Palm Springs maintains its trendy golf spot hold over foreign tourists

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - The "Good shot, mate" rings out so loud and clear it can be heard two foursomes behind. But no one on the Greg Norman Course in the Palm Springs' offshoot resort community of La Quinta turns a head.

An Australian turn of phrase is nothing new in this area, and it has little to do with the fact we're on a Norman course. In the greater Palm Springs golf community, foreign accents are the norm. While many vacationing American golfer have moved on to trendier hot spots, Palm Springs has largely maintained its status symbol standing in the rest of the world.

"We still see a number of foreign golfers, especially Europeans," said Craig Freeman, the head professional at the Mountain Course, a Pete Dye design. "They are some of our most dedicated repeat customers. We especially see a lot of Germans.

"We have some groups from Germany that come back year after year. The Swiss are big too."

The desert has a way of calling on those gray Berlin and snowy Geneva days. But one of the new trends is the wave of Australians that has come in recent years. It seems strange at first to imagine Australians used to their own desert climate being drawn by the California desert for golf, but it turns out being accustomed to the heat has its advantages.

"When all you Americans are complaining it's too bloody hot, we're out here wintering, keeping our color and playing golf on the cheap," said Jarrah Ralph of Melbourne. "It works out rather nicely."

The Australian winter coincides with the American summer making for an easy transition. If you like being hot all year long, Palm Springs will definitely deliver. Rates for the high-end courses can also drop as much as 75 percent when the thermometer's dancing around 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

Still, this isn't as much a weather endurance issue as it is a Palm Springs status issue. It's been a while since this community held an iconic hold over American culture. The days when the biggest stars in the world made sure everyone knew they were holding court in the Palm desert is long gone. You have to go back to the Rat Pack and friends, to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, former president Gerald Ford and of course the area's adopted spokesman, Bob Hope. Now you're much more likely to hear celebrity exploits from Las Vegas for anyone even close to A-list.

"Palm Springs?" California golfer Ken Thomas said. "That's sort of old, no?"

This is a common perception. Palm Springs is about as hot in American culture right now as parachute pants. There is no denying that the area has seen a steady stream of silver-haired retirees move in. But that does not seem to bother the European golfer who prizes the history of the world's tried and true destinations.

"When I tell people back home I'm going to Palm Springs, they have an idea of what it's about," said German golfer Bernd Seebort. "My friends, my fellow workers, my parents, they all understand Palm Springs."

Foreign visitors are also getting plenty of extras with that known name. Those $200-plus, high falutin' courses are not so expensive when converted to euros, with the state of the U.S. dollar and the exchange rates today. Certain Europeans can come to Palm Springs and live and play golf at a level they could never imagine back home.

"In many ways, our golf is a deal for the foreign visitor," Freeman said.

It's also a virtual big-name designer paradise with Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, Robert Trent Jones II, Arnold Palmer, Nick Faldo, Gary Player and Greg Norman courses seemingly waging a desert arms race with one another. It's hard to swing a club in greater Palm Springs without finding a celebrity architect's track. In the La Quinta section alone, there's a Nicklaus, a Norman and three Dyes within 10 minutes of each other.

And this isn't a Myrtle Beach cram-in-as-many-courses-as-possible situation. These are routings given room to breathe, showcases for the architects in numerous cases.

"We drive in from LA and golf without the crowds," Seebort said. "I don't know why more of you Americans don't do the same. Too busy trying to conquer the world?"

Politics aside, there is no question the foreign visitors have much more free travel time than their American golfing counterparts. With their vacation allowances two and three times the typical U.S. model, a foreign golfer can spend a week or two hacking away in Palm Springs and still have plenty of holidays left over for other trips.

Pros like Freeman are just happy to see them come. The foreign golfers are a lifeline to many of the Palm Springs area courses. On a spring trip, the bar at the famed, historic La Quinta Resort was filled with Australian tourists on successive nights.

The place hopped and the brew flowed freely as loud, happy voices filled the room.

Much of the crowd was made up of twentysomethings, many who had brought their own clubs.

"It's a great place to have a laugh," Ami Duncan said.

She proceeded to tell the story of how she and her boyfriend spent $60 U.S. on a cab just to take them to In-N-Out Burger in the wee hours of the previous morning. "We cannot get an In-N-Out Burger that easily back home," she said.

There was no regret in her voice. She was a foreigner in Palm Springs. Everything is good for her and the businesses around as long as the tradition continues.

Good shot, mate! Heck, don't be surprised if the Palm Springs area courses suddenly start offering shrimp on the barbie round specials.

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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