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Desert Golf: Why It's Different - And Why You Should Go

Yes, there is a difference: Desert golf is a great way to literally heat up your game and play on new, impressive terrain. It offers you some of the most exciting rounds you can play, amidst outstanding scenery and maybe even a coyote or two! 

While Australians and Middle Easterners have long played in the sand, desert golf was introduced just within the past 20 years in the U.S. It is a way to make use of the arid environment and natural splendors of the Southwest, and offer golfers a chance to challenge themselves in a new way. Unlike traditional links or parkland courses, desert courses are literally cut into the desert with narrower fairways, increased hazards, and uninhibited wildlife. Rabbits, birds, and coyotes are welcomed and respected on these courses. Some even have a "coyote rule" so that you aren't penalized if a coyote happens to snatch your ball!

Working With Nature

"Desert golf courses are designed to make the most use of natural objects and features," says Johnny Pott, a former tournament player and now the executive vice president of design at Landmark Golf Company in Indian Wells, California. Landmark has designed some of the nation's most famous courses, including PGA West, Mission Hills in Palm Springs, The Golf Club at Terra Lago (formerly called Landmark), and Oak Tree Golf Club in Edmond, Oklahoma. "Desert courses were originally built right next to the foot of the mountain to make use of the shadow the mountain cast at sunset over the fairways," Pott explains. "Now, most desert courses are designed with real estate in mind, meaning that developers make sure the fairways offer premium lots with natural amenities. What you'll also find is that you may have condos or houses right up against the fairway instead of open fields. Fairways are tighter and you do have to be precise." 

The Desert's Demands

The challenge of these courses lies in their narrow fairways and natural hazards, causing golfers to navigate with the utmost accuracy.  The course is limited in the amount of turf it can have -- sometimes due to its wild surroundings and other times due to reality. This includes practice ranges and water usage, with recent regulations in place to conserve water. Most courses have special rules for its patrons too, like no walking on the course, carts having to stay perpendicular to the trails, and golfers wearing either soft spikes or none at all.

While designers savor natural features such as rock outcroppings or creeks when they find them on property, most courses have to have these features added in during construction. "But at Landmark, we always design our courses to be challenging for all levels of golfers; we want them to accommodate a wide range of people," says Pott.

From The Course That Started It All...

Desert golf courses exist as they are today because of the construction of Desert Highlands in Phoenix, Arizona. This course, designed in 1983 by Jack Nicklaus, utilized only 80 irrigated acres for 18 holes, instead of the normal 100 to 150. It started the concept of environmentally-sensitive desert design that still reigns today. 

Here are some of the best desert courses:


Arizona is a hotbed for golf of all kinds and desert courses are no exception. It's hard to talk about desert golf without somewhere coming across the Troon North Golf Club in Scottsdale. The Morrish-Weiskopf-designed Monument Course combines with a newer Pinnacle Course; both are said to define desert golfing.


The Painted Desert, Las Vegas' first desert course, was designed by Jay Moorish in 1987. The opening of this 18-hole course is the most challenging, and while it still maintains its narrowed fairways, desert vegetation, and fauna, overall, the course is now considered one of the tamer desert courses in Vegas. Golfers must still execute well-planned shots, but it is predominantly a great place to experience desert golf without being intimidated. Painted Desert offers 6,840 yards, a par of 72, and slope at 129 with Bentgrass greens and Bermuda/Rye fairways.


Another Nicklaus course is the Cabo Del Sol overlooking the Sea of Cortez in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Here, desert golf gets a little wetter with an awe-inspiring ocean view.


Palm Springs is a worldwide leader in desert golf. Some 110 courses dot the area, many  designed by Pete Dye, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Ted Robinson to name a few. It is also the home to several major annual golf tournaments such as the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and the Skins Game. The desert scenery is spectacular, and the courses are lush thanks to the area's famous deep underground aquifers. 

Another California course that's worth a visit is The Golf Club at Terra Lago (formerly known as Landmark Golf Club). Set in Indio, it provides gracious panoramic views from the San Gorgonio Mountain to the Chocolate Mountains. A 22,000-square-foot clubhouse, an expansive practice facility, and a golf academy complement the club and its 36 holes of rugged beauty and remarkable obstacles. Terra Lago was host to the Skins Games from 1999 to 2002. Its two championship courses were designed to meet the expectations of the most seasoned player. The courses wind their way across one mile of the All-American Canal and feature steep slopes, a variety of soil types, sand dunes, and desert flora. Skins North course presents 7,123 yards, a par of 72, and a slope of 121 to 135. Skins South exhibits 7,229 yards, a par of 72, and a slope of 123 to 136. When you swing here, you take pride in knowing you're playing where the pros did, all while experiencing romantic sunsets against the backdrop of the Coachella Valley.

 Desert golfing is about defiant terrain that's both challenging and rewarding. The spectacular natural landscapes and wildlife sightings only add to the thrill of rising to your best. And while the sun may be hot, the golfing experience will be one of your coolest. Who knows... desert courses just might become your favorite golfing destination yet!