Desert Forest Golf Club
Arizona, United States of America
Desert Forest was a true outpost when it opened for play in 1962. Surprisingly, it might be even more so today but more on that later!
Built 30 miles north of Phoenix in Carefree, Desert Forest is the original desert golf course. It was surrounded by nothing but the Sonoran Desert. The architect was Robert ‘Red’ Lawrence and rarely is an architect so tightly linked to just one design. While he worked on over thirty courses including the renowned University of New Mexico Golf Course, Desert Forest defined Lawrence’s career and earned him the moniker of the ‘desert fox’. Those of us who tracked Golf Digest’s US top 100 courses grew accustomed to seeing his name and Desert Forest highlighted when the magazine’s U.S. Top 100 rankings came out biannually.
His solo projects are mostly confined to the Southwest leading many to assume that Lawrence was from that region. How wrong they are! Few appreciate his deep roots in golf course architecture. Born in Westchester County, New York in 1883, he came along precisely when and where the highest concentration of great golf courses was being built in the United States.
Lawrence had the great fortune to work as an associate for William Flynn at some of Toomey & Flynn’s finest designs including The Country Club in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, Huntingdon Valley outside of Philadelphia, and the Indian Creek Club in North Miami Beach. Additionally, he was with Flynn at the Merion Golf Club when it became the course we know today. After assisting Flynn build thirty-six holes at the Boca Raton Hotel, Lawrence remained there as Green Keeper weathering the drought of new golf projects during the Depression and World War II.
Lawrence went on to become a founding father of the American Society of Golf Course Architects in 1947 and relocated his own fledgling design practice from Florida to Arizona in 1958. Three years later he started on Desert Forest which became the showcase for desert golf and established how appealing such golf could be.
Lawrence spent time in the Northeast working on and studying some of the great historic designs there and his creation of Desert Forest represents a unique and vital link from the Golden Age to modern desert golf. Like Flynn, Lawrence excelled while moving little dirt from tee to green. His great achievement was how he successfully synthesized traditional shot values within the raw, picturesque desert. The sand and scrub serve as both hazard and backbone for cleverly designed fairways and greens. Only 67 of its 165 acres are maintained as turf and the rest remains pristine desert. Desert Forest enjoys an intimate routing of the sort one would hope and expect to find in a course that was intended to be walked.
What Lawrence seemed to appreciate better than most architects who have followed him is how to exploit the vastness of the desert in his design yet maintain a human scale on the course. Three to twelve foot landforms dominant play hole after hole: The domed fairway shunts balls left at the dogleg right first; the second fairway pivots left between natural twelve foot humps; a four foot deep swale behind the third green provides a tougher recovery than the four bunkers; the fourth fairway cants left to right; and so it goes.
The building boom in Arizona started in the 1980s fueled by the real estate market for second homes. With each passing decade, architects went higher and higher into the canyons in an attempt to outdo (and therefore outsell) the neighboring development. Photographic opportunities outweighed the consideration for what constituted good golf and architects built more and more stretched-out courses replete with intrusive home sites. Everything expanded: the number of tees, length of courses, number of sprinkler heads, distance between greens and tees, annual maintenance costs. Televised night matches even occurred. For most of us this expansion (explosion) subjugated the core values of the golf course.
All of this is an anathema to Desert Forest where tradition and dignified discretion mercifully carry the day. This becomes evident as soon as one turns off Mule Train Road into the club. The clubhouse remains unchanged, a low slung single story edifice that barely intrudes on its surrounds. Snuggled low, it is impressively out of sight from virtually everywhere on the course. Even on the handsome eighteenth fairway the golfer is left alone to appreciate the flora of the high desert.
The founders of Carefree and Desert Forest hired Red Lawrence to build a course for a golf club, not for real estate sales. They gave him an ample, rectangular block of contiguous land and the focus was purely to create golf of the sort that people would enjoy time and time again. Trite as the expression may be, Desert Forest epitomizes a ‘thinking man’s golf course.’ Its bending fairways create strategic dilemmas for the golfer who must often consider a a three wood, five wood or implement other than driver to best position his tee shot. The mindless power hitter has less chance of over-powering the course as one of his tee balls will eventually be greeted with a horrible fate. Though the playing corridors are wide, they call for precise tactics as the landforms make them play smaller. The long ball can be handsomely rewarded or cruelly punished. How should one handle the hump that protrudes into the second fairway? Is the turbo kick off the down slope in the sixteenth fairway really worth chancing a driver? The crowned fairway at the eighteenth sheds tee balls both left and right. Altogether these subtle features exert an appealing yet relentless pressure on the golfer to hold his composure with clear, tactical thinking.
By its very definition, a desert is an inhospitable place with too little precipitation to sustain usual lifeforms. Decade after decade steady improvement in irrigation and agronomy made desert golf not only tenable but ubiquitous. A place like Phoenix that averages a mere 7 inches of annual rainfall has become a golf mecca. As it is, the sandy desert floor and its hardy vegetation serve as a delightfully stark contrast to the golf turf.
How much time Lawrence spent at Pine Valley is unknown but its influence in the form of island fairways, hostile vegetation and sloped putting surfaces is felt throughout a round here. When Desert Forest opened, the course measured slightly over 6,700 yards and that distance is preserved by playing ‘Red’s’ tees today. Tom Weiskopf extended several tees in 2000, especially the third, fifth, seventeenth and eighteenth so that the course can now play a punishing 7,100 yards. Given the pressure of ball control that the course continually exerts, Red’s tees are ample for anyone with a handicap and it’s 6,761 yards are referenced below.
Holes to Note
First hole, 375 yards; Though the back tees have been regularly tweaked, Desert Forest remains first and foremost a placement course. The challenge boils down to hitting fairway after fairway and placing one’s ball somewhere below the hole on the gracefully sloped greens. Matching the line off the tee to the correct distance is paramount with the first and second holes being prime examples. In the case of the first, the ideal position to approach the green is actually from the outside of the dogleg because of the green’s right to left cant. Hug the inside of the dogleg and you can be in the disadvantaged position of hitting across the green’s dominant slope.
Second hole, 430 yards; Gobs of fairway lie straight ahead but disappear into the desert at the 230 yard mark where the fairway jogs left. All options are available; lay back with a five wood, play a draw with a three wood or aggressively boom a drive over the foreboding desert. A clear plan needs to be formulated on the tee as the wrong line married with the wrong club is a sure recipe for disaster.
Third hole, 165 yards; A pulpit green is such a wonder: Push dirt together and create a hit it or else proposition without additional fuss. That’s what Lawrence did here and the putting surface of 3,738 square feet is the second smallest target on the course. Yet, it plays smaller than the eighth green because its putting surface is crowned, tilting both to the front AND back from its high mid-section. Thanks to its elevated putting surface that sheds balls in all directions, the members have dubbed the third as ‘the shortest par 5 in the desert.’ The only good news is the four greenside bunkers aren’t perhaps as problematic as they were in Lawrence’s day given the advent of the 60 degree wedge. Indeed, facing the dilemma between recovering from a bunker or the swale behind the green, many golfers might opt for a sand explosion in order to get the needed elevation for their attempted recovery.
Fifth hole, 405 yards; During his twenty years in Florida Lawrence became good friends with the Silver Scot, Tommy Armour and developed an appreciation for good golf and shotmaking. His designs encourage one to shape the ball flight. Given the superb firm conditions that the Director of Agronomy Todd Storm provides, the right to left tilt of the green dictates hugging the inside of this dogleg left. As one shys to the right with his tee ball, his approach increases with difficulty as it comes in across the cant of the green. Thus, the talented, old school player relishes the chance to showcase his ball striking skills by playing a draw off the tee into prime position and then a fade to control his ball on the swift right to left sloping green. A low draw approach is almost guaranteed to catch the green’s slope and end up in the short grass area left of the green.
Seventh hole, 535 yards; This alternate route hole is the exact sort of design that one hopes to find in the desert and the seventh remains the gold standard forty-two years after Lawrence built it. This 1962 creation is even more noteworthy/impressive because architecture at the time was fairly straightforward, leaning more toward penal than strategic. To state that Lawrence’s Desert Forest was cutting edge and bucked convention is no exaggeration. Given that it is the course’s most famous hole, one is surprised to find such a grand hole buried on the outward nine. Yet, there is a reason for that as the two nines were reversed after one season when the club realized that the setting sun impacted play too greatly on the last two westerly facing holes of this nine. Regardless of where it falls in the round, the seventh remains a magical hole of strategic design.