Ideal blend of resort courses and tournament tested venues defines Coachella Valley golf scene

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

The Jack Nicklaus Tournament CourseINDIAN WELLS, Calif. - If Mark Twain was truly so put off by summering in San Francisco, perhaps he should have thrown down for a cushy resort room in sun the soaked Coachella Valley.

The quintessential American author could have put together his own foursome -- say, Bret Harte, William Dean Howells, and Louis Stevenson -- and pursued his love/hate relationship with the game of golf under fair skies and amid triple digit heat.

While Twain would have no doubt appreciated the heart warming heat of the Valley and its 100 plus golf tracks, it's Ben Franklin - the master of practicality - who'd be best suited for maximizing his time on the links. Summer golf in this shimmering swath of Mojave Desert is nothing if not an exercise in time management. Get on the course early, get off the course early, and take shelter immediately.

To facilitate this prairie dog-like existence, most local area courses offer tee times starting at 6 a.m., when temperatures hover between a tolerable 68-75 degrees (it is a dry heat, remember). Avoiding the dashboard melting digits that make their way into town around noon is made easier by a pace of play that ranges from three and a half to four hours.

The reward for shouldering the shoulder season and playing the meteorological version of dodge ball? Hefty savings on room rates and green fees Franklin would surely appreciate. According to Mark Graves, a spokesman for the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Authority, visitors can expect to save around 50 percent on rooms and golf at world class resorts. Diehard duffers armed with a 36-a-day mentality and plenty-o-sunscreen can net even greater savings via afternoon twilight rates and replays.

So is anyone taking the bargain bait? Better believe it. Valley-wide occupancy rates hit the 70 percent benchmark last summer according to the PSDRCVA. Should America's Desert Playground beckon this summer, here's a four-day Coachella Valley golf cache that will have you picking white balls off spongy Bermuda grass by morning, and chilling out with the locals after noon.

Coachella Valley golf itinerary

DAY ONE (18 holes) - Arrive Palm Springs International Airport, or via I-10 from Los Angeles or Phoenix. Drive to Hyatt Grand Champions Resort in Indian Wells for a warm-up round at the Golf Resort at Indian Wells. The East and West courses were designed by Valley mainstay Ted Robinson and sport Robinson's archetypal date palms, two-tiered greens and water features. Both tracks are short by today's standards (sub 6700-yards). But the East (recommended) can be down right sporty with its 6,631-yard back tees and respectable 133 slope rating.

The TPC Stadium Course DAY TWO (36 holes) - Play the TPC Stadium and Jack Nicklaus courses at PGA West, heat be damned. For students of golf history and architecture, PGA West in nearby La Quinta is a shrine that must be paid homage. The six-course panoply isn't steeped in tradition by East Coast standards. But the opening of the Pete Dye designed TPC Stadium Course in 1985 changed the face of golf in the Valley.

The PGA Tour was crystal clear and unequivocally unapologetic about Dye's marching orders at PGA West: Build the most difficult course in the U.S., and do it in time to host the Valley's most visible Tour events. Some might argue that Dye's Stadium Course at the TPC Sawgrass is the more difficult draw. Others may contend that Shinnecock Hills or Oakland Hills- when prepped for the U.S. Open - are the toughest tests stateside.

Valid arguments, one and all. But PGA West Stadium has to be thrown in the mix in any discussion of America's most demanding golf courses. The course's three digit slope rating - a mind-bending 150 - doesn't even begin to tell the story of what lurks between the relatively benign par-4 opening hole and the infamous 439-yard par-4 18th.

Lying in waiting are holes like the 255-yard par-3 sixth (dubbed "Amen") with its 200-plus yard carry over water; the 363-yard par-4 12th, aptly named "Moat" for the 12-foot deep, crescent shaped bunker that guards the green; and the 566-yard par-5 16th known as "San Andreas Fault" with its massive waste bunker on the left side and its 18-foot-deep greenside bunker. Programming note: Lee Trevino carded his famous hole-in-one at the par-3 17th (Alcatraz) during the 1987 Skins Game - good for $175,000.

If you and your playing partners see fit to toast the Merry Mex with an adult beverage or quality cigar, hold off until the afternoon round at the Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course. Nicklaus earned a reputation in the '80s for building courses only he could enjoy. This oversimplified rap ignores the stable of enjoyable resort courses to come out of the Golden Bear's design shop over the past 20 years. To wit, the JNTC is a benevolent collection of elevated tees boxes, well defined (and rather large) landing areas and reasonably pitched green complexes. Bad Bear? Hardly.

Rancho Las Palmas Country Club DAY THREE - Bid adieu to the Hyatt and head for the 27-hole Ranchos Las Palmas Country Club in Rancho Mirage. The Marriott owned resort property is situated just off Bob Hope Drive, appropriate given that Hope hit the ribbon cutting drive back in 1977. The 27-holer was designed by Robinson (if the date palms and water features didn't give it up). None of the three nines could be described as challenging, nor were they meant to be. Robinson's design philosophy is pleasure over pain, enjoyment over anger - concepts lost on so many of today's architects.

Part of the allure of playing at Ranchos Las Palmas is the promise of staying at Rancho Las Palmas. Marriott purchased the property in 1981 and morphed it into one of the Valley's most underrated resort environments. Over 400 cozy casitas fixed with shady patios are strewn over the 250-acre spread, many of which back up to the golf course. Golf-crazed guests fine tuning their chipping technique just beyond the reach of their patios is a common sight.

Tune away, because Marriott Shadow Ridge in Palm Desert waits in all its Australian Sand Belt glory. The Lee Schmidt/Brian Curley/Nick Faldo collaboration is Marriott's marquee offering (and for one golf writer's money, the best conditioned course in the Valley upon this playing). Schmidt, Curley and Faldo joined forces on another Sand Belt inspired layout in Scottsdale (Desert Ridge). However, the original recipe puts golfer's firmly in touch with Oz's golf legacy with its flashed up bunkers and tightly groomed green surrounds.

Off course

In the '50s and '60s, Palm Springs was a haven for the Hollywood set. The shining stars of Tinseltown gravitated toward the soothing mineral springs of the historic Spa Resort in what is now downtown Palm Springs. During the winter months, the Rat Pack could usually be found - martinis in hand - soaking away a summer's worth of hard living.

Nowadays, the Spa Resort is the site of the Valley's newest gaming hotspot - the Spa Resort Casino. The $95 million spread, owned and operated by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, opened in November 2003 across from the original Spa Resort Hotel. Casino aficionados consider the nine-acre spread a "Las Vegas" level gaming experience. Some 900 slot machines, and tables ranging from blackjack to mini-baccarat support the claim.

Vitals for Vittles

Dining out in swanky enclaves like Palm Desert, La Quinta and Indian Wells can be as chi chi as you want to make it. When in the Valley, why not do as the Valley folk? Eschew the hoity toity stuff and head for the local joints. For down home Mexican, check out El Gallito Restaurant in Cathedral City. This madre and padre owned hole in the wall is known locally for its enchiladas, tostadas and burritos. There's no better place to catch the boys of summer in action than at the Beer Hunter Sports Pub and Grill in La Quinta. The BHSP has over 175 beers to choose from, most of which aren't low carb.

Stay and play

Both Hyatt Grand Champions and Marriott Rancho Las Palmas offer sizzling summer stay and play deals that go beyond golf, grub, and a room. "Adventure Hyatt" gives guests some other interesting off course fodder to consider, including jeep tours and hiking. The resort also offers a golf and spa package that is popular with have clubs will travel couples, and a kids day camp, "Camp Hyatt." Felt heads flock to Rancho Las Palmas to take advantage of the resort's popular golf and tennis packages. The property houses 25 courts, including eight lighted surfaces.

Travel extra

Golf schools are in ample supply throughout the Valley. Disciples of Jim McLean have two options - PGA West and La Quinta Resort and Club. The Faldo Golf Institute by Marriott at Shadow Ridge is a cutting edge facility with the amenities to match. Hyatt Grand Champions is a flagship facility for Lui Chow's Fit2Golf instructional program, which emphasizes biomechanics and muscle use.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.


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