Grade “A” Architecture

Desert Highlands Golf Club, Scottsdale, Arizona

13th hole / 394 Yards / Par-4
Architect: Jack Nicklaus

Architecture - Desert Highlands GC, Scottsdale, Arizona
Accessing the 13th green requires a choice of fairway options

One of the most difficult assignments in course design is successfully balancing challenges faced by both low and high handicap players. Versatility lies at the heart of ultimate hole greatness — mandating golfers, of all playing levels, to combine physical and mental acuity at all times. Holes that accentuate choices are ones that prove to be the most bedeviling.

The highly acclaimed Desert Highlands Golf Club recently re-opened following a $7 million renovation project. The project, which began in April 2019, included renovating every bunker and restoring the 13th hole to its original design, a new irrigation system and updating cart paths.

The 13th at Desert Highlands is an excellent example of a mid-length par-4 — the kind of hole generally viewed by better players as easy fodder. That’s hardly the case here.

Jack Nicklaus played a major role in reshaping how golf and the desert environment intersect in the sweeping Valley of the Sun area in Arizona. It’s hard to imagine now but when Desert Highlands came into public view it was during the original Skins Game competition between Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Gary Player in 1983 — the same year the club opened. The striking contrast between the verdant cut grass and the stark desert environment presented an eye-catching scene.

Architecture - Desert Highlands GC, Scottsdale, Arizona

The 13th provides one of the more common design elements used by architects — the split fairway. However, far too many times when the split fairway concept is put into practice — the need to consider both fairway options often doesn’t happen — with one clearly superior than the other. The 13th at Desert Highlands presents a weightier matter for golfers to ponder before choosing.

When you stand on the tee box — you’re presented with two alternate pathways. Clear choices with varying demands each dependent upon the golfer deciding what avenue works best for them.


The left fairway option is considerably wider than the right. Players opting to play in this direction will increase their odds in having more fairway at their disposal, but the real issue emerges with the approach shot. Nicklaus angled the putting surface so the percentage of available landing area is narrower from that angle. To complicate matters, there’s a fronting bunker eagerly awaiting the timid play. In its original form the fronting bunker was massive — swallowing up anything not crisply struck. Recent work reduced the size of the bunker but its impact is still present and needs to be accounted for with the approach.

Architecture - Desert Highlands GC, Scottsdale, Arizona
Standing on the 13th tee is fraught with possibilities — be sure to choose wisely!

The other fairway option is quite daunting — primarily the visual apprehension caused from the tee. Players can attack the hole head-on but the requirements mandates a laser-like tee shot that, at minimum, must carry 245 yards to safely reach the fairway area.  One of the aspects of the right side option is its lack of any fairway border. Pushed or pulled tee shots will find the native desert area that awaits. Such an outcome can range from having no second shot or having one impeded in some way. Rarely does a misfire from the tee escape unscathed.

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Yet, if one is successful in marrying accuracy and length — the reward is an easier approach angle. The green provides its share of contours with a configuration far from pedestrian in character.

In golf architecture today — stellar par-4s less than 400 yards are hard to find.  Those providing a meaningful challenge in striking the appropriate balance between risk and and reward and placing squarely on the shoulders of the golfer to decide what route to follow.

The 13th at Desert Highlands does this in supreme fashion.


Images courtesy of Brad White, Desert Highlands Golf Club

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