native vegetation. Mr. Lawrence favored fairways with a slight crown to them so balls struck near some of the edges of the fairway have a good chance of rolling into the brush/cactus. This is why I put the word “flat” in parenthesis earlier. There are no cart paths here, you walk or drive on the dirt or the grass. In essence, the fairways remind me a bit of Pine Valley. They are wide enough, and you will likely find your ball if you miss a fairway, but you will pay a heavy penalty for missing the fairway.
Every four-five years the Bermuda grass is allowed to go dormant with further over-seeding of tees and greens to promote healthier turf. As a visitor you should ask whether “this is the year” for resting the fairway.
The Gold tees are 7203 yards, par 72 rated 75.5/149. The Blue tees are 6933 yards, rated 74.5/142. The Black tees are 6522 yards, rated 72.2/133. There are four sets of lesser tees. I played the Black tees while others played the Silver tees including our senior host, who when younger competed in many of the most prestigious amateur events in the USA. I thought there to be many good holes including the par 3’s, the stretch of 6-11 and the final four holes.
1. Par 4 - 404/397/377. This sharp dogleg right is a fun starting hole with the left side of the fairway offering the better angle to the uphill green due to the angle of the green which goes to the left and has flanking bunkers that are fairly deep. I like this starting hole.
2. Par 4 – 456/428/408. The fairway goes a bit to the left at the 230 yard mark from the 428 tees where the desert awaits with a single tree. The green sits uphill and is relatively flat with a single bunker down the left side.
3. Par 3 – 171/160/144. While I said there is no water on the course, there is a small pond off of the third but it is not in play. This green is well guarded with flanking bunkers and a center bunker at the front and rear. The green is also the second smallest on the course with a crowned green leading to a large swale in the rear of the green. This is an excellent par 3.
4. Par 4 – 441/441/391. This is a challenging hole but not as much from the Black tees as it plays slightly to the right but the fairway is widest at the landing area. The green has a single bunker left with good interior shaping.
5. Par 4 – 464/440/397. This hole plays as a sharp dogleg left early in the hole so longer hitters may try to cut the inner corner. You play uphill to a green has a single bunker right and goes right to left. The bunker right is one of the deepest on the golf course at nearly six feet. There is ample room left of the green to try to recover. It is a good hole from the Gold/Blue tee but average from the Black tee.
6. Par 4 – 371/361/346. I like the green complex on this hole with a small fronting bunker, a large bunker left and one at the rear. The green offers short grass to the right and seems to have a depression in it.
7. Par 5 – 551/530/518. This is a “crazy” hole with a very sharp dogleg right early. If you do not get far enough down the fairway or are left you will have a blind shot over the desert to a fairway set well off to the right. You then have a carry across a diagonal wash right to left 100 yards short of the green set back to the left. The green has long bunkers on both sides. From the Blue tees, the fairways merge at 260 yards out. The green has a false front with a bunker left front and two on the right. It is an outstanding hole.
8. Par 3 – 231/203/194. This hole plays downhill to a small green for its length sloping away from you but with a beautiful view of the Black Mountain behind it. There is a single bunker center, two on the left and one on the right. From the 231 Gold tee this is a very difficult hole, from the Black tee it is merely difficult.
9. Par 5 – 533/533/494. Ending at the clubhouse, this hole plays straight to a green surrounded by sand. This is likely the “weakest” hole in the 6-10 stretch that I admire, but on many courses this might be their best hole due to the visual of the Black Mountain and the clubhouse as you approach a raised green.
10. Par 4 – 392/382/371. This hole goes out as a dogleg left and is the rare hole where I feel there is no advantage to either side of the fairway. The green sits uphill and is thin at the beginning and widens with a bunker to either side. I like how the hole reveals itself after the dogleg as well as the overall look of the fairway.
11. Par 5 – 594/573/553. This is a true three shot hole for all but the very longest hitters. This is one of the few holes where Mr. Lawrence changed the terrain as he covered a wash near the green with turf. This would likely not be allowed today due to environmental regulations. However, these days a wash near the green would also be encouraged by minimalists as part of the visual look and defense of the course. It is hard to say what would be better although I probably would prefer having to play the approach over the wash while also giving the longer hitters something else to ponder in their “risk-reward” thinking. This hole bends to the left and I made the mistake of going too far left with my second shot and paid the price.
12. Par 3 – 194/185/169. I found this hole to be pretty standard with a bunker left and two to the right to a narrow green at the front that widens at the rear. The miss is long over the uphill green.
13. Par 4 – 466/449/416. This fairways narrow substantially about 130 yards from the green making it a hole that gets your attention on the tee, although I then realized I could not reach the narrowest part. The green has two fronting bunkers right and a large one of the left for a green slightly angled to the left. It’s an okay hole with a green with good subtle contouring.
14. Par 4 – 329/309/297. I like this hole as a breather hole because it has a generous fairway canted to the right with two bunkers greenside left to a green that goes away from you. For longer hitters, this is a good risk-reward hole as they can get very close to the green. There is a lot of short grass near the green for recovery.
15. Par 4 – 435/435/372. After the difficult thirteenth and easier fourteenth, the course dials it up for this hole. From the tee the fairway looks narrow but it is actually fairly wide. The hole plays downhill to a green with two bunkers left and one to the right. The one to the right seem to be the more difficult one. The green offers a good chance of recovery other than from the bunkers.
16. Par 5 – 535/523/514. After I finished playing Desert Forest I thought about Pete Dye and how he had a preference for ending his courses with a 5-3-4 finish. Did he get the idea from Desert Forest? This hole offers a generous landing area for the shorter hitter although if one strays too far left they have a blind shot other the brush. There is a single tree in the middle of the fairway for the second shot that needs to be avoided. The fairway has a fall that benefits the longer hitters. The left side of the fairway offers various higher mounds as one makes their way to the green. This hole also had a wash filled in with grass. There is a huge bunker on the right and two on the front left. I like this hole a lot.
17. Par 3 – 169/169/159. This green is nearly surrounded on all sides by bunkers. This hole has a skinny beginning and widens with several planes and slopes emanating from a central point. It is a nice par 3.
18. Par 4 – 467/415/402. The round ends with a straight hole but again the fairway pinches in creating a sense of confusion regarding the distance to the green as well as putting doubt in the longer hitter’s mind as to whether they can drive a ball that straight. The fairway seems elevated although it is not. The green is one of the better ones with two small bunkers on the left and one on the right but with fall-offs near the edges. There is ample room over the green for a chance of recovery. It is a fine finishing hole.
As mentioned, I like Desert Forest for its minimalism, the ease of walking the course, the thought one needs with the tee shot, as well as the different shots one can hit into the greens. I find the green surfaces to be varied enough and not overly done. While there is no bunkering on the fairways, the greenside bunkering is good. The only reason I think this course has dropped in the rankings of desert courses is that other courses have more dramatic land and vistas available to them. It lacks the “drama” of courses that have more variety in the land such as at Estancia or Desert Highlands. I do not think many of the other courses are better when it comes to playing the actual golf course.
Now this is a golf course! The original desert golf course. A thrilling experience to arrive here as it is a golf club pure and simple. No tennis courts or swimming pools in site and a nice modest clubhouse where the club President personally welcomed us. Our host was a long time member and acted as our quasi-fore-caddy telling us lots of club stories along the way. We loved the obviously excellent course design with rolling fairways, lack of fairway bunkers and the seamless routing through the desert. Highlight was the split fairway 7th. Great to see the original Red tees established by the original architect "Red" Lawrence are left in place to show how the course was once set up. Golf History.
I love this course for its purity. The routing is fantastic which gives the player the choice of walking, pull cart, EPC, caddy or cart. The greens (hybrid bentgrass) are perfect and the fairways (bermuda) are the proper width knowing there is desert on either side (no fairway bunkers needed). Very challenging, but not punitive and the views of Black Mountain are majestic. Small, old-school clubhouse - just the way the members want it. With so many different tees, it makes it playable for a wide variety of golfers. The members I played with were classy, understated and great players!
One of the toughest courses in the Southwest which has matured well over the years with a variety of renovations. An old classic club wonderfully focused on the game.
If you love golf course architecture then you’ll appreciate Desert Forest. It makes you think on each and every shot but it’s also honest and straightforward with everything laid out in front of you. It’s an easy walk (and yes you can walk here and leave the cart behind) but it’s tough as nails and be prepared to lose a few balls in the desert bush. Simply wonderful.