Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage: Remembering a classic era when desert golf was born

By David R. Holland, Senior Writer

Thunderbird Country ClubRANCHO 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.

Velma and John -- 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.

Desi, Phil, Bing and Milt -- 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.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz 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.

Velma and John Dawson 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.

David R. HollandDavid R. Holland, Senior Writer

David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter at @David_R_Holland.


Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Thunderbird Memories

    Scott Kiner wrote on: Feb 3, 2014

    My father, Ralph Kiner, built the 2nd home on Thunderbird CC in 1951. It was on the 11th green. He was the reigning home run king for the past five years in the Major Leagues and would do it again the next season for the sixth time - a record that stands today. I was born in 1954 at Desert Hospital in Palm Springs. My mother, Nancy Chaffee, was one of the greatest tennis players of her time and we had a grass tennis court next to the house on the 11th fairway. I think my father tapped into the golf course irrigation to water the tennis court. I have many Thunderbird stories...great times!

    Reply

    • RE: Thunderbird Memories

      Rex Colwell wrote on: May 26, 2014

      Hello Scott,
      My wife's father was George Splane, the teaching professional at Thunderbird from the mid 1950's until the mid 1960's. George's family lost all of their personal momentos in the flood that also destroyed much of the course.
      I am looking for anyone that anything about George - a story they can share, a photo with George in it - anything to help put together some sort of representation of George's career at Thunderbird that will help Georges grand daughter have some small piece of her grandfather.
      I know this is more than a bit unusual but I appreciate you reading my request. Either way, it was good to read your recollections of Thunderbird's early days.
      Thank you, Rex Colwell

      Reply

  • Eddie Susalla

    Barbara Church Rhodes wrote on: Oct 23, 2013

    Eddie Susalla was my Uncle and his wife Jean, who resides in Ca my Aunt.

    Reply

  • Thunderbird

    Paul wrote on: Dec 17, 2012

    Eddie Lowery is mentioned in this article. Is he the same Eddie that caddied for Francis Ouimet? Also I heard that Eisenhower wrote his memoirs at Thunderbird, is that true?

    Reply

  • Thunderbird Golf Couse

    Brenda Burns wrote on: Aug 14, 2012

    David, my mother in law was a houusekeeper for Mrs. Jessie Oakes, wife of Lawrence Leroy Oakes.. From what I understand Mr Oakes was the property owner of Desert Country Club in which I understand is Thunderbird CC. Mrs. Oakes lived on the golf course but I can't find out which hole she lived on. I have serveral pictures of her and others she entertained and a picture of her on the back porch by the pool.. Do you know of anyone that might could help me.. Mr & Mrs Oakes were enterpreners at least in the 70's. I love your post, makes me feel I was there although I never was.. Mrs Burns use to walk with Lucy's housekeeper when she walked "Jingles", Mrs Oakes dog.. Would love to learn all I can about them... Thanks, Brenda

    Reply

  • Merrit L Joslyn

    robj wrote on: Jun 11, 2012

    just wondering I have a silver cup Merritt L Josyln 1958 Thunderbird mens club championship 1st flight winner.I see your info as Bing Crosby was club champion do you have any info on this
    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.

    Reply

  • Memories of Linn (L.D.) Johnson?

    Robert Smith wrote on: Dec 28, 2011

    Does anyone have any memories that they would like to share about Linn (L.D.) Johnson, who was one of the original incorporators of the Thunderbird (and later, the Indian Wells)? Linn was my great Uncle. Many thanks in advance! Robert Smith (San Francisco, CA) - timepuzzle@earthlink.net.

    Reply

  • Thunderbird CC

    Mike Arnold wrote on: Dec 2, 2010

    Great article! It brought back wonderful memories of playing golf with my grandfather Wendell Arnold. My first and last time I played the course was Thanksgiving weekend 1983 my senior year in high school. I hooked and hit Ford's home, he came out with his secret service agents to great me and my cousins who made up the rest of our foursome. He even took the time to shake our hands and make some small talk about the game he loved so much. To this day it is one of the best days of my life...
    I can't recall anymore which hole Ford lived on... Do you know and could you be so kind to reply back to my email with that long forgotten info. I would be most appreciative.
    Mike Arnold

    Reply

    • RE: Thunderbird CC

      PJ wrote on: Apr 27, 2012

      The Ford's home, which was just recently sold, was along the 13th fairway. The lot was originally sold to them by Leonard Firestone. While their house was being built there they rented a place up on the hill in Thunderbird Heights.

      Reply

  • Picture with Desi, Phil, Bing, and Milt

    Steven V. Hatting wrote on: Nov 29, 2007

    Who is the man leaning over with the cap between Phil Harris and Bing Crosby? Anybody know?
    He is in a few pictures of foursomes I have that were taken at Thunderbird.

    Reply

    • RE: Picture with Desi, Phil, Bing, and Milt

      george wrote on: Feb 13, 2012

      it could be John Curci

      Reply

    • RE: Picture with Desi, Phil, Bing, and Milt

      Steven V. Hatting wrote on: Nov 29, 2007

      Just looked through a 1955 Thunderbird magazine and the pictures and it looks like it may be Bob Roseburg.

      Reply

      • RE: RE: Picture with Desi, Phil, Bing, and Milt

        Rex Colwell wrote on: Jun 21, 2012

        Steven,
        With the amount of historical information and photographs you have on Thunderbird's history I was wondering if you have any on George Splane, who I believe was either the very first teaching professional hired at Thunderbird (or the second). He worked with the developer Mr. Hughes and Johnny Dawson on Thunderbird and then later on Marin Country Club. The Splane family lost all of their photos and keepsakes in the flood in 1979, they lived in the Magnesia Falls Cove in Rancho Mirage. I am his son-in-law, if you could help with any information you might have concerning George, our family would be most appreciative. Thank You.
        Rex Colwell

        Reply

      • RE: RE: Picture with Desi, Phil, Bing, and Milt

        robert camacho wrote on: Oct 4, 2010

        Hi,
        In 1950 my family and I lived in a house just a few feet from what is the
        17th green.My brother Tom and I would
        hit golf balls in the desert which is now
        the 11Th and 15th fairway
        Frank Bogart was the manager of the
        Thuderbird Ranch. Call me for more
        history. (480)814-1407

        Reply

  • Thunderbird Golf

    Andrew Eaton wrote on: May 18, 2005

    I have a trophy that my grandfather, Melvin C. Eaton won in 1958 at Thunderbird Country Club. I believe that he was the mens club runner up that year. My grandfather and grandmother, Ethel, were members of Thunderbird for many years. I also have a picture of my grandfather playing golf with Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson at Thunderbird.

    Reply

    • RE: Thunderbird Golf

      Paul R. Eaton wrote on: Nov 23, 2005

      Yes, Drew...good memory. I have the Silver cig case from the '59 Thunderbird CC Invitational won/presented to MC Eaton.

      Reply

  • comments

    helene newell wrote on: Feb 25, 2005

    hi, i lived at thunderbird with my aunt and uncle from 1957 to 61. mr and mrs maynard laswell. they were some of the first members. the home on the first fairway. mrs bonnie testa was next door.the j. ross clarkes were friends, my cousin hung out with their daughter. i hung out with alice fayes daughter phyllis. uncle golfed with all the pros. and was friends with kirk douglas and desi arnez. i have photos of them together. many memories for me. i did modeling for some charities back then. now i'm a old lady. i had letters from phyllis, always she would say "mom sends her love' the letters i cannot find, wish i saved them. thought i would share some of the memories, although i have many more, to much to write, and personal to share. helene

    Reply

    • Bonnie Testa

      Ginny Boscacci (Eugene) wrote on: Sep 15, 2013

      So interesting reading your comments. I'ved lived here at Thunderbird for the pass 50 years. Bonnie Testa (mother) just passed two days ago, 9/13/2013. This was her 95th year. She will be missed. My daughter Jill was friends with her daughter Bonnie.

      Reply

    • RE: comments

      Rex Colwell wrote on: Jun 21, 2012

      Hi Helene,
      I was wondering if you have any photos of your uncle with George Splane, the teaching professional at Thunderbird. George's family lost all of their photos in the 1979 flood and we have been on a search ever since to show grandkids who the grandfather was. Thanks for any help you can give.
      Rex Colwell

      Reply

    • RE: comments

      pat hurtuk wrote on: Jul 4, 2011

      i just came upon this site!!!My dad's brother was edgar schill. i do not know much of him, lived in michigan. i do not know if his wife dead. He died in 1980. they had 2 children, but all i remember is Steve Schill. but only met him when he was a child. i would like to connect with him.

      Reply

    • RE: Thunderbird 's Fairway Dr.

      Vicki (Testa) Miceli wrote on: Jan 6, 2007

      Helene, I'm Bonnie Testa's daughter and
      grew up at Thunderbird. My younger sister Bonny and I along with Jay and John Ross Clark and other member's children were frequently in the fashion shows put on by the club to show off the latest Christmas and Easter holiday fashions. I have many great memories of the Easter egg hunts and finding the golden Thunderbird egg hidden among hundreds of brightly colored eggs and winning a six foot high stuffed toy rabbit as the prize. I have seen the Bob Baker Marionette Easter puppet show every year since I was two. There were also great birthday parties given by Lucy and Desi for Lucie and Desi Jr. And one party for Jay Ross Clark ended up with a birthday gift of a surrey with the fringe on top in the swimming pool by a wayward driver. My parents always talked about the wonderful club parties
      with Alice Faye and Phil Harris singing
      at the piano and how Ginger Rogers cut
      the rug dancing the night away. You brought back lots of fun memories.

      Reply

      • RE: RE: Thunderbird 's Fairway Dr.

        Patricia Browne Arthur wrote on: Mar 5, 2013

        When Frank Bogart and Johnny Dawson had the idea to purchase the land for Thunderbird Ranch in the 1940s they contacted 3 investors,my father Paul Browne,Wm Jason and Wm Gilmore.I spent weeks on end riding horseback on breakfast rides,no golf then,all the best movie stars were members and music was everywhere-I sang many a song with Hoagy Charmichel on the piano,BingCrosby,Phil Harris,Alice Fay. they made a great movie "two Guys From Texas" with Dorothy Malone,Jack Carson.The best of times.

        Reply

      • Phil Testa

        Tim Hinkle wrote on: Jul 31, 2011

        Bonnie: Is there a Phil Testa who
        might've been your brother. Haig Harris
        (from the nearby date ranch) and I
        used to go see him. He had a hot car__
        but I can't remember what it was.
        Tim Hinkle

        Reply

      • RE: RE: Thunderbird 's Fairway Dr.

        Steven V. Hatting wrote on: Oct 26, 2007

        Hi. I was doing some genealogy work on my grandfather and ran across this.
        My mom also lived in Thunderbird with her parents (my grandparents). I'm not sure if it was around the same time as you folks, but I have seen pictures of Phil Harris, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope golfing that my grandfather had taken.
        My grandfather, Harry Weimar, was the one that used to golf with one arm. Anybody know/remember him?

        Reply

        • RE: RE: RE: Thunderbird 's Fairway Dr.

          Rex Colwell wrote on: Jun 21, 2012

          Steve,
          I just replied to another comment you left on this site and I scrolled down and saw this. My father-in-law, George Splane, was the teaching professional at Thunderbird. He shared stories with me about giving a couple of lessons and playing once with your grandfather. I did not recall your grandfather's name but the stories George shared about how talented your grandfather was on the golf course sticks with me to this day...not only was he able to hit the ball well but George said is touch around the green was amazing.
          I've noticed you possess quite a history of Thunderbird's history. George's family lost all of their photos and keepsakes in the flood in 1979, they lived in the Magnesia Falls Cove in Rancho Mirage. If you come across any photos with or information about George Splane, we would appreciate hearing from you. Thank you!
          Rex Colwell

          Reply

        • RE: RE: RE: Thunderbird 's Fairway Dr.

          ROBERT CAMACHO wrote on: Feb 27, 2012

          Hi Steve,
          I remenber your grandfather very well.
          I caddied for him in the '50s while
          going Coachella Valley Union Hifh.
          With one arm, he played better than
          golfers with two arms. I still play
          a lot of golf. My son is PGA teacher
          in Scottsdale, AZ (rcamacho@golfinstructor.com)

          Reply

        • Harry Weimar

          Tim Hinkle wrote on: Jul 31, 2011

          Steve: I remember your grandfather
          very well. When my younger sister, Sue,
          and I were learning how to play golf at
          the Club we used to stand in amazement
          how a one-armed man could slam a ball
          that far_and putt so well. He was some-
          one to definitely look-up-too. We lived
          at 40-269 Club View Drive (18thFairway)
          right next to Lucy & Desi. Hoagy,Jr.&
          Randy Carmichael were around the bend,
          and the Harris Girls on Cypress. Great
          place to spend a childhood TimHinkle

          Reply

          • RE: Harry Weimar

            Rex Colwell wrote on: Jun 21, 2012

            Tim,
            I'm wondering if my father-in-law, George Splane, was the golf professional that instructed you and your sister. If the answer is yes, I'm going to be forward and make a request...George's family lost all of their photographs in the flood in 1979 in Rancho Mirage. If you were to have any photos of George teaching you at the club our family would be very interested in seeing them and/or getting copies. His days at Thunderbird were the best of his life as he shared many stories about his time there. Please let me know if you have anything. Thank You!
            Rex Colwell

            Reply

  • Thunderbird Golf

    Gary McWilliams wrote on: Jul 19, 2004

    This has to be the most interesting golf story I've read in a long time. Great stories like this just don't come along very often.

    Reply

    • RE: Thunderbird Golf

      Danny Peyton wrote on: Jun 30, 2010

      I have a PGA thunderbird by burke golf putter from the 51-55 era and I would like to find out more about it.

      Reply

      • RE: RE: Thunderbird Golf

        pat hurtuk wrote on: Jul 3, 2011

        hello, my dad's older brother was Edgar Schill. Any of you remember him. I do not know how many years he was the manager there. Do not know if his wife, millie, still alive. or, of their son, steve. Would like to hear from any who knew my Uncle.

        Reply

        • Edgar Schill

          Tim Hinkle wrote on: Jul 31, 2011

          Dear Pat: I remember your uncle very
          well. He and Millie were "the face" of
          the Club to the current & new members.
          They were very "social" and always
          together__whether it be having a toot,
          dining, attending a party__whatever.
          They always dressed-up and were most
          friendly to each member or friend of a
          Member Family. You couldn't ask for a
          better manager of people__and supporter
          of the Club in general. Tim Hinkle

          Reply

          • RE: Edgar Schill

            lovell smith wrote on: Dec 31, 2011

            I think their daughter Marcy Schill (Till), lives in Fallbrook Ca.

            Reply

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