Any conversation about golf’s great visionaries ought to include the names Tom Darlington and K.T. Palmer. Never heard of them? That would probably suit Messrs. Darlington and Palmer just fine, as the founders of Desert Forest Golf Club seemed more intent on relaxation than recognition. To wit, in the early 1960s they dubbed their 2,200-acre planned community Carefree, with street names like Nonchalant Way, Ho Hum Road, Peaceful Place, Languid Lane and Easy Street.
But another of their creations, Desert Forest Golf Club, roundly considered America’s first desert course, is anything but carefree. The commission to design Desert Forest went to Robert “Red” Lawrence, a founding member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and protege of William S. Flynn.
Lawrence’s approach to Desert Forest was minimalist: His first routing was the only one, and he moved scant earth in carrying it out. Beyond the boundary markers he staked, nothing was to be touched. Everything was—and remains today—in play, from the saguaro, ocotillo, prickly pear and myriad other varieties of cactus to the javelinas, coyotes, roadrunners and rattlesnakes that call the desert home.
Contours are what make and break a round at Desert Forest. Reading the fairways is as important as reading the greens—Lawrence eschewed flat, hollowed and receptive landing areas in favor of crowned shaping that will take a dead-solid perfect drive and squirt it off a hump into the scrub. There is no O.B., and drops taken for unplayable lies have been known to result in lies that aren’t much more favorable.
Not counting the desert itself, there are exactly zero fairway bunkers at Desert Forest. Greenside bunkers, however, are a common thread stitched throughout Lawrence’s design. The fronts of most greens are guarded on both sides, with the width of the gap between the bunkers typically varying based on the length of the approach; long irons are granted more leeway, while wedge shots often face harrowingly narrow slots.
The stretch of holes 5, 6 and 7 must be respected if they are to be survived. The 5th doglegs left and demands a carry of more than half its 453 yards to set up a realistic shot at the green. Hole No. 7, rated the hardest on the course, is a 534-yard par 5 offering a dizzying array of routes ranging from the meek to the heroic, each eventually crossing a wide wash to reach the green.
Black Mountain looms large over the final five holes,the most memorable of which is the 523-yard 16th. The fairway is uncharacteristically wide, but too long a poke brings a sizeable berm into play and further complicates an already awkward approach over (or under, or around) a gargantuan mesquite tree that takes up residence in the fairway 150 yards short of the green. Desert Forest finishes with a 464-yard, straightaway par 4 marked by a swollen spine running up the center of the hard-to-hold fairway.
Tom Weiskopf joined Desert Forest in 1979, and though he is no longer a dues-paying member, the well-regarded architect continues to volunteer as the club’s de facto in-house designer. In the late 1980s he added five new back tees (to holes Nos. 3, 5, 15, 17 and 18), and in 2001 he oversaw the conversion to Bermuda fairways and rough.
Weiskopf’s greatest contribution may well be the suggestion to stop overseeding, a change that transforms Desert Forest during the dormant winter months into a firm, fast, brown, bump-and-run, Scottish-style links course. Which, there in the Arizona desert, is precisely as Darlington and Palmer envisioned it.
Year founded: 1962
Architect: Robert “Red” Lawrence