In the late 1970s, when I first visited the ritzy enclave of Palm Springs, I remember being in awe of the acres of wind turbines clustered on the valley floor. Enveloped by surrounding mountains, Palm Springs embraced its role as a legendary hideaway for celebrities, a playground for the rich and famous, a vacation spot where you can experience the splendor of luxurious hotels and play a relaxing, easy round of golf on their resort courses. Little did I know then that the resort city of Palm Springs was only the “tip of the iceberg”!
The Coachella Valley is comprised of nine resort cities…Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, LaQuinta, Indio and Coachella and the area is now referred to as Greater Palm Springs. Drive into the valley from LA and you’ll be greeted now with miles of wind turbines clustered on the valley floor and mountain tops. Embraced by purple-hued mountains, 350+ days of sunshine, daytime temps in the 70s from November-March, the Coachella Valley is a golfers’ paradise with 110 courses to experience in the nine resort cities. The Greater Palm Springs region sports some of the most challenging municipal golf courses found anywhere in the world. Designed by big name architects, played by the PGA Tour, here are six prime plays for your desert golf bucket list.
Warm up your game with the easier tracks to ready yourself for the more torturous rounds to come. Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage massages your senses with its majestic views of the San Jacinto Mountains and greets you with its palatial entrance of cascading waters, tranquil spatial surroundings, and two playable tracks. The Gary Player Signature Course, his only course in the desert, is positioned amongst 20 acres of lakes coming into play on 10 holes, four waterfalls, generous, rolling fairways and scraggy, rock formations to navigate around. Popular and quite playable for the average resort golfer, it stretches out to 7,000 yards and dials back to 4900 yards for those seeking less adventure. The diabolical Pete Dye design challenges with tight, rolling fairways, hidden pin placements, massive water carries embellished with Dye’s signature railroad ties, pot bunkers and elevated tees and greens.
Ranked among the best and most popular courses in Greater Palms Springs, The Classic Club, in Palm Desert, with nary a palm, is not your typical desert golf. This Arnold Palmer design was host to the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. A joy to play, it appeals to all skill levels offering yardages from 4,219 stretching out to 7,322. It’s a scenic beauty… with no development surrounding the fairways, it features wide landing areas, rolling terrain, marked by pepper wood and olive trees, contrasted by a kaleidoscope of flowering shrubs, pine straw ground cover, 14 stone bridges crossing over reflective ponds, surrounded by multi-hued mountain vistas. This scenic beauty is no pushover. Water features with rugged rock outcroppings appear on thirteen of the eighteen holes creating a picturesque but challenging stretch of holes. Many holes have multiple hazards guarding the greens with few easy approach shots, which demand precise target golf. Arnie’s favorite hole is his signature par-3 twelfth…sure to distract…is the rock punctuated peninsula green, draped with eye-catching multi-hued flowers, fronted by cascading waters and hugged by an ominous bunker on the backside. Surely a treat will be the 19th hole in The Classic Club’s stately 63,000 sq. ft. Tuscan village-inspired clubhouse, home to Bob Hope’s collection of golf memorabilia as well as the well-known Bellatrix restaurant.
The Desert Willow Golf Resort also in Palm Desert, features a multi-course facility designed by Hurdzan & Frye. Choose the benign Mountain View Course if you’re looking for a smoother, more relaxing round with generous landing areas and amicable approaches. Stronger players will revel with the beastly Firecliff Course, known for a myriad of water features, forced carries over tall, wide desert brush, testy bunkering and demanding green complexes.
Indian Wells Golf Resort holds the distinction of being the only 36-hole municipal facility with both courses ranked by Golfweek Magazine in the top 20 “Best Courses You Can Play” in California. If you’re looking for a place to “Stay & Play”, this is the location, as it’s within walking distance from four luxury hotels. If you like a more cozy, personal setting, try the tranquil four-diamond Miramonte Resort & Spa, nestled at the base of the scenic Santa Rosa Mountains, with boutique-style sophistication and an award-winning spa. My favorite of the two courses at Indian Wells is the Clive Clark designed Celebrity Course, which was host site of the LG Skins Game in 2007-2008. It’s incredible ambiance will trick you into thinking you’re playing golf in Hawaii. Swaying palms, split-level lakes connected by cascading waterfalls, draped with bursts of multi-hued flora, sculpted, white-sand bunkers, enveloped by panoramic mountain vistas. This diversely created masterpiece offers a surprisingly welcome degree of playability with yardages stretching from 5,300-7,000 yards, but will also challenge your shot-making with its contoured, narrow, twisting fairways, blind shots and undulating green complexes. Stronger players will find a staunch test on John Fought’s Players Course. Tracking at 7,400 yards from the tips, its generous fairway corridors intersected by forced carries, graced with dynamic bunkering, with several of the 60 bunkers requiring steps to descend into the depths of despair! The Indian Wells club has the Callaway Golf Performance Center on site, along with a John Fought created lighted, 9-hole putting course. The 53,000 square-foot clubhouse completes this municipal gem offering an array of upscale amenities that mimic any ritzy private club in town.
“Challenge the Rock” as it is referred to, SilverRock Resort in the city of LaQuinta, is blessed with one of the best natural settings in the valley as it skirts the rocky edges along the base of the rugged Santa Rosa Mountains. Host to the Humana Challenge, this behemoth is among the longest courses in Southern California tipping out at almost 7,600 yards. Some of the holes are ridiculously long, like the 658-yard par 5 12th hole. This Arnold Palmer classic requires dodging the tons of enormous desert waste areas and gigantuous four leaf clover sculpted bunkers packed with thick sand. Akin to Palmer designs, ample outs are available for approaches, but some may result in testy shots to the greens. Hopscotching over ponds and canals, deep bunkers and waste areas give SilverRock a target-golf appeal. Not considered the toughest course in the Coachella Valley, some think it comes pretty close!
Reputed to be the toughest course in the Coachella Valley the TPC Stadium Course at PGA West, located in LaQuinta, wins that designation. Ranked the 4th toughest course in America in Golf Digest’s “Top 50 Toughest Courses in America” (2007) and rated one of the “Top 100 Courses in the World” by Golf Magazine, this 7,300 yard, 150-slope rating monster designed by tormentor Pete Dye, is a true torture chamber. The original home of the Skins Game and presently home of the Career Builder Challenge (2016), TPC Stadium delivers multiple adrenaline rushes via its unique and interesting layout. Its iconic status is derived from its peninsula and island par-3s, tight lush green serpentine fairways punctuated by bold moguling, ceaseless undulations with few even lies, bordered by sidehill Himalayan mounds of knee-deep fescue grass that will make you wish you landed in one of the many cavernous green side bunkers instead! If your scorecard hasn’t been destroyed before reaching the 16th hole, it will be, as the last three holes are doozies! The 16th hole, a 571 yard par-5 plays down low between two tight steep hills, shooting up to a raised green that is guarded by a massive bunker, complete with stairs, that sits eighteen feet below green level. Next comes the notorious “Alcatraz” hole #17, long par-3 island green where Lee Trevino made a hole-in-one during the 1987 Skins Game. When you finally end this memorable adventure with the menacing water-lined 18th, you’ll be yearning for that intoxicating libation!
The property of the PGA West also encompasses the stunning Greg Norman Course, which represents desert golf from the “Down Under Perspective”. Audubon certified, it’s carved from the floor of an ancient ocean, lying in a seabed forty feet below sea level. Surrounded by an immense crescent of terra-cotta mountains, Norman’s signature of utilizing the natural elements to embellish his tracks is evidenced in the abundance of sand, colorful pockets of wildflowers, mixture of native grasses casting green and silvery hues that reflect in the watery depths of the nine ponds traversing the course. The Nicklaus Tournament Course is a tamer version of the TPC Stadium Course. Its challenge, beauty and drama are portrayed by Jack’s signature traits…elevated tees, contoured fairways, forced carries over water, deep pot bunkers, and immense, elevated, multi-tiered green complexes.
Say hello to Palm Springs’ wild side! This is not your grandfather’s Palm Springs anymore. You can still find those gentle resort courses with palm trees galore, wide fairways and mountains at a distance. However, if you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind golf destination, the Greater Palm Springs Valley has enough score-crunching beasts to wet your appetite.