Of Course, the Desert's Got Game
Nine public and semiprivate golf courses promise to test your skills and awe you with natural beauty.
Photo Credit: Tahquitz Creek Golf Resort
Pro and celebrity tournaments — including the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, the Frank Sinatra Countrywide Celebrity Invitational, and Kraft Nabisco Championship — fix the eyes of the golf world squarely on the Coachella Valley for several months each year.
The fabled courses that host these tournaments become magnets for enthusiasts who visit the desert to test their game on some of the most beautiful and challenging layouts.
For every course where professionals challenge each other in tournament play, you can find another dozen or so layouts for a round of your own. With so many public and semiprivate options, booking a tee time is a cinch after you settle on a course. The layouts offer unparalleled natural beauty — impressive views of the majestic mountains, flowing water, well-considered landscaping — and a world-class playing experience.
If brand-name architecture drives your decision, you’ll find courses by Arnold Palmer, Pete Dye, Robert Trent Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Gary Player, Ted Robinson, Nick Faldo, and other well-known course designers.
Locals often point to the Classic Club, PGA West, SilverRock Resort, Desert Willow Golf Resort, Desert Springs JW Marriott Resort & Spa, and the two recently renovated courses at Indian Wells Golf Resort (home of the Skins Game) as places worth the drive.
“Desert Willow has everything you’d want,” says golfer Derek Stone of the course in his hometown of Palm Desert. “I wouldn’t say it’s the only place to play, but it’s where I’d start.”
Bob Break recommends Cimarrón Golf Resort in his hometown of Cathedral City, as well as Terra Lago in Indio. Terrell Scott of Palm Springs says, “Shoot on up the road to Desert Dunes [in Desert Hot Springs] and you’ll find peace, right out in the middle of the dunes. You won’t be disappointed.”
The desert harbors some well-kept secrets, too — for example, Indian Springs Golf Club in Indio, Desert Princess Country Club in Cathedral City, Bel Air Greens in Palm Springs, and the Ted Robinson-designed Palm Royale Country Club in La Quinta.
Indian Canyons Golf Resort, the Palm Springs course designed by Casey O’Callaghan and Amy Alcott, touts that it unfolds in a wind-free zone — a plausible factor in selecting a place to play.
For degree of difficulty, seek PGA West’s TPC Stadium Course or the Nicklaus Tournament Course in La Quinta. For a water hazard on every hole, the semiprivate Oasis Country Club — a 3,489-yard, executive (mainly par-3 holes) layout in Palm Desert — might be your golf-playing tonic.
Here, we recommend nine golf courses, public and semiprivate, that promise to challenge your game and offer a distinctly desert experience.
1 - You want a challenge? You’ll get one at LA QUINTA RESORT & CLUB. Well-known golf course architect Pete Dye turned the Dunes course into reality at a club that’s been around since the 1920s.
The year 1998 was the sixth time that would-be PGA Tour hopefuls had to master this course during qualifying school. Those players, along with others, found that Dye had developed a links-style course that includes rolling fairways, small and tricky greens, large bunkers, and water on eight of the holes. It was among Golf Digest’s top 75 courses in America.
Two courses — Dunes and Mountain — are available to the public.
There’s plenty of golf history at La Quinta. Chi Chi Rodriguez, for instance, claimed top prize at the 1989 Senior Skins on the Mountain course ahead of runner-up Gary Player.
Hollywood celebrities hung out at the resort after it opened 80 years ago. Golf is the major theme nowadays, especially since La Quinta Resort is connected to the PGA West courses just down the road: the Stadium Course, the Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course, and Greg Norman course. The Arnold Palmer Private Course at PGA West is the host course for the 50th anniversary Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in January.
2 - Perhaps you’ve witnessed a British Open links-course tournament on television. In Cathedral City, you can live the dream at CIMARRÓN GOLF RESORT. The John Fought-designed course features sod-wall bunkers and grand, British-style greens with nice, subtle breaks. Fought, the pro-turned-architect who built famous layouts at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon and Pine Needles Golf Club in North Carolina, turned a flood channel in Cathedral City into a 36-hole feat — the Pebble and Boulder courses — in 1999.
“You could say the holes are kind of the same, but they’re really different, especially if you’re playing in the wind — teeing off in a different direction every time. But those bunkers are hard!” says golfer Judy Partain of Bermuda Dunes.
Links-style courses usually unfold in coastal areas, on sandy soil, often in dune areas with few water hazards and trees. It reflects the tradition of the game’s origins in the United Kingdom. Challenges of links golf fall into two categories: The courses tend to have uneven fairways; thick rough; and small, deep “pot” bunkers. And they can be windy — a common challenge at Cimarrón, where low, accurate shots are rewarded.
“We get a lot of players down from Oregon, Canada, and other places up north,” says Mike Dahlstrom, head pro at Cimarrón.
3 - The Firecliff Course at DESERT WILLOW GOLF RESORT in Palm Desert enjoys the No. 1 position among the best public courses in Southern California, according to Desert Golf Magazine. More impressively, the national magazine Golf Digest bestowed 4 1/2 stars on the resort’s Firecliff and Mountain View courses on its list of “Best Places to Play.”
“No one can match our golf experience,” says Mike Osgood, general manager of the 36-hole property.
For a public course, Desert Willow stands out to Will Merritt of Marysville, 40 miles north of Sacramento. “I’ve played courses all over the state — Pebble Beach, Silverado, Torrey Pines, among others — and I’ve never, ever seen [a city-owned course] like this one,” he says after shooting 92 on the Mountain View layout. “I apologize for tearing up the place, because I usually shoot 80, 81, 82 on the course I play at back home. I’ll do better here [next time].”
Says Osgood, “That’s the thing about Desert Willow: People are already lining up their next round.”
4 - The epitome of the desert’s plush, scenic, manicured, and water-lined holes that distinguish the best layouts, the Ted Robinson-designed Palm and Valley courses at DESERT SPRINGS JW MARRIOT RESORT & SPA in Palm Desert have become must-plays. “I come here all the time, and I always have my pick of where I want to play,” says Artie Atchison, a 32-year visitor from Lake Forest in south Orange County. He shakes his head in awe of the property — without a doubt his first choice in desert courses. “This is where I usually wind up, probably, two out of every three times.”
“The lesson you learn [playing] here is that you better be on your game to have a decent round,” says Indio’s Ted Wilson, Atchison’s friend and playing companion. “If you don’t, go in and have a drink, maybe some lunch, then go back out and play the other course.”
Then there’s the glass-encased scorecard on the wall, featuring rounds of 65 by Phil Mickelson, bettered by a single shot by Tiger Woods. It’s framed above the TV set at one end of the pro shop, impressive in its presentation.
5 - The Arnold Palmer-designed CLASSIC CLUB in Palm Desert was the host course for the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic from 2006 to 2008.
Last March, Golfweek magazine listed Classic Club among the “Best You Can Play.”
There’s more. The John Deere Credit regional competition named Classic Club’s 18th hole among its three “Most Beautifully Brutal Golf Holes” in the Southwest (at press time, the club was waiting to learn if the hole was named among the most beautifully brutal in America.)
“The minute you finish that hole, you want to play it again,” says Walt Gorden of Sunrise, Ariz., “It’s kind of like [pressing] the rerun button on your TV when you see something you want to keep replaying.”
Gorden, who sports an eight handicap, nearly rolled in a birdie putt during a round on Memorial Day weekend, settling for a par.
In January, young golf professional D.J. Trahan birdied the 18th hole to beat one-time British Open champion Justin Leonard in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.
In addition to beautiful fairways, this property features one of the most beautiful clubhouses in the desert, housing the spectacular Rattlesnake restaurant.
6 - Let’s get this out of the way right now: It’s windy at DESERT DUNES GOLF CLUB, the Robert Trent Jones-designed club in Desert Hot Springs. Jones brought dunes and golf together to build this course in 1989. Tony Sandoval, a regular player here from nearby Cathedral City, concedes, “It’s in the middle of nowhere. There are no homes, no real buildings of any kind — all natural desert, like some of the courses over in Ireland.”
This layout has a real attraction: it’s as close to the raw desert as possible. You’ll find wildlife, desert scrub, rolling fairways, and that confounded wind at various times during the year.
Teeing off from the 176-yard “black” tee, the par 3 could be a character-building effort. Sandoval says that it “might be the hardest hole you’ll have the easiest time playing.”
Longtime course professional Olen Bartley says, “We’ve had some pretty big celebrities play some tournaments out there. Kurt Russell used to be a regular out here. Billy Barty, Bobby Grich, Fernando Valenzuela — they’ve all played here.”
In 1995, Curry Reynolds shot a course record 65. “We’ve had a lot of professionals out here, plus some [pro] tournaments, and no one has broken that record,” Bartley says.
Golf Digest named Desert Dunes among its top 30 public golf courses in the United States. The greens have hosted qualifying events for the U.S. Open, PGA Tour, and Senior Tour.
7 - WESTIN MISSION HILLS RESORT in Rancho Mirage has two public, 18-hole layouts: one designed by Pete Dye, the other by Gary Player. Here’s the difference: A Pete Dye course features large lakes, deep bunkers, and railroad ties. A Gary Player course is friendly to golfers of all types, while here offering the challenge of water at 12 holes.
Water from tee to green on the par-3 third hole caught the attention of Huynh Dgao, a tourist from Thailand. “I’ve never seen that before,” he says, laughing. “I think I’ll skip that hole the next time.”
Most visitors who play Mission Hills prefer the Player-designed course. It’s a fairer test for the average golfer, though it measures slightly longer than 7,000 yards from the tournament tees. The course record is 10 under par 62, set by an assistant pro several years ago.
Golf Magazine says the Gary Player signature course “may be the best ... in the Palm Springs area.” It hosted the Frank Sinatra Celebrity Invitational Tournament in the late 1990s, as well as some LPGA qualifying events and a stop on the Golden State Tour.
8 - It’s not long. It’s fair. It’s located near downtown Palm Springs. And it’s probably the best break for mid- to high-handicap players looking for an advantage on the 6,775 yards. Built in the late 1950s (then known as Palm Springs Municipal Course) and one of the desert’s earliest golf layouts, TAHQUITZ CREEK GOLF RESORT’s Legends Course has been improved over the years and offers good value.
“I would go along with that,” says M’shka Medveje, a Palm Springs resident who plays the course at least three times a month. “I played the par-4 hole [No. 1] five times and I got par four times,” he says. “I’m not that good, believe me. I usually shoot pretty high — around 88, 89. It’s nice to finish the first hole with a score like that. It makes you feel like you’ve got a chance.”
Tahquitz Creek General Manager Brandon Alexander says, “Most anyone that has been playing golf in the Coachella Valley for over 30 years will have played Tahquitz Creek.” He also notes the course’s popularity with women.
Alexander says the four sets of tees and undulating greens make this a deceptively difficult layout.
“Watch out for the sand,” Medveje says. “There’s a lot of it. Then again, it’s Palm Springs.” And sand is prevalent among desert courses.
9 - EAGLE FALLS GOLF COURSE is one of the newer courses in the desert and thus less crowded. It was designed by Clive Clark, who was the architect for the famed Celebrity Course at Indian Wells Golf Resort and one of the courses at the ultra-exclusive Hideaway private club.
With Eagle Falls at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, Clive has created a distinctive collection of challenging holes, one of which copies the famous “Postage Stamp” par 3 at Scotland’s Royal Troon course. Some holes are lined with tall native grasses; so if you stray, you may never see that ball again. The course is very contoured, with many bunkers that range from medium-sized to huge. Water is in play on eight holes, and the greens are tricky. Every hole is different; some are tough and a few are “breathers.”
“This is a very interesting course for all levels of skill and priced very competitively,” says Bob Gibson, a longtime resident of Rancho Mirage. “Everyone I have talked to that has played the course has given it high praise.”
The 44-foot waterfall on the 18th hole is a nice finishing touch.