Pete Dye's fortified greens loom over the Mountain Course

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

LA QUINTA, Calif. - Pete Dye stops you on the road with his Mountain Course at La Quinta. All it takes to develop visions of grandeur about the course where the mountains seem to rise out of the fairways is a drive-by.

That's right, one drive past and golfers will be picturing themselves shooting between peaks. Of course, to Dye's typical delight, then hackers get out on the course and end up having their games nicked to death - one fiendishly clever stab of target golf at a time.

You start at the Mountain Course talking about the looming Santa Rosa Mountains. You leave in wonderment or disgust (often both) at just how Dye managed to make this relatively short course (6,758 yards from the back tees) such a monster.

"This little course tore up my game," said vacationing Washington D.C. golfer William Capie. "I look at the yardage and think I'm going to have a relaxing round.

"But when I'm out on the course, the greens are so surrounded, I need a map to find the right approach."

It adds up to one of the most effective and enjoyable bait-and-switches in Palm Springs. Dye doesn't discount you in scenery. He makes sure this course provides the expected oohs and aahs, particularly on the back nine. Dye somehow makes it seem like the mountains were built around the golf course, rather than the other way around.

Yet he also does much more than that. He turns this resort course into an exhilarating golf challenge.

The blueblooods and pretend bluebloods for the weekend staying at the famed La Quinta Resort receive the test they didn't expect. And, in some poor-sport cases, probably didn't want.

"You can't afford to make mistakes around the greens," Head Professional Craig Freeman said. "There are a lot of hills, mounds ... mountains ... and if you miss the green, it's going to be a difficult shot.

"Whether it's a chip shot, a pitch or bunker shot. It's going to play difficult."

In other words, while everyone crowed over the mountains, Dye obsessed over making the course drill-sergeant tough.

It's not like he didn't warn everybody. The 140 slope rating should be an unmistakable signal, even in an area that features a TPC Stadium course (another by Dye) that brought out some of the loudest kvetching in PGA Tour history.

It's just that average golfers tend to look at those yardages on the Mountain Course (only two par 5s over 500 yards, six par 4s under 400 yards) and assume the slope ratings are a misprint.

Trust us, they're not.

"I shot a 15 on that short par-4 14th," golfer Bernie Keller said of the 389-yarder. "You try explaining that one to my buddies back home."

Yes, well, there is that.

Did we mention the 14th is one of the prettiest holes on a picturesque course? The Santa Rosas seem to tower right over this green, framing every shot. Even if there happens to be 15 of them.

No. 14 starts with a long forced carry (164 yards from the back tees) over a ravine that leads to a narrow fairway shaped like a hook. The dogleg ends up only slight right, but the green is tucked away like a baby resting for the night. It's so small and well-guarded, even picking out a potential landing target is an exercise in extreme faith.

And if you miss the green? Say hello to the mountain.

"That's the thing, if you miss some of these greens, you're playing out of the rocks," Freeman said.

Dye once told Southland Golf Magazine that his type of golfer is "The guy that will go to a resort golf course ... and beat himself to death and then come right back next year and do it again."

The Mountain Course provides plenty of chances to experience this brand of Dye fun. It really is a blast for all but the most self-important, pride obsessed. Unlike Greg Norman who makes a hard course uninteresting at the nearby Greg Norman Course, Dye entices as he torments.

The No. 1 handicap hole isn't some long, boring par 5, numbing even as it messes up your scorecard. Dye defies that convention and gives you a 400-yard, par 4 (No. 6) with two forced carries and water to right, the better to gobble up any wayward approach shots that somehow miss rocks. There's another tiny green with Dye-signature pot bunkers crowding it like it's a straphanger in the New York subways' morning rush.

Even those who adore target golf may feel as if they're shooting at a pebble.

It's not just landing on the greens either. At the Mountain Course, it's essential to land on the right spot. Many of these greens are severely sloped, making the difference between above and below the hole as wide as the difference between getting a $150 speeding ticket and a verbal warning.

Degrees are everything here.

The 16th hole is typical of turmoil. This is the hole where golfers are most likely to whip out their cameras for souvenir snapshots. The 167-yard, par 3 is right up against the mountain with a desert island green beckoning below. The tee is elevated about 30 feet, providing the effect of shooting down into a tight tunnel.

It's visually stunning and golf ball stealing. Miss and you kiss your ball goodbye. Heck, sometimes you hit and wave the ball goodbye. The way the green is set up, balls can find what looks like a safe touchdown and roll right off.

"It's all or nothing," Freeman said. "But it's got a great view."

That's the Pete Dye Mountain Course, a beauty that loves to bite.

The verdict

This is a course worth working into any Palm Springs area trip. It doesn't receive the acclaim and disdain of its close neighbor and fellow Dye TPC Stadium course, but it's actually a more consistently enjoyable play.

It wows you with its views and then forces you to make shots. Nothing's given in game. Those mountain vistas are earned with your shot-making sweat.

If you want a resort course where your pulse barely rises and your conversation flow never gets interrupted by the golf, this isn't the place for you. The Mountain Course forces you to think about much more than how neat is to play with the Santa Rosas as background scenery.

A good touch on chip and pitch shots is essential here, because you'll find plenty of trouble from which to escape.

This isn't a cheap course ($125 on average, close to $200 in high season), none of the courses around here are. But it's a vacation splurge you'll remember. There were reports of condition problems in the past, but on this visit the fairways were as green as could be. Some of the fairways are bunched closer together than you'd like, especially on the front nine, which is closer to the road. But that's a small quibble.

Pete Dye's Mountain Course is a resort course that doesn't play down to its guests like a resort course.

Places to eat

Wallaby's West, an Australian-themed restaurant, is located in the clubhouse of the nearby Greg Norman Course. It promises to "transport you to the Australian outback." That 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's difficult 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 at an average rate of $400 per night.

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 its Web site:

Fast fact

The Mountain Course was once a lake. Centuries ago. Lake Cahuilla, which dried up as the area turned harsher desert in the 1600s, used to be where Pete Dye later worked his magic.

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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