In the process of playing Golf Digest’s Top 100 I have learned many new things. I’ve learned the least expensive way to rent a car and get a hotel room, the quickest way to get through airport security and most recently I learned a little bit about the geography of Arizona. When I first started planning to go to Arizona to play Stone Canyon back in April 2010 I thought I would try to play Estancia and Forest Highlands on the same trip. I quickly discovered that Arizona is not all sun and fun in the winter. Flagstaff, where Forest Highlands is located, gets a significant amount of snow during the winter and there is definitely no golf being played. Last April when I was planning to make my trip to Phoenix and Tucson the courses would just be waking up from winter in Flagstaff and would be unplayable. I always associated Arizona with the desert and never really knew that there was another side to the state. I learn something new every day.
So Arizona is one of the states where I don’t have a whole lot of great contacts. I had no idea at all how I was going to play Forest Highlands and over the last couple of years I had been asking around but nothing had turned up. Then, in June of 2010 I got an email from a gentleman in Phoenix named Bob. Bob had stumbled across my website and contacted me with an invitation to join him at Forest Highlands to play the Canyon Course. I was, of course, elated and responded that I would touch base with him in a few months when I began working on my 2011 travel schedule. When that time rolled around we exchanged a number of emails and settled on a date in June when the course would be in peak condition.
When June rolled around I caught a flight into Phoenix and stayed there for two days to play The Boulders and Estancia. When I finished up at Estancia I hopped in my rental car and began the drive to Flagstaff. As I made my way to I-17 I passed through Carefree, Arizona on the Carefee Highway which made me think about Gordon Lightfoot’s song of the same name. After years of listening to that song I had always thought the Carefree Highway was a metaphorical place, not an actual road!!!
After exiting Carefree Highway onto I-17N I had about two hours in front of me which proved to be an interesting drive. When I started out in Scottsdale the landscape was stereotypical Arizona with Saguaro cacti and vast expanses of desert. As I climbed further up the mountain the cacti began disappearing in favor of low lying shrubs and then by time I was 30 minutes outside of Flagstaff the landscape had completely changed to massive evergreen pine trees similar to what I see on the east coast. It was cool to watch the transformation.
Once I arrived in Flagstaff I found my hotel, grabbed a quick dinner and crashed for the night. As usual I was keeping myself on East Coast time so I was out before the sun went down. The next morning I got up early, took a conference call for work, grabbed some breakfast and drove over to Forest Highlands where I met up with Bob and his son Michael at their house.
Forest Highlands is a residential development built around the golf club which includes the Canyon and Meadow golf courses which each have their own clubhouse. Once I passed through the gates and followed Bob’s directions to the house I wound my way though the development catching glimpses here and there of the golf courses. CLEARLY these were not the typical Arizona golf courses. The desert had been left far behind and these courses were lined with the same type of enormous pines I had seen out by the interstate once I reached the top of the mountain on my drive to Flagstaff.
Once I met up with Bob and Michael at their house we headed over to the club and hit a few warm up balls on the range before going to the 1st tee. On the tee Bob and I decided to play from the civilized length of 6,572 yards and Michael who is a very low single digit handicap decided to go back to the 7,007 yard barbarian tees.
The 1st hole is a short par 4 of 357 yards that doglegs to the left. A little 3 wood down the left side of the fairway is the ideal shot. The green is tucked back behind a tree and tee shots that go too far to the right will be blocked out. The photo below was taken from the fairway. Note the flag in the distance and the tree to the right of it. This is the problem tree for players to hit their tee shots too far to the right.
And below is a photo of the 1st green. As can be seen below the tree on the right of the green really requires placement of the tee shot.
The 2nd hole is an even shorter par 4 that we played from 320 yards. The photo below was taken from the tee box and the ideal play is to hit a nice 200 yard or more shot down the middle.
The second hole is all about hitting the green and staying on it. There is a significant false front on the green and its easy to end up down where Bob is in the below photo. Note how much lower he is than the putting surface. Its a really significant false front.
After starting out with a couple of short par 4s the gauntlet gets thrown down at the 3rd hole which is a 590 yard par 5. The photo below was taken from the tee and the hole bends around to the left. It takes three solid golf shots to get to the green in regulation on this hole.
The 3rd green which is pictured below is no easy way to finish a tough hole. This is a two tiered green with the left side of the green being higher than the right rather than the back higher than the front. It makes the 3rd shot much more interesting when it has to be placed in the perfect spot. The flag in the photo below is on the upper tier. I ended up hole high, but just off the green to the left of the flag. Even the perfect little flop shot I hit didn’t keep me on the green and I rolled past the flag, down the hill and off the front of the green. Its very tough to be left when the hole is on the top tier.
The 4th hole is the first of many one shot holes, six to be exact. This one played 172 yards from our tees and as can be seen by clicking the photo below, the green has a ton of movement in it. It’s a good idea to hit the tee shot as close to the flag as possible here or the first putt could be a tough one.
The 5th hole is another par 5 and we played this one from 506 yards. This one is a little tricky because it doglegs to the right and hitting driver here can result in blowing right through the fairway. A shorter club with a little fade on it is a much smarter play for longer hitters. The photo below was taken from the tee box.
Below is a photo of the 5th green. Again, note the movement in the putting surface. The greens here on the Canyon Course are not pushovers. There is a lot of detail to be navigated in order to get the ball in the hole.
At the 6th hole we have another par 3 with this one being the longest so far at 205 yards. The photo below was taken from the tee. The hole is fairly straight forward as long as the player can execute a 200+ yard shot.
The 7th hole is the first par 4 since the 2nd hole and the first long par 4 we’ve come to so far. From our tees it plays 428 yards and from the tips a very difficult 476 yards. For those keeping score at home this is only the second time driver has come out of the bag at the Canyon Course. All the short par 4s, par 3s and the dogleg par 5 where you don’t hit driver make it impossible to get into a rhythm with the big stick, so its easy to feel a few nerves with the driver in hand on this tee box. With the hole playing long AND up hill it is a real beast as well which doesn’t help matters. The photo below was taken walking up the fairway near the point where it doglegs to the left a bit.
The photo below is of the 7th green complex.
And here is a closer look at the green itself. This is one of the more flat greens on the course. I guess the architects decided to give the players a break after they had to negotiate a difficult 428 yards to get to the green.
With the 8th hole the driver goes back in the bag and we have another par 3 that we played from 184 yards. This is a great drop shot par 3 with a big green that allows for a variety of hole locations. The photo below was taken from the tee.
The 9th hole is one of the more famous holes at Forest Highlands. It is a long par 4 at 449 yards, but the elevated tee box helps players pick up some extra yardage on their drives. The view from the tee box is gorgeous which certainly doesn’t hurt the hole. Note the huge pine tree in the middle of the fairway in the photo below. The ideal line is right over top of the big pine. The tree shouldn’t really come into play for most players, but I was concerned because my ball flight with my 9 degree driver is very low. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to hit it high enough to get over the tree. Bob and Michael assured me that I would. I did clear it, but there was not much room to spare.
Below is a photo of the approach shot into the green. Not an easy shot with the water hazard fronting the green.
And here is a closer shot of the green. Note the closely mown grass on the right side of the photo. This connects the 9th green to the 18th green.
And here is a photo that shows both the 9th and 18th green flags. This makes for a very cool green complex.
The 9th hole did not return to the clubhouse which is something that I am a big fan of. the 10th hole brought us back to the par 3 theme with this one shot hole being 194 yards. The green was divided into two tiers and the flag is at the back in the photo below.
I fell asleep on my camera duties at the 11th hole so I’ll skip right to the 12th hole which is another par 3. This is another long one that we played from 222 yards. Its a little more forgiving than it looks in the photo below. The green is quite large and there is quite a bit of putting surface beyond the bunkers if a player hits their tee shot to the right.
The 13th hole is a par 5 that we played from 489 yards. Not only is the hole fairly short by par 5 standards, a well placed tee shot can shorten it even more. Players who are too greedy can find themselves in the stream that runs along the right side of the fairway. I managed to get lucky and put myself in a nice spot and had a long iron into the green. The photo below as taken walking up to the green from about 80 yards out.
And here is a view of the green itself. Note the two tiers on this green as well. Unfortunately I missed my eagle putt here.
The final par 3 on the course is another picturesque one that plays 159 yards from the brown tees. As illustrated in the photo below there is trouble short, right and bunkers left. It’s wise to hit the green here or else the up and down can be a tricky one, or worse, you may be re-teeing.
The 15th hole is a mammoth sized par 5 that we played from 540 yards. I walked back to the barbarian tees with Michael to see what the view looked like from back there. The photo below shows what I saw . . . 636 yards of a brute golf hole.
Here is the view from the tees that Bob and I played. Much better but still a LOT of golf hole in front of us.
Below is a photo of the 15th green. Again, a lot of movement here.
The 16th hole is a dogleg left par 4 that we played from 408 yards. The dogleg is pretty severe so the drive needs to well executed in order to have a good angle into the green. The photo below was taken form the tee. The best line is to the left of the tree in the distance.
The 17th hole is a beautiful hole and a fine example of why the course is called the Canyon Course. There are two options from the tee of this 379 yard par 4. The safe play is to pop one out on the right side of the hazard. The bolder line is to play straight at the green and try to carry the hazard. I took the bolder line and it did not end well!
After we finished playing Bob and Michael took me over to the Meadow course and gave me a tour of the other clubhouse. The facilities at Forest Highlands are top notch and the members have a wonderful collection of amenities at their disposal. After finishing the clubhouse tour we took the scenic route back to the house so that I could get a glimpse of some of the Meadow holes. It looks like a great course that is a perfect compliment to the Canyon course.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect at Forest Highlands and what I found was a real treat. The course is fun, playable, strategic and beautiful all at the same time. I loved the routing with six par 3s, seven par 4s and five par 5s. That type of unique design keeps the course interesting and gives a unique feel that often isn’t found in a standard par 72 course with four par 3, 10 par 4s, and four par 5s. The Canyon has personality and that’s what I’ve really grown to enjoy in a golf course. It’s funny that Arizona is known for its warm weather winter golf and the truth is that one of the state’s best courses is buried under snow all winter long.
After I left Bob and Michael I was headed back to Phoenix to catch the red eye flight home. On my way down the mountain I took the scenic route and passed through Sedona which was by far one of the prettiest drives I’ve ever made. Red rocks and canyon walls as far as the eye can see gave me yet another glimpse of what Arizona has to offer. It’s a far more diverse state than I ever imagined. Onward to the airport and my awaiting red eye flight to carry me back to the real world.