The Tale of Two Desert Courses

The May 2004 issue of The Peak, which was a printed in black and white, published three articles about the first golf courses in our area. In the coming month, we will be republishing these three articles, which are entitled: “The Tale of Two Desert Courses,” “Ironwood Golf Course, Our First Desert Course” and “Desert Forest Golf Course, a Desert Classic.”

April 2004

The Tale of Two Desert Courses

By Les Conklin

What are the names of our community’s first golf courses? What impact has the rapid development of our area had upon them? Are they still with us?

1966 Report Provides Clues

Desert Foothills Scenic Drive, 1966 Maricopa County Report

As I considered these questions, I remembered a report that I had discovered at Cave Creek’s Desert Foothills Library in 1994 while researching the Desert Foothills Scenic Drive. The report had been prepared by Vince Thelander in May 1966 for the Maricopa Board of Supervisors. The purpose of the report was to promote the Desert Foothills Scenic Drive “with the thought in mind that it might serve as an inspiration to other communities to take ACTION IN THE PRESERVATION OF natural beauties in their respective areas.”

In addition to being a member of the Maricopa County Planning Commission, Vince Thelander was also a Cave Creek resident and one of the leaders in creating the Scenic Drive, which was established by the residents of Cave Creek, Carefree, and Maricopa County with the active support of K.T. Palmer and Tom Darlington, the developers of Carefree. While doing research for this issue of The Peak, I learned that Vince Thelander had also served as president of one of the area’s first golf clubs.

The report contains a diagram that showed the important recreational areas that were linked by the Scenic Drive. The diagram covers the area from Pinnacle Peak Road on the south to Cave Creek/Carefree on the north and Cave Creek Road to the west.

Two Golf Courses Identified

What is striking about the map is how much whitespace there is. In 1966, the area was an expanse of natural desert, populated primarily by critters, cattle, Palo Verde, and saguaro. None-the-less, the diagram identifies two golf courses, the Ironwood Golf Course (labeled A) and the Desert Forest Golf Course (labeled B). The Pinnacle Peak area didn’t begin serious development until Jerry Nelson struck water in 1969, so it seemed likely that the two courses shown on Vince’s map were in fact the first courses in our area. Additional research supported that conclusion.

Directors, Desert Forest Golf Course, 1968. Courtesy Carefree Enterprise.

The group picture, shown here, appeared in the Carefree Enterprise in 1969. It shows Vince Thelander (back row, 3rd person from left). Vince played an important role in the creation of the Scenic Drive and in having Scottsdale Road paved through to Carefree from Pinnacle Peak Road in 1963. Vince served as president of Desert Foothills Golf Course from 1968 to 1969. Ben Cowels, the most senior playing member of Desert Forest Golf Course, who served as president of the club from 1966 to 1968 and 1973 to 1977, is also pictured (front row, 2nd person from left). I interviewed Ben in order to write the Desert Forest Story.

In his 1966 report, Vince Thelander wrote, “The Ironwood Golf Course is located one mile west of Scottsdale Road and two miles north of Pinnacle Peak Road. This is a private 9-hole course which is open to the public.” The course was created in the 1950s as a hobby by the property owner and could be played for $1 a day. A player using only a putter set the course record. The course has virtually vanished, replaced by expensive homes. “The Desert Forest Golf Course is located on Mule Train Road about one-fourth of a mile north of Cave Creek Road in Carefree. This is a championship 18- hole private golf club.” It was designed by one of the top course designers of the day in 1962. Desert Forest is still with us and is ranked as one of the top 100 golf courses in the United States by Golf Digest.

A Final Note

One final comment about the two articles: When the late Don Schoenau entitled his article “Ironwood Golf Course, Our First Desert Course,” he was surely referring to the fact that Fitz’s 9-hole challenge was created in the 1950s and was the very first course of any kind in the Pinnacle Peak area. Desert Forest Golf Course, the subject of the second article, is widely considered to be America’s first “desert golf course” because it was the first professional golf course that was designed to preserve desert vegetation and take advantage of existing desert terrain.

2004 editorial note. Les Conklin has lived in what is now north Scottsdale for more than twenty years and is the editor of The Peak and the president of the Greater Pinnacle Peak Association. As a teenager, Les earned money as a caddie finding other peoples’ golf balls and also losing them with bad shot advice. As an adult, Les spent money as a hacker, following his own advice and losing his own

Desert Forest Golf Course

Recent Photo of Desert Forest Golf Course. Courtesy Desert Forest Golf Course.


Related Articles

Ironwood Golf Course, Our First Desert Course  Article    

Desert Forest Golf Course, A Desert Classic – To be published in the November issue.


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Author: The Peak

Published on behalf of the Greater Pinnacle Peak Association by the editorial staff.

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