Desert Golf: The Final Frontier for Serious Golfers

Desert golf has been gaining traction over the years as golfers seek new and distinct challenges that veer from the traditional parkland or links-style courses. Located primarily in arid regions, these courses offer a landscape of unique beauty, featuring expansive sandy areas, indigenous plants like cacti, and often, stunning mountain backdrops. 

The allure isn't just aesthetic; the specific conditions of desert golf courses require a different set of skills and strategic approaches, providing even seasoned golfers with an opportunity to test their mettle. Many prestigious tournaments have been hosted on desert courses, further elevating their status within the golfing community.

Interested in learning more about these unique courses? You’ll love what he have in store.

Why Is It Called A Desert Course?

A desert golf course is a type of golf layout specifically designed to integrate with an arid, desert environment. Unlike traditional parkland or links courses that you might be accustomed to, desert courses present a unique blend of challenges and aesthetic qualities derived from their natural surroundings. 

Typically located in regions with dry climates, these courses are characterized by sandy soil, sparse vegetation, and often rocky terrain. You'll find cacti, native shrubs, and sometimes even desert wildlife as part of the landscape. These elements not only add to the visual appeal but also create unique hazards that you need to navigate during your round.

desert course terrain

The design of desert golf courses often incorporates the existing topography rather than altering it extensively. You're likely to encounter undulating fairways, elevated tees, and greens that either sit well above or below you. 

Waste areas, which are expanses of natural desert sand, often replace traditional roughs and even bunkers in some cases. These areas are usually not groomed like bunkers on a regular course, making for a different and sometimes more difficult shot experience. Because of the dry climate and conservation concerns, you'll also notice less grassy area on desert courses. What grass exists is often limited to the teeing grounds, fairways, and greens. Beyond these, it's primarily desert landscape.

Characteristics Of Desert Golf Courses

playing on a desert golf course introduces a set of characteristics that distinctly set it apart from other types of courses. Understanding these features is crucial if you wish to succeed in this unique environment. These include:


  • Sandy Soil: Desert courses often consist of a sandy base that impacts the playability of the golf ball. The ball tends to bounce and roll more than it does on traditional grassy fairways. This requires you to think through your approach shots carefully.
  • Rocky Areas: In addition to sandy expanses, rocky areas can pose hazards and can be punitive if your ball ends up there. Not only are they difficult to play from, but they can also damage your clubs.
  • Undulating Fairways: Unlike the flatter fairways of parkland courses, desert courses often have naturally undulating fairways, requiring you to adjust your stance and swing accordingly.


man plays golf under hot desert sun

  • Extreme Heat: The heat can be a formidable opponent on a desert course. It not only affects you physically but also impacts the behavior of your golf ball. The ball tends to travel farther in hot, dry air, making club selection vital.
  • Dry Air: The lack of moisture in the air can make the golf ball travel a greater distance but also makes it more susceptible to winds. Controlling spin becomes a crucial aspect of the game here.
  • Sun Exposure: With little to no shade available, protecting yourself from the sun becomes a critical consideration. Proper attire and plenty of hydration are essential.

Course Design

  • Waste Areas: These are expanses of natural desert sand that often serve as the rough. Unlike traditional bunkers, these areas are not groomed and can include rocks and native vegetation. Playing from waste areas is a common challenge and requires a distinct skill set.
  • Elevated Tees and Greens: Many desert courses feature elevated tees and greens, giving you stunning views but also making club selection and distance judgment more challenging.
  • Greens: The greens on a desert course are often faster and firmer than those on other types of courses. They may also be multi-tiered or heavily contoured, making putting a real test of skill.


  • Cacti and Native Plants: While visually stunning, the flora can present real challenges. Some plants are not just obstacles but hazards that you want to avoid at all costs to prevent damaging your ball or even injuring yourself.
  • Water Hazards: Though less common than in other types of courses due to the arid conditions, when water hazards do exist, they are often dramatically implemented into the course design as a focal point and a major obstacle.
  • Animals and Wildlife: It’s not uncommon to encounter desert wildlife such as snakes or lizards. While they add to the unique experience, they can also be hazards in their own right.

Adapted Rules And Local Guidelines For Desert Courses

When you step onto a desert golf course, you'll quickly realize that the standard rulebook might not entirely apply. Desert courses often incorporate adapted rules and local guidelines tailored to their unique conditions, both for the sake of playability and to protect the sensitive ecosystem. Such modifications include:

Unplayable Lies

desert wildlife

  • Rocky Terrain and Native Plants: In a standard round of golf, an unplayable lie usually results in a one-stroke penalty. On desert courses, local rules often allow for free drops from areas that could potentially damage your clubs or injure you, such as rocky terrain or hazardous vegetation like cacti. Always consult with the pro shop or a course official to understand these specific local rules.
  • Wildlife Interference: Given that desert courses are often home to native wildlife, including snakes and other potentially dangerous animals, local rules usually specify safe procedures for handling a ball that lands near these creatures, often without incurring a penalty.

Environmental Preservation

  • Designated Areas: Due to the fragility of desert ecosystems, many courses define specific areas where carts are allowed and areas that should be entirely avoided. Straying from these designated areas not only breaks local guidelines but can also lead to substantial fines.
  • Waste Areas: Local rules often treat waste areas differently than traditional bunkers or rough. Rakes are usually not provided, and you are often allowed to ground your club, unlike in a standard bunker. It's critical to understand how waste areas are defined and what actions are permitted when your ball ends up in one.
  • Water Conservation: Many desert courses employ water conservation methods, including the use of drought-resistant turfgrass and specific watering schedules. Therefore, local guidelines may include rules around ball retrieval from water features or the types of actions that are permitted near water hazards.

Pace of Play

  • Heat Factors: Desert courses often have pace-of-play guidelines that are adapted to account for the extreme heat, recommending faster rounds during peak heat hours. This can include suggested tee times and speed-of-play expectations.
  • Search Time: Given that desert terrains can make it more challenging to find errant balls, some courses have local rules that limit the time you can spend searching for a lost ball to maintain the pace of play.

Tips For Playing Better Desert Golf

Club Down Off the Tee

In traditional golf settings, the driver is often your go-to club off the tee to maximize distance. However, desert golf courses usually feature tighter fairways, and errant shots are penalized more severely by waste areas and other native hazards. 

hybrid golf course

Using a fairway wood or a hybrid allows for better control, which in turn, increases the chances of your ball staying in the fairway. By clubbing down, you can still achieve reasonable distance due to the firmer and faster fairways. This strategy is especially useful on holes where the landing area is narrow or where hazards come into play from the tee.

Factor in the Heat 

Extreme heat is a characteristic feature of desert golf. The dry, hot air affects the aerodynamics of the ball, usually resulting in longer ball flights. This phenomenon requires you to adjust your club selection. For example, if you're facing a 150-yard approach shot, consider using a club that you'd normally hit 140 yards. 

The additional distance can also be more pronounced on downhill shots, so plan accordingly. Furthermore, the heat takes a toll on your physical condition. Keep yourself hydrated throughout the round; dehydration affects not just your health but also your concentration and decision-making abilities.

Master the Waste Area

Waste areas are common on desert courses and can be filled with rocks, native plants, and other debris. Unlike bunkers on traditional courses, waste areas are generally not groomed. The key to successfully navigating a shot from these areas is to use a more upright swing plane, allowing you to "pick" the ball cleanly off the surface. This minimizes the chances of hitting rocks or debris that can cause a mis-hit or even damage your club. In some cases, a less-lofted club like a 7- or 8-iron can be more effective for these shots, as they allow for cleaner contact.

Focus on Accuracy

While bombing drives may be satisfying, accuracy takes precedence on a desert golf course. With fewer trees but more punishing hazards, a misplaced shot can quickly lead to trouble. By focusing on accuracy, you're committing to a strategy that minimizes risk and often leaves you with easier second shots. In practice, this could mean opting for a well-placed layup instead of trying to carry a daunting hazard. It may also involve taking a more conservative line off the tee to ensure you're in the fairway for your approach.

Plan for Elevation Changes

Elevation changes are a common feature of many desert golf courses. From elevated tees that provide panoramic views to greens that sit either significantly above or below you, adjusting your club selection for these changes is crucial. Uphill shots generally require you to take more club than the distance would indicate. This is because you have to overcome both the slope and the pull of gravity. On a steep uphill, don't be surprised if you need one or two clubs more than you would normally use for that distance on level ground.

Conversely, downhill shots often require less club. The ball will carry further as it descends, so you might opt for a club that you'd use for a shorter distance. However, don't forget that hitting into a downslope can also affect how the ball reacts upon landing, often resulting in less backspin and a longer roll-out. Factor this into your landing zone calculations. Understanding the nuances of playing uphill and downhill shots will help you make smarter club choices and execute more precise approaches to greens.

Understand Local Rules

Desert courses often introduce specific local rules that diverge from the standard rules of golf. These usually relate to the unique hazards and challenges of the desert landscape. For example, you may encounter unplayable lies in rocky areas or among native plants like cacti. Some courses allow for a free drop nearby, without penalty, to prevent you from damaging your clubs or suffering injury. Always consult the local rules sheet or speak to a course official to clarify these points before you tee off.

know the rules

Waste areas, expanses of natural desert sand, can also have unique rules. Unlike bunkers on traditional courses, you're often allowed to ground your club in waste areas. You'll likely find rocks, plants, and even wildlife in these waste areas, making for a different and often more complex shot experience. Understanding the local rules related to these challenges will not only save you strokes but also help you navigate the course more effectively.

Be Mindful of the Wildlife

Wildlife is a unique and often charming aspect of desert golf but comes with its own set of precautions. Many desert courses are home to a variety of creatures, from harmless birds to potentially dangerous animals like snakes or scorpions. Exercise extreme caution when retrieving balls from native areas or when reaching into bushes. The rule of thumb is: if you can't see it, don't reach for it. Some courses will have local rules allowing for a free drop if your ball lands in an area deemed dangerous due to wildlife.

Additionally, always be aware of your surroundings. It's not uncommon for animals to wander onto fairways or greens. Give them the right-of-way, and wait for them to move. Interfering with wildlife is not only dangerous but may also be against local laws or course rules. Your safety, and the welfare of the animals, should always be a priority.

Read the Greens Carefully

Putting on desert courses often presents unique challenges that can significantly impact your score. The greens are usually fast and can have subtle breaks and undulations that are influenced by the natural terrain. Grain direction, or the direction in which the grass grows, is crucial in how your putt will behave. Unlike other types of courses where grain may not be as evident, desert greens often show more pronounced grain due to the specific types of grass used to withstand arid conditions.

Reading the grain correctly can be the difference between a made putt and a miss. For instance, putting against the grain typically slows down the ball, while putting with the grain can make it run faster than you expect. Always take a good look at the green from multiple angles, and if possible, walk around it to get a complete picture. Take note of the surrounding landscape as well; the general slope of the terrain can influence the roll of the ball, even if the green itself looks relatively flat.

Play Smart Around Water Hazards

Water hazards are less frequent on desert courses due to the natural scarcity of water. However, when present, they are often strategically placed to maximize their impact on your game. Whether it's a daunting carry over water off the tee or a tricky approach shot with water guarding the green, the decision-making process becomes critical. Always assess the risk versus reward before deciding your course of action. 

If you're not entirely confident in pulling off a shot that brings water into play, it may be smarter to take a more conservative route. For instance, instead of going for the green in two on a par-5 with water in front, laying up to a comfortable wedge distance might be the wise play. Remember, water hazards in desert courses are often deeper and contain less forgiving drop areas, making the penalty for a mistake even higher.

Adapt Your Short Game 

The short game in desert golf often requires an adaptation of techniques to suit the firmer and faster conditions. In contrast to lusher courses where the ball tends to stop quickly on the greens, desert courses usually have harder ground around the putting surface. This makes chips and pitches more prone to bouncing and rolling out, turning what might seem like straightforward short game shots into complicated situations. 

Incorporating bump-and-run shots, where you land the ball before the green and let it roll out, can be an effective strategy. Using a less-lofted club like a 7- or 8-iron to execute this shot often yields better results than a higher lofted wedge. Similarly, don't discount the option of putting from off the green. When the ground is hard and fast, a putter can often be the most reliable club to get the ball close to the hole.


When playing in the desert, the heat can have a dramatic effect on your energy levels and concentration. This is where nutrition comes into play. Carrying a product like a Whole In One whole-food bar can provide sustained energy without the crash that comes from sugar-heavy snacks. It's designed to deliver essential nutrients and energy steadily, which is crucial for maintaining focus and stamina, especially during a long round in the sun. 

Equally important is staying hydrated. In desert conditions, you'll sweat more, making it easy to become dehydrated. Water is the obvious choice, but also consider electrolyte-replenishing beverages to help maintain your body's balance.

Desert Inspired Courses You Must Play On

While these courses aren’t as widely available as parkland courses, it is well worth the time getting to some of the most awe-inspiring places you might ever play golf. And the best part? You can find quite a few of them right here in beautiful US of A. 

These are a few noteworthy ones.

Shadow Creek - North Las Vegas, Nevada 

What sets Shadow Creek apart is its stunning transformation of the Nevada desert into what almost feels like a Carolina-style course. Tom Fazio used immense resources to create lakes, waterfalls, and thousands of trees that stand in stark contrast to the desert surroundings. The level of exclusivity and seclusion also adds to its allure, giving you a sense that you're in a golf sanctuary far removed from the buzz of Las Vegas.

Strategically, the course requires you to make good use of your entire bag. Fairways are lush but lined with mature trees and water, requiring precise tee shots. Green complexes are designed to challenge your short game skills, so don’t expect straightforward chips and putts.

TPC Scottsdale (Stadium Course) - Scottsdale, Arizona 

Unlike Shadow Creek, TPC Scottsdale embraces its desert surroundings. Designed by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish, this course is probably best known for its 16th hole, a par-3 enclosed by grandstands that create a stadium-like atmosphere. However, the course offers much more than just this one hole. It employs the natural undulations and vegetation of the Sonoran Desert.

You need to consider not just length but also the angle of approach to navigate the carefully placed bunkers and natural waste areas. The course provides a series of risk-reward situations where aggressive play can yield birdies, but any miscues are swiftly punished. It's a layout that demands a well-thought-out strategy for each hole, rewarding planning and execution over mere power.

Bighorn Golf Club (Mountains Course) - Palm Desert, California 

Set against the backdrop of the Santa Rosa Mountains, Bighorn takes the concept of elevation changes to the extreme. Designed by Arthur Hills, this course literally carves its way through the mountains, offering a series of dramatic tee shots and approaches. The course is a striking blend of natural rock formations, desert flora, and strategically positioned water hazards.

Your club selection here is critical due to changes in elevation that can drastically affect distance. The undulating greens also require a keen eye for reading breaks. Factor in the wind conditions often present at higher elevations, and you've got a course that will test every aspect of your game from tee to green.

The Quarry at La Quinta, 

Designed by Tom Fazio, the Quarry is a masterpiece that blends the beauty and harshness of the desert landscape with the strategic intricacies of quarry-style holes. When you step onto the course, you're presented with perfectly manicured fairways and greens, almost as if you're playing on a canvas painted by an artist. The transition from desert to quarry holes isn't just visually stunning; it changes how you approach the game.

The desert holes require careful shot selection to avoid native areas, while the quarry holes often incorporate dramatic elevation changes and water hazards that challenge your ability to adapt. This dual personality of the course forces you to be multi-dimensional in your game; you can't just be a long-hitter or a short-game magician. You have to be both.

Troon North's Pinnacle Course 

Designed by Tom Weiskopf, this is another classic that immerses you in the desert landscape of Scottsdale, Arizona. Unlike traditional parkland courses laden with trees and water, Troon North uses the desert to its advantage. Natural cacti, native vegetation, and large boulders are not just aesthetic elements; they are integral parts of the layout.

The multi-tiered greens are often surrounded by challenging bunkers that penalize inaccurate shots. However, what truly sets this course apart is its seamless blend with the natural surroundings. You don't feel as if you're playing on a constructed course; you feel as if the course has always been a part of the desert landscape. The large, multi-tiered greens challenge your putting skills, demanding not just speed but also direction, and bunkers often come into play, forcing you to be strategic with both club selection and shot shape.

Whirlwind Golf Club (Devil’s Claw and Cattail), Arizona: 

In my years of play, Whirlwind Golf Club stands out for its incorporation of Native American land, blending traditional links-style golf with the unique features of desert golf. The Devil’s Claw course utilizes native grasses and offers wider fairways, which can be forgiving to the errant shot, but its greens are complex and undulating, demanding precise approaches.

On the other hand, the Cattail course is known for its greater emphasis on water hazards, adding a different layer of complexity. You'll find that both courses require a well-thought-out strategy. To excel, you need to manage your game around the natural elements like desert brush, cacti, and arroyos.

Course management is key: lay up when needed and know when to take risks. Understanding the natural grain of the greens, especially under the Arizona sun, can be the difference between a birdie and a bogey. Your driving accuracy, approach shots, and short game will be put to the test here. If you're looking to experience the heart of desert golf with a side of traditional links strategy, Whirlwind is a must-play.

Grayhawk Golf Club (Talon and Raptor Courses), Arizona 

Grayhawk offers two distinctly challenging courses that have been tested by high-level competitions. The Talon course is notorious for its dramatic elevation changes and deep box canyons, requiring you to make smart club selections and accurate shots. The greens are multi-tiered, testing your ability to read subtle undulations.

The Raptor course is a bit more straightforward but not any easier. Strategic bunker placement demands that you keep your tee shots in play. Water hazards are introduced at key moments, making risk-reward decisions a constant throughout your round.

For example, you may face a daunting carry over water to a pin tucked behind a bunker, forcing a choice between the aggressive play and the safer route to the middle of the green. Mastery over your mid-irons and wedges is crucial for scoring low here. Also, bring your A-game in putting; these greens can be slick and tricky to read. Both courses demand a well-rounded skill set and the ability to adapt to changing conditions.

Bighorn Golf Club (Mountains and Canyons Courses), California 

Bighorn offers two distinct experiences that require different aspects of your game to shine. Let's start with the Mountains Course. The dramatic elevation changes are the first thing you'll notice. In particular, the par-4 18th hole is a spectacular finishing touch, boasting a 1,000-foot elevation drop from tee to fairway. This hole epitomizes the course: it's visually stunning but strategically demanding. You need to factor in the elevation changes not just for distance, but also for how it will affect the flight and roll of your ball.

The Canyons Course, on the other hand, offers a different challenge with its narrow fairways, requiring more precision off the tee. Both courses demand excellent course management. Your short game will also be crucial, as the greens are often elevated or recessed, requiring a variety of chip and pitch shots. Water hazards and bunkers are strategically placed to punish any lapse in judgment. Your mental game needs to be sharp, too. The stunning views can be distracting, but you must maintain focus, especially on your approach shots and putts. At Bighorn, the game isn't just played on the fairways and greens; it's played between your ears. Adaptability, strategy, and focus are key if you wish to master these magnificent courses.

Final Words

Playing on a desert course can fundamentally change the way you think of playing golf. It’s almost like playing on an entirely different planet; but that’s what makes golf such an enthralling sport.

If you haven’t tries one yet, consider it a rite of passage; don’t let your life whizz by and never having experiencing one of these.