World-class golf destinations all bring something special to the table, but there’s something eclectic about the Palm Springs area that’s tough to duplicate.
“I think more than anything it’s just the feel Palm Springs has,” said Mary Jo Ginther, director of tourism for the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism. “When you think of Palm Springs, it’s not like anywhere else in the world.”
The Coachella Valley combines mountain and desert views with a charm and character not often seen in other destinations. And the fact that there are numerous options for golf, lodging, shopping and dining only enhances the experience.
“For years, Palms Springs was perceived as an active retiree community, which it was, but it’s really transformed into more of an oasis for baby boomers and younger people who really like the hip vibe of downtown and the fun, retro mid-20th century architecture, which still exists in all its glory in Palm Springs,” Ginther said. “It takes you back to a place like the late 1950s and early 1960s, a swinging time where you’d wear great shirts and drink martinis by the edge of a kidney-shaped pool. It was a very optimistic time, and I think one reason so many people are drawn here, either for a visit or to buy a second home or time-share, is that vibe. You can’t find it anywhere else.”
While the greater Palm Springs area (which includes Palm Desert, La Quinta, Rancho Mirage, Bermuda Dunes and Indio, among other cities) has its share of posh options, spending a fortune isn’t necessary, unless you want to.
“In many of our surveys, we find that many people think Palm Springs is very exclusive, which equates in their minds to expensive,” Ginther said. “But the thing about the area is you can stay at anywhere from a five-star brand hotel to a small budget motel. And you still have the same view of the mountains in the morning.”
Choosing a must-play list of courses in an area with more than 120 isn’t easy. But we’ve tried. And in the spirit of the region’s character we’ve selected ones that resonate with their own sense of self.
The only course on our list in Palm Springs is Escena Golf Club, which opened in 2006. The economic downturn forced a two-year closure, but the club reopened in November 2009 to much aplomb. With 99 bunkers and lakes or streams on half the holes, the 7,173-yard Nicklaus Design Group layout presents a test. But the generous fairways provide relief and the course has garnered stellar reviews. The same is true for the Escena Grill and its 16,000-square-foot clubhouse that add an eclectic vibe to the property.
A jewel in Palm Desert’s golf crown is the Classic Club, an Arnold Palmer-designed, 7,305-yard course with nary a palm tree in sight. With approximately 30 acres of water features, 14 stone bridges and hundreds of pine trees lining its fairways, the track provides a different experience from most desert venues. Built to host the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, which it did in 2006-08, the course offers impeccable conditions and outstanding customer service, with amenities including complimentary valet service.
Next up is the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa in Palm Desert, which has a 38,000-square-foot spa, an eight-story hotel, seven dining options, a dance club, 53,000 square feet of meeting space and two golf courses. A $25 million renovation project coinciding with the resort’s 25th anniversary this year included upgrades to the two Ted Robinson-designed courses, both of which are located on the property. As resort courses, neither the Palms nor Valley tracks are overly punitive. They’re mostly flat with generous fairways, and the only real danger is landing in one of the numerous water features when hitting a stray tee shot.
Desert Willow Resort, our third must-play property in Palm Desert, includes two wonderful tests of golf. While each of the two courses are seamlessly incorporated into the natural terrain and were designed by John Cook, Dana Fry and Michael Hurzdan, they are quite different in scope. The Firecliff Course is regarded as one of the most challenging courses in the area. Stretching 7,056 yards from the tips, the track includes more than 100 bunkers and waste areas and each tee box has numerous forced carries. The Mountain Course, at 7,000 yards, is also tough but its fairways are more generous. Regardless of which course you play, scenic beauty abounds at both, and the 33,000-square-foot clubhouse is one of the most opulent in the area.
If you’re looking for a place to tune your game for a test against tougher courses in the area, don’t overlook Woodhaven Country Club, also in Palm Desert. Though mostly private, the course can be played by non-members, but make sure to set tee times way in advance because members get first dibs. Set among residential properties and only stretching 5,794 yards from the tips, it’s not as dramatic or daunting as the other courses on our list. But the narrow fairways put a premium on accuracy. And you can’t overlook the fact that its price point is far below most of the other courses on our list.
Continuing from Palm Desert, we reach La Quinta, which includes the most well-known courses in the region. If golf in the Coachella Valley has an epicenter, it’s found at PGA West, an enormous complex that includes three clubhouses and six courses designed by some of the most recognizable names in golf. How recognizable? All you need to know are their last names: Palmer, Nicklaus Weiskopf, Norman and Dye.
Greg Norman’s course, which opened in 1999, is quintessential desert target golf. The Nicklaus Tournament Course has been part of the PGA Tour’s annual event for years. And Pete Dye’s Stadium Course is one of the most notorious in all golf. It’s an exceptional test of golf mettle and definitely one of the must-play courses in the country.
While not as expansive as PGA West, the two tracks at La Quinta Resort and Club offer scintillating views and a more laid-back atmosphere. Plus, the property has a full-service spa and a luxury hotel managed by Waldorf-Astoria Hotels and Resorts. Both tracks were designed by Dye, but neither is as foreboding as his PGA West Stadium Course. The Mountain Course features elevation changes and towering rock formations. It’s as dramatic to see as it is to play and is usually near the top of national must-play lists. The Dunes Course is flatter but with a great deal of water, thick rough and Dye’s signature pot bunkers, so it has plenty of bite.
SilverRock Resort is another Arnold Palmer design created in large part to host the Bob Hope Classic, which it did from 2008-11. This city-owned track in La Quinta is the centerpiece of a development that is planned to include two hotels, a theater, retail space and other amenities. But for the moment, it’s all golf. As befitting its status as part of the PGA Tour, the course is difficult from the back tees; at more than 7,500 yards, it’s the longest in the Coachella Valley. Some 50 bunkers and water on eight of the holes ratchet up the experience, but its location at the base of the Santa Rosa and Coral mountains provides some amazing views.
The final course on our list is just east of La Quinta in Indio, about a half-hour from downtown Palm Springs. The Clive Clark-designed Eagle Falls Golf Course is part of the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino owned by the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians. Two distinct nines comprise the course: a water-infused back nine, which includes a 45-foot waterfall, and a front nine that is as links-style as any in the Coachella Valley. At 6,715 yards from the tips, this isn’t the toughest challenge in the region. But though it isn’t intended as the sternest test of a player’s ability it’s one of the most enjoyable courses on our list. And what’s wrong with having a little bit of fun from time to time?
– JOEL BEERS
Escena Golf Club – (760) 778-2737 • escenagolf.com
Classic Club – (760) 601-3600 • classicclubgolf.com
JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa – (760) 341-2211 • desertspringsresort.com
Desert Willow Resort – (760) 346-7060 • desertwillow.com
Woodhaven Country Club – (760) 345-7636 • woodhavencc.com
PGA West – (760) 564-7111 • pgawest.com
La Quinta Resort and Club – (800) 598-3828 • laquintaresort.com
SilverRock Resort – (760) 777-8884 • silverrock.org
Eagle Falls Golf Course – (760) 238-5633 • eaglefallsgolf.com
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