Lyle Anderson contracted Jack Nicklaus to build a course around a sizeable Scottsdale residential development in the early 1980s and the Golden Bear duly obliged by laying out eighteen rather testing holes on an arid property bereft of any water hazard.
Desert Highlands Golf Club made its mark in 1983 when it hosted the first televised Skins Game between Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Tom Watson. Eight years later, in 1991, Sarah LeBrun Ingram won her first of three U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship titles here. Such early exposure propelled Desert Highlands into the national listings but the course still enjoys a creditable state ranking position.
Memorable holes on the card include the three par fours at 6, 8 and 13, each of which is played to a split fairway. A round here also ends in unorthodox fashion with back to back par threes at 15 and 16, followed by a couple of closing par fives.
"Perhaps the greatest impact Jack Nicklaus made on golf course architecture occurred with the opening of Desert Highlands," wrote Geoff Cornish and Ron Whitten in The Architects of Golf. "Desert Highlands issued in another facet of course architecture, the blending of golf into the hostile terrain of an arid desert. Strict governmental restrictions, which included the transplantation of virtually every desert plant disturbed during construction and a limitation upon the acreage that could be irrigated, forced Nicklaus and his design team to create a state-of-the-art layout that ultimately opened avenues for many desert-area communities."
Desert Highlands won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. Nicklaus was hired by one of the first high-end clubs in the Scottsdale area and developed an almost unplayable golf course for the current demographic of its aging membership. When he designed the course, he was the #1 player in the world and essentially built a layout that only he could play and score well. Too many forced carries, badly positioned cactus trees, punishing waste areas and angled greens with tiny platforms are what awaits those who play here.
Courses like this might have been something to celebrate 40 years ago, but in today’s world, Desert Highlands eliminates any aspect of fun or the ability to grow the number of people playing the game. For the record, I scored very well from the back tees so the above thoughts are not the result of 10 lost balls and hours of frustration. My entire focus was on the architecture that simply failed to impress. Once again, my opinion that ‘professional golfers should never (solely by themselves) design a golf course proved true, that should be left to the architects.
When Desert Highlands opened in 1983 it was a truly a game changer in how modern golf design would go forward when located in arid climates such as this. Jack Nicklaus brought forward a layout that for whatever reasons is not more fully appreciated.
The course has no more than the allocated 90-acres of irrigated turf, as per AZ law, and the manner by which Nicklaus incorporated the desert with the verdant areas is truly well done.
Since the course opened a few of the greens have had their contours reworked.
The opening hole is grand stuff. You start from an elevated tee and then plunge downhill. An aggressive line of attack can get near the green but the risk is certainly high. Amazingly, so many numbers are in play from eagle to double-bogey.
The front side is truly an adventure as the outward half is spread out on plenty of desert terrain.
Nicklaus included several tee boxes and not all of them are aligned in a straightforward manner. You also have to decide how aggressive you wish to attack certain holes. There are areas where the desert cuts closer to the line of play and one needs to be especially good with your approaches as the run-offs from the green can place balls in very delicate situations for greenside recoveries.
One thing found at Desert Highlands is the usage of split fairway holes. The par-4 6th is quite good of this type. Either side of the split can be good -- but much is tied to where the pin is placed that day. The par-4 8th does this too and here the player must decide if going up the right side will better one's approach angle.
The inward half is on land literally half the total amount but the routing is quite inventive.
There's sufficient landing room off the tee but in many cases the player has to determine if forcing the issue is the smart play and if one has the wherewithal to execute such shots. The specter of the desert is present but not in a heavy-handed manner.
One of my favorite holes in all of AZ golf is the par-4 13th here. Playing just under 400 yards -- the player is confronted by another split fairway. The easier and safer option is going left where a wider portion of landing area awaits. The only issue with that option is that the approach angle is far harder and the green is quite narrow from that direction with a menacing bunker that is tight and close to the green. The bold play can opt for the right half of the fairway. However, this side is narrower and the slightest push / pull will be desert bound. One also has to carry the tee shot no less than 215 yards to get the fairway. There's so much to think about and there's no easy solution on any given day. That's what makes it such a fascinating hole.
Desert Highlands does conclude in a unique way. There are back-to-back par-3's at the 15th and 16th respectively. The former is a decent hole but the latter is quite good. Teeing high above the green you have a distant target in the range of 242 yards. Once can bounce your ball onto the green but for those opting to fly all the way to the target the execution has to be stellar.
The final two holes are par-5's and it's here that players can potentially make up ground or simply fail to do so. Credit Nicklaus and his team because the two holes are rather distinct -- each going in different directions and each requiring far different strategies.
Nicklaus has also provided an array of different green complexes -- movements that are constantly vexing but have also been tempered so that the contours today are not over the top. Interestingly, Desert Highlands strikes a fine balance in rewarding power off the tee but not at the expense of accuracy. The golf landscape has clearly evolved since Desert Highlands came onto the scene and it's likely many might have simply forgotten how good the course truly is. Those able to secure an invitation to play will see firsthand the course that made a major statement on how modern desert golf can be successfully carried out.
by M. James Ward