This post started as a cure for the winter blues. My business travels usually take me to Scottsdale in December, affording an opportunity to see my favorite desert golf course – Desert Forest. No such luck in 2017, and I found myself missing it greatly.
My first visit to Desert Forest was with Dan Moore, after David Zinkand had already done the bulk of his renovation work. I never played Red Lawrence’s original, but Dave Zinkand’s update immediately grabbed ahold of my heart. Wonderfully routed, minimally bunkered, with interest-packed greens, the course demands strategic thought and creative execution to score. It is a fantastic golf course, presented beautifully by Superintendent Todd Storm, at a club with just the kind of friendly, low-key vibe that resonates with me.
Dave and Dan both graciously offered their contributions to this post, which turned my simple daydreaming into a comprehensive tour, with a unique twist. Dave provided his commentary on the changes he made during the renovation, and the reasoning behind those changes. Dan added his beautiful feature photos (his are the rectangular ones and are copyright Dan Moore) and his player’s knowledge of the course. Although nowhere near as good as Dan’s, I pitched in the best of my photos for some additional perspective (mine are in the circles and can be clicked to enlarge).
Think of what follows as a conversation among three geeks out at twilight, walking, playing, talking architecture and snapping photos. Hopefully, all in, we have done justice to this special place.
DZ: Desert Forest Golf Club attained its status in the golf world thanks to Red Lawrence’s strategic minimalism. Other venues in the Southwest United States predate Desert Forest, yet Lawrence’s routing was the first desert golf course truly integrated into this unique and inspiring ecosystem. His patient study of the terrain yielded undulating fairways resting easily upon the rugged Sonoran desert. He complemented these natural contours with perched greens shedding in multiple directions to provide a particularly challenging test of which one never grows tired. The appreciation Members showed through the Club’s first fifty years maintained the integrity of this layout.
The foremost goal of my 2013 Masterplan was to fulfill a directive set out by Staff and Members during the architect selection process – secure the long-term vitality of the Club. Deteriorating turf conditions, advances in playing equipment and somewhat elemental aesthetics from an original construction budget of $250,000, combined to hamper the Club’s legitimate status as a pioneering gem of American golf. Fifty years after the Club’s inception, the course had undergone relatively little in the way of alterations. Club Leadership wished to address both how the course plays and how it will be perceived over the next fifty years.
After years of gradual agronomic decline, establishing strong turf, healthy soil profiles and maximum pin-able space were the utmost priorities with Desert Forest’s greens. Doing so while maintaining the small, push-up green complexes for which the Club is known would maintain its challenge and design integrity, but increasing pin-able space within the footprint of the existing green complexes required compromises. The Membership clearly wished to retain the rigorous demands of putting at Desert Forest. The original strategic concepts related beautifully with the fairways, and so were maintained. Though small, the greens exhibited many long slopes, often steep with five or six percent grades. This meant that in providing putting surfaces which allow enough cupping area and still ensuring a challenge, the transitions between pin locations would necessarily be more abrupt. Internal contours were given more individuality and complexity than the original, rather repetitive surfaces. The results left a learning curve for Members who had never before experienced such change at the Club. The new challenge was offset, however, by a thoughtfully considered long-term directive to provide moderate green speeds (around 10.5 on the Stimp Meter). This enables the Club to produce high quality turf conditions while ensuring environmental sustainability, even in the desert surrounds.
Green perimeters had become disjointed from their surrounds after years of topdressing up to their edges. This hindered the running game, as well as being unattractive; a seamless transition was returned with installation of the new profiles. Sand recycled during demolition was incorporated during the reshaping of approaches to provide firm entries and enhance the ground game. A topdressing program for surrounds has also been devised to ensure a fulfilling running game year-round.
Advancing the strategy and aesthetics of the course to fulfill modern expectations of such a minimalist gem rounded out the primary masterplan goals. Plenty of Members were vocal about the need to increase course difficulty even though the challenge of Desert Forest had very much remained substantial for the vast majority of golfers. My intention was therefore to maintain the degree of difficulty overall, while increasing the test for low-handicappers and providing high-handicappers a more reasonable path. The finished results produced an increased Course Rating to challenge the best players combined with a reduced Slope rating to accommodate less-skilled play.
With so little change in the layout since the course was opened in 1962, tees were necessarily a priority. Advances in length meant many of the Club’s toughest holes no longer required a driver for better players. Holes intended to provide such a test were lengthened, as well as given new angles from the back tees where appropriate. A new set of “Copper Tees” were installed as a shorter option. The suitability of all tees in between were considered; as islands of turf amongst the desert, many were added, shifted or eliminated to best suit existing and future Members.
While we substantially enhanced the aesthetics of Desert Forest’s feature work, we did so mostly through subtle, often handcrafted, implementation of the objectives. More than a dozen objectives were typically addressed on each hole through such refinements. We expanded and refined many fairway edges for strategic, playability and aesthetic considerations. On others we removed turf to ensure good custodianship of the Sonoran Desert. This allowed for returning native vegetation to areas that had been lost over the years. In conjunction with mending native areas, many non-native trees were removed. This allowed improved strategy, turf conditions and vistas. The limited budget for Desert Forest’s original construction meant a great many areas along the edges of holes were cut to enable contouring nearby. This left an artificial feel to the perimeters of holes. We utilized good spoils from other renovation tasks to recontour these areas, tying them naturally back into the surrounding desert, improving the look and feel of the holes. A less desirable variety of Bermuda grass was simultaneously removed from the rough to improve playability, expand and refine fairway mow lines, as well as produce better grow-in during overseed.
The most visible change at Desert Forest is the greenside bunkering. The course has never had fairway bunkers. As Brad Klein says, “there’s just one big one” – the desert. The greenside bunkers, though eventually deepened in the 1990’s, were originally very shallow dishes with simple oval forms. Members used to have a photo contest in their weekly e-newsletter to determine on which hole the image was taken. This proved highly challenging and competitive because of the repetitive contouring and bunkering around each green. Fortunately, the contest lost its challenge due to the identity instilled within each green complex during the renovation, which includes a rugged, natural feel to the bunker forms and edging to complement the desert.
Altering an historic layout after so many years without change is a difficult path to navigate. However, the rewards to Members are now evident, providing a bright forecast for the Club’s next fifty years.
DM: Lawrence routed the course through the desert taking care not to disrupt the natural flow of the desert floor while expertly utilizing the ebb and flow of the terrain. He reportedly walked alongside the machines clearing the fairways to make sure they disrupted the native desert as little as possible, and he even left a few trees and saguaros in the fairways.
Lawrence was quoted at the time Desert Forest opened, “This is a desert course. We used as rough and hazard only desert material. No two fairways offered the same two problems. If anything, there was an overabundance of opportunity. The trouble was in leaving a maximum of the raw desert growth.” He called Desert Forest “the most challenging and satisfying piece of construction I have ever enjoyed.”
HOLE 1 – Par 4 – 397 yards
JW: The 1st at DF is a hard dogleg right par-4. The drive is semi-blind, which is a theme throughout Red Lawrence’s wonderful routing. This is a course that takes multiple plays to learn.
DM: The drive on the first hole hammers home that hitting the fairway is paramount at Desert Forest, a course with no fairway bunkers. To provide strategic interest off the tee Red Lawrence relied on the desert flanking each fairway and natural undulations of the desert floor. An uphill 2nd shot takes you to one of the nicest green sites on the course.
DZ: Both the first tee complex and the practice range tee were lowered 3-4 feet to improve vistas, gain valuable ground and simplify the elegant grounds radiating out from the clubhouse. This enabled a new rear tee to be built, the opportunity to re-establish the uphill feel of the fairway, and rethinking of nearby practice amenities.
This hole’s dogleg provides a challenging opening drive for Members and new forward tees help to soften the degree of difficulty. The challenge of skirting the dogleg off of the tee was complicated by a back-right green section that fell sharply towards the desert and cart path. In recontouring the green complex, I supported this section of the green and expanded the surrounds slightly to ensure the fall-away pin position was retained, while providing reasonable playability. Turf behind the left bunker was eliminated to better focus one’s eye in on the target and enhance the native surrounds.
HOLE 2 – Par 4 – 428 yards
JW: The subtle angles on this hole are genius. The fairway winds between two protrusions of the desert, making the tee shot disorienting. The green, which is protected by a large bunker right, is best approached from the left half.
DM: A great example of how Lawrence used natural terrain to define the tee shot without fairway bunkers. Utilizing natural contours in place of staggered fairway bunkers, the tee shot is defined by a finger of desert that juts in on the left and a larger shoulder of desert 20 yards farther on the right. The large green is receptive to long shots and features a significant left to right tilt which accentuates the difficulty of missing to the left.
DZ: The second hole provides a rare opportunity for a truly aggressive drive at Desert Forest. Though early fairway width provides a generous beginning to the landing area, native vegetation and natural contours defend the latter portion of the landing area, demanding players decide just how far they wish to play up the fairway. Recontouring of hole perimeters allowed us to enhance the options and playability.
The front of this green was expanded and supported to regain provocative pin locations lost over the years to increasing green speeds. Interestingly, some Members were adamant that the steep nature be maintained so that guests might continue to experience the possibility of putting right back off the front of the green! Reestablishing a ‘false front’ by extending green height down over the front slope, while also introducing more support within the green itself accomplished increased pins, playability and a treacherous front slope.
Many greens at Desert Forest are guarded with bunkers on either side. The left bunker at this green was not original. I opted to replace it with a closely mown slope guarding the entire left side. This distinguishes the green from five and thirteen, which once appeared quite similar. Happily, this spoils the fun of the Club’s former photo contest from when holes were nearly indistinguishable around their respective green complexes.
HOLE 3 – Par 3 – 160 yards
JW: DF’s first one-shotter plays to an elevated putting surface with bunkers on all sides. The tee is slightly elevated, which makes hoisting a tee ball toward this green an exercise in choosing thrills over intimidation, especially with the pin in the front sliver among the bunkers. Get too aggressive and miss the green here, and you could experience adventures in recovery.
DM: Affectionately known as Desert Forest’s shortest par 4, the third presents a small, well-guarded green and deep drop off long left. A high, quick stopping shot to the middle of the green is the best play regardless of pin location. Lawrence beautifully framed the green between the prominent nob at the end of Black Mountain on the right and a large boulder on the left now obscured by a large tree.
DZ: This is a classic, treacherous short par three. As opposed to being surrounded by bunkers on all sides, trouble in the way of fall-away green slopes and surrounds awaits left and back right. The key to improving this hole was supporting these fall-away slopes in a manner so a balance was struck between degree of difficulty and playability.
As with all of the holes, bunkering was modified to focus attention more on the greens and provide detailed interest. An unattractive rear bunker was lowered entirely out of view from the tee, but widened for improved playability, helping to emphasize the diminutive target from the tee.
HOLE 4 – Par 4 – 441 yards
JW: A simple, but elegant hole, with an ever so slightly angled drive to a straight fairway. A lone bunker guards the contoured green left and a tricky little runoff, the right. The word pure is thrown around perhaps too liberally. It applies at Desert Forest.
DM: A mid-length par 4 that beautifully pairs a sloping fairway with a dramatic false front on the right. The left half of the fairway is relatively flat and is the best angle from which to approach pins on the right, especially those tucked near the false front. Any drive to the right half will take the slope leaving the ball close to the right edge of the fairway with a tough shot over the false front to any pin on the right.
DZ: Among the many new tee locations added, a forward tee was sympathetically carved into the native terrain along the right side of four to provide an improved angle of play for shorter players. The fairway was expanded both left and right to improve playability and allow high left and low right options of play off the tee for attacking various pin positions. Ground along the left edge of this fairway was raised to allow for expansion and contoured to fit seamlessly in with the surrounds. While the bold slope off of the front right of this green was repaired and retained, the center ridge in this green running parallel to play was lowered and the right side supported to recapture challenging far right pin placements. The backline of this green was raised for support and turf expanded beyond for playability.
HOLE 5 – Par 4 – 440 yards
JW: The hard dogleg left on this stout four par invites the player to bite off as much as they dare. Once that line is chosen, the swing better be confident. A lone Dave Zinkand bunker guarding the green right. Sometimes, one bunker is all you need to create strategic challenge.
DM: A cape-hole dog-leg to the left, the 5th is another hole where the slopes and angles of the fairway work in concert with the green to define the strategy of the hole. The tee shot is designed such that you must take on an isthmus of desert which rewards a right to left shot. The green features a significant drop off on the left quarter and is best approached with a left to right shot from the left center of the fairway providing an angle away from the false side. Lawrence clearly valued shot-making ability.
DZ: Red Lawrence was an avid fan of shot-making. During my early days studying the golf course, it became apparent he favored a draw off of the tee, while more often than not, bunkering the green more severely on the right to reward a fading approach. Lawrence surely saw a running draw off of the tee as a tactic for golfers to tackle what was a rather long layout at the time the Club opened. Conversely, a slight fade into the greens offers access and control on these small sloping targets.
This is clear on hole five, where a finger of native creeps into the landing area from the inside left, emphasizing the dogleg. This finger was included in the native desert rehabilitation effort. A sliver of turf along the outside of the dogleg was removed to complement the improvements to views down this hole. More than any other hole, the tree removal along both sides of five enhances the desert feel, vistas and enjoyment of the bountiful saguaros uncovered, for which the Sonoran Desert is famous.
As with many approaches, the entry to five green was supported to enable running shots. The right edge of this approach near the bunker was filled to better define a line upon which to enter the green. The right greenside bunker was extended along the approach to highlight this edge. A rise in the back middle of this green was highlighted to increase interest and the value of shot-making when attempting to reach back pins.
HOLE 6 – Par 4 – 361 yards
JW: The hole is dead straight, but that does not mean you should hit it down the middle. A center fronting bunker built into a mound dictates play from the tee. Whichever side of the green the pin is on is the half of the fairway the player’s drive needs to find. Approaches from the wrong side that hit the front mound run the risk of shooting all the way into the back bunker. Not the place to be.
DM: The 6th hole is defined by a gaping Lion’s Mouth bunker fronting the middle of the green the back of which forms a large mound that divides the green in half. The large mound off the back of the front bunker is paired with a smaller mound in the back half of the green. Except when the pin is on the front half of the right side, it’s best to play to the left side of this fairway to avoid a valley on the right which often kick balls into the desert.
DZ: The sixth was affected by gains in distance due to modern technology as much as any hole on the course. For short and mid-length golfers, the right side of this landing area rolled off repeatedly into desert surrounds. Whereas, the far end of this landing area offered the most forgiving ground on the hole, so that the longest players had a decided advantage with much less risk. Mid-length contours down the right side were supported and vegetation along the landing area thinned to improve playability. Several yards were added down the left of the landing area where existing mesquites were removed to provide width for the short to medium length player and create a more attractive hole corridor. Further down, the left was pinched abruptly to heighten the challenge to longer tee shots.
Standing on the tee in my early visits, it was apparent something was amiss at the green. As lofted as many greens are at Desert Forest, the visibility to this green was poor. It turned out this was one of several greens altered in the 1970’s. I raised the green one and a half feet to return what is believed to be original grade and improve visibility down the hole. An existing bunker stretched across the middle and right side of the approach to this green. This was replaced with a small central bunker in the approach and the right side supported to provide an alternate entryway for pins along the right side of the hole. The left greenside bunker was expanded to tie in with the native desert. Strategic pin positions along the edges of the green were recaptured and the roll up to the rear bunker removed to bring this hazard better into play.
The original green was particularly unsuited to modern green speeds and its contours were no longer part of Member’s collective memory, so I installed a milder slope with internal contours for challenge and interest. A front hump was placed in the green to support the front bunker and extend this hazard into the putting surface as a consideration for those seeking to attack surrounding pins on this fairly short hole. A central hump was also added to reward shot placement.
HOLE 7 – Par 5 – 530 yards
JW: The first five par is a strategic gem. A safe left route can be taken to play the hole as a three-shotter. Or, rifle a field goal between the cactii and over the desert, and you’re looking at a green light special from in front of the wash that cuts diagonally across the landing area for layups. There are no throwaway shots on this hole. The green sits atop a small hill and is well defended by bunkers left and right. Brilliant.
DM: Yes, brilliant! If there is a better split-fairway par 5 I have yet to see it. The right fairway is blind from the tee, but framed beautifully by Lawrence between the twin peaks of the mountains in the distance. The second shot must contend with a wash that crosses the fairway 120 yards from the green. With a new tee and the desert extended away from the tee by 20 yards in 2013, a carry of 265 yards is required from the back tee (240 from the Black tee) with the reward of being able to go for the green in two. A drive to the left fairway leaves either a lay-up before the wash and a longer approach over the right bunker or a long shot that must carry the wash for a third shot straight into the green between the flanking bunkers.
DZ: This is readily thought of as Desert Forest’s signature hole. Red Lawrence made fun use of the massive wash running the length of this par five by locating a crossing where many Members might wish to place their second shot. To better address the needs of shorter Members, a new white and copper tee were added down the left. This shortened the white tee from 466 yards to 404 yards and allowed for a 370 yard copper tee. For longer players, dramatic changes in equipment over the years have affected the way all of the Club’s par fives play, including seven. In an effort to return the challenge of this hole for these players, a new back tee was added, lengthening the hole from 534 yards to 551 yards. A shift left with this new back tee also emphasized the wash along the right side of the optional far right landing area. Vegetation was selectively thinned between the tees and each landing area. A large mesquite at the start of the right fairway, along with other trees closer to the wash were removed to allow visibility towards the green. Turf at the beginning of the right fairway was removed to increase the challenge of carrying to this more direct line. Turf was also removed alongside the bank to require greater accuracy and highlight the natural wash. These former turf areas were revegetated with native plants.
The front of this green was expanded. Pin-able space was recaptured along the right bunkers and an additional pin was captured back right. Turf outside of the right bunkers was removed to enhance aesthetics, eliminate unnecessary irrigation and improve focus on the target. The left bunker was expanded along the approach to enhance the right to left angle of the green. The demanding back left pin was recaptured by softening this fall-away slope to accommodate anticipated green speeds. Turf back left was expanded to improve playability and provide forgiveness to those attempting to reach these back pins.
HOLE 8 – Par 3 – 203 yards
JW: The par 3 8th plays slightly downhill to a green that appears crowned. The little bunker front center has a big impact as it draws the eye and prompts shots that bail out left and right. The green is big, but plays much smaller due to the spine running through the middle. Miss on the wrong side and a three-putt is almost guaranteed.
DM: Desert Forest’s longest par 3 plays significantly downhill to a large receptive green. Usually a club or two less than normal is all that is needed as long as you carry the middle front bunker.
DZ: The Membership heartily identifies with the challenging nature of the course. Along with the Club’s very golf-centric focus and a walkable, lay-of-the-land routing, this identity contributes greatly to the Club’s strong market niche. In considering how modern play had diminished the original challenge of Desert Forest, the ease with which “flat-bellies” finished the front nine was as important a consideration as any.
Given the tee and green settings of each par three, the eighth hole presented the best option to provide a long one-shot hole. This was particularly advantageous considering the contribution it could make to strengthening the test at the end of the front nine. Unlike the existing long par three 17th, the eighth also naturally required players walk right by the ideal back tee location upon exiting seven green.
A rear tee was built, lengthening the hole from 206 yards to 231 yards. Middle tee placements were shifted back as well, largely by utilizing existing tee space. The existing forward tee was regraded to accommodate a new copper tee. Approach area was added along the left and vegetation removed to improve visibility. A rare front bunker was narrowed and shifted slightly right and the putting surface built up to accommodate the natural left to right green setting and longer shot. The green surface was also expanded towards the tee between the existing front bunker and two left bunkers to allow better access and increased pin positions. The right approach was tied gently into the enlarged green surface and supported along the right edge to allow a broad area of access for higher handicappers. Support was added all along the rear of the green to better accept longer tee shots.
The left and central bunkering were resculpted for a more natural appearance, as well as to emphasize the strong left to right feel that has always defined this hole. Turf was removed on the outside edges of both left bunkers and replaced with native vegetation to improve aesthetics and eliminate superfluous turf. A right bunker was replaced with turf when a cart path tucked in a wash beyond was relocated left of the hole amid construction.
This right bunker was reinstalled in 2014 when green contours were softened due to concerns over the hole’s increased degree of difficulty. It has become accepted that lengthening eight was a worthwhile venture. Not only did this improve the finish to the front nine, it also provided balance with other holes on the back nine.
HOLE 9 – Par 5 – 533 yards
JW: The ninth is bunkerless tee to green, playing straightaway up over a rise, and then down to the well defended green. The shortish length makes it gettable, but the margin for error is small, and the green cant and contours make you earn your birdies.
DM: The longest par 3 is followed by the shortest par 5. With the nob on the end of Black Mountain as a target, Lawrence angled the fairway into a series of ridges running perpendicular to the fairway. Find the speed slot right center and you might get a look at the green for your second shot. Play up the left or far right and your second will be blind to a tightly guarded green with just a 10 yard wide opening. A cactus behind the green provides the line. A large green filled with subtle undulations.
DZ: This reachable par five previously had a ridge running perpendicular across the first landing area. Balls landing on the downslope of the ridge were supplied additional distance without taking on any risk, while balls landing shy were stunted. In an effort to increase the interest, challenge and playability, this ridge was recontoured. The left side was left intact, so long shots played accurately down this side could still take advantage of the added length and retain visibility to the green. The right side was shaped to cause longer drives to veer toward the right edge of the landing area, where the view to this green is obscured by a second ridge further up.
A great deal of unnecessary turf was removed right of the first landing area to focus attention down the hole and improve sustainability, while a great many trees were removed to improve turf and open up surrounding views. Numerous unnecessary catch basins were removed from fairways, particularly on this hole. Back at the tees, a rear tee was added to lengthen this par five from 501 yards to 533, continuing the effort to bolster the front nine finish. As part of the effort to improve tee placements overall, the forward tee just beyond the wash was shifted right to a central location, creating a much better angle of play for shorter ball-strikers.
As on the sixth, this green had been revised in previous years. It did not provide a target suitable for a reachable par five, nor was it a particularly flattering finish to the front nine. A new putting surface was sculpted, which incorporates a new back right pin location that was previously inaccessible due to severity of the slope. The bail-out back right was recontoured to help contain balls, improve drainage and enhance playability. The right bunker was brought around the front right of the green to protect the putting surface. A far left aiming bunker, as seen from the tee, was incorporated into the left green side bunker, which was enlarged to accommodate this important role of informing play down the hole. This newly shaped bunker was brought snugly against the green.
HOLE 10 – Par 4 – 382 yards
JW: The par-4 10th features a tough tee shot uphill and around a corner to the right, followed by an approach into a green with a particularly cavernous bunker left. The putting surface features wonderful internal rolls and contours. Familiarity is a prerequisite for making putts.
DM: A drive left of center on this dog-leg to the right will provide a straight shot into the green guarded left and right. The green features a plateau on the back right whose slopes define the rest of the green. Cavernous bunkers gobble up any less than purely executed iron.
DZ: The nines at Desert Forest were reversed shortly after the Club opened. Members felt what is now eighteen played less directly towards the setting sun. So, the tenth tee is positioned right out the front door of the pro shop. A great big non-native mesquite was removed down the inside of this dogleg right. Contours on this inside of the dogleg, including an awkward swale, were improved for strategy, playability and drainage, while support was added to the outside to improve interest, playability and safety with the range nearby.
A false front on this green was recaptured to provide better visibility and support at the front of the putting surface. The entire green was widened and pin-able space along the left bunker recaptured to reward those playing down the recontoured strategic inside of the dogleg. A roll was emphasized in the back-middle of the putting surface. This supports and defends a prominent, fun back pin location, while adding interest to surrounding sections of the green.
Alterations to the bunker forms continued on the tenth, with the left bunker greatly expanded to tie-in directly with native ground on the left for aesthetics and playing interest. The outside edge of the right bunker was lowered to focus attention back on the green. Turf behind the green was expanded and the cart path shifted beyond surrounding trees to improve playability with valuable rear pin positions.
HOLE 11 – Par 5 – 573 yards
JW: The par-5 11th is the longest hole on the course and snakes over rolling fairway around to the left. The green is fronted by a deep swale and center bunker. To make birdie, a player must be precise with both the layup and approach – angles matter at the eleventh.
DM: The 11th features a fairway that flows beautifully through the desert in a right to left direction finishing at a green perched above a grassed over desert wash that cuts in front of the green at an angle. Lawrence placed each of the four par 5 greens beyond desert washes providing strategy for the second shot.
DZ: Many non-native mesquites were removed along the lengthy turf edges of this par five to improve playability and turf health. Grass was also removed along either side and replaced with native vegetation to enhance strategy and aesthetics.
Whereas the par five seventh features the Club’s broadest wash in its native form, a smaller turfed wash guards the green and approach on this three-shot hole. The swale was previously closer to the green with a channelized feel. We shifted it away to expand and raise the approach and right edge. This lends a more natural appearance with improved playability. A large mesquite in front of the left side of the green was removed. A bunker between the tree and green was reduced in size and shifted toward the center. Along with removing a back left bunker, these efforts allow for more conservative play to the now forgiving left side. The remaining rear bunker was recontoured for interest. Turf behind the bunker was eliminated in favor of native vegetation and the leading edge tucked closer to the green with a lower lip to engage the putting surface.
HOLE 12 – Par 3 – 185 yards
JW: A longish one-shotter that plays slightly uphill to a well-defended green, the twelfth is one of DF’s holes that is just plain tough. However, the glorious combination of Red Lawrence’s green setting, Dave Zinkand’s minimalist aesthetic and Superintendent Todd Storm’s ideal presentation is more than enough to offset any pain inflicted on a player’s scorecard.
DM: The mid-length par 3 12th is visually deceptive with the green defended by a series of deep bunkers that along with the uphill nature of the hole hide much of the quite generous green surface. The front half of the green is fairly tight but opens up in the back. The middle of the green is usually a good play regardless of pin location.
DZ: While not a long par three, the twelfth has always provided a difficult target with demanding cup locations. Pin-able space was dramatically increased, including at the front along the bunkers and both strategic sections back left and right. Lowering green surface along the front bunkers also enabled better receptiveness for tee shots. Turf was expanded back right of the green and bail out areas behind either side of the green recontoured to provide more forgiveness to fall-away pin locations on either side of the green. A great deal of unnecessary turf was eliminated at the start of this approach, while a new forward tee was provided along the left to provide more reasonable access to the narrow green entrance for forward tee players.
HOLE 13 – Par 4 – 449 yards
JW: Hug the inside of the corner on this slight dogleg left, and you have an open look on approach. Take the safe route off the tee and you’re staring at a stacked pair of Zinkand specials in the face.
DM: Pucker up and let it rip, but avoid the steep drop off into the desert on the left. Nothing too tricky here, just uphill all the way to a green located up a steep slope. It will simply take two of your best to reach the raised green in regulation. If that’s not enough, the green is difficult with a shelf on the back left.
DZ: Twenty yards were added to thirteen through a new rear tee to return the teeth of this long uphill climb to the Club’s highest green setting. Thanks to several new forward tee placements, unnecessary turf at the beginning of this fairway was replaced with native vegetation for aesthetics and improved sustainability. The right side of this landing area was recontoured to improve drainage and retain balls in the fairway on this right sloping portion of the dogleg left. Turf at the end of the landing area was removed along with select trees to improve aesthetics, enhance the desert feel and stiffen the challenge for the longest of players.
This is the last of the three greens that had previously been altered, along with six and nine. The green was expanded, particularly at the back left and front right. A sharp, disjointed approach was softened and tied seamlessly together with the green. Green surface was extended down the front slope to better accept running approaches and provide a greatly improved appearance. Pins closer to the front of the green and near the right bunker were recaptured.
The right greenside bunker was expanded to two to guard the right side of this approach and provide a prominent focal point displaying visual feedback at the tee as to the angle of this hole. This effort also improved maintenance considerations over the previous bunker configuration. The greenside edge of this bunker remained high to provide a unique identity as compared with previously similar bunkers on holes such as two and five. The leading edge was lowered for enhanced visibility on the tee. The left two bunkers were joined as one to provide visual impact. Their outer edges were tied into the native surrounds for aesthetics and to better focus the eye on the target. The turf edge back right of this green was reestablished to improve playability and the surrounding swale recontoured to improve drainage.
HOLE 14 – Par 4 – 309 yards
JW: This short four is reachable in the right conditions with a high left slope that will feed balls onto the narrow perched green. Efforts that lack the necessary gusto or courage? Well, let’s just say that the options low and right range from “Ouch” to “Lord help me”.
DM: Essentially a new hole in 2013, Dave Zinkand moved the green forward 30-40 yards adjacent to a small nob left of the green and significantly reshaped the fairway with a high and low side. The end result – a very clever, driveable par 4 to follow the longest, toughest par 4. The ideal line is at the nob at the end of Black Mountain to the high side of the fairway that feeds the ball to the green.
DZ: As previously mentioned, for the majority of Members there was no need for increasing the overall difficulty of the layout. The previous fourteenth green was the least playable on the course, requiring an aerial shot. With the putting surface falling away, lower trajectory players had little chance of holding the green, while longer players could readily stop a wedge on this short par four. Introducing a generous approach and shortening this hole to become a reachable par four provided a nice balance with the effort to bolster the test of the front nine finishing holes.
High ground at the beginning of this fairway was carved down four feet to improve visibility from the tee and gain fill material for other components of the renovation, including the new approach on this hole. To differentiate fourteen from similar length holes, such as six and fifteen, and to encourage a reason to play boldly, the hole was shortened forty yards.
A new larger green was created with what is generally a front left to back right orientation and slope. Despite the elevated green, a gentle, open front left approach provides playability along with variety as compared to the course’s typically narrow entries. This plays off the natural tilt of the surrounding land, while enabling a much shorter green to tee walk in line with others around Desert Forest. This simpler connection to the following holes also improves safety issues related with the former green location. A steep roll-off behind the green allows for playability, while protecting the integrity of the hole. The former greensite was regraded and vegetated with native plants, including saguaros salvaged during the renovation.
HOLE 15 – Par 4 – 435 yards
JW: The rumpled fairway tumbles down to the green from a hillside on the left. The green is canted in the opposite direction. A brilliant design that requires real shotmaking to have a look at birdie. Players must beware the beautiful and nasty Zinkand bunkering guarding the green right.
DM: Framed by Black Mountain, the 15th is a picturesque, downhill, postcard of a hole with a generous fairway. Featuring a false front, it is best to get at least a third of the way into this green. Bunkers right protect a terrific pin position on the back right hand portion of the green.
DZ: As seen on a 1962 aerial, the original middle and back tees wrapped progressively to the left. This provided fifteen a much more provocative angle, in part, by engaging a ridge short of the fairway and highlighting Black Mountain in the background. This angle was returned and a new rear tee created thirty yards behind the existing back tee. Vegetation, particularly down the left edge of the hole, was thinned to allow the renewed tee angle and improve the general look and feel of the hole. Turf edges along the landing area were expanded slightly to improve playability and invite more aggressive play from the tee. This hole required particular attention in regrading the outskirts to tie together the turf areas with natural ridges in the surrounds.
The front of the green was widened along either side. Pin-able space along the greenside bunkers was increased and the back left section of the green was supported to soften the slope falling away and return the ability to use these provocative pin locations. Ground behind this green was a particular playability concern. The area was recontoured and turf extended to increase the likelihood of balls staying on turf, as opposed to rolling into a desert wash beyond. A right approach bunker was added to increase interest along the approach, as well as the view down the hole. The right greenside bunker was reduced in size to allow more creative access to back right pins and increase playability by reducing the severity of attempting to reach these pins.
HOLE 16 – Par 5 – 523 yards
JW: With so many great golf holes in the world, it is hard for any one hole to be unique…unless a hole’s strategy is ingeniously dictated by a centerline tree in the rumpled fairway. Initial reaction, “What the?” Upon further reflection, “So good”.
DM: Perhaps my favorite hole at DF, a true journey through the desert forest framed by the backdrop of Black Mountain. Tree and brush removal up the left side last summer opened up a view of the green from the tee and, more importantly, restored the ability to play up the left side of this hole on the second shot. A drive to the narrow plateau on the upper right side of the fairway opens up an opportunity to go for this green in two. The large mesquite at 160 yards from the green must be navigated on the 2nd shot. A grassed over wash crosses the fairway at 95 yards and it’s best to get beyond this with your second shot to avoid a downhill lie to an uphill green.
DZ: Sixteen is a thoughtful driving hole thanks to the varied elevations and turf edges in the first landing area. A low left section of turf offers forgiveness for shorter drives, while yielding a less desirable angle from which to play one’s second shot. A long tee ball to higher ground is met with significantly narrower turf on a right to left angle. Trees at the end of the lower left section of fairway were removed to facilitate use of this side of the fairway for those less capable of surmounting the high side. Fairway was expanded right along the second landing area and several trees removed to further the efforts towards improved playability.
This green was shifted back twelve yards onto naturally high ground, shortening the walk to the following par three and adding valuable length to this, the final par five. Although the new green is larger and contains a prominent mound to work balls in off of in the back left, the concept of the original green complex was retained. The right bunker was expanded and its lip lowered to provide contrast with those on the left, as well as those on the right of fifteen. The outside edge of this bunker now ties into desert terrain. The left greenside bunker was tucked against the expanded green to reflect modern club selections on this hole and protect nearby pin locations.
HOLE 17 – Par 3 – 169 yards
JW: This beautiful mid-length one shotter plays to a green surrounded on three sides by four bunkers. A wonderful natural desert setting for the penultimate hole. Recovery for tee shots that miss the putting surface is no small task.
DM: The 17th features a benign looking target that belies its internal treachery. A narrow opening of rumpled ground makes front pins difficult to attack. And the green itself is full of tricky double and triple breaking putts.
DZ: Seventeen had previously been the long one-shot hole thanks to an added back tee. However, the tee was removed because it imposed a long walk back on what is an unusually walkable desert course, and the intensely sloped green was less ideal for a longer hole than natural landforms on eight. The front left bunker had been pulled away from the green in recent years. Green space was provided up against this bunker to expand pin-able space and increase playability. Unnecessary turf was removed behind the two rear bunkers to focus the eye upon this challenging green surface and provide a rugged, intimidating appearance counter to the green’s actual receptiveness.
HOLE 18 – Par 4 – 415 yards
JW: The tough finisher is pinched right in the landing area, which not surprisingly is the best angle for approach. A last bit of strategic brilliance from Red Lawrence. The well defended green includes a stellar combination of cant and contour. A par on the 18th is satisfying, as it must be earned from the tee to the bottom of the cup.
DM: A strong finisher requires a long, accurate tee shot. If you can clear the crest of the hill on the right, a speed slot will add distance. The approach is deceptive in that it often plays shorter than the actual yards and the green tends to run away from the fairway. Be happy with a par and enjoy the cold beverage that awaits.
DZ: Much like the sixth hole before the renovation, eighteen provided a challenging drive for short to medium players, while offering long hitters a rather forgiving target. The right side of eighteen is particularly deceptive, as balls that appear safe when first struck on the tee can easily careen right into a native swale, betraying the fairway’s gentle right to left angle. A new rear tee was added to play on this provocative angle, while other tees were shortened and, in some cases, given a more forgiving angle.
The wide wash bottom at the end of the landing area, which provided such a forgiving space for long hitters was reconsidered. Turf edges were pinched in along both sides and a desert ridge introduced along the right side of the wash to force longer players from all tees to consider the placement of their drives.
The approach was recontoured to reduce balls running through the green into desert beyond, which forms an attractive backdrop from the clubhouse. The front of the green was also expanded significantly into the approach. A small bunker was added at the front left corner of the green and the left bunker reduced in size. The high outer edge of the right bunker was lowered significantly to remove this visually awkward sand edge and improve definition of the green’s right edge.
A day at Desert Forest is a day that a player will remember. Strategy, challenge and fun are all wrapped in an intimate and beautiful package. I’m counting the moments until my next visit.
- Detailed Architectural Evolution Reports for restorations or renovations.
- Golf Course Photography.
- Historical research and consulting related to creation or execution of Master Plans.
- Course histories and photography for club websites, newsletters, new member marketing, etc.
- Course tours for club websites including course history, hole descriptions and photos.
- Historical Maps comparing original course architecture to the course today.
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Copyright 2018 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf