Desert Forest Golf Club: The Desert Course that Started it All

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

CAREFREE, AZ - Few golfers have heard of architect Robert "Red" Lawrence and few have heard of his masterpiece, Desert Forest, a course that some have called Lawrence's "Mona Lisa."

And that's too bad, because Lawrence deserves some credit for being the first to lay out a course with all the twists and turns that golfers have come to love and curse about modern target-type, desert-style golf in Arizona: narrow rolling fairways flanked by stretches of prickly pear, cholla and saguaro; elevated teeboxes and elevated greens; forced carries over what seems like miles of brushy arroyos; and breathtaking views of craggy mountains. In fact, looking at this course, it's very hard to believe that someone designed it way back in 1962.

One reason for Desert Forest's obscurity is its location in Carefree, at the northern end of the Phoenix metro area. But it's also a private golf club with only 250 members. These golfers have maintained the course like the historic landmark it is. They've made a few changes here and there just as the owner of a Victorian house upgrades the plumbing and electricity. In some cases they've stripped away the additions, like oleanders and palms, that subtract from the Arizona landscape. But Desert Forest has had very little remodeling, certainly nothing to distort the original layout, which according to the pundits in golf magazines, contains some very famous holes.

Although you're probably never going to play Desert Forest, there are, in fact, a host of public golf courses, designed by Lawrence, in Arizona and around the West that anyone can play, including one that was actually the site of a major Hollywood production.

How did Desert Forest get its start? Ben Cowles, the most senior playing member of the club, wrote a history of the course for its silver anniversary that is still passed out to interested readers. Back in the 1950s, developers, K.T. Palmer and Tom Darlington, who also helped found the Paradise Valley Country Club, started building north of Scottsdale and founded the town of Carefree. At the time, Cowles says, "all streets in the community were dirt, as was Scottsdale Road for a distance of 20 miles to Carefree."

Desert Forest was a key link in the developers' plans, and they chose as their architect, Robert F. "Red" Lawrence, a native of White Plains, N.Y., who had trained under such designers as Walter Travis, a famous East Coast architect, and the Pennsylvania firm of Howard F. Toomey and William S. Flynn. Although Lawrence designed some courses in Florida during the late 1920s, he spent many years as a course superintendent in Boca Raton, FL, during the Depression era, when golf courses and designers fell on hard times. When business conditions improved after World War II, Lawrence went back into design. He is considered to have done his best work after moving to the Southwest in the late 1950s, and his courses there earned him the nickname of the "Desert Fox." He also was one of the founding members of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Born in 1893, Lawrence died in 1976 in Tucson. He would have been 69 when Desert Forest was built; so much for early retirement.

According to Cowles, Desert Forest was designed with the goal of making the least possible disturbance to the landscape; very little soil was moved. He writes in his history: "The fairways were merely bladed in and imported soil was used only to build up the tees and the greens. Every effort was made to maintain the rolling terrain, with the result being a course completely uncharacteristic of the earlier flat desert courses. Initially, the golf ball expense per round was high. Any ball rolling off the fairway immediately disappeared in the desert. Consequently, it became necessary to encourage the growth of grass further into the desert so as to create a rough."

Total cost of the course, including buildings and equipment, was $275,000. Compare that to current estimates of $1 million a hole for golf courses in Arizona.

Scott Cromer, the manager of Desert Forest since 1983, took us out on the fairways of Desert Fores, a course that has been very tough on players over the years. From the tips it's 7,035 yards long with a rating/slope of 73.9/149. From the forward tees it's 5,350 yards with a rating/slope of 71.7/128. "We have a natural-type environment, and it's always a tough course to play," Cromer says.

Bradley S. Klein, the GolfWeek writer, did some consulting work for the club a few years ago and his report suggests what it's like to play Desert Forest. "A round here has the feel of an encounter very much 'on the edge of doom,' as if ice skating along a precipice," he writes. "The result is a kind of steering or artifice of control. But that is - and should always remain - the character of the game at Desert Forest."

Part of what makes the course difficult is that not only are the fairways narrow, rolling ribbons, but they often run off in two directions at the same time, so that it becomes very difficult to control the placement of balls off the tees. Some of the longer holes run uphill and the greens are almost all on turtle-backed plateaus.

There's no out-of-bounds rule at Desert Forest; so a player can hit out of the desert borders, but the rampant prickly pear and cholla can make that a sticky experience.

Perhaps the most unique hole is the par 5 No. 7 (534 yards from the back tees and 466 yards from the forward), which was voted one of the greatest holes in golf worldwide by one magazine. It's a hole with two fairways and could be called a double risk-double reward hole. Off the tee, the player has the option of hitting across a huge expanse of desert to the second fairway or popping over a shorter desert area to the first fairway. But even the player who succeeds in cutting the dogleg to the second fairway finds that he may have to lay up before crossing another wash to get to the green. And the approach shot to the green has to be done almost perfectly to avoid having a ball run off into the desert. You don't want to be above the hole on these greens. Two other holes here, the par-4 13th (446 yards from the back tees and 346 yards from the forward tees) and the par-5 16th (523 yards from the back tees and 414 yards from the forward tees) have, in the past, been named to Golf Magazine's top 500 holes in the United States. The course itself was named 92nd on the magazine's 2002 list of top 100 courses in America.

Desert Forest is strictly a golf club, not a country club; There's no swimming pool; members have only a simple 1960s-era, 7,000-square-foot clubhouse. "The membership didn't fill up until 1980," Cromer says. But now there's a waiting list. "Members can call up and usually get on whenever they want to. They play about 18,000 rounds a year here compared to 35,000 to 40,000 at other places."

The course lies at about 2,400 to 3,000 feet in elevation, so it's a bit cooler to play here in summer than in Scottsdale or Phoenix. The mountain scenery is striking. Black Mountain looms above many holes, but you can also see Elephant Butte and Sugarloaf in some spots. You'll also see almost no homes near the fairways.

One of the most unusual features of the course is that there are no traditional asphalt or cement cart paths running through the course. So golfers drive carts on the fairways themselves. To get from hole to hole, golf carts and maintenance trucks travel on simple gravel trails.

This lack of paths is linked to the kind of grass on the fairways. For many years, Desert Forest used a common bermuda on its fairways. The grass was green in the warm weather months, but went dormant in the winter. "When daytime temperatures hit 60 and nighttime frosts arrive, the grass stops growing," Cromer said.

However, the greens and approaches to the greens, which are bentgrass, stay green all year.

Meanwhile, for many years, most other courses in the Phoenix area have been overseeding their bermuda with rye during the winter to maintain green fairways. Winter visitors don't like playing on brown grass.

"When other high-end courses started being built up here," Cromer says, "some members thought they might like wall-to-wall green like the other courses. But the unfortunate result of overseeding is that you would need cart paths because you can't take carts out on the rye when it's transitioning."

Club members are still debating whether to overseed with rye and add cart paths. "Two years ago, we killed all the grass, we put in a water system, put drainage in the bunkers and then resprigged or replanted last year with hybrid bermuda grass," Cromer said. "Before that, we had common bermuda. We put in this new grass so that we could overseed eventually if we decide to do so. We go back and forth on that. A large number of members want to overseed and a large number don't. We'll wait one more year and then take a vote to see if the membership wants to go to overseeding."

When these drainage improvements were done, there was also a mild renovation, based in part on suggestions from famed designer Tom Weiskopf, an honorary club member who has always loved the course. In fact, in a foreword to Bill Huffman's book, "Arizona's Greatest Golf Courses" (Northland Publishing; 2000) Weiskopf credits Desert Forest with helping to spark his lifelong passion for Arizona. It happened in 1965 when he was 22, he says, and he had just arrived from Ohio. "It was January, a month I normally spent indoors, and there we were, playing golf on this gorgeous course called Desert Forest, the true forerunner of desert golf as we know it today. The sun was beaming down, the grass was so green, and I was having the time of my life."

'Red' Lawrence courses you can play

Although a number of 'Red' Lawrence courses have been modernized and updated since they were built, leaving behind very little of the original format, there are still some that offer a nostalgic look at the way golf used to be played in Arizona. Don't expect them to be target courses. They're very traditional, probably because they were built during the era when Robert Trent Jones was king, and many feature very wide-open classic green fairways. Because they're older courses, most are fairly reasonably priced.

Kino Springs Country Club, south of Tucson, was laid out by Lawrence in 1974, on a cattle ranch that used to belong to 1950s-era actor Stewart Granger. Granger's old ranch house was remodeled to become the clubhouse, and it still holds memorabilia from the actor's glory days. The course lies about 4,000 feet above sea level and is surrounded by local mountain ranges. There are elevated tee boxes and greens and rolling fairways, all trademarks of Red Lawrence, who liked to let the course follow the terrain. The course is located at 182 Kino Springs Drive, off U.S. Highway 82 about six miles east of Nogales. It's a par-72 course (6,296 yards from the back tees, 5,212 yards from the forward tees) with a rating/slope of 70.1/126 and 69.6/110. For tee times, call 800-732-5751.

Tubac Golf Resort, not quite as far south of Tucson as Kino Springs, was built on a former ranch in 1960 by the late Bing Crosby and a group of Arizona businessmen. Lawrence's design is fairly wide open on its front nine. One of the most popular holes is No. 8, which is often featured in publicity photos of the course. It's a par 3 with two giant cottonwood trees serving as "goalposts" for golfers who have to pop their balls over a water pond to get to the hole 185 yards away. The 16th hole, which has water just short of the green, is a 575-yard par-5 best known for the role it played in the film "Tin Cup." In fact, if you rent the movie, you'll see lots of scenes of the cottonwoods at Tubac. There are mountain views from the course, and the staff claims that the resort's 3,400 feet of elevation make the area much cooler in summer than Phoenix or Tucson. Tubac rents resort rooms and is located in an area steeped in Mexican-American tradition. The resort is located at 1 Otero Road, Tubac. It has a par-71 course (6,839 yards from the back tees, 5,384 yards from the forward) with a rating/slope of 71.8/126 and 65.4/111. Call 800-767-3574 for more information. Web site:

The Championship Course at the University of New Mexico was designed by Lawrence in 1966 and is locally known as UNM South or "the monster." The rolling fairways are filled with bunkers and water hazards, gullies and ridges. Greens and tees are often elevated. The university prides itself on the maintenance of the course and has hosted PGA and LPGA qualifying events. From the tips, this par-72 course is 7,248 yards with a rating/slope of 74.5/134. From the forward tees it is 6,031 yards with a rating/slope of 71.0/129. The course is located at 3601 University Blvd. S.E., in Albuquerque. Call 505-277-4546 for reservations. Web site:

Dobson Ranch Golf Course is located in Mesa, in the East Valley area of Phoenix, and is a city-owned course that is fairly easy to play. It was designed by Red Lawrence in 1974 and is known for its huge trees and large greens. It's a par-72 course measuring 6,593 yards from the back tees (rating/slope of 71.0/117) and 5,598 yards from the forward tees (71.3/116). Dobson is located at 2155 S. Dobson Road in Mesa. Call 480-832-0210 for information. Web site:

The Red Course is one of three very long traditional courses at the Wigwam Resort in Litchfield Park, on the far west side of the Phoenix metro area. (Robert Trent Jones designed the other two courses.) Lawrence did the Red Course in 1972. It has a wide open traditional layout, but there are creeks and ponds and many bunkers. Difficult greens require precise approach shots. This course seems as if it's as far away from being a desert course as a course can be. But then again, Lawrence liked to let courses follow the lay of the land, and the land here, in a major agricultural area, is flat, flat, flat. Yardage from the back tees is 6,865 with a rating/slope of 72.4/126; from the forward tees it's 5,808 yards with a rating/slope of 71.8/118. Wigwam is located at 451 N. Litchfield Road in Litchfield Park. Call 800-909-4224 for reservations. Web site:

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • red lawrence.

    jim byfield wrote on: Oct 23, 2004

    i have worked at the Wigwam (Red) course in phoenix among other courses he has designed. i love Tubac City course. I am playig today at Desert Forest for the 1st time and look forward to that. to bad so many courses try to get (qute)with their design. I wish Red was here now to show them what a real course should look like.