Course Rater Confidential: What are the best desert golf courses in the country?

Sand Hollow in Utah.

A view of Sand Hollow in Hurricane, Utah.

Brian Oar

GOLF’s Top 100 course panelists are among the most respected and well-traveled course evaluators in the game. They’re also keen to share their opinions. In this series, we’ll unlock their unvarnished views on all questions course-related. The goal is not only to entertain you but also to give you a better understanding of how to understand and appreciate golf course architecture. You can see GOLF’s latest Top 100 Courses in the World ranking here, and our Top 100 Courses in the U.S. here. Meet all of our Top 100 panelists here.

As much of the northeast unburies from a blizzard, the PGA Tour is in temperate Scottsdale this week for the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Scottsdale, of course, is a prime destination for desert golf, but many other places offer desert golf, too, from Albuquerque and El Paso to Palm Springs, Bend and beyond. What’s your favorite spot for desert golf, and why?

Steve Lapper (Panelist since 2009; has played 84 of the World Top 100): Scottsdale may solidly lead in quantity for desert golf, but for quality, it’s tough to beat Cabo San Lucas. Cabo boasts a dozen or more high-quality plays that are pure desert environs with spectacular Pacific Ocean or Sea of Cortez views. From Jack Nicklaus’s terrific seaside public Cabo Del Sol to the private and world-ranked Diamante Dunes, there’s a plethora of great choices. I am fond of the Palm Desert area as well and would give a shoutout to Desert Willow or PGA West on the public side, and to the esteemed and unique Stone Eagle or the pristine Quarry Club on the private side.

The Saguaro course at We-Ko-Pa.
The Saguaro course at We-Ko-Pa is considered one of the best public courses in Arizona. Lonna Tucker/We-Ko-Pa

Thomas Brown (Panelist since 2015; has played 95 of the World Top 100): Southern Utah. St. George, Utah, is two hours north of Las Vegas and the gateway to five National Parks: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion. The geology of the region is from the Jurassic Age — 150 million years ago when most of the region was underwater. The result of that time under the sea is the Entrada Sandstone, a porous soil stained red by oxidized iron deposits. Sand Hollow is the distinguished golf course in the plateau desert region, showcasing the red sandstone surrounds with long desert horizon views. Nearby, David McLay-Kidd is rebuilding Entrada at Snow Canyon, and Tom Weiskopf is creating a new course at Black Desert Resort. The high is near 60 degrees this time of year in St. George. Winter 2022 will be a good time to visit and play the new courses.

Paul Rudovsky (Panelist since 2015; has played all of the World Top 100): For one place, I would have to pick Scottsdale, in part because of its large quantity of high-quality clubs and courses, and also because it is easy to get to from elsewhere in the U.S. In terms of highest quality of golf in a desert setting, I would have to go with the Cabo San Lucas region.

Which two courses get your nod as the best public and private desert golf courses in the country?

Lapper: In the public arena, it’s very tough to beat the high-desert beauties like Gamble Sands (Brewster, Wash.), Sand Hollow (Hurricane, Utah) or Wolf Creek (Mesquite, Nev.). For the low desert, We-Ko-Pa Saguaro (Fort McDowell, Ariz.), Talking Stick (Scottsdale, Ariz.), Desert Willow (Palm Desert, Calif.) or PGA West Stadium (La Quinta, Calif.). No golfer would suffer from picking any one of these for a round. All are scenic, sporty and strategically interesting courses. They never spell boring. On the private side there are many. Some are simply beautiful and exotically well-maintained, such as The Quarry Club (La Quinta, Calif.) and Estancia (Scottsdale, Ariz.). Others are architecturally impressive and unique, including Desert Forest (Carefree, Ariz.) and Stone Eagle (Palm Desert, Calif.). The latter are important benchmarks for the desert game. Red Lawrence — disciple of William Flynn (Merion, Shinnecock) — built Desert Forest in 1962. It is considered the very first pure desert course in the U.S. Stone Eagle, by Tom Doak, is a brilliant modern take on a desert layout. Both are thrilling.

Gamble Sands in Washington.
A view of Gamble Sands in Brewster, Wash. Brian Oar/Gamble Sands

Brown: On the public side, Barona Creek is a favorite of mine in the area east of San Diego. Gary Roger Baird and Todd Eckenrode designed the golf course on the Native American Reservation in 2000. At the time, the architects were considered innovators in conserving water — using less than 90 acres of irrigated turfgrass while allowing for ample width in the fairways. The pacing of the holes is terrific, as is the site selection for each natural green location. Eckenrode led a recent renovation, updating the bunkers and restoring the greens to their original design. For private, Desert Highlands in North Scottsdale. Lyle Anderson contracted Jack Nicklaus to design the challenging course in the early 1980s. The golf course benefited from an extensive renovation in 2019. Television footage from the initial Skins Games contested at Desert Highlands featured long holes with flattering views of Pinnacle Peak. The small, elevated desert tee pads on the par-4s are unique, but I found the strength of the design in its par-3 holes. Perhaps in homage to Cypress Point, the short par-3 15th is a pitch shot followed by the long and challenging par-3 16th, which looked more like a par-4 from the tee box my group played from. Easily the most enviable aspect of desert golf at a private club is the impossible standard of perfection the maintenance staff presents the greens and fairways.

Rudovsky: In my mind, the best public courses would be, 1, Gamble Sands (central Washington), because it is simply great fun and playable with tremendous fairway width and wonderful use of the exceptional topography; and, 2, We-Ko-Pa Saguaro, just east of Scottsdale where Coore and Crenshaw made their magic work in a beautiful desert setting. The best private desert course to me would be Whisper Rock (Upper) in Scottsdale — beautiful and fun and one of the finest clubs in the country. With that said, if one remembers that the Los Angeles area was a desert way back when (and that it remains a desert-like climate nine months of the year), it would be my choice as the best location for “desert golf,” with the best privates being LACC-North and Riviera, and the best public being Gil Hanse’s Rustic Canyon about 50 mile northwest of downtown LA.

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