PGA Tour's loss is your gain at historic, eccentric Indian Wells Country Club Classic Course

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. - The idea that Indian Wells Country Club is outdated becomes laughable even before you step onto the golf course. Sitting in the sparkling, glass-enclosed, marble-filled, 70,000-square-foot clubhouse, munching on some surprisingly tasty fish tacos, looking out on the first tee, you already feel you're in for a memorable day.

Indian Wells - Classic Course - hole 5
The fifth hole on Indian Wells' Classic Course presents golfers with a blind second shot over a mountain edge jutting into the fairway.
Indian Wells - Classic Course - hole 5Indian Wells - Classic Course - hole 4Indian Wells - Classic Course - hole 18Indian Wells Country Club - Classic Course
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The Classic Course at Indian Wells Country Club

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46-000 Club Dr
Indian Wells, California 92210
Riverside County
Phone(s): (760) 360-0861, (760) 345-2561
18 Holes | Private golf course | Par: 72 | 6478 yards | ... details »

Some places have atmosphere. Indian Wells Country Club practically oozes it.

It's not all the stuffy, hotiy-toity legends of your average blueblood private country club either. That huge clubhouse with the men's locker room that could be used as a regulation football field came from the largess of infamous high-stakes Japanese gambler/convicted con man/eccentric Ken Mizuno.

Mizuno's now in the midst of an 11-year prison sentence, but he once bought Indian Wells for a reputed $45 million in cash and had a major influence on its development in his short tenure as owner.

No matter what you say about Mizuno - and the Japanese golfers he bilked by selling 52,000 memberships to a new Tokyo area golf club that could only accommodate 1,830 people had plenty to say in lawsuits - no one ever doubted his commitment to showy, luxurious golf digs.

Besides, the enormous clubhouse that you shot to, coming up 18, Mizuno bought a Ramada Hotel next door for $9 million and turned it into the Indian Wells Resort Hotel. Guests at the hotel can play at Indian Wells Country Club, opening up an exclusive club to many more average hackers. Nowadays, a good golf packager can also probably get you out on the two courses (Classic Course and Cove Course).

Classic Course at Indian Wells a relic? Guess again

Of course, if you listened to PGA Tour, you'd have to assume the Classic Course at Indian Wells Country Club was an out-of-touch relic in today's modern monster world. The Tour pulled the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic from Indian Wells Country Club in 2005 after a 45-year run. The decision hinged on the idea that at 6,478 yards from the tips, the Classic Course could not stand up to the games of today's pros any longer.

They might be right. That only shows how different a game you, I and everyone else plays compared to the Tour pros. On this day our foursome, included one scratch golfer, one near scratch golfer and one actual bodyguard big hitter and everyone got more than enough challenge from The Classic.

"That's one of the more enjoyable days of golf I ever had," said Clay Kelly, the bodyguard to self guru Tony Robbins. "It's anything but a wimp course."

Outdated? Try outstanding.

Indian Wells is a traditional Palm Springs golf course. Which means there are many trees, green all around, no hint this is the desert and houses a plenty (a spraying hacker is likely to find himself playing out of a few). The difference comes in Indian Wells Country Club doing the traditional better than the scores of imitators it prompted.

Wondering what Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and the gang found so magical about Palm Springs golf? Play The Classic Course at Indians Wells C.C. and you'll have the answer.

This is a living history lesson that's a blast. Golfers get the chance to hit over a mountainside (the second shot on the par-5 fifth), crisscross a dramatic dropping wash that's actually used to great effect (No. 9), play some befuddling, driveable par 4s (the 382-yard seemingly innocent No. 3 caused one of the better golfers in the group to pick up his ball in pure frustration) and just enjoy going for shots.

If you think you're going to care that none of the four par 5s measure more than 517 yards and one comes in at 483 yards, think again.

"Hitting over a mountain," said Tim Hurja, a longtime area golf pro suddenly morphing into a little kid. "How cool is that?"

Cooler still is the fact it's a blind shot. The rocky edge of the mountain juts out into the fifth fairway, blocking your view of a dogleg right green. You're clearing a mountain on faith. And there's a decent chance an average golfer will be able to pull it off.

Mountains loom in the background, close enough to touch on several holes. The par-3 fourth has golfers shooting to a green right up against a mountain, a big enough distraction to make you almost miss the two bunkers squeezing the small target. On No. 18, you tee off right against a towering rock wall and then play all the way back to the waterfall green and the clubhouse with mountain along the right side and straight ahead.

"You don't get much better than this in Palm Springs golf," local golfer Jim Newton said.

It's been that way for generations with Indian Wells Country Club. It figures to be that way for generations more. No matter what the PGA Tour thinks.

The Classic Course at Indian Wells: The verdict

If you're planning a golf trip to the Palm Springs valley, you need to find a way to work in a round on The Classic Course at Indian Wells Country Club. Unless you have connections at Bighorn - and maybe even if you do - this is liable to be your most enjoyably memorable round.

It's not close to cheap, easily running $250 in peak winter season, but it's the best traditional Palm Springs golf course. Indian Wells was so green on this play that its color popped out against the mountains overhead. Another private course seen - Bermuda Dunes - didn't come close to Indian Wells Country Club's conditioning.

You're not going to feel like you're in the middle of nowhere or even your own private world here. That's not what old time Palm Springs golf was about. The houses are noticeable, but somewhat less imposing on the course because of all the trees. There's also road noise audible on a few holes.

The Indian Wells wonder comes in simpler things. It's the ingeniously tough, but not overly showy approaches architect Eddie Sussalla put in that still stand up today. It's in a course that's very walkable. It's even in the hulking clubhouse a criminal left behind.

Dining out

Indian Wells Country Club's sprawling wood and marble dining room offers some good dishes at much cheaper prices than you'd expect. The lunch menu is a particularly good deal.

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 Dr. 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: Indian Wells Resort

The affiliated Indian Wells Resort is one of the better values in greater Palm Springs. Its rooms are large and many have balconies overlooking the big pool. The lobby is impressive as lobbies go and the bar has tasty Happy Hour snacks.

This is a hotel that thrives on Palm Springs history. The black and white photo galleries on the lobby walls stretch into the public bathrooms, giving a good taste of what Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope loved so much about the valley. That old-time feel is kept alive in Jake's Lounge, where nightly entertainment - usually an old-style singer dressed to the nines with a piano player - evokes the 1960s.

If you're allergic to pets, be sure to ask for a room where none have been.

Fast fact

For all of the PGA Tour's concern over The Classic Course's length, no pro ever broke 60 on it in 45 years. In fact, David Duval's record Bob Hope 59 came on the much longer 6,950-yard PGA West Palmer Course.

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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