Not all desert golf is created equal. Just as parkland and links golf can differ greatly, especially depending on what part of the world they are in, the same can be said for desert golf.
Whether it's Scottsdale, Tucson, Palm Springs or Las Vegas, the weather, scenery and the vibe of all of these places can vary quite a bit.
But they do have things in common, of course, the biggest one being that they're carved out of a harsh, arid environment. This is the home of the "desert rule," because many courses don't want you hunting down golf balls out there (more on that later), so you simply play wayward shots as lateral hazards.
If you're contemplating a desert golf trip, what should you expect, and which location should you choose? How do you prepare, and where do you find the best values? Here's a guide.
What to expect when you play desert golf
For those coming from the greener places like the Midwest or Northeast and have never played desert golf before, the first time can be intimidating. Holes often look like a small sliver of fairway with lots of cacti, rocks and sand awaiting errant shots. Speaking of cacti, you're going to want to be careful out there. One variety in particular, the cholla, is also called the "jumping cholla," because if anything touches it, the pads of the cactus actually come out and deposit spines in its victims. In truth, the hollow spines simply dislodge easily from the cactus and lodge just as easily into clothing, skin and even golf shoes. From there, of course, they're difficult to remove and often very painful.
In winter, spring and late fall, desert golf can also be especially striking, considering overseeding the fairways is a staple of golf course maintenance in the desert. At most high-end facilities, the winter rye is usually a better stand of grass than the Bermuda in the summer because they use so much of it. Plus overseeded fairways are a deeper green than Bermuda normally and they create quite the contrast from the yellowish dormant rough or desert environment.
Overseeded greens are often pure because the smoother cool season grasses are dominant. Or in some cases, like the 36 holes at Troon North in Scottsdale, the greens are bentgrass, which is a cool-weather grass. So fall, winter and spring, they're at their best anyway.
If you do hit your ball in the desert -- and all players do at some point, even the pros – don't look too hard for your ball. Besides the chollas, there are other dangers, namely critters that can beckon a call to the paramedics. Having played my share of desert golf in Arizona, California, Nevada, and even Texas, I can attest to having seen (and certainly heard) rattlesnakes at golf courses in at least three of those states. Nothing gets your adrenalin going like setting up to hit your next shot from behind a cactus only to hear that menacing rattler sound a few feet away. Scorpions, tarantulas and Gila Monsters can be found off the fairways of some of these courses as well. In all of these cases, the warmer it is, the more likely you might encounter these dangers. But I never take anything for granted, even if it's cold.
And speaking of cold, it can be very cold in the desert, especially in the winter during early morning and evening. Frost delays in the winter and early spring in Las Vegas and Arizona are certainly not uncommon. You're also more likely to get precipitation in the winter than the rest of the year, when it often goes months without rain. (Although monsoon season in Arizona, which accounts for half its annual rainfall total, is from mid-July to mid-August).
Most of the year in the Southwest, desert golf is usually played in pretty hot conditions, sometimes well over triple digits as the day heats up.
The desert, of course, is very dry. Temperatures in the 90s might not feel that hot because of the lack of humidity, but the danger here is on several levels. Humidity levels under 10 percent encourage dehydration so drinking plenty of fluids is important, even if you don't feel thirsty.
Also, the sun is probably more intense than you realize. Sunscreen and lip balm are necessities. So are sunglasses and a hat. I've found that a wide-brim hat is very helpful in these conditions and wish that I had always worn one in all hot, sunny conditions. I certainly do now.
How to play desert golf
In desert golf, the basics of fairways and greens might even apply even moreso, although invoking the desert rule certainly makes wayward shots a little easier on the score (but who wants to lose a ball, right?). Still, the no. 1 rule in desert golf is to stay on the grass, whether it's fairway or rough, although many desert courses don't have much in the way of desert golf. Courses can play longer than their posted yardage because you may not want to hit as many drivers on some of the more narrow holes. Desert holes tend to feel smaller the first time you play them, so don't be afraid to play conservatively.
But if you do elect to play your ball out of the desert, which is certainly an option if you find it, you're risking damage to your club. With all sorts of rocks on top of and buried in the sand, many veteran desert golfers carry an extra iron designated for these shots. Many golfers who carry a "desert club" are in violation of the 14-club rule, but their fellow competitors are usually sympathetic to the idea of not ruining a $150 club while trying to win a $2 Nassau.
Different vibes in different deserts
Not all desert golf destinations are created equally, both on the course and off, so here's a rundown of the differences.
Palm Springs, Calif., area (Coachella Valley): This may be the most beautiful of all desert golf locations, and it's slightly warmer on average than the Phoenix and Tuscon areas in the winter time with an average high just over 70 in January, for example. The mountains surrounding the Coachella Valley are the highest of any of the usual desert golf destinations. In the winter and spring, there may even be snow on the peaks, which makes the backdrops spectacular. As for the courses, they're mostly high end, and each of the municipalities that make up the Coachella Valley have excellent municipal courses that are affordable for residents, while bonafide resort and tournament-quality rounds for vacationers. From the nine layouts of PGA West and La Quinta Resort to SilverRock Resort to two of the most lavish and enjoyable municipals in the country -- the Celebrity and Players courses at Indian Wells Golf Resort. This is where you'll find the PGA Tour's Career Builder Challenge, played on the Pete Dye's Stadium and Nicklaus Tournament courses at PGA West as well La Quinta Country Club.
Las Vegas area: (Mojave Desert) Of the desert locations in this article, Las Vegas has the iffiest weather in the wintertime since it's the farthest north and has a little more elevation (average December high is 57 degrees). Some courses, like Coyote Springs and Las Vegas Paiute's 54 holes even offer year-round Rye turf. If you're planning a Las Vegas golf vacation, you're probably combining golf with gambling, shows, dining and nightlife, so that makes it unique right there. But the courses are different, too. There are high-roller courses like the nationally ranked Cascata and Shadow Creek golf clubs, which can be played if you're staying at the right property. And the views aren't bad on most Vegas courses either, with many of them like TPC Las Vegas (a Bobby Weed design with wide fairways and plenty of water), Revere Golf Club and Rio Secco, for example, providing scenery of both the surrounding mountains and the Las Vegas Strip. There's even one course located directly on the Strip, Bali Hai, a high-end, tropically-themed layout.
And if you’re willing to travel an hour or so out from Vegas, you can save a little money in the Mesquite area, which offers several good layouts that are usually about half of what you might pay in Vegas. Combine that with a bargain room at a lower end casino hotel, and you can put together a pretty good value trip.
Valley of the Sun (Sonoran Desert): With more than 200 courses in the metro area, Phoenix-Scottsdale is the motherload of desert golf, and it probably offers more variety than any other locations. There are true great desert layouts like Troon North, We-Ko-Pa and the Boulders, but there are also other styles that just happen to be in the desert, like the home of the PGA Tour's Waste Management Open, the TPC Scottsdale Stadium Courseor Ak-Chin Southern Dunes in Maricopa. The Stadium Course has wide fairways, rough and plenty of water. You really have to hit a wayward shot to hit in the desert. And the same is true for Southern Dunes, which has an Australian Sandbelt feel with big bunkers, huge greens, lots of undulation and most importantly, plentiful turf.
Tucson, Arizona: Just 90 minutes south of Scottsdale, Tucson certainly has a different feel. While there are certainly high end facilities like Marana's The Golf Club at Dove Mountain, overall it's less expensive to play in Tucson. The area has several resort courses such the Notah Begay-designed Sewailo Golf Club at Casino Del Sol. Opened in 2013, Sewailo is another course with lots of turf and water, so you really have to be offline to hit it in the desert. Other top quality resort courses include Ventana Canyon, Westin La Paloma, Starr Pass, Omni Tucson National Resort & Spa and Arizona National Golf Club, the home course for the University of Arizona Golf Club. The city also has a solid municipal system of courses, and the area is also home to Tubac Resort, where much of the movie "Tin Cup" was filmed.
One other item to consider, Tucson is 1,000 feet higher in elevation than Phoenix-Scottsdale, and as a result, tends to be a few degrees cooler during the summer months.
Value desert golf you might not have considered
Each desert golf destination in the southwest becomes a "value" destination in the summertime, that is if you're able to manage triple-digit temperatures. But if you're looking for a bargain desert golf destination that might be under the radar, consider one that I haven't mentioned earlier: the El Paso, Texas-Southern New Mexico region, which sits around 4,500 feet of elevation. El Paso has a couple of outstanding public courses – 27-hole Painted Dunes and Butterfield Trail. Painted Dunes was designed by Ken Dye and Jeffrey Brauer. Well-maintained, the rack rates for daily play is between $25 and $35.
Butterfield Trail, owned by El Paso International Airport, is one of the best municipals in the country. It's an expansive, impressive Tom Fazio design that has lots of links features. Cost to play is $65 on weekdays and $80 on the weekend ($45, $60 for locals), which includes range balls and golf cart.
Then you could head to Las Cruces, N.M., 45 miles north and take on a couple of real gems. First, check out the New Mexico State University Golf Course, which has played host to three NCAA National Championships. It's actually a parkland course, so finding the desert (which doesn't have the saguaros found in the Sonoran Desert) really takes a wayward shot. Best of all, it'll cost you $30 or so to play. Then, check out Las Cruces Golf Club at Sonoma Ranch, a 7,028-yard course with breathtaking views of the Organ Mountains, Picacho Peak and the Mesilla Valley. Green fees are $29 and $39 respectively, and be sure to try the authentic New Mexican enchiladas in the clubhouse (they are a bit hot).
And if you really want to round out your trip, head a couple hours or so north to Albuquerque, which is in the northern tip of the Chihuahuan Desert, near the edge of the Colorado Plateau. Twin Warriors, Sandia Golf Club and the University of New Mexico Course are all well above average desert courses.
Summertime golf in the northwest's "high desert"
This may come as a surprise, but there's desert golf in western Colorado, the Pacific Northwest and even Canada. Yep, that's right; there's desert golf in British Columbia, Canada (Okanagan-Thompson Plateau). If you're ever in the Kamloops area of B.C., be sure to check out Tobiano Golf Club, which looks like it was built on the moon. It's truly one of the most unique courses in the world.
One of the best desert locations outside the Southwest is certainly the high desert region of the Columbian Basin in central Oregon around the town of Bend. The area actually features a combination of desert valley courses and mountain courses. While the ones in the mountains and foothills are seasonal, courses like the Nicklaus and private Fazio layouts at Pronghorn, and Eagle Crest and Tetherow in Bend are playable almost year-round. They don't have a different look that the courses of the Sonoran Desert, but they are desert landscapes nonetheless, and the Cascade Mountains that surround them provide a stunning backdrop.
Desert golf and the environment
At first glance it would seem that golf courses in the desert can't possibly be a good way to use our natural resources. After all, golf courses use lots of water, and the desert, as comedian Jim Gaffigan says, means "no agua."
Of course, that's not entirely true. Golf courses can't be built in places where no ample supply of water exists, but water is certainly a precious resource. That's why many of these courses have converted from potable water to reclaimed or brackish water sources.
More importantly, many desert courses have cutback on irrigated turf. A great example is Kierland Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. Within the last decade, Kierland has removed nearly 30 acres of turf and replaced with low-water desert plants, trees and decomposed granite. The result is a savings of more than 25 million gallons of water annually.