The Course of Life
When his golf-loving mother grew weary of traveling for the game, Jeffrey Podolsky—ever the good son—whisked her off to Palm Springs to get her back in the swing.
I was raised on a golf course—literally. My childhood house sits smack behind the 107-year-old Detroit Golf Club. My backyard was the fifth hole. Growing up, my sister and I appropriated the bunkers as sandboxes in summer and sledded over them in winter. And although my interest in the sport has waned at times, golf has never entirely lost its grip on me. During my travels, I always keep a ready list of excellent links near major airports (London, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Denver, Chicago) in case I suddenly find myself grounded. Whether I'm practicing on a driving range in Arkansas, putting on a public course in the Bronx, or playing 18 holes at the Breakers in Palm Beach, the game embodies R&R of a particularly beguiling persuasion: the freedom to see the world with my trusty 5-iron in tow. And therein lies the beauty of golf: it allows a different perspective on the world's most spectacular sights—the Alps in New Zealand, say, or the Cascades in Oregon.
For as long as I can remember (and even before that), golf was my family's travel passion. On their six-week European honeymoon, my parents lugged around a set of wooden clubs. I've dueled with Mother on Marco Island and at the Doral in Florida; I've faced off with my father at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles and throughout Michigan, which boasts some of the finest courses in the country. Come summer, we didn't just pile into the family station wagon and drive to the Grand Canyon. We brought our clubs along. While visiting my sister in Washington, D.C., a few years back, Mother sped off in her daughter's BMW and treated herself to a round at Williamsburg's splendid Golden Horseshoe. Because I was too busy at the time, I stupidly passed up a trip to Scotland several years ago, when my parents toured St. Andrews, Muirfield, and Carnoustie. My father always loved how the sport allows you to sample a host of indigenous pleasures—hoisting a pint of Guinness in a centuries-old pub in Ireland, for example.
Then, two years ago, Dad died, and my mother lost interest in the game. After 50 years spent teeing off around the world, she stopped traveling altogether and abandoned her annual four-month winter escape to Palm Springs, where she and my father had taken up residence on a golf course. Yet when I visited her in Detroit, we bonded over the game. For my mother and me, it gradually became a snapshot of our relationship. I was determined to rouse her from her lethargy and take her on a long-distance golfing extravaganza.
Soaring cypresses welcome us to palm Springs, a vast oasis in the desert with a reputation for having more links per square mile than any other spot in the country. Only when we arrive do I reveal the highlight of our trip: we'll be spending a long weekend at La Quinta Resort & Club, which has seven restaurants, 42 pools, 52 hot tubs, and its own mini mall, complete with a Polo Ralph Lauren store. "This sort of extravagance doesn't bother you?" my ever-youthful mother asks incredulously as she kneels down and peers under the Queen Anne chairs in the lobby to see if they're authentic. Not in the least, I reply. When I tell her that the parade of stars who have graced our hotel includes Oprah Winfrey, Kevin Costner, and Sly Stallone (or, as Mother calls him, "Stallonee"), she's none too impressed. How, I wonder, can any self-respecting connoisseur of the good life not relish such a magnificent place?I'm dumbfounded.
Still, I don't despair. Inducements abound. In addition to five golf courses and 23 tennis courts (hard, grass, and clay), La Quinta houses a spacious spa where Barbra Streisand enjoyed a facial. But even the mention of her beloved Barbra won't lure Mother to the luxe spa. She, instead, marvels at the photos scattered about of venerable screen stars—Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn—who have sought refuge here over the years. Mother has never sprung for a massage in her life, considering them downright wanton. She gasps at the price of the $95 half-hour PGA West Golf Massage that I book for her after our first round on a Greg Norman–designed course. Horrified, she demurs, then grudgingly acquiesces. Spa attendants gingerly outfit her in a plush robe and slippers, and suggest that she—along with her pacemaker—relax and breathe deeply.
An hour later, Mother emerges, beaming, and at her behest we meet in the spa's Sanctuary Courtyard for a chat. My newly restored Zen golf mama showers me with a veritable font of wisdom on the yin and yang of the sport: the perfect freedom that comes of melding mind with ball. "In golf, you must immediately forget a bad hole," she tells me. "Don't beat yourself up when you hit a poor shot. Instead, figure out what you did wrong with the shot—and move on with your life."
I quake ever so slightly, fearing that things have taken an ominous turn, but Mother is all benevolence. "Keep your head down while hitting the ball, but don't forget to appreciate your surroundings. There is more to this game than just a scorecard."
The next day, I can't stop perspiring. It is 95 degrees. "You look awfully warm," Mother observes, as she knocks one down the fairway. She insists on wearing a thick cardigan and knee-highs, prompting one woman to remark that she resembles an overage schoolgirl. (Back in Detroit, country-club lore has it that Mother dons her thick wool socks just to psych out the other ladies. Mother, however, contends that she has never been motivated by anything more cunning than a desire to conceal the muscular, bowlegged calves developed from years of speed skating.) She's also sporting a pair of shiny patent-leather golf shoes and breaks into the Charleston after sinking a particularly fine putt. She hits only with used balls that she finds on the course. Mother is, admittedly, a tad eccentric on—and off—the green. Once, strolling down Rodeo Drive in the rain and bent on shielding her hat from water stains, Mother flipped the back of her skirt up over it. Some "young whippersnappers" driving by shouted out at her. To which Mother replied, "Hey, the hat is brand-new."
Each morning, a chauffeured golf cart ferries us through an exotic maze of flowers. "Okay, kid, I'm gonna go for it," Mother declares on the first tee. "Let's see what we can do," she whispers to her favorite driver. She coyly unveils her Big Bertha, crushing the ball 150 yards. "Can you believe that was your old lady?" she asks.
Having played 36 holes the previous two days, Mother, in genuine puzzlement, now admits, "I don't know why I don't have any pep." In our final couple of days, she winds up caddying for me, scouting for hidden sand traps. But there is no denying that my ever youthful golf partner and mentor must, finally, concede that she can no longer thumb her nose at the depredations of age.
All in all, we're as compatible as ever, with a few minor exceptions. She scolds me for not smuggling in our own stock of libations for the mini-bar and believes in refilling the bottled water from the tap. But she truly appreciates how the housekeeper has turned down the beds properly, even placing red chile ristras on the pillows. "Ah, this is the life!" Mother exclaims. "There's nothing like getting away for the game." She couldn't have been more of a sport, and as for me—well, that may be my best shot ever.
Jeffrey Podolsky writes for the London Times Magazine and Vogue Hommes.
When to Go
Palm Springs used to have an off-season, when tourists shied away from the 120-degree summer temperatures, saving themselves for the perfect 70-degree days of winter. Now the resort town is a year-round oasis, with hotels slashing their rates up to 50 percent during summer.
There are direct flights from several U.S. cities. L.A. is only 110 miles away, but the driving time can vary wildly, depending on traffic.
Where to Golf
Palm Springs has more than 100 courses, and most resorts will help you find a place to tee off. The tourism bureau's Web site (www.palmsprings.org) provides a listing of public courses, clinics, and booking services.
Where to Stay
La Quinta Resort & Club 49-499 Eisenhower Dr., La Quinta; 800/598-3828 or 760/564-4111; www.laquintaresort.com; doubles from $190.
Parker Palm Springs Designer Jonathan Adler's first hotel—a kitsch extravaganza. 4200 E. Palm Canyon Dr., Palm Springs; 800/ 543-4300 or 760/770-5000; www.theparkerpalmsprings.com; doubles from $265.