The desert oasis has long epitomized galloping excess, even in golf. Can the true spirit of the game survive in the land of tummy tucks and jeweled lame sandals?

April 20, 2009

Getting ready for the shower at La Quinta Resort & Club, in PalmSprings, I was in a contrary state of mind. I had just finished the famedresort's Mountain course and, much as I didn't want to admit it, I hadliked it way too much.

I had come to Palm Springs with an attitude. Very simply, I was prettysure the place represented everything wrong with golf in America. PalmSprings, to my mind, suffered in the extreme from golf's terrible "too"s--tooexpensive, too slow, too many carts, too green and too artificial. Itwas not, shall we say, Golf in the Kingdom.

Now, as to the shower at La Quinta--it is called the "celestial" shower,appropriate for a town where women wear bejeweled gold-lamésandals,and golf carts sport Rolls Royce emblems and the streets are named afterFrank and Dinah. But standing there beneath fifteen precisely aimed nozzlesand looking up at the warm-cobalt sky through the open-air ceiling, Icould think of worse things than excess. I was gently overwhelmed withjets of water from every direction. It was like being rolled by a wavewithout having to hold my breath. Fifteen minutes and several hundredgallons from the Coachella Valley aquifer later, I emerged properly tenderizedfor my PGA West Golf Massage. In a cool, low-lit room filled with eucalyptusvapors, every knot of civilization and its discontents was kneaded rightout of me.

I'd never experienced a better nineteenth hole, and because the eighteenthat had preceded it had offered their own seduction, I felt my resolveagainst the place softening. Sure, Palm Springs wrings out the walletwith triple-digit green fees that reach all the way to $260 in peak seasonat the topresorts. Throw in a $400-a-night room and $50 entrees at therestaurants, and a golfing couple in Palm Springs could easily spend agrand a day. But the place is blessed with sparkling, windless days thataverage in the mid-seventies from November to April, crystalline viewsof snowcapped mountains mirrored in perfectly serene lakes, ideal turf,invitingly immaculate practice ranges, great service and primo golf schoolsby Leadbetter, McLean and Pelz.

Finally, as my spa bliss wore off, I had a clearheaded revelation. Those persistently positive vibes I'd gotten at the Mountain course, even as I'd fought them, had meant something. I could now admit Pete Dye's 1980 creation was a gem: small greens, flat bunkers that pay tribute to classicarchitect Seth Raynor and relatively short distances between greens and tees, giving the place the intimacy and feel of a timeless course. I remembered one trio of holes in particular--the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth--as magical. In a section of the course devoid of adjoining homes and crammed absolutely flush against the tight nooks at the base of the steep cliffsand serrated ridges of the pink-hued Santa Rosas, the golfer is trulyin a private paradise. Besides coalescing so well with the harsh surroundings,the holes inspired with their shot values. The drive and approach to theartful dogleg-left fourteenth are both hit directly at a steep mountain,a dramatic backdrop that makes the ball seem to hang in the air forever.A gambling second to the dogleg-right par-five fifteenth has to fit betweentwo rocks that both frame the shot perfectly and leave no margin for error.And the elevated tee shot to the par-three sixteenth induces held breathas it carries a moonscape of rock to a beautifully set but frighteninglynarrow green.

I had based a lot of my impressions about Palm Springs on the modelof the older private clubs that I had seen on television or walked duringthe Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. These original desert courses were intentionallydesigned as shady, well-watered gardens of wall-to-wall grass. The memberswere rich, older and didn't want to work too hard, so the courses areflattish, short and trouble free, which is why every winter, at such old-lineclubs as Indian Wells, Bermuda Dunes and Tamarisk, PGA Tour players shootmore low scores than they do anywhere else.

But as the area grew and began to draw more vacationers, more resortand public courses sprang up, making Palm Springs second only to MyrtleBeach in golf course density. Designed to attract attention, these coursesgave architects such as Dye a chance to take flat, lifeless land and moldit to their creative wills. "I've done some courses I love that were reallybuilt by God," says Dye, "but my courses in the desert were built entirelyby me." Robert Trent Jones Jr., the architect of Desert Dunes Golf Club,puts it neatly: "Minimum land requires maximum architecture."

The most imposing examples are the five resort courses at La Quintaand PGA West, two complexes that in 1994 came underthe ownership ofKSL (the owners of a number of resorts, including Doral). Unifying thisgroup--which consists of La Quinta's Mountain and Dunes courses, and PGAWest's Nicklaus Tournament, TPC Stadium and the just-opened Greg Normancourse--is the mother ship, La Quinta's old-world hotel.

Founded in 1926 as a rancho-style hideaway, it's the only luxury hotelin the Palm Springs area that retains understated glamour. After welcomingvisitors with a long driveway lined with stately Italian cypress, thehotel sprawls languidly along forty-five acres accented by citrus andpalm trees, roses and bougainvillea, stone walkways and Mexican-tile fountains.The 640 rooms are contained in one- and two-story adobe casitas--whitewashed,with blue doors and shutters, topped with red-clay roof tiles.

Located some nineteen miles south of Palm Springs along Highway 111,La Quinta is where Hollywood's famous found refuge. Greta Garbo had aprivate bungalow; Frank Capra began It Happened One Night ina casita (and thereafter insisted on the same one when working on otherfilms); and Clark Gable and Katherine Hepburn were regular visitors. Today,Jack Nicholson and Kevin Costner are among the celebrities drawn by theserenity and respectful atmosphere. La Quinta can be decadent, yes, butits historical continuity is built on simplicity, serenity and charm.

Of the resort's public courses, the Mountain course best matches thestyle and feel of the hotel. The Dunes is a sleeker Dye creation builtaway from the mountains on flatter land, using water and sharp edges asits predominant design features. The Nicklaus Tournament course, a fewmiles away at the PGA West complex, possesses the dramatic mounding andelevated plateau fairways of Jack's early work. Although both have frequentlybeen the site of PGA Tour events, neither overwhelms the average player.

That can't be said of PGA West's TPC Stadium course. Dye designed it in 1986 to be the hardest golf course in the world, and with a slope ratingof 150, its marketing slogan as the "Mount Everest of Golf" is no stretch.A round at the Stadium will point out your deficiencies as a player aboutas fast as any round in golf. But even if you score in the three digitswhile losing three sleeves of balls, you will leave with a memory of atleast one shot you shocked yourself by pulling off. If you're lucky, itwill happen on one of the final three holes--perhaps from the sheer, twenty-foot-deepgreenside bunker on the par-five sixteenth, from the tee to the island-greenpar-three seventeenth or from the fairway to the green hugged by wateron the par-four eighteenth.

Although the layout has been reviled for its rococo design, the influenceof the Stadium course is still felt throughout the golf world. Dye's techniqueof using pot bunkers, island greens, native roughs and confounding landingareas has become a rudimentary tool in the architect's battle to keepup with advancing technology and more physically gifted players. For hispart, Dye does not believe he went fa r enough. "I'd like to go back inthere and do some things," he says. If your masochistic streak is alreadystimulated by the Stadium course, you'll hope he will.

Greg Norman, who has worked with Dye, admits he has also become veryconscious of what modern players are and will be capable of. As a designer,Norman is sensitive to natural landforms as well. For example, on holesthat face the angular mountains, he added sharper edges to the land, andthose that face away have softer contours. It's a good bet this coursewill be holding professional events soon, and possibly the Shark Shootout.Says Norman, "We've built a course that will be different from anythingelse in the desert."

That's also the promise of Landmark Golf Club, a thirty-six-hole facilityon the north side of Interstate 10 in Indio that will be the home of theSkins Game for the next four years. Landmark features scenic, three-hundred-footelevation changes over natural sand dunes and nine holes in which theAll-American Canal comes into play. Two old freight cars restored as bridgesappear on holes two and six of the South course.

Although these courses are all user-friendly, the two layouts ownedby the upscale Westin Mission Hills Resort have enough individual distinctionto pass that test too. The Pete Dye course, on the hotel grounds, hasplenty of railroad ties, pot bunkers and forced carries over water, butit is decidedly Pete Dye Lite. A par seventy at 6,706 yards, it is forgivingbut still interesting, as its rolling fairways and small greens keep theshot making fresh. Whatever degree of difficulty Dye calibrates into hisdesigns, he clearly is incapable of doing work that doesn't force a golferto think.

Mission Hills North is a Gary Player Signature course. Located abouta mile from the hotel on isolated property devoid of homes (for now),it possesses a pleasing wilderness aspect without being harsh. Playerhas kept the fairways wide and the landings gently rolling rather thansharp edged, allowing the course to blend more gradually with the surroundingdesert and to punish less in the wind. With a modest clubhouse reinforcingan informal atmosphere, golfers keep coming back here because it is, aboveall, a comfortable place to play.

So is Desert Willow Golf Resort, Palm Desert's highly praised municipallyrun resort. With two courses--the tournament-ready Firecliff and the softerMountain View--Desert Willow is memorable for its faithfulness to thenatural desert and for its large-scale challenge.

Designed by Michael Hurdzan, partner Dana Fry and touring pro John Cook,Desert Willow's two courses have planted turf on only about 75 of their140 acres. Along with waste areas that are beautified by plantings ofnative red- and gold-barrel cactus, Hurdzan has installed 168 sand bunkers,most of them large and shot defining. The overall effect is that DesertWillow has more of an arid, Arizona feel than any other course in theCoachella Valley. Amid all the sand, however, a lovingly wrought man-madelake symmetrically dividing Firecliff's par-three eighth and seventeenthholes makes these some of the most stunning and appealing spots in allof desert golf.

If there's a sleeper in the Coachella Valley, it's Desert Dunes, whichin several ways is an anomaly. Rather than being located amid the lucreof La Quinta or Rancho Mirage, Desert Dunes lies in a dusty basin northof Interstate 10, in the scruffy town of Desert Hot Springs. The electricity-generatingwindmills on nearby hills are proof (along with extra-short, six-foot-tallflagsticks) that the course is in the middle of a wind tunnel. Built betweenexpanses of thorny mesquite, the course is rampant with roadrunners, rabbitsand rattlesnakes, keeping the local coyotes well fed. Meanwhile, the clubhouseand pro shop are spartan compared with the sumptuous trappings of thehigh-end resorts. Even the grass has a browner tinge. Designer RobertTrent Jones Jr. has supplied the rugged layout with a wonderful varietyof holes. It has graceful bows to the game's past, with Spectacles-likebunkers on the fourth to evoke Carnoustie, a stone bridge on the ninththat is unmistakably like the Swilken Bridge, a Redan green at the par-threefourteenth and a configuration of lake and green at the sixteenth so likethe sixteenth at Oakland Hills that it is a monument to the architect'sfather, Robert Trent Jones Sr. In many places, the course's rolling andslightly unkempt dunesland recall a bleak seaside links, and on the shortpar-four tenth and eleventh, tall tamarisk trees create a tight chute.Although the lack of brutally long par fours makes Desert Dunes, at 6,876yards, more of a precise shot-maker's course than one for the power player,the four par fives are bears, averaging more than 550 yards.

The problem is that Desert Dunes requires more control than the averageresort golfer has, especially when the wind blows. (In a gale at the 1995U.S. Open qualifier, a ten-over-par score of 154 advanced.) Unplayablemesquite bushes line the fairways, which almost always means a lost ball.

Viewed in that light, Desert Dunes could be called a magnificent failure.But more than any other public course I found in the Coachella Valley,it was a place to hit golf shots and really play the game. Utterly devoidof glitz, it was the golfiest of all.

My thoughts had changed a lot since first stepping into that celestialshower. I'd come across some desert courses that had indeed lived downto my original perception, but I'd found the best of the courses to bereal: true to their surroundings, unique in their beauty, stimulatingin their challenges and, above all, fun to play. The game's Brahmans willnot likely ever pick Palm Springs as a golf mecca. But even with cartand green fees that approximate a car payment, this special place deservesat least a corner in the game's kingdom.

THE LIST
Southern California's PGA professionals rank the top ten

1. COURSE: La Quinta Resort & Club (Mountain) LOCATION: La QuintaPHONE: 760-564-7686 PAR/YARDAGE: 72, 6,749 RATING/SLOPE: 74.1,140 ARCHITECT:Pete Dye (1980) GREEN FEE: $235

2. COURSE: PGA West (Nicklaus Tournament) LOCATION: La Quinta PHONE:800-742-9378 PAR/YARDAGE: 72, 7,204 RATING/SLOPE: 74.7, 139 ARCHITECT:Jack Nicklaus (1987) GREEN FEE: $235

3. COURSE: PGA West (TPC Stadium) LOCATION: La Quinta PHONE: 800-742-9378PAR/YARDAGE: 72, 7,266 RATING/SLOPE: 75.9,150 ARCHITECT: Pete Dye (1986)GREEN FEE: $235

4. COURSE: Westin Mission Hills Resort (North) LOCATION: Rancho MiragePHONE: 760-770-9496 PAR/YARDAGE: 72, 7,062 RATING/SLOPE: 73.9, 134 ARCHITECT:Gary Player (1991) GREEN FEE: $175

5. COURSE: Westin Mission Hills Resort (South) LOCATION: Rancho MiragePHONE: 760-328-3198 PAR/YARDAGE: 70, 6,706 RATING/SLOPE: 73.5,137 ARCHITECT:Pete Dye (1987) GREEN FEE: $175

6. COURSE: La Quinta Resort & Club(Dunes) LOCATION: La QuintaPHONE: 760-564-7686 PAR/YARDAGE: 72, 6,747 RATING/SLOPE: 73.1,137 ARCHITECT:Pete Dye (1981) GREEN FEE: $145

7. COURSE: Desert Willow Golf Resort (Firecliff) LOCATION: Palm DesertPHONE: 760-346-7060 PAR/YARDAGE: 72, 7,056 RATING/SLOPE: 74.1,138 ARCHITECT:Michael Hurdzan/Dana Fry/John Cook (1997) GREEN FEE: $160

8. COURSE: Oak Valley Golf Club LOCATION: Beaumont PHONE: 909-769-7200PAR/YARDAGE: 72, 7,003 RATING/SLOPE: 74.0, 138 ARCHITECT: Lee Schmidt/BrianCurley (1992) GREEN FEE: $80

9. COURSE: Desert Dunes Golf Club LOCATION: Desert Hot Springs PHONE:888-423-8637 PAR/YARDAGE: 72, 6,876 RATING/SLOPE: 73.8, 142 ARCHITECT:Robert Trent Jones Jr. (1989) GREEN FEE: $115

10. COURSE: Desert Falls Country Club LOCATION: Palm Desert PHONE: 760-340-5646PAR/YARDAGE: 72, 7,017 RATING/SLOPE: 73.7, 135 ARCHITECT: Ron Fream (1984)GREEN FEE: $150

JUST OPENING

• COURSE: PGA West (Greg Norman) LOCATION: La Quinta PHONE: 800-742-9378PAR/YARDAGE: 72, 7,017 ARCHITECT: Greg Norman GREEN FEE: $235

• COURSE: Landmark Golf Club LOCATION: Indio PHONE: 760-775-2000PAR/YARDAGE: 72, 7,123 (North); 72, 7,229 (South) ARCHITECT: Lee Schmidt/BrianCurley GREEN FEE: $160

TIP FROM THE PRO
Escape from Alcatraz

As the former head pro of the Stadium course at PGA West, I became veryfamiliar with the best way to handle the famed seventeenth. It plays 168yards from the Trevino tee, named for the man who aced the hole duringthe Senior Skins Game.

My advice for any player,scratch or high handicap, is to aim for thecenter of the green. To go for the pin on this island green is suicide.The putting surface is small enough that any shot to the middle will leavea makeable birdie putt regardless of pin placement. The prevailing windis right to left, so the ideal shot is a fade that holds against the breezeand lands softly. A draw or hook will have a difficult time holding thegreen, especially if it's baked out. If this is the case, any ball thatlands past the middle of the green will bounce long, into the drink.--Dave Doerr, Head Professional, the Greg Norman course at PGA West

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