For Pacific Northwesterners, desert golf in a place like the Coachella Valley is a weird and wonderful experience
Used to conifer-lined fairways and greens made soft by near-incessant rain or drizzle, despite the best efforts of skilled superintendents, the Seattle golfer yearns for the southwest at this time of year, when the sun invariably shines all winter long, temperatures are conducive to relaxed golf, and the playing surfaces remain agreeably firm.
Though visually striking, standard desert golf can oftentimes be something of an acquired taste, with its forced caries and well-defined targets, which might explain why so few genuine desert layouts appear in best-course lists. But, we’ll take all the forced carries and well-defined targets you can throw at us if we get to play them in 75-degree sunshine, while everyone back home is shielding him-or-herself from yet another cold downpour.
There are a number of well-established destinations in the bottom-left corner of the country that golfers from the Pacific Northwest flock to each winter. The oldest of them is Palm Springs, where nine-hole courses began springing up in the 1920s as people recognized the benefits of dry heat to certain medical conditions, and Hollywood actors sought refuge from the limelight.
The first 18-hole course in the Coachella Valley, whose main centers of population — Desert Hot Springs, Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Thousand Palms, Indio, Bermuda Dunes, and Coachella — possess over 120 courses between them, was Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage. Designed by Johnny Dawson and Lawrence Hughes, it opened in 1951 and became a sanctuary for sports and movie stars who bought lots bordering the fairways. Four years after opening, it hosted the 11th Ryder Cup matches, with 43-year-old Sam Snead the star of the USA’s 8-4 victory.
At the time Thunderbird opened, Palm Springs was beginning to enjoy a mid-century boom period when it truly became established as the resort town in which to be seen, and specifically, to be seen playing golf. Though its star dimmed significantly in the early part of the 21st century, it has come back to life in recent years with the culinary, art, architecture, and lodging scenes all getting a much-needed kick in the pants.
Perhaps the most elaborate project is happening at the SilverRock Resort (760-777-8884) which was built by the City of La Quinta in 2005, and hosted the Bob Hope Classic (now the CareerBuilder Challenge) between 2008 and 2011. It was designed by Arnold Palmer, who built a typically attractive array of holes on 200 acres of a 525-acre parcel long the focus of City development plans – plans that finally got the go-ahead earlier this year.
Breaking ground in May was a 140-bedroom, five-star Montage hotel which is going up on the site of the old 18th hole, and which forced the closure of the back nine. Brandon Johnson, a Vice President and Senior Architect at the Arnold Palmer Design Company, has overseen the renovation, which includes a rerouting of the inward nine, and construction of three entirely new holes.
An architect with PGA Tour Design Services and lead architect for The First Tee prior to joining Palmer’s firm in 2006, Johnson has worked on SilverRock since 2012, when the City needed to relocate the canal that flows through the course. Removing it entirely proved to be too costly, says Johnson, so it was ultimately realigned.
“We oversaw the changes to the golf course that resulted from rerouting the canal,” Johnson adds. “At the same time, we were working with the City and the development company on a golf course masterplan that would help realize the second phase of the development project which is currently underway.”
Though SilverRock lost its existing 18th hole, there was precious little extra land for the golf course, so Johnson had to get creative. His new plan took advantage of previously unused views of the surrounding mountains, incorporated an all-but-forgotten water feature built years before, and remedied a former pinch point while introducing more fairway space and ground-game options.
The all-new 11th hole is a strong par-3 over water with the mountains in the background. The 12th has a new tee, making it a par-5 – one of three on the new back nine — and the new driveable par-4 18th is a tribute to Johnson’s old boss, who passed in September 2016 and is still greatly missed by a game, and a world, that loved him.
“The hole plays directly back into the adjacent mountain range backdrop,” says Johnson. “Remembering Mr. Palmer’s charge at Cherry Hills in the 1960 U.S. Open, and because of our desire as architects to make the game fun, we wanted to give the player one last heroic temptation and chance to go for it.” (On holing your putt for birdie, you do, of course, need to throw your hat into the air and give the great man a thumbs-up.)
The back-nine renovation also reduced the amount of irrigated turf, and converted maintained areas back into native desert landscape. All 18 holes reopened in November.
Work will continue on the $420 million SilverRock development next year, with the Montage set to open in October 2019. A boutique hotel named the Pendry – Montage’s boutique brand – is also planned, though the Montage will come first. Also on the docket are 255 homes, and a resort village.
If you didn’t play the Firecliff Course at the very highly-rated Desert Willow Resort (760-346-0015) in Rancho Mirage last winter, then you won’t have seen the magnificent bunker renovation completed in the summer by the course’s original architect, Dr. Michael Hurdzan — designer of this year’s U.S. Open venue, Erin Hills.
“Bunkers are incredibly expensive to build and maintain,” says Hurdzan. “So the trend today is to have fewer and smaller bunkers, placed at the right location to challenge good players, but not confound the game for everyday golfers.”
When Hurdzan designed Desert Willow, alongside former partner Dana Fry, there was little in the way of established vegetation to help define the holes, so he added a lot of bunkers.
“Now that the landscape plants surrounding the holes have grown, there is less need for them,” he says. “Pace of play has become a very important issue, and high-handicappers struggle in bunkers, which adds to the length of a round. Plus, the bunkers needed refreshing, with improved drainage and better-playing sand.”
Hurdzan removed about 45 percent of the previous sand area, and thinks the experience at Desert Willow — another way-above-average municipal — is greatly improved.
“It was good before,” he says. “Now, it’s great.”
Bruce Nation, the resort’s Director of Sales & Marketing for the resort (celebrating its 20th anniversary this year), says he sees hundreds of Seattle golfers every winter, and enjoys hearing them talk about how good it is to get out of the damp.
“They love it here,” he says. “They always comment on the weather, of course, but also the scenery and beauty of both courses.”
As well as the Firecliff — still a tough test — Desert Willow offers the friendlier and equally enjoyable Mountain View course, which measures a healthy 6,913 yards from the back tees, but does possess fewer forced carries and wider fairways. Also designed by Hurdzan and Fry, the Mountain View is another terribly popular Coachella stop for visiting snowbirds, so we recommend you book your round as soon as you know your schedule.
Nation says the area endured another fiercely hot summer, with temperatures frequently hitting the 110-degree mark, but the courses survived and, after the annual rye overseed, are looking good going into the season.
“We won’t have any summer-related issues affecting the golf courses during peak season,” he says.