Palm Springs' 10 toughest golf courses

By Leigh Hallenberg, Contributor

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- Some people might be confused about golf in Palm Springs. As the most popular resort golf destination in the country, some golfers have dismissed Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley as a playground of quaint and painless courses. This might have been true if not for PGA West's TPC Stadium Course and Pete Dye. Dye's course has become the ultimate test for golfers. It is now considered one of the most difficult and significant courses ever built. Since then, Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley has become the "Golf Capital of the World" and includes more than 120 courses. And there are ample championship courses accessible to the most courageous golfers.

Here are the 10 toughest.

PGA West, TPC Stadium Course -- Maybe the most famous course in the Palm Springs area, this Pete Dye design opened in 1985 and was intended to be the most difficult course ever created. Almost two decades later, it still succeeds.

The par-3 sixth hole has been ranked by PGA of America as one of the 18 toughest holes in the country. It is the essential Pete Dye golf. The 255-yard hole is nearly surrounded by water. Named "Amen," the water around the green necessitates a 220-yard forced carry if you hope to hit and hold the green. This is just one example of Dye's aggressive and fascinating design. Others are found in his trademark island green on No. 17 and a bunker on No. 16 that requires stairs because it is nearly 20-feet below the green.

Desert Dunes Golf Course -- One of the best municipal courses in Southern California, Desert Dunes is a challenge on any given day. Toss in the 30 mph gusts of desert thermals and the course can be absolutely devastating. In 1995, during the U.S. Open qualifying, a 10-over par 154 was the best score any pro could muster. Its slope of 142 is a testament that this modestly distanced course is more difficult than it lets on.

Robert Trent Jones, Jr. designed this course with small, multi-tiered greens, deep waste areas for errant balls and large pot bunkers where you least want to see them. On the course's final hole, a 443-yard par 4, golfers will be challenged by a deep bunker blocking the two-tiered green. These types of touches were all part of the plan for Jones at Desert Dunes.

"They were trying to do something different with a links course," Harry Sailor, the director of golf, said. "They wanted something that would stand out. They moved a lot of dirt here."

La Quinta Resort Mountain Course -- It's little surprise more than one Dye course found its way onto this list. Legends Course, which opened three years ago, was designed by the Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley design team. Sporting 7,442 yards and a 144 slope rating, the Legends Course is certainly one to be reckoned with.

The Legends Course is far from the comfortable resort courses that the area is known for. Characterized by streams, oak woodlands, tree-lined fairways and classic bunkering, the Legends Course is a type of challenge you won't find elsewhere in the Coachella valley.

A good example here is No. 15. Named "Goosebumps," the 361-yard par-4 features six bunkers scattered all over the fairway daring golfers to find someplace to set down their drive.

Desert Falls Country Club -- At 145, Desert Falls Country Club already has one of the highest slopes in the Coachella Valley. Add plenty of enormous bunkers and of water hazards and you have a Ron Fream-designed headache. The bunkers are so big and so strategically placed that it's not uncommon to go from one to another.

Opened in 1984, Desert Falls is located in Palm Desert. From its inception, it was clear the course would not be a typical desert layout. By managing to present a distinct links feel in the middle of the desert, Desert Falls is decidedly different.

Golfers who rely on their long drives may run into trouble. Desert Falls is a course demanding control and precision. On No. 14, a 234-yard par-3, you have to hit very accurately to hold the green which is protected by greens in front of and behind it. And the green is where the adventure is. It is a massive 18,000 square feet and undulates enough to make the hole's par the same as the number of many golfers' putts.

Desert Willow Golf Resort, Firecliff Course -- As one of the best conditioned courses in the country, Firecliff can take you attention away from your golf game with its amazing views and local fauna. But it can also hang you out to dry in one of its 100-plus bunkers. These bunkers are even more affecting due to the course's narrow fairways. Eight water holes add to the fun. Designed by Michael Hurdzan and John Cook, Firecliff's No. 4 hole is were the excitement begins. A 446-yard par-4, this hole keeps with the number theme and adds four bunkers lining the left side of the fairway. On the right is a waste bunker that travels the entire hole.

"If you don't hit the fairway, you're in trouble," Mike Osgood, director of sales for the course, said.

This is Hurdzan and Cook's style on the back nine as well. It even starts off with three par-4s of more than 400 yards. And on No. 17 golfers will find a beautiful test in the form of a par-3. Commanding control of your long irons, the 204 yard hole's green is surrounded by a beach bunker and backed by a palm oasis. This type of challenge combined with the natural beauty at the Firecliff Course demands players full attention .

"You have to focus in on every shot," Osgood said.

Landmark Golf Club, Skins South -- Well-known for its Skin's Game fame, Skins South at Landmark isn' t as spectacular as its Skins North counterpart, but it is longer and more difficult. Any course that has holes named "Jaws," "Entrapment," "Brutal," and "Vengeance" can't be a cakewalk. And at 7229 yards, it is longer than many area courses.

Much of the course winds through the foothills of the Chocolate Mountains, providing narrower fairways and often windier conditions. The wind only compounds issues on the par-3 fourth hole, named "Cliffhanger." With an fantastically deep waste bunker shielding the green to the right, anything resembling a slice will send you reaching back into your ball bag.

As you take the turn on Skins South you are met with another difficult decision. The 405-yard par-4 doglegs left around one of several of the course's ponds. Being close without going in is necessary to par this.

PGA West, Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course -- Anyplace that declares itself the "Western Home of Golf in America" is setting itself to pretty high standards. And it should be no surprise that the PGA West facility has two courses on this list. Not as overtly defiant as the TPC Stadium Course, the "Nick Tournament," as its called to locals, tests every aspect of a players game.

On the ninth hole, Nicklaus has no qualms warning golfers by naming it "Jack 's Revenge." A slight dogleg clears a bit of room to land on the mounded fairway. Trees line the right and a pond is on the left. The second shot over the lake's edge toward a green that is shared with the No. 18 hole. Only when you get to the final hole will you realize that the ninth was just a warm-up. The holes are very similar except this time the water is on the right and there is the added treat of a waste area that will steal any short tee shots.

Nicklaus' course provides a different type of challenge than Pete Dye's Stadium Course. But even Nicklaus tips his hat to Dye on No. 15. Here, an island green provides more fun and spectacle than challenge. At 472 yards, this par 5 shows that at "Nick Tournament," the challenges are found elsewhere.

Oak Valley Golf Club -- Another Schmidt/Curley-designed course, this one may be a little harder to find, but is worth the search. Located in Beaumont, CA, just west of Palm Springs, Oak Valley is known for its fast greens and steep slope changes.

Two difficult par-4s, Nos. 7 and 8, measure 474 and 442 respectively. Their distance, plus downhill tee shots followed by uphill second shots, make them killers. On No. 7, the green is a good 30 feet above the fairway and sits on a ledge. Get on in three and be glad for the par.

On the par-3 11th, water hugs the right side of the green and any chip from the left side with a bit too much on it will get wet.

Diamond Valley Golf Club -- Elevation change is the name of the game at Diamond Valley. A links style course that hides its challenging elevation changes with a sweeping look. Like Oak Valley, Diamond Valley is a course less played because of its location in Hemut, 15 minutes southeast of Palm Springs. Being off the beaten Palm Spring path doesn't make it any less challenging. Golf Digest recently rated the course a 4 out of 5.

Opened in 1999, this public course can be played for about $30 at most points during the year. Designed by Bill Martin, Diamond Valley features less than 50 bunkers. Bu what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in size. One of its signature holes, the 611-yard, par-5 No. 12, has two acres of sand protecting the green's left side.

Leigh Hallenberg, Contributor

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