Lyle Anderson contracted Jack Nicklaus to build a course around a sizeable Scottsdale residential development in the early 1980s and the Golden Bear with his senior designer Bob Cupp 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."
In 2019, Nicklaus Design completed a $7 million course renovation project, which included renovating bunkers and restoring the original design intent of the split-fairway par four 13th hole.
I recently had a second look at Desert Highlands and my appreciation grew for this Jack Nicklaus design.
Unlike my first visit, where a friend and I played unaccompanied with no knowledge of the course, this time I was hosted by a long-time member who estimated he has played the course 3000 times. At various points in the round, he pointed out some features I might have missed. In addition, we also had a chance to discuss some of the strategy and defenses of the course.
One of the biggest benefits of accompanying a long time member was that we walked the course. In my first review I stated that the course is not a walking golf course. I was incorrect about that. It is very much a walking golf course, not as easy as many in the greater Scottsdale area, but certainly not overly taxing. I learned from my member host the best way to walk the course which is to take a cart to the first tee which avoids a somewhat lengthy uphill walk, hit the tee shot, then take the cart down the long, winding stretch of cart path to the bottom of the hill where you park the cart and switch your bag over to a trolley/pull cart.
Walking a golf course is nearly always preferable to riding a cart both from a conversation standpoint as well as being able to see more clearly the designs of the holes.
During our round, I stated that Desert Highlands was one of my favorite courses by Jack Nicklaus. As I listed my other favorites (Kinloch in New Zealand, Pronghorn, May River, The Concession, Muirfield Village, Mayacama, Castle Pines), we collectively rattled off 15 courses by Mr. Nicklaus that we liked, some of which I have yet to play. Perhaps Mr. Nicklaus will not be quite as prolific as Donald Ross nor produce as many highly rated courses as Mr. Ross, but for those who might say he has not produced some very good golf, I would respectfully disagree.
Mr. Nicklaus is often criticized for designing holes that favor a high fade but at Desert Highlands the holes and green sites move or are placed in both directions. He s sometimes criticized for moving too much earth or manufacturing a golf hole, taking away the naturalness of a course. Yet at Desert Highlands as well as his better courses, he has routed the course taking advantage of both the flatter front nine and the more rolling back nine. His mounding at Desert Highlands both adds to the visual aesthetic of the course as well as the defense and strategy of the course.
The five areas I admire the most regarding Desert Highlands include: 1) the routing which moves in all directions and builds throughout the round ending with a quirky 3,3,5,5, 2). The green complexes which are atypical for many of Nicklaus designs in that there is more internal movement, 3), the mounding, even if manufactured, adds both to the visual appeal as well as the defense of the course, 4), several holes requiring a strategic decision as to take the shorter, more direct route by having both a narrower landing area and a long forced carry or taking on more ferocious bunkers in an attempt to get closer and 5) there is a restraint in the use of bunkers, but where they exist they are impactful such as the deep, tall, yawning bunkers fronting the tenth or the collection of five bunkers fronting the seventeenth green.
The course is exciting beginning with the first tee shot on a short par 4 from a very elevated tee to what appears to be a sliver of a fairway with a large bunker and a rock mountain on the right and desert and tree down the left. You have to be very precise with whatever club you choose off the first tee. The drama cont8nues throughout the round, ending with the green on eighteen which plays uphill and is hidden behind mounds disguising the distance and required line. I thought I hit a near perfect approach shot over these mounds only to find it three yards short on a side of a mound. Instead of a chance for birdie, I walked away with a bogey.
The holes are varied here. There are several highlight holes such as the ninth with its deep and wide bunker at the fishhook green where the bunker and mounding seem to shrink the green to half of its real size. My only regret was hitting a poor drive here resulting in a lost ball dooming me to a double bogey. I really like the mounding on nine as you begin to turn towards the green. The sixth and thirteenth have the risk:reward decision on the tee for these two split fairways. The third is a wonderful dogleg right par 4 while the par 3 twelfth is my favorite par 3 on the course due to its terrific green shaping.
For me, Desert Highlands is tied for the second best course in Arizona behind Estancia. I have equal high regard for Desert Forest. I have yet to play at Forest Highlands so perhaps one of those two courses could surpass it. I have the benefit of having a good friend who is a member at Estancia, but I certainly enjoy playing at Desert Highlands as much as I do when playing at Estancia.
Jack Nicklaus’ first design in Arizona is a good one, although I do not rate it nearly as highly as some others do.
It is a quirky course in its routing with two of the par 5’s “close” to each other at holes nine and eleven as well as finishing with two par 3’s followed by two par 5’s. There are five par 3’s and five par 5’s.
It is in a beautiful setting at the base of Pinnacle Peak, on the other side from Estancia Club. The views are beautiful of Pinnacle Peak on several of the holes as well as holes with elevated tees offering a long view of distant mountains. The forced carries on many of the holes off the tee also provides a nice connection to the desert as you focus on the tee shot and fairway.
The course is not a “walkable” golf course as many tees are not close to the previous green. There is not a lot of elevation change within the holes so it plays more like a “flat” course other than a couple of tee shots such as the first hole. Unlike Desert Forest, one definitely notices the homes here on many holes. Unlike Silverleaf and Estancia, the homes are sometimes intrusive on the course, not as grand, and sometimes not very attractive. The homes sometimes take away from the experience of playing a good golf hole.
The bunkers are good here as well as the contouring just off the green. Many of the bunkers are either pushed up or deep, offering atypical recovery shots from these bunkers. Often grass bunkers are used. There are also a large number of greenside bunkers that blend in with waste areas. There is also good and appropriate mounding both off the sides of several fairways and near the greens.
The green complexes are varied with some having short grass for recovery, mounding to create more difficult lies off the green, and sometimes barely any room at all if one misses the green. Some of the greenside bunkers are deep, some are large, some are small and they vary in number. I like that it is never really the same just off the green.
The club completed a $7M renovation in 2019 that focused on the bunkers and type of grass on the greens.
There is an interesting use of split fairways on several holes to provide alternative routes to the greens. There is also a large number of fairways that are interrupted by waste areas before one gets to the green.
The course is par 72, with the Nicklaus tees playing to 7108 yards, rated 74.0/150. The Palmer tees are 6740 yards, rated 72.4/140. The Player tees are 6303 yards, rated 70.4.132. Due to “combination” tees, there are seven tees for men and five for women. We played the “Member” tees, a combination of Palmer and Player tees at 6532 yards, rated 71.3.136. I thought the index to be about right but the slope ratings to be a bit high although I did incur two penalty strokes on the day.
1. Par 4 – 350/333/312. The excitement begins with the first tee shot from a very elevated tee perched 40 feet (or more) above the fairway below. You hit in the shadow of higher rock near you to a fairway sloped to the right. Go right and the ball will likely stay in the rocks on the side of Pinnacle Peak. There is also a fairway bunker right. Desert lurks on the left. There are no bunkers near the green set off to the right side, long and thin, with a generous amount of short grass to the left, although manufactured fairly tall mounds are also present. The green has a plateau right middle and a large swale on the left as well as more ripples. You cannot miss the green too far to the right although there is a small waste area. If you hit the fairway, it is not a particularly good hole.
2. Par 5 – 580/513/500. The first of several split/interrupted fairways at Desert Highland. There is a 150+ yard forced carry to a fairway that is wide for the average length player but the fairway runs out on the right. Both sides are bordered by waste areas. The fairway ends for about 35 yards before picking up again. At this section there are various cacti acting as guides to the fairway. There is a strange section of grass sticking out like an appendage on the left near the houses. The green has a large bunker left about 25 yards short of the green while the right bunker pinches into the right side of a green angled left to right. The right bunker gets progressively deeper as it gets closer to the middle front of the green. This bunker also has plants/bushes placed inside it. The green has a front spine and there is a sizeable fall-off to the left where other mounding awaits. It is a nice golf hole although the houses are a bit intrusive.
3. Par 4 – 450/407/398. I like the third hole which is like a “j” upside down with the green set well to the left. There is another forced carry to a fairway where one wants to favor the left side to have a better look at the green, even if the right side provides a shorter approach. There is a long waste area down the entire left side. The fairway breaks for about 20 yards before it starts its curl and at this point the waste area is now on both sides. As the green is angled left to right, there are placed five bunkers on the right, one about 35 yards short, then a very large, deep one on the right middle followed by three small ones at the front right of the green. The green is shallow with a large fall-off on the left side and grass-like bunkers due to the mounding. Behind the green are various micro-mounds and a deeper hollow. I like the hole and it is the second hardest on the course. The only negative is the housing (same on holes 4-6).
4. Par 3 – 205/176/168. The miss is short right of the green where there is about 15 yards of short grass following a forced carry. A waste area/bunker goes right against 60% of the front middle/left of the green. There is very little room behind the green so one needs a shot that stops. I did not find this green to be as interesting as the ones before it in terms of interior contouring relative to the strength of the hole. The nicest part of this hole is all of the small trees behind it followed by a very long view of the mountains in the distance.
5. Par 4 – 419/399/388. This is a lovely visual on this hole which bends slightly to the left. There is another gap in the fairway here that should not come into play as it is nearer the green. This hole is a thinner fairway with a landing area on the outer part of a long interior bunker on the right. Waste areas are on both sides of the fairway. The green is angled again to the right and gets narrower in the middle as a left bunker pinches in. There are a few scattered trees to the left of the green that can come into play. The miss to the green is short left into the short grass. There are a couple of grass bunkers right of the raised two-tiered green.
6. Par 4 – 428/412/372. The first split fairway where the risky play is down the left side where a tree must be navigated that would almost be in the middle of a “normal” fairway. The right side of the fairway is slightly fatter but because the split runs at a left to right angle, it too can run out and one can find themselves in a waste area. Going down the right side likely means you have to carry the entirely of the waste area that touches the front of the left side of the green. Going down the left leaves a much better angle to the green which goes left to right. The green does have a short grass behind it which is important given how thin the green is. The fall-off right is fairly deep. It is an interesting design although I think the green is too thin.
7. Par 3 – 188/176/142. A tall cactus is just off to the left of this tee where the left side has a waste area set well below the green surface. There is short grass to the right of the green but it is interrupted by the waste area that continues down the entire front and left side of the green. The miss on this hole is long/long right. There is good mounding just off the green. This is a fun par 3.
8. Par 4 – 444/436/403. I like this hole which is a semi-split fairway more for the longer hitters. The “split part of the fairway is off to the right with a thin waste area separating the fairways and a single tree in the middle. The hole then goes to the left with waste area more pronounced on the left side and even eating into the fairway for about twenty yards. . The green has a single long bunker on its left side and is angled right to left. There is another short grass area behind the green. There is a single tree on the right in the short grass area that can come into play inhibiting recovery. There is nice mounding down the right side of the fairway. It is a compelling hole and rated the hardest on the course.
9. Par 5 – 563/558/519. Playing right back towards Pinnacle Peak, this hole plays uphill and bends to the left with the waste area more pronounced down the left side ending with a very deep bunker left of the green. Going into this bunker will leave a blind shot to a green that does not have a lot of room behind it. Down the right side of the fairway are a lot of taller mounds that make the hole visually interesting. The green is one of the slicker ones back to front.
10. Par 4 – 406/400/358. A straight hole with a single bunker right and another waste area gap in the fairway with the waste area cutting into the left side of the green to become a bunker. The green has a horizontal spine more pronounced on the right side. There is raised mounding down the right side continuing beyond the green. The backdrop has beautiful mountains.
11. Par 5 – 563/546//534. This is my favorite par 5 on the course, with a forced carry over waste area but needing to avoid the long bunker on the left side. The fairway bends slightly to the left before there is another gap in the fairway with the green set well off to the right. The green has a single small bunker front left and is an island green with a front right swale and a rise on the left to bring balls back onto the green. This is rated the hardest hole on the inward nine.
12. Par 3 – 173/162/148. The green is long and thin with a thin finger sticking out to the left. There are bunkers cutting down the left side. Grass and sand bunkers are everywhere near a green with a pronounced hump in the middle and a low swale on the left and a slope off the right side. While visually there is a lot of eye candy and many would find this to be a very memorable hole, I thought it was overdone.
13. Par 4 – 394/378/343. If one has the length to hit a shot at least 220 yards from the tee and the conviction to hit a straight shot, then go straight over this long forced carry where one can get close to the green. Otherwise go left to a wide fairway where one has a much longer approach shot, but not a difficult one. The left fairway of this split fairway does have to consider a low wash area as well as a deep front left bunker. The wash area/bunker goes right to the edge of the green. I like the hole because one has to make a decision here.
14. Par 4 – 418/397/388. Looking at Pinnacle Peak for the length of this gorgeous hole, the view can be distracting. This is my favorite hole on the course because the tee shot plays out to the right to avoid a large bunker on the left. Then the hole comes back a bit to the left where one wants to avoid the deep bunker greenside right. Longer hitters trying to fly the bunker are confronted with a narrower part of the fairway all the way to the green. I admit to find myself thinking, “are some of those rocks on Pinnacle Peak going to release while I am on this hole; what is holding them up there?”
15. Par 3 – 146/138/130. A nice, short par 3 with a green angled right to left with two small bunkers fronting it and three right nearly all the way to the back. There is a fall-off left with a swale. This is the “breather” hole before the finish.
16. Par 3 – 242/220/194. One of my two penalty shots on the day as I hooded a ball into an unplayable lie. The hole plays downhill with flanking bunkers, the left one in the middle of the green to a green tilting to the left. While it is a long hole, I did notice the houses on this hole much like I did on many holes on the front nine although the long view over the valley is terrific.
17. Par 5 – 574/568/530. Of the finishing par 5’s, I favored this one. The hole plays slightly downhill and bends to the left with five inner bunkers. Waste area is down both sides before the fairway runs out about 30 yards in front of the green which is thin. The green has five bunkers placed on the front right with a short grass chipping area behind it. One can easily get distracted by the views of the mountains behind the green/off the right side on this hole.
18. Par 5 – 563/521/486. Playing again slightly downhill, this hole has waste area to either side before the fairway gets stopped briefly at about 180 yards from the green. There is an enormous bunker about 75 yards left of the green, followed by 3 deep bunkers placed in a horizontal line to the left of the beginning of the green. The green is partially hidden behind mounds and angled to the right where a final large, deep bunker awaits on the back right. I think the hole is a bit too contrived due to the green location although it is a fun golf hole because the green has some of the better inner contouring on the course.
Putting aside some of the housing that is a bit too close, the views are stunning on this golf course and there are many remarkable golf holes. The use of split fairways to have a golfer make decisions and confront their doubts is a wonderful, distinctive aspect to the course. The use of waste areas to interrupt fairways is also a wonderful feature of the course.
There are a couple of greens I think are too small for the hole while a couple of greens I think are slightly in the wrong spot. I do like the number of “angled” greens making the green appear either narrower/thinner or wider depending upon the location of one’s approach. The greens are sufficiently contoured and not overly done.
The fairways are sufficiently wide for the tee shots and where they narrow, it is likely to create doubt more in the heads of the better, longer players and not the average index player. Finally, the forced carries add a lovely beauty to the course and should not come into play unless one tops their tee shot.
The course does blend in naturally with its surroundings even though it is a large housing development.
This is certainly one of the top five courses in Arizona, which is a huge compliment. I do think Estancia is a bit more interesting due to the land and I have yet to play at Forest Highlands.
Despite the difficulty if one chose to walk the course, one will have fun playing here and be confronted with a variety of shots. There are decisions to be made on this course, especially if one is long but not necessarily always accurate. This is a course that rewards smart decisions.
I can see people giving this a “5” rating, but since it is not “the” best course in the area, I will give it a lower rating. However, if in the area, one should try to play here as it is one of the more memorable courses one will ever play.
Arizona is the home of desert golf and Desert Highlands is one of the better courses. It hosted the first televised skins game back in 1983 with Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer playing for the pot. Desert Highlands is well designed and holds the players interest throughout and as you would expect the conditioning is impeccable. There are a number of options from the tees…I cannot remember a course with as many split fairways or where the player has to decide to try and carry a waste area to give themselves a better angle. The tee shot on the 1st is memorable as the player tees off from an elevated tee to a fairway set way below…the views are stunning. Some of the bunkering is very difficult and I would think that the demographic of this type of club would struggle to extricate themselves from them. The 9th in particular stands out..an uphill par 5 that has a generous landing area from the tee and narrows a you near the green. The bunker that guards the left side of the green is brutal…very difficult for even the better player to get out of. Hole 13 is a fun hole which sums up Desert Highlands. The player can take the easy route down the left but is left with a mid iron to a green that is narrow or they can try and carry the ball down the right which leaves a simple pitch up the green…the fairway on this side is half the width of the left option. The course finishes in rather an odd style with back to back par 3’s and par 5’s all decent enough holes but you wonder is they could have been split up. If you are lucky to get an invite to play here you should as Desert Highlands is one of the best desert courses you can play.
Best course I’ve played in AZ. Site of the original skins game. Surprisingly narrow if you don’t choose the right tee. Many elevated tee boxes allowing me to majestically watch my ball sore into desert waste areas.
Nicklaus was hired by one of the first high-end club in the Scottsdale area and developed a tough 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.
Plenty of forced carries and angled greens with tiny platforms are what awaits those who play here. One of the toughest courses you’ll play.
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