Desert Forest Golf Club is arguably Arizona’s first true desert golf course built in 1962 by the venerable Red Lawrence. The name might seem a misnomer to outsiders for there are no traditional woods but in desert terms, saguaros and brush comprise a forest. The name of the town however is spot on – Carefree. The serenity is almost surreal making carefree a lifestyle on and off the course.
In the beginning Desert Forest was quite remote from the city of Phoenix, accessed by a dirt road. Before environmental constraints and regulations became a hindrance to most designers, Red’s biggest challenge was to manage the build out below a $300,000 budget. It seems comical in today’s standard when each hole averages about $1M, yet the minimalist approach allowed the artist to paint a classic within the confines of the rugged desert canvas. In 2013 Coore & Crenshaw protégé, David Zinkand was charged with a re-design of the course in four months’ time and under a $3 million budget. Having masterfully constructed and successfully completed other projects including Bandon Preserve and Bandon Trails in Bandon, Oregon and the Saguaro course at We-Ko-Pa in Fountain Hills, Arizona, he managed quite well, staying true to Red’s original design premise.
The Sonoran Foothills provide exceptional backdrops for the fairways carved through arroyos, washes, and mounds of hostile vegetation that permeates the desert. Annually awarded as one of the Top 100 courses in America and having celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2013, Desert Forest has stood the test of time and is now set for the next 50 years. Today the road is paved and widened. The valley of the sun’s sprawl has approached but not encroached upon the beauty of this private setting. While most courses built in the Southwest desert scene of Phoenix are designed with real estate sales in mind, this course has remained intact and as close to the original as possible, yet plenty of home options have sprung up minutes away. The main theme of simplicity begins with the unassuming but well equipped single story brown clubhouse. In the clubhouse bar and patio members gather to watch participants on the practice green and driving range. They duck in and out for an assortment of treats in wide mouth bulk jars reminiscent of soda fountain days and of course, everybody knows your name. Grab your drinks before the round and at the turn, as there is no interruptive cart service on course.
Balls are ready on the driving range along with a large practice green and members may fine-tune their wedges on a three-hole short course with or without Craig Hocknull’s lessons. He triples his golf duty at Western Skies, a public track on the east side and scheduling his trick shot artistry.
All warmed up and ready to tee, most members walk the course and the health benefits show. Number one sets the stage as a desert doozey dogleg right. An errant ball can put you in a pickle or at least a prickle of a bush. Focus on hitting the fairways or desert ball searches will be a major part of the game. Number three is an oasis par 3 with a pond on the left. Bunkers are absent from fairways but abound by the greens, still a welcome lie over the desert rocks with quality grains from the redesign. The greens are sizeable and a bit ambiguous, perhaps a result of being refreshed. Hard to hold, and high on the stimp meter, they make it challenging to play again and again. We played with members Donna and Scott Whitaker who attested to the repeat playability. On the tough number four Scott said, “It eats me up every day,” with a lilt in his voice. They come from Missouri, the show me state where they have memberships in two clubs. They fell in love with Desert Forest at first play and it is easy to see why.
Everyone is friendly, members and staff. Why not? It’s Carefree. “The mayor” of Desert Forest organizes social activities, matching up members with geographical or personality connections. There are no tennis courts or swimming pool but they are available along with a fitness center across the road at the Carefree Resort. This is a golf club, not a country club.
While 7200 yards from the tips seems short by today’s course standards, the 73.8/149 slope rating signifies a challenging if not difficult course. Power hitters will be perplexed by club selection on each tee box. It is exceptionally proportioned for long holes that open generously to the green, while shorter par fours are a stretch to elevated greens with monstrous bunkers, and false fronts. The longer the hole, the larger the greens are. Shorter holes seem to have shrunken greens to accentuate the approach. Desert Forest Golf Club provides a stern test of golf that all levels of skill can enjoy with eight sets of tees. The host site for many national junior and amateur events, Desert Forest Golf Club will be hosting the USGA Four-Ball Qualifier in March 2015.
Designer Red Lawrence was nicknamed Desert Fox – a tribute to the original animal or General Rommel of the North African desert campaigns during WWII? Both men were exceptionally strategic and tactical, generous and kind in nature, but ferociously intense in vocation. Desert Forest will forever be attributed to Red. If you are considering a winter home, relocation or local membership, check out www.desertforestgolfclub.com.