Desert Forest Golf Course, A Desert Classic

The May 2004 issue of The Peak published three articles about the first golf courses in our area. Beginning October 15, 2017 we republished the article, which are entitled: “The Tale of Two Desert Courses,” “Ironwood Golf Course, Our First Desert Course” and “Desert Forest Golf Course, a Desert Classic.” The third and final article appears below.



I wrote the article below more than ten years ago when The Peak was a black and white print magazine.  I’m happy to say that unlike the Ironwood Golf Course, which is now a residential neighborhood, the Desert Forest Golf Course is still with us. It is a beautiful course and the black and white pictures in the 2004 article below don’t do it justice. To get a high-level, full-color view of the course in 2013, watch the Flyover Video before reading about the history of this innovative course.

Desert Forest Flyover Video

Les Conklin


Desert Forest Golf Course, A Desert Classic

From A Peek at the Peak, May 2004 Issue

By Les Conklin

Golf Digest’s survey of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses is the oldest and most respected golf course ranking. The survey, established in 1966, is based on extensive play and scrutiny of thousands of courses. Only 28 courses have been listed 37 years in a row since the survey began. Desert Forest Golf Course in Carefree is one of those courses.

A Revolutionary Design

Desert Forest Sign

Desert Forest Golf Club Entry Sign, 2004.

Robert “Red” Lawrence, who designed Desert Forest, avoided disturbing the vegetation as much as possible. Fairways were bladed in, and imported soil was used only to build up the tees and the greens. Every effort was made to maintain the existing rolling terrain. The result was a course that was completely different from earlier flat desert courses such as the Phoenix Country Club, Arizona Country Club and Paradise Valley Country Club.’s Rebecca Larsen, recently reviewed the course and wrote, “Lawrence was 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 tee boxes and elevated greens … breathtaking views of craggy mountains … looking at this course, it’s hard to believe that someone designed it way back in 1962.”


The Big Picture

Desert Forest Golf Course was an essential component of the design of Carefree, Arizona’s first planned community. Carefree’s initial plans called for homes, a golf course, an airport, a fine restaurant, an arts and crafts center, and a sales office.

The planning of Carefree was hardly carefree. K.T. Palmer and Tom Darlington, the partners who conceived, designed and controlled much of the development of early Carefree, wanted to create an exclusive, retreat that would attract the wealthy and the artistic. The partners wanted to preserve the natural beauty of the area. In designing their community, they took rock formations and terrain in consideration when plotting roads and the several hundred large home sites. Surely, they instructed Lawrence to follow these same preservation principles in designing the course.

Carefree Beginnings

The partners purchased a 400 acre parcel known as “the old goat farm.” The parcel, now Carefree’s central business district, was located on the road to Camp Creek (now Cave Creek Road). The partners paid $110 an acre.
You might wonder why such beautiful property cost so little. There are several reasons. First, they purchased the land in 1955. Second, it was difficult to get there. Foothills residents had to take the Cave Creek dirt road north of Black Mountain. Scottsdale was a distant 18 miles away across vacant desert. Except for a short stretch near Shea Boulevard, Scottsdale Road’s two lanes were paved only as far north as Lincoln Drive, a distance of about three miles from “downtown” Scottsdale. Scottsdale Road ended at Pinnacle Peak Road.

Arial view of course

Arial photo of golf course, located to the right of the runway.

The Developers

You can understand why some might have questioned the partners’ judgment. However, Darlington and Palmer had more going for them than friendship, energy and a long-shared desire to create their own planned community. They had an intimate knowledge of the area and extensive real estate experience. Palmer was trained as a lawyer, made money running a second-hand business in Phoenix during World War II, and made more money buying and selling land in the Pinnacle Peak area. He had homesteaded in the Pinnacle Peak area in the 30s. Darlington, a Stanford graduate, was a successful business executive. After World War II, he brokered real estate in the Scottsdale area. Both men owned land in the Pinnacle Peak area. Palmer had served as president of the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce. Darlington has served as president of the Paradise Valley Improvement Association. In the 50s, the two men had been involved in the successful formation of the Paradise Valley Country Club.

Plans Become Reality

After purchasing the initial 400 acres, the Carefree Development Company (the partners’ company), purchased additional land, developed plans, drilled the first water well and installed pumps and water lines. A 1,098 foot well was drilled for the golf course. A huge sundial was installed in the business district. The first building in Carefree faced the sundial and held a restaurant and the partner’s real estate office. Lots went on sale in 1959.

The Desert Forest Golf Club and the airport were two of the first projects. The club was organized as a private club owned by its members. The site of the course was a parcel of land owned by the state of Arizona and leased to the Carefree Development Company. The club subleased the golf course from the Carefree Development Corporation for approximately $15,000 per year.

Desert Forest was originally established to have a maximum of 250 members. The initial membership price was $1,500. Owners of lots in Carefree had a 60-day right to purchase memberships at a $250 discount. At that time, lots could be purchased for $5000, with $1,000 down and the balance over 5 years at 5 percent.
The Desert Forest Golf Course opened in 1962. The course was Palmer’s pet project and he served as the golf club’s first president. Total cost of the course, including buildings and equipment was $275,000.

Cattle and Carts

Early residents recall that in 1962 there were more golf carts than cars in the village of about 20 homes. The course superintendent was often out on the golf course at 4 a.m., chasing cattle away before the golfers arrived.

Ben Cowels, who lives in “downtown” Scottsdale near Chaparral and Scottsdale Roads, made the long dusty drive up Scottsdale Road in 1962 and purchased a membership from K.T. Palmer. Memberships in other clubs, such as Phoenix Country Club were $5,000. Ben’s Desert Forest membership cost him $1,500 and driving time. Today, Ben is the most senior playing member, having been in the club for 42 years. He served twice as president of the club, once for two years and once for four years. Ben also wrote the 25 year history of the club in which he recalled, “It was open range between Scottsdale and Carefree, and cattle would stray in from nearby ranches. The numerous dead cattle and damaged cars along Scottsdale Road were a constant reminder of the hazards. Driving back to Scottsdale at night after an evening in Carefree was a form of Russian roulette. (Some things never change. Ed.).

Carefree Inn Brings Cash

In December, 1963, the Carefree Inn, originally named the Desert Forest Inn, opened across the street from the course. The opening was important to the success of the club. Visitors could stay at the Inn, play golf and see the area. Some visitors returned, purchasing a home and joined the club. Later, the relationship between the club and the Inn changed and steps were taken to strengthen the club financially. Today, the totally private club and Inn are separate business entities.

During 1963, Scottsdale Road was paved the entire distance from Scottsdale to Carefree, making the course more accessible to Valley residents and visitors. As time passed and access improved, Desert Forest gradually became recognized as a true and unique test of golf skills.

Desert Forest clubhouse

Desert Forest’s clubhouse opened in 1964.

Why Desert Forest is Special

Today, several characteristics contribute to Desert Forest Golf Club’s uniqueness.

• There are no “out of bounds” markers
• There are no water hazards since there are no natural lakes in this part of the Sonoran Desert
• There are no fairway bunkers
• Everything is in play
• There is no overseeding, which saves water and results in two distinct playing seasons. In the winter, fairways are fast and firm. In the warm months, there is thick rough and lush green playing conditions
• The unique oval greens have a mixture of grasses that make them very fast, true and fair
• Bunkers are filled with natural sand, serving to reward a well executed shot
• At an elevation of 2,500 feet, the fairways are bordered by native vegetation. The topography is the natural rolling terrain of this part of the desert
• The course has five tees and plays from 5,350 yards at the forward tees to 7,035 yards at the championship tees

The Treasure is Discovered

Desert Forest Clubhouse 2004

Clubhouse as it appeared in 2004.

During the 60s the course played host to the Arizona Open and Arizona Amateur Championship and was selected for Dunlop Tire’s first annual Pro-Am Tournament. As a result of the tournament, the course received significant exposure to members of the PGA Tour and club professionals. Without even marketing itself, the course was included in Golf Digest’s list of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses.
Since then, the course has received many honors including:

• Appearing on the “Best Courses of America” lists by Golf Magazine, Golf World and Golfweek
• Two holes, the 13th and the 16th, were named in Golf Magazine’s “The World’s 500 Greatest Golf Holes
• Voted, in 2003, as the best course in Arizona by the Arizona’s Professional Golfers Association
The Desert Forest Golf Club has been chosen to host numerous championships. These include the 1990 USGA Senior Amateur and coming in 2006, the Trans-Miss Four-Ball event.


When you enter the Desert Forest clubhouse you cannot help but notice the many plaques and photographs. You have the sense of being in a place with a long, proud history. Palmer, Darlington, and Lawrence and the many others involved in creating Desert Forest created something special. As Ben Cowles likes to say, “There are many golf courses in the desert, but Desert Forest was the first desert golf course.” The good news is that the members and management have maintained the course like the historic landmark it is.

For Additional Information

Incidentally, since it was founded the club has limited its membership to 250 and has usually had a membership waiting list. Because of economic uncertainty and the stock market crash, there were 30 memberships available in 2004. Contact the club for up-to-date membership information.

Mail: Desert Forest Golf Club, 37207 N. Mule Train Road, Carefree, AZ 85377
Telephone: (480) 488-3527

The author thanks Ben Cowels and Scott Cromer of Desert Forest Golf Club for their assistance in preparing this article. Much of the information contained in this article is based on an interview with Ben and the history of the club that he wrote to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the club. Photographs courtesy of Tony Roberts and the Foothills Community Foundation.

About the Author
As a teenager, Les Conklin earned money as a caddie, finding other peoples’ golf balls. As an adult, Les spent money as a hacker, losing his own golf balls.

Related Articles & Websites Website

The Tale of Two Desert Golf Courses  Article

Ironwood Golf Course, Our First Desert Course  Article

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Author: Les Conklin

Les Conklin is the editor of A Peek at the Peak publications and the author of Images of America: Pinnacle Peak. He is the president of the Greater Pinnacle Peak Association and the Monte de Paz HOA. He founded Friends of the Scenic Drive and has served on the Scottsdale Pride Commission, McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission, and on the boards of several local nonprofits. Les is a resident of north Scottsdale and a member of Scottsdale's History Maker Hall of Fame. Les is a volunteer school tour guide at the Musical Instrument Museum.

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