A course to Dye for in Death Valley

By Tom LaMarre, Contributor

DEATH VALLEY, Calif. -- Presidents Herbert Hoover and Ronald Reagan played major roles having this desert wonderland eventually being designated a National Park in 1994.

One look around at the stark beauty is all it takes to determine the real credit belongs to a higher authority.

However, written history will show that Hoover signed Proclamation Number
2028 in 1933, creating Death Valley National Monument.

Reagan was the most famous host of Death Valley Days-a popular radio and television series that ran from 1930 through 1975 and brought Death Valley into households across the country every week.

"Death Valley Days was actually an advertising campaign to have the area designated a national park," said Toni Jepson, public relations manager at Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort. "It took a while, but it worked.

"Reagan left to run for Governor of California and the show ended."

Another historical achievement, as far as golfers are concerned, occurred in 1997 when Perry Dye, son of famed golf course architect Pete Dye, reworked Furnace Creek Golf Course into a resort-class layout.

Until then, the only distinction was that it was the lowest golf course in the world at 214 feet-or a pitching wedge-below sea level.

"Perry Dye took what was a totally flat course without many remarkable features and gave the course some character," said Chris Bessette, course superintendent at Furnace Creek. "He put mounding in the fairways and undulation in the greens.

"He totally rerouted the fifth and sixth holes. But the important thing they did in the renovation was to install a new computerized irrigation system with a pumping station and a weather station. That allows us to keep the course in good condition all year round."

Which keeps the course green even in the middle of the summer, when the temperature can soar to 120 degrees and more (the record is 134). But water has never been a problem at Furnace Creek, where three natural springs converge, creating an oasis in the middle of otherwise barren Death Valley.

Water comes into play on nine holes, but perhaps thinking that 15-square-miles of sand dunes were enough in Death Valley, Dye left only 10 sand traps on the course.

Don't be fooled by the wide-open fairways and the length of the course, which plays to a par of 70 and a relatively short 6,215 yards from the back tees. From the blue tees, the course is rated at 74.7 with a slope of 128.

"People look at the yardage and all those short par fours and think it is an easy course," Crist said. "You can hit the fairways, but the greens are not very big, so they are tough to hit and even tougher to putt.

"The bermuda in the greens makes them tough to read. If you like to die the ball into the hole the way I do, it's tough to keep the ball on line near the cup. You have to hit it more firmly than you would like to keep the ball on line."

The fairways are lined by date palm and Tamarisk cedar trees that were planted in the 1920s and 1930s. The course opened as a three-hole layout in 1927 to give the miners in the nearby Borax mines something to do in their spare time.

Furnace Creek, named for the smelt furnaces at a plant in the area, expanded to a nine-hole course in 1931 and remained that way until 1968, when noted golf course designer William F. Bell created a second nine holes.

The Panamint and Funeral Mountains, two of five ranges that ring Death Valley, frame the golf course.

"There are some very difficult holes, such as Nos. 3-6-11, which are long Par-4s and play into the wind 90 percent of the time," Bessette said. "But if you get to No. 12 in decent shape, you can make a good score because there are five shorter par fours coming in through No. 17.

"If you can keep the ball in the fairway, you can make up some ground there."

The fifth and sixth holes, totally reworked by Dye, along with No. 7 provide a stretch that is the highlight of the front nine.

The 573-yard fifth hole is a par-5 dogleg right that wraps around a line of Tamarisk trees running down the right side of the fairway, which rises slightly halfway to the hole and then slopes down to a diabolical green.

The putting surface is an undulating pedestal that is partially obscured by the trees on the right, presenting a postage-stamp target for the third shot from the fairway.

"It's a real challenge to keep your ball on that green because of the undulations," Bessette said. "We can only water it for three minutes at a time because puddles start forming in the troughs created by the mounding.

"You can hit two real good shots but the third one is still a challenge because it is such a difficult green."

The tee shot on the 440-yard sixth hole, one of those long par-4s and the No. 1 handicap hole, must carry more than 200 yards over a lake to a fairway that doglegs to the left. There is bailout room to the right, but then you must deal with a series of Scottish-style mounds.

Once on the fairway, you still must negotiate a tree on the left side of the approach to a wide, shallow green that slopes dramatically from back to front.

"No. 6 is a love it or hate it hole," Bessette said. "It's a gorgeous hole and I think I made a par there once. Somebody once asked me how to play it, and I told them to hit a nine iron right of the lake and go from there.

"There's a grass bunker in front of the green that makes the hole even more difficult, but I think we're going to take it out next year and open up the approach to the green. The hole is difficult enough without it."

Jepson whose husband, Cal, is general manger of the Furnace Creek Resort, calls No. 7 the "Goalpost Hole," because the drive must split two large trees in the middle of the fairway 150 yards from another devilish green.

There is bailout room on the right, but a lake comes into play on the left. However, the real challenge is the trap-door green. The two-tiered green is higher in the front and drops off dramatically in the back, which is not apparent from the fairway.

"If you look at the green from the back, it looks like it should be the approach," Bessette said. "If you are on the wrong side of that green, either way, it can get pretty ugly. But that hole is still a lot of fun."

The tee shot on the 435-yard 11th hole must cross another large lake, although it's not as long a carry as on No.6, but it also must clear trees on the left side. Another tree awaits on the left side of the fairway, with more mounding on the right.

The hole is framed by palms on the left and Tamarisk cedars on the right.

"There is trouble from beginning to end," Bessette said. "You have a narrow opening to hit the tee shot and even when you get close to the green you can't tell it slopes from back to front and left to right."

The finish is strong, with the funky 17th hole, only 310 yards, and the 414-yard 18th hole.

No. 17 is a dogleg right, which gives you little perspective from the tee for a target. There are mounds down the right side and three trees on the left side of the fairway that block the approach to the green.

"The trees were so high before that it was tough to hit over them, so we topped them," Bessette said. "I think we overdid it a bit and it took something away from the hole. But it's still a tough approach to a green that might be the smallest on the course, along with No. 5."

The finishing hole, which turns slightly to the left, has three of the 10 bunkers on the course-one in the driving area down the left side and two protecting another green that slopes severely from back to front.

The hole is framed by palm trees and the Funeral Mountains beyond the golf shop.

"It takes two big shots to get there," Bessette said. "It's a great finish."

You can add up your score at the 19th Hole, perhaps the best watering hole in Death Valley, behind the final green.

Or head over to the Wrangler Steak House, the Corkscrew Lounge or the Forty-Niner Café next door at the Furnace Creek Ranch, where you can stay in the family-friendly motel or at the campground.

Death Valley, which was inhabited until then by Panamint, Paiute and Shoshone Indians, was stumbled upon in 1849 by explorers from Kansas coming from Utah in search of a shortcut to the Gold Rush in California.

They were trapped at the lowest point in the Western Hemishere, which officially is 280 feet below sea level at what is now known as Badwater. It' s one of those curiosities of nature that Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States at 14,495 feet, is only about 100 miles away.

When the Jayhawkers finally escaped five weeks later, one woman.

unwittingly named the area when she said in relief, "Goodbye, Death Valley." Reagan and Death Valley Days helped make the area famous, along with the Pacific Coast Borax Co., which sponsored the show. Borax, a cleaning agent, was found in Death Valley in 1881, and the company's famous 20-mule teams hauled the borax 120 miles from the mines to the closest railroad route in Mojave.

In addition to Reagan, Hollywood personalities including Jimmy Stewart, William Powell, Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert and John Barrymore stayed at the luxurious Furnace Creek Inn, which opened in 1927 and has been restored to its 1930s grandeur.

Among the films shot in Death Valley, which is located 120 miles from Las Vegas and 285 miles from Los Angeles, were Star Wars, The Greatest Story Ever Told, One Eyed Jacks, The Doors and Spartacus.

"There has been a lot of filming here over the years and the stars all stayed here," Jepson said. "We know Reagan stayed here. We have pictures of him and a check he signed to pay his room bill. We're trying to get some of the old Death Valley Days shows so we can play them on TV in our guest rooms."

After you've played the course, be sure to visit some of the natural and man-made wonders of Death Valley, such as Stovepipe Wells, Telescope Peak, the charcoal kilns in Wildrose Canyon, Scotty's Castle, Mustard Canyon, Zabriskie Point, the mysterious Moving Rocks at the Racetrack and Ubehebe Crater-which was caused by a volcanic eruption 4,000 years ago.

But don't try tee it up at the Devil's Golf Course, a wretched piece of land named by someone with a perverse sense of humor.

"We get calls from people making reservations all the time saying they want to play both our golf course and the other one," Jepson said. "They just see the name on a map. We have to tell them this is the only place around here to play golf."

Fittingly, it's a course to Dye for in Death Valley.

For Diehards Only

When the temperature rises during the summer, golfers can take advantage of Furnace Creek's "Extreme 6-Pack." For $25, those willing to venture onto the course receive can play nine holes of golf with rental clubs, golf balls, tees, an electric cart and a thermos of ice water provided.

"We get about 10 or 12 players a day during the summer," said Randy Crist, assistant to Director of Golf Kip Freeman. "But there are a few days that it gets so hot that nobody at all plays.

"But we have a local group that plays every Saturday, not matter how hot it gets. Most people play first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon."

Tom LaMarre, Contributor

Tom LaMarre has been a sportswriter and copy editor in California for parts of five decades, including 15 years with the Oakland Tribune and 22 with the Los Angeles Times.

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