Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage: Remembering a classic era when desert golf was born
RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- Ben Hogan once said golf in the California desert would never work.
Man, was he wrong. Today there are more than 100 golf courses in the Palm Springs area.
Thunderbird Country Club, an instant celebrity haven, was the first 18-hole golf course in the Coachella Valley and it has a history that is mind-boggling. When the golf course opened on Jan. 9, 1951, it made instantaneous unforgettable tracks in what would become one of the world's premier golf locations.
Author Robert Windeler chronicles it all his 2001 book Thunderbird Country Club, 50th Anniversary History. If you love the history of golf, this is a book you must have. Here are just a few of the astounding facts Windeler chronicles about Thunderbird:
-- Hollywood celebrities flocked here to become part of this golf community. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, at the pinnacle of their I Love Lucy popularity, lived in a house facing the ninth and 18th fairways. Bing Crosby was club champion in 1958. Former presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford all graced its fairways.
-- The electric golf cart was invented for members of Thunderbird Country Club. And thus, cart paths, came to be.
-- The Ford Motor Company liked the Thunderbird logo so much it decided to adopt the name and logo for its new sports car in 1954. Ford's chairman Ernest Breech was a member and John and Velma Dawson received shipment of the very first Thunderbird convertible.
-- In an almost unprecedented move, the 1955 Ryder Cup Matches were held at Thunderbird, despite the immaturity of the golf course. The Club was only four years old and the location was considered "remote".
-- In 1955 the Thunderbird Invitational Tournament claimed the most prestigious entertainment committee in the USA. Phil Harris, Desi Arnaz, Hoagy Carmichael, Dean Martin, Gordon MacRae and Perry Como made up the group.
-- Thunderbird was also the birthplace of what would eventually become the Bob Hope Desert Classic. Arnold Palmer won the first tournament in 1959. Claude Harmon, father of master instructor Butch Harmon, became head pro that same year.
-- Ken Venturi, after serving his country in the U.S. Army until 1955, returned home to California thinking his golf game was a bit rusty. A friend, Eddie Lowery, asked Byron Nelson to come to Thunderbird and resurrect Venturi's game. Nelson spent 10 days working with Venturi and in 1958 he won the Thunderbird Invitational.
How's that for history?
Thunderbird C.C.'s acreage actually got its start as a dude ranch on 750 acres in 1945, an idea envisioned by developer Frank Bogert. Houses weren't selling, but golfers kept telling him golf might work in the Palm Springs area. When he sold the ranch to Milt Hicks and Dawson, heralded even by Bobby Jones as one of America's best amateur golfers, things started to boom for Thunderbird.
Crosby and Hope were the first to buy homes in 1951 and within a year all the lots were sold. Lucy and Desi followed as did former President Ford years later. It was the beginning of the California Golf Rush. Phil Harris and Alice Faye, Hoagy Carmichael, Gordon MacRae, Ruby Keeler, Dean Martin, Billie Dove, Esther Williams, Randolph Scott and Mary Pickford all had homes here.
The traditional golf course was designed by Lawrence Hughes, whose father Henry T. Hughes studied under legendary architect Donald Ross. As a teen-ager he helped Ross build The Broadmoor East Course in Colorado Springs and brother Henry B. Hughes went on to build a myriad of Colorado layouts.
When the Ryder Cup came to Thunderbird in November of 1955 everyone knew the course was too short at 6,600 yards to challenge the world's best players. Holes were stretched out as much as possible; fairways were narrowed; and taller rough grown. Sam Snead lead the Americans to an 8-4 win, the seventh straight Ryder Cup title for the USA. Tommy Bolt, Lloyd Mangrum, Jerry Barber, Jack Burke Jr., Doug Ford, Marty Furgol, Chandler Harper, Ted Kroll and Cary Middlecoff were also on the team captained by Chick Harbert.
The golf cart inventor was Eddie Susalla, assistant pro, who got the idea from seeing a handicapped man in Long Beach wheeling along side walks on a gas-powered cart called an Autoette. His first version of the cart seated two and had "wings" on the sides to hold the golf bags. At the time Thunderbird only allowed those with a doctor's permit to use the cart and caddies predominated the play. But once the members saw the first golf cart everyone wanted one. Eventually the rule was changed, but forecaddies were required for each foursome.
A devastating rainstorm destroyed much of the golf course in 1979 and veteran desert architect Ted Robinson was called in to rebuild. The historic layout re-opened in 1980 with former President Ford, a Thunderbird resident for more than 25 year, presiding over the festivities.
Eventually, Bogert turned to politics and became a long-time mayor of Palm Springs. And he developed three other golf courses -- Eldorado, Seven Lakes and Marakesh. He was a pioneer in promoting the Coachella Valley as America's golf mecca.
A reminder, Thunderbird Country Club is a private club. It is not open to the public.
July 11, 2004