The landscape at Black Desert Resort in Ivins, Utah is defined by deposits of black volcanic rock. Photos by Andrew Hartsock
Historically, the lava fields in southern Utah have been a place most folks avoid.
A massive undertaking carved into those same signature black rocks aspires to have the opposite effect. Though much of the infrastructure of the 600-acre Black Desert Resort in Ivins, Utah, still is under construction, its dramatic 18-hole golf course
opened fully earlier this year, and already the clock is ticking on the staff there to get ready for its close-up. Or, rather, its close-ups.
Before the course’s full 18 holes were officially opened for play, the LPGA Tour announced it would hold an event at Black Desert Resort in 2025. Then the PGA Tour paid a visit and announced it would host a full-field event as part of its FedEx
Cup Fall — in 2024, just over a year before the full course was deemed playable.
“We just finished growing in the course,” says Ken Yates, Black Desert Resort’s GCSAA Class A superintendent and longtime journeyman Troon employee who, except for a brief Hawaiian vacation in early November, has been on-site since February
2022. “Now it’s a matter of getting it to the standards we want.”
“We hope to have a mature stand by a year after we opened,” adds Ross Laubscher, a GCSAA Class A superintendent and director of construction and agronomy for Reef Capital Partners who has been at the course (and still maintains his office
there, inside the temporary maintenance building carved into a sea can shipping container) for even longer, since July 2021. “We’d taken some lumps early by putting players out there on grass that wasn’t quite there yet. Now I’d
say conditioning-wise, I’d put it up there with the best golf courses in the world.”
This is saying something, since the course — which features Kentucky bluegrass roughs but bentgrass fairways and greens that are a bit of an anomaly in this part of the country — only began seeding in May 2022 and finished seven months
later. The first nine holes opened in November 2022, and the full 18 in May of this year.
PGA Tour officials visited in January 2023 and quickly decided they wanted to make Black Desert Resort the first PGA or LPGA Tour stop in Utah in more than 60 years when it hosts the Black Desert Championship in October 2024.
“I wasn’t surprised,” says Laubscher, a 23-year association member. “The challenge it presents is from a build-out standpoint with all the lava. I was a little surprised they were so optimistic about it.”
Turf at Black Desert Resort is a mix of Kentucky bluegrass roughs and bentgrass fairways and greens to keep water needs low.
Ah, yes, the lava. Basalt remnants of a volcanic eruption a relatively recent 30,000 or so years ago (time is relative; ’tis but a blink geologically) litter the ground in this part of Utah.
“We really have examples of some interesting lava,” says Joseph Platt, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of biological sciences at Utah Tech University and director of environmental services for Black Desert Resort — and a one-year Educator
member of GCSAA. “It’s just not a habitat or environment people are familiar with unless they live in Hawaii. I bring people out all the time, and they’re fascinated with what the lava’s doing.”
What the lava did in the not-to-distant past, Platt says, was make some of the land in and around Ivins and the larger adjacent city of St. George, about a two-hour drive from Las Vegas, inhospitable.
“Southern Utah has this pioneer heritage,” he says. “When they settled Salt Lake City, the Mormon pioneers — Brigham Young — found iron north of us, so they’d send families to go live there and mine the iron. Here in
St. George, they found the weather compatible to grow cotton, so they sent hundreds to live here in the 1860s to create ‘Dixie’ and grow cotton. The whole curse was to get across the lava to St. George. They were coming in covered wagons.
You can’t just bull through the lava. It was a huge problem. You couldn’t farm it. You couldn’t cross it. It was just in the way. It’s an interesting part of the environment. It’s just not appreciated.”
The land that’s becoming Black Desert Resort — with 200 acres set aside as protected conservation area — was an overlooked part of the region, which sits a short drive away from five national parks, says Yates, a 12-year GCSAA member.
“People could see the rock from the road … and drive right past it,” he says.
Before settling on a resort and golf course, Laubscher says, the owner considered carving trails and an equestrian center out of what, even now, Platt describes as “rugged, a turmoil of geology.”
“When you talk about bringing people in to see a beautiful natural area like this, there’s not anything better than a golf course,” Laubscher says. “We’re going to bring 40,000 people through this corridor to see all the
lava features. Would you be able to get 40,000 people to walk through a trail in a desert? No way.”
Locals expressed concern when the resort was planned, primarily about water use and all that rugged black rock.
“I think there was concern we’d come in and start tearing stuff up. It could have been somebody else a lot worse,” says Ross, who has lived in the area for 20-plus years.
Counters Yates: “It could have been a quarry, and all that lava would start turning up for sale in home-improvement stores around the country.”
The 18-hole layout at Black Desert Resort was the final project designed by Tom Weiskopf before his death in 2022.
Black Desert Resort’s 7,200-yard, par-72, 18-hole layout (a 19th hole is under construction) was designed by Tom Weiskopf and partner Phil Smith. It was Weiskopf’s final design before his death in 2022. He saw the lava as a feature, not a
“The way they put the golf course all around the natural lava,” Yates says, “it’s like it was meant to be there.”
It’s undeniably striking. The black rock contrasts with the lush green of the turfgrass, the deep blue of the water features, the azure of the enormous sky, and, of course, the surrounding red rock mountains that race up to meet that sky. During
the fall and winter, white-capped mountains in the distance add to the spectrum.
As of October, Yates hadn’t yet played the course (“I planted every blade of grass. I didn’t want to chunk it up,” he jokes), but many others have. Even with tee times limited to 15 minutes apart to give the impression of being
alone in the vast landscape, BDR is expected to host between 30,000 and 35,000 rounds by year’s end, up from the estimate of 20,000 made when the course opened fully in May.
“I think people are seeing the value of the resort and thinking this is actually really cool,” Laubscher says of local sentiment now. “Tee times are packed. And when we get on TV, we’ll be seen all over the world.”
Part of Black Desert Resort has been set aside as a wildlife preserve, with plans for future facilities including a nature center to inform visitors about native plants and animals. Photo by Joseph Platt
The resort’s 150-room eco-hotel is still a work in progress. A registered member of Audubon International’s Signature Sanctuary Program, Black Desert Resort is striving to earn a property-wide designation as the first Platinum Certified Signature
Sanctuary, that program’s highest level. The resort is scheduled to open before the PGA Tour comes to town, with an expansive Golf Village, Family Village and Boardwalk complexes to follow.
Sustainability is top-of-mind for Reef Capital Partners, the investment firm behind Black Desert Resort — as evidenced by the hiring of Platt, who started on the project as a “hired-gun” consultant before becoming the facility’s
director of environmental affairs.
“I’ve been consulting for over 30 years, and I’ve had clients I wouldn’t do a second job for,” he says. “They just want to get around things. There’s not been any of that here. They’re very interested in
reducing their footprint as much as possible.”
Cognizant of water concerns, all irrigation on the course’s 75 acres of turf will use gray water sources, and the bentgrass will obviate the need for overseeding. The resort will use all-LED lights and be powered by a low-voltage Power Over Ethernet
Platt has already invited Utah Tech faculty and their students out to conduct research. After the resort opens, construction begins on a nature center where Platt and others will entertain school field trips and inform visitors about native flora and
fauna. Platt envisions regular lectures on topics like astronomy (the resort is careful to adhere to dark-sky-preservation guidelines), geology and zoology.
“I get excited about the educational program because I’m a teacher, and Black Desert has been willing to support that,” Platt says. “Without question, they’re supporting education and public outreach. It matters. People here
grew up five minutes away from wild country. They care about that, and they want to use it. We’re providing education and opportunity.”
Another example: Tucked away in a quiet corner of the course is a 2-acre short game practice facility exclusively for use by the Utah Tech golf teams.
“There’s no way the resort is making money off that,” Platt says. “They just decided it was a good thing to support the university. It’s the only golf course that allows for outdoor golf year-round for universities in Utah.
All the others get snowed it. That’s just another example of, as concerns have come up, they’ve been very receptive to address them.”
The crew at Black Desert Resort is currently preparing the course for PGA and LPGA events in 2024 and 2025.
Yates counts among his crew first assistant Jordan Rhodes, a two-year GCSAA member, and second assistant Juan Lopez. They tend to bentgrass fairways (Dominator and 007XL) and greens (007XL).
“That’s a big deal, doing bentgrass in southern Utah,” Laubscher says.
“We’re trailblazers,” Yates adds. “If you drive 15 minutes south, you can’t do it.”
Another challenge is maneuvering around all that affiliated construction.
“He’s used to it by now,” Laubscher says of Yates. “He’s working side-by-side with the construction seamlessly. But it’s out there, and you have to pay attention to it.”
Yates just shrugs.
“When I got here, there was just a big hole where the resort is now,” he says. “I don’t even notice it now.”
While some of the construction has proven fortuitous to the golf course — the sand used to sandcap the fairways was excavated from the underground parking garage — some has not. A huge pile of displaced boulders, “Rock Mountain,”
is visible from a few otherwise picturesque vantage points.
That should be sorted before the PGA Tour comes to town, but one thing that won’t change is the signature backdrop of all that lava — and the unique challenges it presents. Though the visual contrasts will play well on TV, the narrow routing
means some areas of the course simply won’t be accessible to spectators.
“This is huge for the city and the area and the state to show off what we’re doing here,” Yates says. “It’s not a stadium course, but we’ll be ready.”
Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s senior managing editor.