Norman Course toughness cannot overcome its design choke

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

LA QUINTA, Calif. - Greg Norman wants you to choke. The supremely-talented, enthrallingly-entertaining golfer cursed to be forever remembered for his excruciating collapses wants the average hacker to experience just a taste of this misery.

What other explanation could there be for the 11th hole at the Greg Norman Course in PGA West's Palm Springs-area complex?

This is the 18th-handicapped-rated hole on the Norman Course, which would make you think The Shark designed it as one of the easier holes, maybe even as a breather between gauntlets. Which becomes a concept more cruelly funny than Richard Simmons once the golfer steps up to the tee. For this "breather" features a forced desert area right off the tee and 16 bunkers to find in the fairway. Thanks, Greg. What says relaxing more than a forced carry to bunker city? Forget the spa treatment. Just give me a repeat play on Norman's easy-swinging 11.

Of course by the time golfers reach No. 11, it is likely to have become apparent to even reality-TV IQs that The Shark is determined to bite.

"It's not that hard if you can hit the ball straight, right at your target every time,'' the college kid at the cart garage explained.

Well, thanks. What resort golfer can't do that?

Maybe, Norman became inspired by the close proximity to the TPC Stadium course that caused the PGA's best to grumble (even louder than usual) over unfair playing conditions. Whatever the reasons, the Australian entrepreneur tightened his fairways to the size of an anorexic's throat on many holes, decided no hole was complete without a forced carry and threw in water along the edge whenever possible (surprisingly often in this real, un-Las-Vegas, free-guzzling desert).

The work turned into what's widely regarded as the second-toughest course at PGA West. No small feat considering the developers of TPC Stadium ordered Pete Dye to make it, "the hardest damn golf course in the world."

There's a difference,'' said Jack Guevera, a golfer who's played both. "You might think you have it easy if you play the Norman after the Stadium...But probably not."

Here's the difference: Dye tries to kill you at TPC Stadium. Norman only wants to beat you to a pulp.

Not that pummeling does not have its highlights. Norman's 216-yard, par-3 13th is the kind of hole that seizes your attention and lingers in memory after the round.

What little fairway there is curves around toward a man-made lake. It is also tilted down on a sharp angle to the water, giving the golfer the effect of hitting along a ledge. Each shot is a tap dance here. You could not even get odds in Vegas on your chances of avoiding all of the deep, slanted bunkers that squeeze the mini fairway even tighter. It's a real no-win proposition.

Better bunkers than coming up short in the water or the desert (yes, both are in play from the back three tees on this forced carry). It makes for a fun challenge, with slanted elevation, perfect white sand bunkers and water all coming into play.

The problem is No. 13 turns out to be something of an exception. A punishing course can be even the most inept player's pleasure if it's done right. Part of the hackers' joy is getting to try shots they have no business trying. The best courses slap you around while making you smile. It's a fine line, one Norman stumbles over. His course punishes while threatening to bore, a deadly combination.

After a while, the round falls into a too-familiar pattern. Desert carry to tight fairway to tucked away green. Tough does not always equal interesting. There are just not enough memorable, knockout holes on the Norman Course.

The course is nice enough, just not picturesque. The mountains in the background provide a decent backdrop, but they only truly loom dramatic on the No. 18 approach. The desert comes into play often, but it somehow manages to come across as fake even though you are in the desert. The forced desert carries Norman puts in front of you appear manicured. A decent golfer could even hit out of much of this brush area successfully. The sand seems finer than it should be, the brush less imposing than it would be in nature.

It all makes Norman come across as the anti-Tom Fazio. Fazio manages to make the fake seem real in courses like Primm Valley Lakes . Norman manages to make the real seem fake. By making his fairways so tight, Norman necessitated a kindler, gentler brush area. As the afternoon goes on, it rings out as the wrong choice.

"It's not that bad,'' golfer Greg Pehtrey said. "You can't say it's bad."

No, you can't. You also cannot say it's exciting, a pummeling statement in an area with so many high-profile courses literally right down the street.

The Verdict

If the Norman Course was in Cedar Rapids, it might be a must play. Here, it is hard to recommend playing it at all. If you want the tough course, the TPC Stadium will crush your game with much more style and flair. If you want the picturesque course, The Mountain Course delivers many more consistent visuals. Both are a few minutes drive away.

There are some great things about the Norman Course. The pace of play is incredibly good for such a resort-heavy area. On a winter high-season Saturday, the day after a downpour that pushed many rounds back to the weekend, Norman's track still provided a crisp play. The space between holes helps add to the effect, giving it a much more exclusive, solitary feel than really exists.

The bottom line is The Shark seems to be fixated on bite over majesty, sacrificing most of the fun. It almost comes out like...(cough, cough, hack) a choke.

Places to eat

Wallaby's West, an Australian-themed (what else?) restaurant, is located in the clubhouse. It promises to "transport you to the Australian outback." Which carries as much muster as one of those Stage Delis in the Midwest transporting you to New York. Still, it does offer a nice view of the course if you're into that kind of thing.

A better bet is to drive to the nearby Adobe Grill on the grounds of the massively lush La Quinta Resort & Club. For all of La Quinta's high-class bluster, Adobe is 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.

Places to stay

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 rate).

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 over three figures here. You're better off looking for a bargain at one of the independent hotels or inns. At least, get the quality room you're paying for. Even La Quinta Resort sometimes offers "super saver" specials on their website:

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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