Golfing in Palm Springs
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Golfing in Palm Springs

Tom Tavee
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?

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

I had come to Palm Springs with an attitude. Very simply, I was pretty sure the place represented everything wrong with golf in America. Palm Springs, to my mind, suffered in the extreme from golf's terrible "too"s--too expensive, too slow, too many carts, too green and too artificial. It was 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 after Frank and Dinah. But standing there beneath fifteen precisely aimed nozzles and looking up at the warm-cobalt sky through the open-air ceiling, I could think of worse things than excess. I was gently overwhelmed with jets of water from every direction. It was like being rolled by a wave without having to hold my breath. Fifteen minutes and several hundred gallons from the Coachella Valley aquifer later, I emerged properly tenderized for my PGA West Golf Massage. In a cool, low-lit room filled with eucalyptus vapors, every knot of civilization and its discontents was kneaded right out of me.

I'd never experienced a better nineteenth hole, and because the eighteen that had preceded it had offered their own seduction, I felt my resolve against the place softening. Sure, Palm Springs wrings out the wallet with triple-digit green fees that reach all the way to $260 in peak season at the topresorts. Throw in a $400-a-night room and $50 entrees at the restaurants, and a golfing couple in Palm Springs could easily spend a grand a day. But the place is blessed with sparkling, windless days that average in the mid-seventies from November to April, crystalline views of snowcapped mountains mirrored in perfectly serene lakes, ideal turf, invitingly immaculate practice ranges, great service and primo golf schools by 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 classic architect 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 cliffs and serrated ridges of the pink-hued Santa Rosas, the golfer is truly in a private paradise. Besides coalescing so well with the harsh surroundings, the holes inspired with their shot values. The drive and approach to the artful 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 between two 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 breath as it carries a moonscape of rock to a beautifully set but frighteningly narrow green.

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

But as the area grew and began to draw more vacationers, more resort and public courses sprang up, making Palm Springs second only to Myrtle Beach in golf course density. Designed to attract attention, these courses gave architects such as Dye a chance to take flat, lifeless land and mold it to their creative wills. "I've done some courses I love that were really built by God," says Dye, "but my courses in the desert were built entirely by 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 Quinta and PGA West, two complexes that in 1994 came underthe ownership of KSL (the owners of a number of resorts, including Doral). Unifying this group--which consists of La Quinta's Mountain and Dunes courses, and PGA West's Nicklaus Tournament, TPC Stadium and the just-opened Greg Norman course--is the mother ship, La Quinta's old-world hotel.

Founded in 1926 as a rancho-style hideaway, it's the only luxury hotel in the Palm Springs area that retains understated glamour. After welcoming visitors with a long driveway lined with stately Italian cypress, the hotel sprawls languidly along forty-five acres accented by citrus and palm 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 a private bungalow; Frank Capra began It Happened One Night in a casita (and thereafter insisted on the same one when working on other films); and Clark Gable and Katherine Hepburn were regular visitors. Today, Jack Nicholson and Kevin Costner are among the celebrities drawn by the serenity and respectful atmosphere. La Quinta can be decadent, yes, but its historical continuity is built on simplicity, serenity and charm.

Of the resort's public courses, the Mountain course best matches the style and feel of the hotel. The Dunes is a sleeker Dye creation built away from the mountains on flatter land, using water and sharp edges as its predominant design features. The Nicklaus Tournament course, a few miles away at the PGA West complex, possesses the dramatic mounding and elevated plateau fairways of Jack's early work. Although both have frequently been 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 rating of 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 about as fast as any round in golf. But even if you score in the three digits while losing three sleeves of balls, you will leave with a memory of at least one shot you shocked yourself by pulling off. If you're lucky, it will happen on one of the final three holes--perhaps from the sheer, twenty-foot-deep greenside bunker on the par-five sixteenth, from the tee to the island-green par-three seventeenth or from the fairway to the green hugged by water on the par-four eighteenth.

Although the layout has been reviled for its rococo design, the influence of the Stadium course is still felt throughout the golf world. Dye's technique of using pot bunkers, island greens, native roughs and confounding landing areas has become a rudimentary tool in the architect's battle to keep up with advancing technology and more physically gifted players. For his part, Dye does not believe he went fa r enough. "I'd like to go back in there and do some things," he says. If your masochistic streak is already stimulated by the Stadium course, you'll hope he will.

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

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

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

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

So is Desert Willow Golf Resort, Palm Desert's highly praised municipally run resort. With two courses--the tournament-ready Firecliff and the softer Mountain View--Desert Willow is memorable for its faithfulness to the natural 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 their 140 acres. Along with waste areas that are beautified by plantings of native red- and gold-barrel cactus, Hurdzan has installed 168 sand bunkers, most of them large and shot defining. The overall effect is that Desert Willow has more of an arid, Arizona feel than any other course in the Coachella Valley. Amid all the sand, however, a lovingly wrought man-made lake symmetrically dividing Firecliff's par-three eighth and seventeenth holes makes these some of the most stunning and appealing spots in all of desert golf.

If there's a sleeper in the Coachella Valley, it's Desert Dunes, which in several ways is an anomaly. Rather than being located amid the lucre of La Quinta or Rancho Mirage, Desert Dunes lies in a dusty basin north of Interstate 10, in the scruffy town of Desert Hot Springs. The electricity-generating windmills on nearby hills are proof (along with extra-short, six-foot-tall flagsticks) that the course is in the middle of a wind tunnel. Built between expanses of thorny mesquite, the course is rampant with roadrunners, rabbits and rattlesnakes, keeping the local coyotes well fed. Meanwhile, the clubhouse and pro shop are spartan compared with the sumptuous trappings of the high-end resorts. Even the grass has a browner tinge. Designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. has supplied the rugged layout with a wonderful variety of holes. It has graceful bows to the game's past, with Spectacles-like bunkers on the fourth to evoke Carnoustie, a stone bridge on the ninth that is unmistakably like the Swilken Bridge, a Redan green at the par-three fourteenth and a configuration of lake and green at the sixteenth so like the sixteenth at Oakland Hills that it is a monument to the architect's father, Robert Trent Jones Sr. In many places, the course's rolling and slightly unkempt dunesland recall a bleak seaside links, and on the short par-four tenth and eleventh, tall tamarisk trees create a tight chute. Although the lack of brutally long par fours makes Desert Dunes, at 6,876 yards, 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 average resort golfer has, especially when the wind blows. (In a gale at the 1995 U.S. Open qualifier, a ten-over-par score of 154 advanced.) Unplayable mesquite 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 devoid of glitz, it was the golfiest of all.

My thoughts had changed a lot since first stepping into that celestial shower. I'd come across some desert courses that had indeed lived down to my original perception, but I'd found the best of the courses to be real: true to their surroundings, unique in their beauty, stimulating in their challenges and, above all, fun to play. The game's Brahmans will not likely ever pick Palm Springs as a golf mecca. But even with cart and green fees that approximate a car payment, this special place deserves at least a corner in the game's kingdom.

Southern California's PGA professionals rank the top ten

1. COURSE: La Quinta Resort & Club (Mountain) LOCATION: La Quinta PHONE: 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: 800-742-9378 PAR/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 Mirage PHONE: 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 Mirage PHONE: 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 Quinta PHONE: 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 Desert PHONE: 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: 909-769-7200 PAR/YARDAGE: 72, 7,003 RATING/SLOPE: 74.0, 138 ARCHITECT: Lee Schmidt/Brian Curley (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: 760-340-5646 PAR/YARDAGE: 72, 7,017 RATING/SLOPE: 73.7, 135 ARCHITECT: Ron Fream (1984) GREEN FEE: $150


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

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

Escape from Alcatraz

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

My advice for any player,scratch or high handicap, is to aim for the center 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 leave a makeable birdie putt regardless of pin placement. The prevailing wind is right to left, so the ideal shot is a fade that holds against the breeze and lands softly. A draw or hook will have a difficult time holding the green, especially if it's baked out. If this is the case, any ball that lands 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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