Carefree Central Arizona

Desert Forest Golf Club

Desert Forest Golf Club: Phil Mickelson, who starred at Arizona State University and made his home for several years in nearby Scottsdale, called this his “favorite” golf course in Arizona, which is about as good an endorsement as any course in the state could receive. When you add that salute to the fact that several of its members maintain memberships at Augusta National, Baltusrol, Crooked Stick, Medinah, Pine Valley and Shinnecock, well that pretty much sums up the stature of Desert Forest.

Yes, the name is a a bit of a contradiction in terms, but like its location in the ultra-chic town of Carefree, those in the know understand what it represents.


In a word, “pure” probably works the best for Desert Forest Golf Club. No swimming pool, no fitness center, no tennis club, just golf. And golf the way the legendary designers envisioned the game being played. In this case, the designer is Robert “Red” Lawrence, who created an absolute gem that earned him the nickname “The Desert Fox” of design, long before Johnny Miller picked up that moniker as a player.

Lawrence worked on fabled Merion Golf Club in the 1920’s along with historic Westchester Country Club and the minimalist design he opened here in 1962 propelled Desert Forest Golf Club into the ranks of the world’s elite private golf clubs, where it remains to this day.

In the early 1960”s, when Lawrence first laid eyes upon the unblemished desert terrain of the Sonoran Foothills in Carefree, Arizona, he decided to build a revolutionary layout, the first of its now familiar kind: a golf course simply laid upon the striking native-desert topography, hewn by eons of wind, rain and erosion.

Golfweek magazine’s take? “A revolutionary landmark of golf architecture.”

Modern day accolytes, think Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska, followed Lawrence’s gospel and relied on the natural landscape, moving virtually no soil during construction. Tom Weiskopf and Jack Snyder have done a little “tweaking,” and David Zinkand from the Coore & Crenshaw school has managed a modernization, but what Lawrence created remains intact.

Desert Forest Golf Club – Sentry watches 11th Green

As you would expect, “pure golf” on this true desert course means Desert Forest has no water hazards in play, unless you are pathetic enough to dribble one sideways into the pond to the left of the tee on the par-3 third hole.

What might surprise you is you’ll find no O.B. stakes, and not a single fairway bunker on the course; zip, zero, nada, none. You’ll learn quite quickly that Lawrence utilized the natural contours to defend the fairways so well, fairway bunkers are unnecessary here.

Instead, Desert Forest presents the pure natural canvas that is its hallmark, and allows its native desert topography to dictate playing angles and shot placement. It’s just you and your clubs against the big three: the course, the elements and your patience.

Zinkand’s recent $3 million modernization recaptured the original profiles and contours of the green complexes and Lawrence’s signature oval-shaped bunkers were updated to a natural rugged-edge profile. More than a million square feet of rough and fairway surfaces were converted to 328 Bermuda turf as well.

Desert Forest offers multiple sets of tees, ranging from 4,763 to 7,201 yards, and the par-72 layout is rated at 74.1 with a slope of 145 from the tips. There are several classic holes, but the par-5’s are particularly outstanding at 551, 553, 594 and 523 yards. As for a signature hole, we’ll take the par-5 seventh, which plays at 551 from the back tee, is the No. 1 handicap and as strategically conceived as any hole in Arizona.


It offers two distinct paths to the green. Left off the tee is easier and safer, but makes it a 3-shotter with a third measuring about 150 yards to the green. The bolder path, and the one Mickelson definitely would take, is down the right side, leaving an approach of 225-250 yards to the green. Key elements of this risk-reward choice are a waste-like scrub area running on a diagonal axis which divides the fairway from the tee, and the right-side’s more dramatic second shot which must carry an arroyo about 20 yards wide crossing the path to the green.

Desert Forest’s 250 members prefer and enjoy the simple elegance of the understatement, as evidenced by the first three entries on the club’s Master Plan Principles:

The golf course is our first priority.
Hire all the necessary experts and follow their advice.
Provide adequate funding to do it right.


Perhaps that’s why Desert Forest, the first desert golf course, is still the best desert golf course. For non-members who appreciate brilliant course design and are fortunate enough to receive the opportunity, tee it up and savor the experience. Everyone else can enjoy a hole-by-hole helicopter fly-over of the course at

Enjoy our review of every golf course in Arizona at Arizona Golf Course Reviews. It’s just a part of “All Things, Arizona Golf” at the Arizona Golf Authority.

Central Arizona Scottsdale

Kierland Golf Club – Acacia / Ironwood / Mesquite Courses


Kierland Golf Club – Arizona Golf Course Reviews
Picture your foursome decked out in colorful tartan garb, complete with kilts and sporrans, playing golf and sipping on Johnnie Walker Blue premium scotch with a bagpiper serenading you behind the picturesque, water-guarded 18th green. It might feel like you’re back in the highlands, but in fact you are in the Scottsdale resort corridor at Kierland Golf Club, which offers a “Scottish Golf Experience” complete with all the trimmings.

Yes, they have a kilt that will fit you, but you’ll need to bring your own Gaelic accent. Along with some memorable golf holes, this complex at Westin Kierland Resort and Spa has been as innovative as any in Arizona in providing players an enjoyable day of golf.

kierland-golf-club-bike-photographKierland forged the path to Scottsdale golf “your way” by offering you a choice of three distinct modes of transportation if you don’t plan to loop it on foot: air-conditioned golf carts, Segways, and most recently, bicycles with integral golf bags.

Wait, there’s more: giant cooling fans and misting systems on its covered driving range to beat the summer heat, expert golf instruction from Mike and Sandy LaBauve, FORE-MAX golf nutrition and fitness programs, golf spa massages, and to top it all off, a bagpiper playing at sundown to mark the end of a glorious day of golf.

Kierland Golf Club offers rota-combinations over three nine-hole courses, named Acacia, Ironwood and Mesquite after the trees that are prominent on the property.

Notice that none are named Cactus. Those prickly natives aren’t featured here, which some golfers consider a welcome respite from the rugged desert-target layouts scattered throughout Scottsdale.

kierland-golf-club-1-photographThis is a more traditional golf experience and a key component of the lush, upscale Kierland Commons Community vibe. Designed by Scott Miller, formerly the right-hand design man for Jack Nicklaus Designs, the 27-hole golf complex opened in 1996, almost four years before the neighborhood took shape and the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa hotel was erected.

Miller artfully employed “core golf” design techniques to wrap the golf course into the resort community and did so in a way that insulates players from the hub-bub of activity in this north Scottsdale locale.

The three 9-hole layouts are played in any 18-hole combination and no matter which tracks you play, you’ll feel ensconsed in a parkland setting and enjoy sweeping vistas of Camelback Mountain, Mummy Mountain, Piestewa Peak, the McDowell Mountain range.

But don’t get too enamored with the view because plenty of challenges lie directly underfoot with lakes, dry washes and 300 bunkers scattered about, on the way to elevated greens that are well protected. Each course has four sets of tees and each combination plays at about 7,000 yards from the back tees and 5,000 yards from the front.

Acacia is generally regarded as the flagship nine as it finishes at the foot of the hotel, although Ironwood also has its avid local fan base with a solid, demanding layout. Mesquite was the first to unfold and represents straightforward golf until you reach the finishing hole, which is apropos for Kierland because Miller saved his best for last at the ninth hole on each layout.

kierland-segway-photographOn Mesquite, that means a 427-yard downhill par-4 with an approach shot over a small lake to a green fronted by a menagerie of six bunkers.

The finish on Ironwood is a 495-yard downhill par-5 with water extending the full length along the right side of the fairway, and two bunkers in the primary landing area. That water hazard guards the right side of the green as well and two large bunkers guard the left, creating a risk-reward scenario.

Acacia has several memorable holes, including the best par 3s at this complex, but again the ninth is the highlight of the round. This par-5, at 531 yards, features an 80-foot drop from the tee with water protecting the left side of the fairway and a series of 10 bunkers threaten from about 200 yards in. The three hole finishing stretch on Acacia, which also includes a heavily-bunkered 374-yard par-4 and a downhill, 219-yard par-3, is one of the more memorable finishes in Scottsdale.

The “AZGA Local Hang” for Kierland is easy. After the round, the clubhouse and the hotel offer plenty of places to relax, refresh and libate – you can’t go wrong with any venue you choose. If you feel the need to wander off, take time to visit Kierland Commons, on foot, directly east of the hotel.

With its trendy restaurants, shops, boutiques, centerpiece fountain and brick streets, you’ll find it to be reminiscent of a downtown village square, amped up to today’s volume.

But before you go, do yourself a favor and turn in the kilt.

Read our player’s review of every golf course in Arizona, click Arizona Golf Course Reviews. It’s just one part of “All Things Arizona Golf” offered at the Arizona Golf Authority.


Central Arizona Phoenix

Vistal Golf Club

Arizona Golf Authority AZGA Golf Course Buzz: Vistal Golf Club takes advantage of its central Phoenix location and offers up great golf and the best views of the city’s skyline from a fairway, anywhere in town.

Vistal Golf Club

Originally designed by Arizona golf legend Johnny Bulla, the golf course opened in 1957 as the Thunderbird Country Club. The course received a major redesign in 2000 by PGA Tour Design Services, who assigned local resident tour player consultants Howard Twitty, Tom Lehman and Billy Mayfair to the job.

The local boys produced a gem that re-opened in November of 2001 as the Vistal Golf Club to accolades all around. Quickly named a “Top 10 New Public Course in the U.S.” by Sports Illustrated, Vistal Golf Club was selected as the host course for two local U.S. Open qualifying tournaments.

Some of Bulla’s original holes remain intact, particularly on the front nine, and the new back nine winds up through the rugged mountain foothills while maintaining a traditional feel. Four sets of tees range from 7,013 to 5,235 yards with a rating of 72.9 and slope of 129 from the tips, 69.4 and 116 from the most forward tees. More than 80 bunkers add to the challenge and three lakes bring water into play on six holes, most notably at the third, the ninth and 18th.

Vistal entertains right from the start and begins with a birdie, a bogey and the anything from a 2 through “I’m in my pocket” third hole.

The 526-yard par-5 first features an elevated tee and fairway-pinching bunkers in the landing area. Negotiate them successfully and make a putt to bag an opening birdie. The second is a classic 440-yard par-4, straightaway; both the yardage and a swale in the center of the generous green produce a lot of bogeys here.

The par-3 third hole at Vistal is a birdie hole when the pin is left; but if the cup is cut in the right half of the green, you can make numbers that won’t fit on your card. Playing just 167 yards from the tips, 108 forward, the right half of the green is a lake-wrapped peninsula that demands precise yardage control from the tee. You can drown several pieces of ammo if you’re a bit short, a bit long or just a little bit right of your intended line of play. Tournament golf; play left and card a two-putt par – recreational golf; have some fun and have a go.

As you would expect, the PGA Tour player’s authored a strong finishing stretch at Vistal Golf Club. The 16th is 438-yard par-4 with an angry green surface devoid of a single flat spot more than 4-feet in diameter; it’s still a lot of fun to putt. The 17th is 597 yards of 5-par golf into the prevailing breeze in these parts; just play for par.

18th Green - Vistal Golf Club

The par-4 18th is a terrific tournament golf closer. Playing at 427 yards, the tee ball must be shaped into a fairway running on a diagonal to the tee, miss a little left and your second will be played from a bunker. A lake runs along the left side of the fairway, and the left side of the green wraps behind it, so depending on pin placement, you may need to carry it on the approach. Two well struck shots produce a routine birdie putt, but miss either shot just a hair and the leader board can change quite dramatically.

Vistal offers full practice facilities, complete with classic rock music piped in. After the round, the Blue Pig Patio is a good place to relax with excellent views of several holes and the Phoenix skyline in the distance.

Originally, some holes on the back-nine holes were located west of 7th Street. As part of the 2000 redesign, that property has been re-crafted as the Thunderbirds Par-3 Course and the official home of the First Tee of Phoenix program. Designed by Tom Fazio, the course plays at about 600 yards and level par of 27.

After golf, as long as you’re in the neighborhood, spend some time and check out two more Phoenix originals. The entrance to South Mountain Park is just down the street, south on Central Avenue, and you can make the short drive up to the 1,000-foot summit for the view; it’s spectacular, day or night.

And if you’re on south Central Avenue, at #8684 you’ll drive right past one of the best meals in town at the family owned and operated restaurant, Los Dos Molinos. Named by Victoria “The Two Grinders” for the chili grinders she and her husband Eddie each received from their grandmothers, this is hand-crafted New Mexico style cuisine presented in a small, homey atmosphere. The food is great because as Victoria says, “There’s no assembly line here, my daughters and I prepare each dish, with one helper at most.”

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Central Arizona Scottsdale

McDowell Mountain Golf Club

Arizona Golf Courses – Arizona Golf Authority Golf Course Reviews

Phil Mickelson remains Arizona’s most popular golfer and now adds golf course owner to his resume, with plans to do so in a big way around Arizona.

McDowell Mountain Golf Club - Arizona Golf Course Reviews from the Arizona Golf AuthorityMickelson and his manager Steve Loy, CEO of Gaylord Sports Management, formed the M Club and added McDowell Mountain Golf Club, a daily-fee course formerly known as Sanctuary Golf Club that recently underwent a major renovation, to the stable of courses available to M Club members.

It is one of four golf properties that have been purchased by the pair as part of the M Club (M as in Mickelson) master plan, which ultimately will offer full access to about 10 courses – public and private – at rates far below what golfers normally pay for multiple memberships.

“In this day and age, it really doesn’t make any sense financially for golfers to pay membership fees at five or six golf clubs in order to have a variety of playing experiences,” Mickelson said. “We need to change that in a way so that golfers can have a private club experience at an affordable price.”

The concept, Loy said, is one that Mickelson came up with two years ago when the economy sagged and golf participation suffered with it. Along with McDowell Mountain Ranch, they now own Palm Valley Golf Club (with two courses) in Goodyear and the The Rim Club and Chaparral Pines Golf Club, which were built as private clubs, in Payson.

M Club members pay an initiation fee of $5,000 and monthly dues of $605 to belong to all of the courses in the stable. The Club’s courses are all in Arizona, primarily in the metro Phoenix area, and the Club concierge will operate at Gaylord’s offices in Scottsdale.

Located at the base of the McDowell Mountain Preserve, Randy Heckenkemper was the original golf course designer and also handled the renovation.

Heckenkemper widened the playing corridors, added some waste bunkers, reshaped several fairways, reworked bunkering, added new tees on several holes and “flipped” the two nines to create a more dramatic finish.

More than 20,000 cubic yards of new reshaping now defines the course, a half-million square feet of decomposed granite was added to desert areas to create more forgiveness on errant shots, and almost four miles of new hand-stacked rock walls added more aesthetic appeal.

“This is really the first time that we’ve ever had owners who emphasized the playability factors,’’ said Heckenkemper, who produced the Sanctuary design in 1999.

McDowell Mountain Golf Club now offers 80 acres of turf, compared with 72 acres on the original layout, but Heckenkemper pointed out that adding the waste bunkers actually provides more than 90 acres of playing surface. The renovation project was completed in just 100 days.

Mickelson said that, although the changes improved playability for the average golfer, they also added challenges for the low-handicapper. We couldn’t agree more.

His new tees added 460 yards from the tips, where the course now plays at 7,072 yards.

“We wanted to create an experience for all players that’s an enjoyable round of golf, regardless of abilities,” Mickelson said. “We wanted to present demanding shots for the better players but give the average player more shot options. We reduced the number of forced carries and provided opportunities to run shots up to many of the greens.”

Mickelson’s plans for the course include adding a Rick Smith Teaching Academy and a Callaway Golf Fitting Center.

“We want McDowell Mountain to be enjoyable for families, where parents and kids can learn the game, get fit for clubs and enjoy playing together at a professional facility close to home,” said Mickelson, who has won 39 PGA Tour titles, including four majors and two Phoenix Opens.

“There are more than 4,000 homes surrounding McDowell Mountain Golf Club and we want this facility to be a place where both families and avid players feel comfortable. The changes made will make the course fun and playable for the average golfer and if they have fun, they will come back. But it won’t be a pushover for the better player. If I want to come out and play from the back tees, I will need to play well to shoot a number.”

Avid amateurs take note; when Phil says he’ll need to play well from the back tees, it’s a fair indication that we don’t belong back there for any reason other than a great photo opportunity.

Read the Arizona Golf Authority’s Arizona Golf Course Reviews for every golf course in Arizona at; it’s “All Things Arizona Golf” from the Arizona Golf Authority.

Central Arizona Scottsdale

Orange Tree Golf Resort

Arizona Golf Courses – Orange Tree Golf Resort

Every so often the essence of an epic golf course style from a by-gone era is captured, nurtured and kept fresh so players can turn back the clock and enjoy it all over again.

Arizona Golf Course Reviews - Orange Tree Golf Resort - Arizona Golf Authority
Orange Tree Golf Resort – No. 1 – 362-Yard Par-4

Orange Tree Golf Club has preserved one of Arizona’s grand parkland-style golf courses and elevated the classic layout by adding today’s modern conveniences. And under the watchful eye of Shelby Futch and his Scottsdale Golf Group, you can be sure Orange Tree will continue to flourish far into the future.

The course is the product of a grand age of golf course design in Phoenix from one of professional golf’s early ambassadors. Designed by Arizona golf legend Johnny Bulla, Orange Tree was originally called Century Country Club and opened in 1957 near the edge of town, on the site of a former orange grove at 56th Street and Shea Boulevard. It’s surrounded by residences now, as the city’s grown a bit since Dwight left the White House.

Bulla traveled and played the tour with his close friend, Sam Snead, and after placing third on the money list in 1941, moved to in Arizona in 1946. Bulla had 16 professional wins and finished, with Lloyd Mangrum, T-2 behind Snead at the ’49 Masters, the first year a green jacket was awarded to the tournament champion at Augusta National.

Bulla still holds the course record, 61, at Phoenix’s local Papago Municipal layout and legend holds he accomplished the feat twice, once playing right-handed and a second time playing from the left side – only the first score made the newspaper.

Back in those days, Billy Casper was busy winning the 1957 Phoenix Open Invitational. The tournament alternated every other year between two parkland all-turf venues, the Arizona Country Club and the Phoenix Country Club, both private. Other parkland examples from those days still exist: Paradise Valley Country Club opened in 1954 and Moon Valley Country Club in 1958, both are private clubs as well.

But long before designers were saddled with government imposed water-restriction mandates and golf course developers tossed around terms like “signature holes” and built $1 million dollar waterfalls, Phoenix golf courses of this era promised players a wall-to-wall lush, green respite from the surrounding arid desert environment.

The allure of a green all-turf oasis wasn’t a mirage on the horizon, but rather, defined the high-design style of the time and Bulla’s layout followed suit, as did an update by Lawrence Hughes some 20 years later.

A visit to Orange Tree Golf Club is a refreshing walk-in-the-park day playing a traditional all-turf Bermuda grass golf course on wide and shady tree-lined fairways. Camelback and Mummy Mountain backdrops on several holes, together with accents of tropical foliage, water features and swaying palm trees produces an overall desert-oasis ambiance throughout the day.

Orange Tree Golf Club tips out at 6,775 yards, common for courses of this era, and plays to a rating of 70.7, slope 121. Several tee combinations are in play, the most forward are set at 5,704 yards. But be advised, the challenge is not about length at Orange Tree, it’s about controlling your golf ball.

You see, those same stately shade trees which produce the pleasant ambiance at Orange Tree also define the line of play. If you plan to grip it and rip it here, you must be able to shape your tee ball at-will, both to the right and to the left. Launch it on the wrong line and you’ll either catch a tree at lift-off, end up raking one of several strategically placed fairway bunkers, or be stymied by trees when your tee ball comes to rest.

Second shots at Orange Tree must be precise; these are not today’s subdivision-size greens. Orange Tree’s green complexes remain true to their heritage; smallish, well-bunkered and modestly elevated for drainage. The predominate slope in the surface, as expected, is down from back to front so they’re highly receptive to your second shot. However, within their modest confines they provide plenty of opposing-undulation in various tiers which can present you with a 12-footer that asks for a full foot of break. They’re Bermuda too, so pay attention to the grain and make your opponent for the day putt the short ones.

The front-9 plays the shorter of the two and finishes with a traditional 3-hole stretch. No. 7 is pure 3-par golf; 216-yard straight away all-turf carry, bunker front right and back left, elevated green pitched toward you glistening in the sunshine, shady tee box; it’s a great setting to just relax and hit a proper golf shot.

No. 8 defines 4-pars of the era; 414 yards bending right to left around bunkers in the left-hand side of the fairway landing area. The second shot must find a rather narrow green that’s plenty deep but angling away from you, front-right to back-left. The narrow green is protected by a bunker front right and the first water hazard of the day, artfully tucked along the left side of the green; it produces a visually inviting and nerve-testing stage for a well executed second shot.

The par-4 9th is all about strategy, your choices and your execution. It’s only 376 yards and there’s not a fairway bunker in sight, but water shimmers in the distance. It’s reachable from the tee and extends up the right side of the left-to-right sweeping fairway to guard the entire right side of the green. Successfully challenge the water with a driver and you’re left with a gap-wedge approach, the lake is just pretty window-dressing for your enjoyment. Play short of the water off the tee and now your second must carry the lake to reach the green – Your choice.

The back-9 is a bit longer and offers similar strategic choices as water features threaten four holes. At the 408-yard par-4 11th the water protects the front right side of the green. It’s hidden from view if you’re well back in the fairway so before you play your second, take a quick moment to go up and have a look, you’ll be glad you did.

Water lurks short and to the left of the green at the par-3 12th and another lake must be carried with your tee ball at the par-5 13th. On one hand, it takes a fairly significant misfire to find these two hazards, but on the other hand, this is golf and such things do happen from time to time.

The 403-yard par-4 18th at Orange Tree is a strong finisher and one of the best tests of the day. The left-half of the tree-lined fairway ends at a lake approximately 265-yards from the tee, the right-half continues unimpeded to the green, producing a peninsula-style green-complex wrapped by water front, left and rear.

If you choose to play “long ball” off the tee you must fit your drive in the right-half of the fairway and clear of the trees lining that side of the landing area; a short-iron second is your reward. Lay back, to avoid the threat of water on your drive, and you’re left with a much more demanding mid-iron to the modest-sized green surrounded on three sides by a whole lot of water. Many unblemished scorecards are irrevocably scarred right here, so close, yet so far from posting an attractive total.

Orange Tree is a complete test for the highly skilled, supremely playable for all and a genuine chance to savor the grand style of golf course design in Phoenix from days gone by. These are artful golf holes that appear harmless at first look. Upon closer inspection you’ll find that precise lines of play and carefully controlled yardages are required to score well, proving once again that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Arizona Golf Authority “Local Hang” for Orange Tree includes the expansive patio at the club’s Grove Grille and Lounge, as well as Z-Tejas, at the northeast corner of Shea Boulevard and 32nd Street, and Ernie’s Inn, located in the retail complex on the southeast corner of Shea Boulevard and Scottsdale Road.

Read the Arizona Golf Course Review for every golf course in Arizona at; it’s “All Things Arizona Golf” from the Arizona Golf Authority.