Thunderbird Country Club Golf Course Revamps for Modern Game

A refresh of the course keeps its classic contours while keeping current play in mind.

Tom Mackin Golf, History

The new landing area on hole No. 3 has more movement.

Modernization. Transformation. Revitalization. Call it what you want, but the recent course project at Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage has invigorated the Coachella Valley’s oldest member-owned golf club as it nears its 75th anniversary. 

In fact, it was discussions about the milestone that inspired a closer look at the course. “We started a new master plan process in 2019 in advance of that anniversary and saw the need to do some work to modernize the golf course,” says general manager Brett Draper. “It hadn’t really been physically touched since 1980, so it was in need of a restoration, or you could call it ‘modernization.’ ” 

Enter Oklahoma-based golf course architect Tripp Davis. He and his team perform historic renovation and restoration work at golf courses around the country, attempting to re-create a look and feel from the past while also incorporating modern technology. That was the task Davis faced after he was selected from a group of candidates to revitalize Thunderbird. The club has a rich history of welcoming Hollywood elites, U.S. presidents, and other famous guests, as well as hosting a slew of prestigious events, including the first Thunderbird Invitational in 1952 (the event became the Bob Hope Desert Classic and is now The American Express) and the Ryder Cup in 1955, when the U.S. team defeated the United Kingdom and Ireland 8-4. But the need to address the club’s aging infrastructure, including bunkers, greens, water features, irrigation, and turf was too great to ignore. 

In Thunderbird Country Club’s golf course refresh, classic architecture meets the demands of the modern game.

The project started in the summer of 2021 with Davis working on holes 1 through 3. Work on the remaining holes began in April 2022, and the course reopened in mid-November. “We needed to focus on making the golf course playable for the higher handicapper,” Draper says, “but also challenging for the low handicapper because we do have a pretty wide variety of golfers at Thunderbird.”  

Davis says, “The club asked me to make the course as fun to play as possible. What I explained to them was that fun doesn’t mean it’s devoid of any challenge. Fun means it’s interesting instead of difficult.

“They also wanted to make the golf course look, feel, and play like a very classic-style course,” Davis continues. “When you do that, a lot of it involves taking out what I call ‘clutter.’ With your typical old-style golf course, one of the traits is that it lacks clutter. That could be things like a waterfall that doesn’t fit, or too many tee boxes. Things like that contribute to the golf course not having the elegant or simple look to it.”

In Thunderbird’s case, the clutter primarily involved tree overgrowth throughout the course. Once that was cleaned up, they turned their focus to the health and well-being of the layout, which required an infrastructure upgrade both above and below ground. 

“The turf grass on the fairway and in the rough was at an age where it had segregated and mutated with a bunch of different types of grass,” Davis says. “The bunkers were old, some of them 40 years old, so it was time to put more modern sand in there, put in bunker liners, and get the bunkers to a style that felt more classic in nature. We also updated the irrigation system and relined the lakes.”

As for the holes themselves, the par-4 fourth proved to be one of the more difficult challenges for Davis, largely because it plays across a wash. “The tee shot is such that most players will be playing it up top and then across the wash,” he says. “We spent a lot of time thinking about whether a bunker on the left made sense, or if we put more roll in the fairway to influence whether a ball went left down the hill or stayed up top. We ended up not using a bunker at all, but we did some rolls down the middle to make the fairway more interesting. The green was very severe, so we spent a lot of time rebuilding that and tying it into the others.” 

Davis also made significant changes to the par-4 13th hole. “That was one of the tougher fairways to hit with a bunker and bunch of trees down the right. We took out some trees, widened the fairway, and pushed that bunker further down the right-hand side so [that] longer players [would] still have to think about it.”

Action from the 1958 Thunderbird Invitational.
Opened in 1952, Thunderbird was the first golf course in the Coachella Valley.

While all hole corridors remained intact, the 11th green was moved back 35 yards from its previous position, and the 12th hole was shortened by 30 yards to under 300 yards, making it a drivable par 4 for some. “The unique quality of having a little more variety on those holes was appealing,” says Nick DeKock, Thunderbird Country Club’s PGA head golf professional. “And the water feature added down right side of the dogleg right [of the] 17th hole is a significant change to the aesthetics and the playing of that hole.” 

The par-4 17th hole underwent the most significant alterations. “The average- to high-handicap players had to play to the left off the tee because there were a lot of palm trees down the right-hand side,” Davis says. “That left a longer approach to the green, making it a more difficult hole for them. Better players could hit 3-wood over the palm trees and have a wedge to the green. We took out all those palms and put a stream down the right-hand side. Now better players have to play a little more left to avoid the water, and the average player can take a line further down the right, so it’s a little more playable for them.”

Davis also tweaked the greens to add a touch more of what he calls “pitch and roll.” 

They wanted me to make the course look, feel, and play like a classic-style course.
Tripp Davis

“About 40 years ago,” he says, “four of the greens had been rebuilt to USGA specs [using a gravel layer and a soil mix on top]. They happened to be the greens that became much more sloped during that work. With green speeds getting higher, they lost hole locations on those greens. We took the USGA structure out and rebuilt them to reflect the rest of the greens: more subtle undulations, a lot more roll, and more of a green where you have to match up line and speed.” 

“From my viewpoint, I think the green complexes are going to be very much enjoyed by the membership,” DeKock enthuses. 

The look and strategy of the bunker work is perhaps the biggest aesthetic change.

Trees were removed and the fairway widened along No. 13. 

“What I was impressed by [with] Tripp Davis’ bunker location work was, first of all, many are in the same location [where] Lawrence Hughes and Ted Robinson had bunkers,” DeKock says. “But many are now really well-laced to give golfers a good viewpoint as to where a dogleg may turn, particularly on the first and 10th tees. The aesthetics have improved greatly. Bunkers are so much more easily viewable from the tees.” 

“As a whole, it’s a transformation,” Davis says of the project. “A lot of that has to do with the fact that the bunkering is very different. We also removed enough trees to make the course feel more open.”

DeKock views the changes as a revitalization. “It still has the same historical, traditional layout that Lawrence Hughes planned in 1951,” he says. “But with new, wall-to-wall grass being installed, there was the opportunity to do some irrigation work. The bunkers were tired, not having been addressed since 1980, when Ted Robinson did some work on the course. That has been a very pleasing improvement.”

For Davis, it was yet another opportunity to blend classic course architecture with the requirements of the modern game. 

“It’s a fun challenge,” he says. “Bringing the playing quality of the golf course into the modern era is the easier part. We can set up the course and adapt to the players using different tee boxes, bunker setup, and water hazards. Making it look classic is the challenge.” 

Thunderbird is now working on the next stage: upgrades to the club’s casual dining options, fitness/wellness center, golf shop, and practice facilities. 

Meanwhile, feedback from members and guests who have played the “new” course has been overwhelmingly positive, Draper says. “They absolutely love the enhancements of the golf course and the work Tripp has done — the view corridors, the movement of the greens, the update of the bunkers … really the whole package.”