Nice and gentle Palm Springs golf? Hah! Try TravelGolf's meanest desert courses

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

LA QUINTA, Calif. - Matt Gaudio found himself shaking his head so often, you would have thought he was a pitcher disagreeing with his catcher. Great drives. Just absolutely-killed-the-ball drives.

The 17th island green at PGA West TPC Stadium is just one of several inventively difficult holes Dye throws at you.
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And this experienced, golfed-around-the-world serious player would be in the sand so much he could have used a shovel for his 14th club.

"I've never seen anything like it," Gaudio said.

This is a golfer who has seen it all. Gaudio's stared down the famous 17th hole at Sawgrass. He's played courses with slope ratings that would make that grandfather who walked eight miles to school through snow each way, balk in his prime.

"I've played Sawgrass," Gaudio said. "I've played TPC Stadium over at PGA West. I've played almost everywhere.

"And this is the hardest course I've played yet."

This is SilverRock's new Arnold Palmer design in the greater Palm Springs area. SilverRock's still relatively unknown. It is not even considered the toughest course in the Coachella Valley. That designation belongs to PGA West TPC Stadium of course, the legendary 150 slope rating monster from the mind of known hacker tormentor Pete Dye.

Dye was only told to make PGA West TPC Stadium the hardest golf course in the world and many pro golfers think that the celebrity architect succeeded much too well. The tour players essentially led a revolt to keep themselves off Dye's torture chamber ever again.

Still, there are plenty of golfers like Gaudio who don't think Dye's Stadium is even the toughest course in Palm Springs. The even crazier thing is how many different Coachella Valley courses get mentioned as the monster of all monsters.

"I'd go with the Greg Norman Course to be honest," said Cincinnati golfer Dean Corbissero, a former scratch handicap who has played almost all the Palm Springs area tracks including SilverRock and Dye's Stadium. "Norman just doesn't give you much room at all on the landing areas. It's tight."

Say hello to Palm Springs' other side. This desert's been known as an easy-living, easy-swinging paradise since before the days Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra ruled the valley and its fairways. You can be sure Hope would have something to say to Mr. Dye and Mr. Palmer about what they've done at Stadium and SilverRock respectively. Something along the lines of "What are you trying to do? Make me spit up my scotch?"

This isn't old Hollywood's Palm Springs anymore. Sure, you can still find those nice and gentle courses with Palm trees galore, wide fairways and mountains at a safe distance. But in the 21st century, the Palm Springs valley has enough score crunching beasts to lay claim as one of the most He-man (and Wonder Woman) golf destinations anywhere.

"These courses ain't no joke," Fort Worth, Texas, golfer Richard Martin said, laughing.

Golly-gee gentle Palm Springs boasts a number of courses that could make King Kong cry and put hair on the chest of a newborn baby.

Here are's beastly Coachella Valley courses, listed in reverse, Dick Clark countdown style.

No. 5: Desert Dunes

This Robert Trent Jones Jr. design is different from almost every other Palm Springs valley track. It just looks different because it's a little more isolated, out away from town near the highway with no houses around (for now). It plays different because of its setting and its reliance on desert vegetation.

If you're spraying the ball at all here, you can lose plenty of those precious Pro V1s in thick, thick brush. And if the wind's howling, which it often is on this largely wide open, spaced out course, forget it.

"We're talking a five-club difference," said Tim Hurja, a local golf packager and PGA Professional.

Unfortunately, sandy, bumpy greens that made reading putts extremely tough added to the punishment on the day of our review play.

No. 4: Desert Willow - Firecliff Course

There are forced carries that can make you do double takes here. You're going to be shooting over some tall, wide desert brush areas with any kind of shank off the tee a sure recipe for a huge number.

One of the things that makes Firecliff more bearable is the perfect, plush conditions of its fairways. If you do hit it well, you're going to have a great lie to go for the hole from.

Still, some older locals flee from Firecliff like health officials running from Tommy Lee Jones.

No. 3: SilverRock

At 7,553 yards from the tips, the city of La Quinta's new showpiece is definitely PGA Tour geared. Some of the holes are downright ridiculous in length. Like the 658-yard par 5 12th. There are tons of enormous desert waste dirt areas and huge four leaf clover shaped Palmer bunkers that are packed thicker than a sandbox that went unused all winter.

Still, I played with a recreational golfer who shot even par as easy as could be. It was virtually sweat free. He went bogey-less on the back that Assistant Professional Brian Hamilton warned, "You'd better just buckle your seatbelt on." This even-par shooter never played college golf or competed in tournaments after high school.

Sorry, if a rec golfer can walk up and shoot even par, you're not the hardest monster around.

SilverRock's tough. Just not No. 1 tough. Not in Palm Springs.

No. 2: Greg Norman Course

The Shark wants you to choke. He's determined to see you gag like he did in so many major events. That's the only real explanation for a design that sometimes seems cruel just to be cruel.

You'll be in so many tight spots you'll feel like calling for the cavalry rather than a mere 60-degree wedge.

No. 1: PGA West TPC Stadium

And still the champion ...

There's a reason a classic's a classic.

A dozen golfers could play it and come up with a dozen different holes that destroyed their scorecard while making them smile. Dye is at his best here in remembering that theater should not be sacrificed just for sheer difficulty.

A lot of golfers fixate on the long par-3 17th island green, the one where marshals have to come by and urge people to move along after hitting three straight shots into the water. But the 16th - a par 5 played down low between two tight steep hills, shooting up to a raised green - can be even more memorable.

"They're not playing around," vacationing golfer Richard Martin said after finishing a round.

Yes, Palm Springs can be a much tougher neighborhood than you anticipated.

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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