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Palm Springs Golf
by Karen Misuraca

In 1887, twenty-five dollars bought a round-trip ticket on an excursion train from San Francisco to Palm Springs, "the only spot in California where frost, fog and windstorms are absolutely unknown," according to a real estate advertisement of the day. Mule-drawn buckboards carried passengers from the train station to the Palm Springs Hotel, where they played bridge and drank beer under the palms, soaked in hot mineral pools inside a rickety wooden bathhouse, and picnicked in the Indian Canyons.

In the glamorous Hollywood heyday of the 1920's and 1930's, Errol Flynn, Ginger Rogers and their movie star cohorts routinely made the 100-mile trek over the mountains to Palm Springs in unairconditioned cars to relax at the tiny, Spanish-style La Quinta Hotel, blissfully removed from their fans and the tabloids. They basked in dry, warm air and played on the nine-hole golf course, the first in the valley, for the green fee of a dollar.

Today, over a hundred years and a hundred-plus golf courses later, the glitzy oasis of Palm Springs and the seven other resort cities of the Coachella Valley continue to lure celebrities and "snowbirds" south for sunny days of golf, tennis, and lazing around more than 30,000 swimming pools. Green fees are higher by a hundred-fold and golf courses are among the most celebrated in the world.

The original twenty casitas at La Quinta are now 640 luxurious rooms and suites in lush tropical gardens below the jagged ridges of the Santa Rosa Mountains. A stroll around the sprawling grounds turns up an astounding twenty-five swimming pools and thirty-eight whirlpool spas. Oceans of magenta-colored bougainvillea cascade over the walls of private patios, and you can pick oranges and lemons every month of the year. Seclusion and golf remain the order of the day.

No other resort property in Southern California offers as many top-rated golf courses as La Quinta, including the PGA West Jack Nicklaus Resort Course. Four of Pete Dye's best are here: the PGA West TPC Stadium Golf Course, the Mountain, the Dunes and the private Citrus course. Dye intended the Stadium course to be "the hardest damn golf course in the world"; PGA Tour players considered his eighty-two monster bunkersone is twenty feet deep and water hazards too difficult, boycotting the course for a time. High profile tournaments are played here, including the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, The Senior Skins and Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf.

A Scottish links layout, the Dunes course rolls like a stormy green sea across the desert floor, scattered with large bunkers and abundant water on eight holes. Rimmed by a treacherous lake along the entire left side and copious sand traps at the curve of a dogleg, with a severely sloping green, the par-four 17th was rated by the PGA as one of the toughest holes in the United States.

Rivers of stone, prickly shrubs and native grasses stream across the Mountain course. On the 6th hole, rocky foothills descend to the edge of the fairway and the two-level green, which is ferociously guarded by sand and grass bunkers. A deep ravine and a wilderness of desert border the 14th fairway, leading an elevated green menaced by yet another ravine and waves of sand. On the 16th, you get turf on the tee and the green, and 167 yards of rocks between.

A new course in the La Quinta complex, entirely unlike the others, was designed for PGA West by Aussie golf great Greg Norman, a.k.a. "the Shark". Norman expressed his desire to touch the terrain lightly by severely limiting turf and using extensive tracts of native grasses, riots of wildflowers, and indigenous mesquite, palo verde and acacia trees in a spectacular, rugged low desert setting surrounded by mountains. You will not see here the palm trees and exotic water features typical of Coachella Valley courses.

Distinguishing the design are 122 "Great White Shark" bunkers filled with brilliant white crushed marble sand. Replacing traditional grass rough is tan-colored decomposed granite, tough on the golf clubs and requiring a deft touch to pluck the ball off the crunchy surface. Five sets of tees make it playable for everyone. You can walk the course — a privilege usually unavailable in the valley, or hire a caddie. Norman's favorite is the 15th hole, where sixteen bunkers create a double fairway. He said, "It's characteristic of the whole course, a real risk versus reward hole with lots of bunkers and native vegetation. On this course, I go through everything from a 2-iron to a driver off the tee, and hit everything from a 2-iron to a sand wedge for approach shots. "

In the new stone and copper, Australian-style clubhouse, golfers take a breather and take a chance with the signature cocktail, the "Sharkarita", before repairing to the just-opened $4.5 million Spa La Quinta for a "Just for Guys" facial or the "Sports Pack Body Wrap". Imagine this after a hard day with the little white ball: warm mud sensuously applied and wrapped over your hands, arms, lower back and shoulders, then an invigorating barrage — "the Celestial Shower" — in a private open-air setting, followed by a Sacred Stone massage or the therapeutic PGA West Golf Massage in a silent room open to a garden patio close-up view of the sheer mountain backdrop. You can expect perfect weather: the average year-round temperature in the valley is 88 degrees. December through March, days are in the high 70's.

Actor Gene Hackman and President Clinton like to golf in the near-perfect, dry, sparkling climate of Indian Wells. Site of PGA and Senior PGA tournaments and countless invitationals, the Golf Resort at Indian Wells was named "One of the Best Golf Courses in North America" in 1998. Known as the "King of Waterscapes", course designer Ted Robinson, added nine lakes and a flurry of waterfalls to sixteen of the thirty-six holes of the East and West courses.

The West is infamous for elevation changes of up to sixty feet, and wildly undulating, pedestal greens, plus a lively collection of 120 sand traps and pot bunkers. Short but deadly, the 13th hole carries from an elevated tee over water to an island green, with a distracting view of the Santa Rosa Mountains. Holes one and two surround ancient Indian burial grounds, now covered by rampant flower gardens.

Although rolling and hilly with some steep slopes, the East Course is nevertheless a little easier for high handicappers. Don't be intimidated by the dogleg island fairway on the 370-yard 13th "just take care to use a long iron instead of a wood if you plan to stay dry. The dramatic par-four 18th is edged by a long, snaking bunker, a waterfall and two lakes.

With a world-renowned reputation and numerous annual tournaments, tee times at Indian Wells are not easy to obtain during the high winter season. Your best bet is to book a golf package at the adjacent mega-resort, the Renaissance Esmeralda, or the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort.

Seen from the finishing holes of the West Course, the Hyatt Grand Champions is a compound of sand-colored buildings floating like a Moorish dream against the backdrop of the San Jacinto Mountains. White columns and archways, and garden courtyards with fountains and rushing streams are luxuriant with rose gardens and citrus trees. Unique to the four-star, four-diamond Hyatt are the largest standard guest rooms in the valley "530-square-foot suites with private terraces and sunken sitting rooms. Separate villas each have a Jacuzzi spa and a private courtyard. For a resort complex with over three hundred rooms, this Hyatt is surprisingly serene, with cool, pale Carrara marble floors and numerous leafy nooks and crannies where guests can hide away. A parade of tall palms flutter in the desert breezes over four outdoor swimming pools, and those inclined to hit the fuzzy ball head for twelve grass, clay and hard surface tennis courts.

After dark, by George, the glamour of the nightclubs of the 1940's can be found at Hamiltons at the Hyatt. Among the movie stars who winter here, dapper, suntanned George Hamilton, of "Zorro" and "Love at First Bite" movie fame, opened a North African-inspired supper club beside a palm-fringed swimming pool, with loungy couches under a sweeping tent, graceful arches and filigree, a separate cigar bar and a dance floor with live music — a place to settle in and linger into the night. Signature cocktails are the Chocolatini (Absolute vodka and Godiva liqueur) and Blueberry martinis.

Harkening back to the days of the famous Palm Springs Racquet Club, where Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck and friends hobnobbed, Hamilton said, "Palm Springs has always been a place to relax and mingle. You can play tennis or golf, swim, go home and change, come back for a drink at the bar, go to dinner and dancing, and meet interesting people."

One of the most popular of the larger nightclubs in the desert, Costa's at the Desert Springs Marriott Resort and Spa has reopened after a $1 million renovation, with spectacular results. The huge dance floor sparkling with chandeliers and colored lights is encircled with cushy, upholstered seating and contemporary artwork. Top 40 DJ's are on the menu during the week, and well-known dance bands such as the swing-style Stray Cats perform on weekends. One of the nicest amenities here is the adjacent terrace, where you can have a cocktail by a bubbling fountain beside the lake, puff a cigar if you wish and watch the moon come up over the snowcapped mountains.

In an exotic hanging garden setting, complete with running streams and chattering birds, and a huge saltwater aquarium, the eight-story atrium lobby at the Marriott overlooks a large lake, where gondolas wait to ferry visitors and guests around a labyrinth of canals. There are nearly 900 rooms spread out in tropical oasis-like grounds, and thirty-six holes of top notch golf.

Ted Robinson struck again at the Marriott, liberally watering his Palm and Valley golf course with lakes, ponds and falls, and adding 5000 trees, mostly palms, for good measure. On the 3rd hole of the 6,381-yard Palm, which wraps completely around the hotel, it's waterfalls to your left, islands in a stream on your right, a lineup of palms and a giant bunker backing the deep green. Rated "Best Fifth Hole in the Coachella Valley" by Palm Springs Life magazine, the #1 handicap 5th calls for teeing off over a mound through a chute to the flat landing, then straight on to a forward-sloping green trapped on both sides.

Gondolas full of resort guests cruise around the four finishing holes of the Valley course. The 160-yard 17th tees off above cascading falls over a pool where a flock of pink flamingos pose, to a small island green encircled with palms; the palm barrier comes in handy when ball seems destined for a watery demise. Back across the footbridge go the players, to be greeted on the 18th by five giant bunkers on each side of a narrow fairway, hitting dizzily down to a landscaped lake inhabited by pink flamingoes and the inevitable waterfalls that guard two sides of a three-tiered green backed by a platoon of palms, a scene reminiscent of a 1930's Busby Berkeley movie set.

When faced with golf shots requiring pinpoint accuracy, golfers at the Marriott enjoy the Global Positioning System (GPS) installed in each cart, featuring digital read-outs of the distance in yards between the golfer and the pin. No need for marshals; the starter uses the GPs to monitor your progress and will even relay personal messages to you when needed; you can have snacks delivered to your cart and order lunch to grab as you round the turn for the back nine.

Golfers who can never get enough head for "The Greens", a fanciful Ted Robinson creation, a 350-yard, 18-hole pitching and putting course with rolling fairways, doglegs upon doglegs, nasty bits of beautifully landscaped rough and — you guessed it — plenty of water.

Annual golf tournaments attract thousands of snow bunnies to the Coachella Valley during the high season of January, February and March, when desert weather is at its best. Temperatures will be in the 70's and 80's when the 42nd Bob Hope Chrysler Classic is held on four private country club courses and PGA West in January, 2001. Jasper Parnevik will defend his title in the pro matches, while a raft of celebrity golfers, including Michael Jordan and Joe Pesci, vie for the Pro-Am titles. The 1995 Bob Hope Pro-Am at Indian Wells Country Club was one for the history books, when three presidents — Bush, Ford and Clinton — teamed up with then 92-year-old Bob Hope, Palm Springs' most beloved permanent resident. The First Players' scores: Clinton 95, Bush 93, Ford 103.

More than 100 women pros will compete in the 26th Annual Nabisco Dinah Shore at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage in March, an event that fills the valley with golf fans. The 1996 champ, Patty Sheehan, waded into the lake on the 18th fairway with her trophy, continuing a tradition started when Amy Alcott jumped in the lake after her 1988 win; Dinah joined in the swim when Alcott won for the third time, in 1991.

Mission Hills Country Club is a private course adjacent to the Westin Mission Hills Resort, a 360-acre, tile-roofed, Moroccan-style extravaganza of hotel buildings and garden terraces graced by water channels, fountains and pools, with views of the San Jacinto Mountains and the Pete Dye resort course, generously endowed, in true Dye fashion, with lakes, waterfalls, countless railroad ties and 70 bunkers. The North course at Mission Hills is a Gary Player original, reflecting the natural contours and flora of desert arroyos, with boulder-strewn lakes and sloped fairways added; unlike most desert layouts, this one stands alone without a fringe of houses, condos or resort buildings. Waterscapes, falls and craggy rock formations set the scene; the golfer's task is to brave the 7,062-yard length of the course and the seasonal winds. The Westin Mission Hills has more than 500 rooms and suites, each with patio or balcony, perfect vantage points for watching pink and gold dawns streak across the San Jacintos. At sunset, the sun drops behind the mountain ridges, turning them into a serrated black wall against a fading curtain of sky. At the heart of the resort, the Las Brisas pool was built to mimic the nearby Indian Canyons with a 60-foot, S-curve water slide that spills into a lagoon-style pool surrounded by explosions of bougainvillea, bird of paradise and hibiscus flowers.

Stay-and-play packages and off-season discounts are available at all Coachella Valley resorts, although non-resort golf complexes are, in most cases, less costly. There are three outstanding new ones in the Coachella Valley: Desert Willow in Palm Desert, Cimarron Golf Club in Cathedral City, and Landmark Golf Club in Indio.

Desert Willow Golf Resort was recently built by the city of Palm Desert, which decided that sixteen courses within the city were simply not enough. Typical of upscale public access courses built in the 1990's, Desert Willow has the look, the personal service and the atmosphere of a private country club, with a luxurious clubhouse and two championship courses — Mountain View and Firecliff — offering a big budget experience at municipal prices.

Probably the most impressive city-owned golf facility in the country, it shares the site with a new Marriott Residence Inn, and a golf academy operated by one of the world's top instructors, David Leadbetter. Skillfully integrated into the natural terrain, with fewer acres of the perfect turf typical of most Southern California courses, both Firecliff and Mountain View have vast stretches of natural vegetation, and huge sand and crushed granite bunkers bordered by magnificent groves of palms and red and golden barrel cactus.

While Mountain View is user-friendly for the high handicapper, elevation changes and numerous bunkers make Firecliff a stern test of the golfer's mettle. Unique features behind the 8th and 17th holes are replicas of striking stone formations found in the mysterious Indian Canyons, the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Cahuilla Indians. Although new in 1999, several of the hair-raising holes on the Landmark Golf Club in the foothills of Indio, on the south end of the valley, have already earned names such as Brutal, Cliffhanger, Intimidation and Eternity.

Actor Robert Wagner and rock star Alice Cooper are undaunted by all this and play here often. Home to the PGA's Skins Game, the North and South courses undulate along California's All American Canal, with rolling sand dunes and desert plants, lakes and steep, tilting slopes. Many elevated greens give panoramic views of the entire Coachella Valley, and the Chocolate and Gorgonio Mountains; expect dazzling sunsets. Six tee boxes are necessary on some holes to alleviate for lesser mortals the challenge of rocks, giant bunkers and three lakes. The 15th on the North course is a beauty, a 183-yard par-3 with an island green nearly fifty yards across. The 16th is called "Sand Box", due to the labyrinthine bunker winding relentlessly from tee to green. In a smashing finish, you will have double doglegs to contend with on the par-5 18th, plus fairway bunkers and acres of water.

If your luck holds at Landmark, consider heading for the Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio. Owned by the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, the casino is open twenty-four hours for gaming, with hundreds of video gaming machines, blackjack and poker tables, and entertainment. On Wild West Wednesdays, it's boot scootin', live Western music and free line dance lessons.

Another new course, Cimarron Golf Club rests on a unique site along the Whitewater Storm Channel that runs through Palm Springs, and is a few minutes from the Palm Springs airport. Architect John Fought of Pumpkin Ridge renown has come up with a championship course, and an executive course destined to be a favorite with golfers on their way out of town with just a couple of hours to spare. The links-type Long Course features sod-walled bunkers and pure white marble bunkers, with some double greens, and fairways that, in alarming fashion, abruptly disappear into sandy washes and rocky gorges. The 3,156-yard, challenging Short Course can be played in less than two hours; the longest hole is just 313 yards from the back tees. The wash looms at the bottom of steep drop-offs and stretches of white sand emerge when you least expect them. What a relief to tuck into a beer and a fried alligator sandwich or a crab melt at the Leapin' Lizards Bistro in the clubhouse before heading to the airport.

Take a look down from your plane at the glimmering cities of the Coachella Valley, surrounded by the endless Mojave Desert and high mountain ranges. Scattered across the arid landscape are languid patches of vivid green, a hundred and more golf courses. Beneath a perpetually unclouded, blue sky, they are surreal in their perfection, artificially created, yet a part of the wild terrain that encircles them. The year 2001 will see more new courses in the valley, notably The Cove, Tom Fazio's striking design for the Ritz Carlton Resort in Rancho Mirage. High on a bluff overlooking Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley, The Cove promises to be an irresistible reason to fly back to the desert for a golf getaway.

Article Resources

La Quinta Resort and Spa
49-499 Eisenhower Drive La Quinta, CA 92253
760-564-4111, 800-598-3828
http://www.laquintaresort.com

PGA West Greg Norman Course
56-150 PGA Boulevard La Quinta, CA 92253
760-564-7170, 800-PGA-WEST

The Golf Resort at Indian Wells
44-500 Indian Wells Lane, Indian Wells, CA 92210
760-346-4653

Hyatt Grand Champions Resort
44-600 Indian Wells Lane, Indian Wells, CA 92210
760-341-1000, 800-55-HYATT
http://www.hyatt.com

Marriott's Desert Springs Resort and Spa
74855 Country Club Drive, Palm Desert, CA 92260
760-341-2211, 800-331-3112

The Westin Mission Hills Resort
71501 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage, CA 92270
760-328-5955, 800-228-3000
http://www.westin.com

Desert Willow Golf Resort
38-500 Portola Avenue, Palm Desert, CA 92255
760-346-7060
http://www.desertwillow.com

Landmark Golf Club
84-000 Landmark Parkway, Indio, CA 92203
760-775-2000

Cimarron Golf Club
67-603 30th Avenue, Cathedral City, CA 92234
760-770-6060
http://www.cimarrongolf.com

Palm Springs Desert Resorts
69-930 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage, CA 92270
760-770-9000, 800-417-3529
http://www.desert-resorts.com

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