Desert Falls: A desert jewel celebrates 20 years

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

PALM DESERT, Calif. -- Frankly, Desert Falls Country Club is probably not a course that's been making a lot of headlines recently in golf publications.

After all, it's celebrating its 20th anniversary in an area that has exploded for the past few years with new courses that keep elbowing each other out of the limelight.

But the fairways and greens - and particularly the bunkers at Desert Falls -- have definitely stood up to modern trends and modern equipment, which is why the course often ranks fairly high among Palm Springs area golfers.

These semi-private 18 holes were designed back in 1984 by Ron Fream, a Santa Rosa, Calif., architect, known for courses all over the world, including Korea, Nepal, Bali and Argentina. In California, another one of his jewels is Redhawk Country Club in Temecula.

What Fream started with in Palm Desert was 165 acres of bumpy, sandy land. He shoved a million cubic yards of soil around to create what he calls "a Scottish links-style course with rolling hills and subtly contoured greens." And he stayed true to his theory that a course has to be for everyone.

As he told one magazine interviewer, "The essential element about golf-course designing is to provide fun for a 30-handicap grandmother, her 15-year-old grandson . and yet cater to the egomaniac who's in the mood to tear the course apart."

To satisfy that grandmother at Desert Falls, he designed a course with five sets of tees. But he also created those diabolical bunkers, sandy troughs designed to drive those golfing egomaniacs to double their doses of Prozac. There are 87 of them now, according to Terry Ferraro, director of golf, but there were more to begin with. "We've softened some of them," Ferraro says. "Many were actually four feet deeper."

A few years ago, Fream also told the San Francisco Chronicle that the way to cope with the new high-tech clubs and balls is with tougher bunkers. Deeper and more strategically placed bunkers are needed, he said, "deep enough to be psychological and physical hazards, as traditional historic Scottish bunkers were." Fream's work here will remind players of many of the Ted Robinson-designed courses that are so popular in the Palm Springs area - lots of moguls and knolls in the fairways and plenty of water. Though Ferraro notes that Desert Falls was finished just as Ted Robinson was getting started locally.

Desert Falls was judged tough enough, in fact, to serve as a second stage Qualifying School location in the mid-1980s for those seeking their PGA Tour cards.

The watery challenges on this course start on the first tee, where the starter warns golfers to watch out for the seven lakes on the course. In other words, prepare to lose a few balls along the way. On the par-4 No. 1, you take on a dogleg left that crooks around a lake. As you take your second shot, you also find that a lobe of the lake juts out into the fairway so that you may have to cross water to reach the green.

Off to the next hole, and you're relieved to see dry land everywhere on the generous fairway. But for the next few holes, bunkers instead of water are everywhere to chill your nerves. They're deep and sprawling and sometimes lined up one right next to each other.

Nos. 4 and 5 are typical. Both are tough holes, Ferraro concedes. The fourth is a reachable par-5, that plays 491 yards from the back and 390 from the forward. It's also a dogleg that makes a sharp turn to the left. "It has severe bunkering," he says. "We actually took out some of the bunkers near the green on the right side to satisfy the ladies."

The par-4 No. 5, 382 yards from the back and 290 from the front, is "a great driving hole," Ferraro says, "but it's well bunkered off the tee and there are some penal bunkers. You can end up down in a gully where you have to get your ball up to a small green. Actually it's a larger green than it used to be."

The water shows up again on No. 9, a par-5 (561 yards from the back and 445 from the forward) where you can cross a lake to try to reach the green in two. But again watch out for the bunkers protecting the green. An unusual double green on this hole also serves No. 18. These are both picturesque holes with a waterfall and tumbled rocks.

The course has designated No. 14 its signature hole. This par-3 with no bunkers or water has a green that measures 18,000 square feet. It's not the usual photogenic signature hole, but its sheer size - as big as three greens put together - makes for a unique putting experience.

A better choice for picture-taking is No. 16, a downhill par-4 where you lay up in front of a lake and then fly over water to a green fronted by a rock wall and framed by trees. This hole (404 yards from the back tees and 286 from the forward) also lets you bail out right if you can't face the water.

Desert Falls is planning to hold a big birthday bash sometime in the spring of 2004, and Ferraro plans to offer big discounts on green fees to celebrate.

Where to stay

Hampton Inn & Suites, 74-900 Gerald Ford Drive, Palm Desert, is a possibility.

Or try the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa at 74855 Country Club Drive, Palm Desert, where there are two of those Ted Robinson courses to play.

Other places to play: The main attraction in the Palm Springs area is golf. Another excellent moderately priced course is Indian Springs Golf and Country Club is located at 46080 Jefferson St., in La Quinta.

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

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