Desert Forest

Desert Forest GC, Carefree. Red Lawrence (1962) with revisions by Dave Zinkland (2013).

Considered to be the first course built in the desert that is an actual desert course, and in the opinion of many none have done it as well since.

After 50 years, the course was showing its age—the greens had shrunk to plain circles and the bunkers had become non-descript saucers. The club was looking for someone to restore the course but Coore & Crenshaw protégé Zinkland sold them on something more. His work expanded greens and made them much more dramatic, added bunkers, and revised existing ones to a modern frilly style. It seems that some members love the new work and others strongly dislike it, but my impression is that the bones of the course are still largely the same.

#3 prior to the renovation, note the saucer bunkers and simple green shape (Credit: Golf Club Atlas)
#3 after Zinkland’s renovation. The bunkers are bigger and have more flair and the green has expanded as well (Credit: Desert Forest GC)

The routing of the course remains and this is really the heart of what Desert Forest is about. I never played the course before Zinkland’s work but the members I talked to gave me the impression that most of the greens (there are exceptions, such as the eighth) were not radically changed so much as they were expanded.

Greens are always key to the strategy and interest of a course, but they are not the primary attraction for the best holes here, which to me are three of the par 5s. The multiple route seventh is semi-famous in golf architecture circles—a hole where you can choose off the tee whether to take a safe route to the left or take on a long carry over desert to the right. The green is elevated and set on the opposite side of a wash but if you pull off the drive to the right it is reachable.

The 11th actually doesn’t turn much if you look at an aerial but when you play it this 594-yard hole seems to go on forever and to always be turning to the left, before finally ending at a green tucked behind a swale and a new pot bunker.

Finally there’s the 16th, which plays over the crest of a hill and past (or over, or under) a large mesquite tree. Although the hole turns left, the better line is down the right hand side off the tee, if you are trying to get home in two. Stay left and you will likely be blocked by the tree and be forced to lay up.

Of course, you shouldn’t sleep on any of the one- or two-shot holes, either. The par 3s are a good mix, from the short but frightful third with a green that falls off on every side (if you miss the green it’s better to be in a bunker than watch your ball run down the slope to who knows where), to the long downhill eighth with its new wild green, the uphill 12th which looks like it has no green at all, and finally the 17th which is a medium-length hole playing slightly downhill to a bumpy green that can either bring joy or a lot of pain near the end of the round.

The pars 4s best succeed because of clever use of the land. The second is a long hole but the real trick is the way the fairway doe s quick jog in the landing zone. At the fifth, the hole doglegs early, so you must either start y=the drive over the desert or hit a hard draw around the corner to find safety in the fairway. On other holes, the landscape is more forgiving, however. From the 15th tee it seems as if very little fairway is available, bit actually a desert-covered hill to the left obscures how wide the landing area is.

The hill on the left blocks your view of how much fairway exists on #15

Zinkland built what is essentially a new hole during his work as well, the 14th, which is drivable, but woe betide those who go for it and misfire into the desert. It’s a unique feature at Desert Forest that there are no fairway bunkers but none are needed, indeed, adding any would seem cruel.

The fairways aren’t overly narrow as compared to other desert courses but the way they twist and turn makes them play narrow. Also the local rule here is that everything is in play and while it is refreshing to play a course with no out of bounds or water this also means they do not employ the local desert rule that treats the desert as a lateral hazard. If you hit it in the desert you must go in and find it and hit it out, or hope your provisional was in the middle of the fairway. I imagine Desert Forest members are very straight drivers first and foremost and great proponents of match play.

So the course won’t suffer a fool who wants to bash his driver around, but a sensible player who can keep the ball in front of them should be able to play here all day.

The course benefits from the era when it was built; Lawrence was able to grass over some washes and other areas that today would be left as desert and the course is better and more playable for it. The course is also an excellent walk and is very possibly the only course I know of in the Phoenix area where walking is not just possible, but encouraged.

Below I list it as being among Arizona’s top decile of courses but for this one I have no doubt in saying: This is the finest golf course I have played in the state of Arizona.

Arizona 1st Decile [2017]

One way or another your second shot on #16 must negotiate this tree in the fairway