Dye's Dunes Course comes off as the fifth wheel at PGA West for a reason
LA QUINTA, Calif. - The Dunes Course at PGA West might as well be a mob witness working as a grocery store clerk in Topeka, Kan. This golf course is that anonymous, that under the Palm-Springs-big-resort-must-play radar.
Dunes Course is clearly regarded as the fifth of the five public courses under the PGA West umbrella. It's that Beatle you never heard of.
When you have one of the most infamous Pete Dye courses ever (PGA West TPC Stadium), another Dye where you're playing the mountains (Mountain Course), a Jack Nicklaus course and a Greg Norman Course, it's easy to get lost in the crowd of glitz.
Wilmer Valderrama's not getting much attention if he's hanging out Leonardo DiCaprio and Harrison Ford either. Hence, Wilmer chases starlets alone.
Unfortunately for it, Dunes Course is tethered to its spotlight stealer. It shares a clubhouse and a parking lot with the showy Mountain Course.
"The Dunes is really underrated because of the Mountain Course," said Bill Bowan, sales manager for both. "If Dunes was a stand alone golf course out in the Midwest somewhere it'd be thought of as one of the best courses you could play.
"Because the Mountain Course is here with all of its scenery, Dunes can become an afterthought."
In a Palm Springs area filled with both historic jewels and modern age monsters, it's easy for Dunes to blend right in.
An overlooked Pete Dye? That seems like crazy talk. But Dunes is a Dye without a lot of the hype usually associated with his high-profile designs.
It quickly lets you know its pedigree though. The second hole is Dye difficult - a 533-yard par 5 that has you shooting down and up into tight spots. The hole runs along the very bottom of a drainage system gully with hills on either side, leading up to a raised green.
The rough is the thick of a schoolyard playground that's never been given a really close mowing. Land on the wrong side of one of these hills and it's a chore to punch out back to fairway green.
This is one of those holes that can turn into an adventure. Still, Dunes Course is largely a Dye that gives you a chance to warm up, to shake off some winter game rust before hitting you with any truly memorable holes.
The first seven holes are not visually stunning. They won't end up anyone's postcard. In fact, if it wasn't for a few little touches - No. 2's undulating elevation change gauntlet, a 191-yard par 3 where the green looks like an island amongst bunkers (No. 6) - Dunes could pass as almost any architect's track.
It starts to gain momentum on No. 8 - a 193-yard par 3 that takes a severe right turn, allowing you to go for the green with a straight water clear off the tee. You can bail out left but that's apt to result in an even bigger number with your tee shot caroming somewhere wild.
Going long can result in another plop. Not in the course's water. In a neighbor's pool.
No. 8 starts a run where water comes into play on five of the next six holes.
"A lot of people talk about all the water that sort of sneaks up on them," Head Professional Brad Benkey said. "You have to think your way around the golf course or you can end up with some big numbers.
"A lot of times, it's not just the shot off the tee. It's what your shot off the tee is going to set up for your second shot."
It's not just about landing on Dye's super-sized Dunes greens. It's about putting yourself in position to land on the right spot of the greens.
"Pete Dye doesn't make it easy on you if you short side yourself at the Dunes," Benkey said.
That's appropriate for a course that's often shortchanged.
Course executives emphasize how they're trying to give Dunes Course its own brand appeal. They insist they do not buy into the whole second fiddle argument.
And yet Dunes Course came out as clearly the worst conditioned of the five PGA West courses. Which doesn't mean it was super bad. It just wasn't up to the others' standards.
There was a large dirt puddle pond on No. 3 with a blue pipe sticking out of it. There were several worn down brown patches, especially on the front nine.
"They keep the Mountain Course in much better shape," Chicago golfer Ed Musselman said.
Yet, Dunes does have a few of the more dauntingly, inventive holes you'll ever find. No. 15 is a par 5 that leads you to a green pressed against a mountain. No. 17 is a 433-yard par 4 with a Olsen-twin-scary skinny fairway that skirts a lake so closely that your first two shots are in splashdown danger.
Potential is there.
"We're trying to improve the Dunes Course," Benkey said.
There's talk of planting more flowers, of sprucing up some of the cosmetics. It sounds promising.
But at the moment? Sometimes, there's a reason you're the fifth wheel.
The nearby La Quinta Resort offers high-end, high-priced gourmet seafood at AZUR, an offspring of New York's legendary restaurant Le Bernardin.
For all of La Quinta's high-class bluster, there's also Adobe Grill, a very relaxed Mexican place with surprisingly good to outstanding food and bartenders more than willing to pour liberally. Try the Mexican salmon and you may come back the next night too.
You can find pretty much all the usual suspect fast food and chain restaurants nearby as well. But the place to go for a taste of your home in Palm Springs is The River shopping center. This is a cookie cutter outdoor mall on Bob Hope Drive with a unique setup.
The place is centered around a man-made stream that runs down. When the weather's good, people often sit outside along "The River" and eat their meals. If you've ever seen a real river you won't be wowed, but remember this is the desert. Water's a big deal here.
Yard House's ((760) 779-1415) list of beers on draft (a few pages full) is more universally impressive. This is a sports bar/decent restaurant that's the class of The River center.
Stay and play
It is hard to beat La Quinta for an extravagant fantasyland getaway. There are 41 pools and 53 whirlpools spread out along this 45-acre celebrity hangout.
You might be nobody, but you'll feel like someday here. Of course, it also may be hard for many to afford La Quinta ($400 average per night high-season rate). Keep an eye out though.
La Quinta Resort sometimes offers "super saver" specials on their Web site: laquintaresort.com.
For those not trying for a once-in-a-blue-moon splurge, there are other semi-reasonable hotels in the Palm Springs area. In Palm Springs, this means hovering around $150.
Avoid the chains. Even the usual-budget joints charge more than three figures here. You're better off looking for a bargain at one of the independent hotels or inns.
One of the best is the Doral Desert Princess. There are 27 holes of golf literally in its backyard, nice mountain views and large comfortable rooms complete with balconies.
Dunes Course has hosted the PGA Tour Qualifying School Finals six times, but the last was seven years ago in 1998.
April 17, 2006