Golf in Palm Springs, California

If you're a golfer who's lucky enough to play two rounds each week, it would take you more than a year to test-drive every course in the Palm Springs area.

Sure you can also ride the aerial tram, hike the Indian Canyons, or shop along trendy El Paseo. But why would you, when golf courses of every style and challenge await behind little stone gates and cute guard houses, up grand driveways and beyond adobe walls? There's even a putting green at the airport, for Godsakes.

And if you are what some folks might describe as overly intense about golf -- if you stalk the coffee pot each morning the way you'd line up a putt or clutch your breakfast silverware with an interlocking grip -- then the La Quinta Resort, a GOLF MAGAZINE Silver Medal award-winner, is your just reward for good deeds performed and mulligans proffered to your friends. One of the best resorts for serious golfers anywhere, La Quinta and affiliated PGA West offer play on no less than five top-tier public venues.

La Quinta's most famous offerings include Pete Dye's TPC Stadium Course at PGA West, which has earned the kind of prickly and mean-spirited reputation that some golfers love. Charged with designing the most difficult golf venue ever, Dye took his inspiration from the Marquis de Sade.

When this 7,261-yard monster debuted for the 1987 Bob Hope Desert Classic, most pros hoped to never have to walk the 151-sloped course again. La Quinta's equally famous Mountain Course, which peaks at 6,758 yards, is slightly easier than Stadium but even more dramatic; many consider Dye's effort here among the best layouts ever engineered amidst rocks and cacti.

But let's spend a moment considering a couple of La Quinta/PGA West's lesser-known tracks, such as the 7,126-yard Nicklaus Tournament Course.

While the meek may inherit the earth, they'll still do well to avoid this layout. From the first hole, missed fairways or greens may result in fun-house sidehill lies, hysterically difficult pitches out of thick grass, or worse. The landing areas and putting surfaces form carved platforms with steep sides and no sense of humor.

The fifth is a fine example. This 364-yard par four enigma features two fairways split by a smirking bunker; guess where you'll land with a long, dead-center drive? At the eighth, a 172-yard sortie over water, even the drop area is penal, still requiring a water crossing and negotiation of a bunker protecting the green.

The ninth, a 461-yard par four, might call for hitting driver/wedge/eight iron unless you execute perfectly. And the 572-yard, round-busting 15th could not possibly be more arduous; even an immaculate lay-up leaves a nearly-impossible flop shot over water and sand to the green. The course ramps up to 7,204 yards, but seek professional help (and I don't mean a golf pro) if you play from the tips.

As an antidote to the resort's more venomous layouts, try the 7,156-yard, eminently walkable Norman Course, which couldn't look more different from most Palm Springs venues.

Flat fairways blend into gravelly waste areas that slope back toward the carpet. Many landing zones narrow toward the hole as drives lengthen.

The many pot bunkers are also canted and -- unfortunately -- filled with dazzling white sand appropriate for a Caribbean beach, but a bit out of place here.

The course actually lies 40 feet below sea level, lending it an insular feel made even cozier by the surrounding cappuccino-colored mountains.

As good as La Quinta's golf is, you'll feel lucky to finish your round and return to the fine hotel, which has drawn constellations of Hollywood stars since opening in the 1920s.

Although offering some 1,000 rooms, the property achieves intimacy by gathering casitas around small courtyards of cactus gardens and petite swimming pools.

Several restaurants on property include the new Azur by Le Bernardin, where golfing Chef de Cuisine Jasper Schneider prepares fresh seafood with the finesse of a short game specialist.

The back nines at Landmark Golf Club currently host the Skins Game -- the most recent Skins course plays to 7,284 yards; the other combination of nines, which hosted the event in 1999, plays to 7,068 yards.

That said, anyone will enjoy a round on either of Landmark's fine courses even without playing for skins. I say either, because the courses are barely distinguishable from each other, and exude a pedigree of corporate parentage.

The holes are challenging and well-executed, but lack distinctive style. Service here is similarly corporate -- it appears crisp and courteous until the ubiquitous red-shirted beverage cart personnel stand by talking loudly while you're on the tee.

The 2001 Skins layout begins with a nice rhythm of holes and contains three par fives and three par threes on the front. Clusters of wildflowers decorate waste areas, while elegant palms nuzzle the fairways.

On the 569-yard fifth, harvest a few limes for your apres-round gin and tonic before deciding which green-fronting bunker to carry. The back nine is notable for the 183-yard 15th, which features an island green.

The old Skins layout is slightly more interesting, with elevation changes, great views, and bridges made from old railroad cars. The fifth establishes the theme of zig-zag golf -- hitting at or over one bunker complex, then setting up for the next set. The bunkering throughout the property is skillful and eye-catching.

Speaking of fine but interchangeable golf courses, a pair designed by Ted Robinson reside at the deluxe Marriott Desert Springs Resort, a GOLF MAGAZINE Silver Medal honoree.

Like many Marriotts, this one wows with water features both on and off the course. If you lose a few balls in the lakes, have the last word by carrying the lagoon in a boat that runs from the lobby to the smoothly-run Tuscany restaurant.

The decision to play either the Palms or the Valley layout is a true toss-up. I opted for the 6,761-yard Palms, which wraps around the hotel and shows off the property's landscaping and waterfalls. Palms' holes demonstrate nice movement, great pacing, and call for skill around the greens.

The fourth is like a melodious wake-up call -- a 330-yarder where a 230-yard drive will carry you to the end of the fairway platform; any more will alight you in Humpland. Pot bunkers hold their annual meeting around the green, which is also ringed by palms.

Following the 366-yard sixth, where water seeps in from the right, keep an eye out for a fountain that appears to release an endless stream of golf balls.

Palms' back side features a couple of stealthy water tricks of its own. On the 15th, you can't see the second lake from the tee, so its stepped cascades dazzle suddenly when you come upon them. The 17th offers a ubiquitous island green and almost too much water feature, while the closing hole, at 423 yards, has been ranked as the best finishing hole in the Coachella Valley.

For a round of golf unlike any other in the area, Marriott also offers play on Nick Faldo's Shadow Ridge. This 6,923-yard design is one of the most inventive and distinct courses in the neighborhood, speaking boldly with a slight British accent.

Wanting to recreate the flavor of such great Australian sand-belt courses as Kingston Heath and Royal Melbourne, Faldo allied generous fairways with bold bunkering. If you miss the big, slopey, ridged greens here, you'll need both imagination and character to escape deep, steep-lipped bunkers or tightly-mowed collection areas.

Shadow Ridge's 609-yard second hole is particularly epic, with long views of bunkering, waste areas, and the Santa Rosa Mountains. Water accompanies you in from 150 yards to a long green surrounded by sand.

For another pair of great golf courses affiliated with an equally fine hotel, there is the Westin Mission Hills Resort, another GOLF Magazine Silver Medalist. The hotel's Spanish/Moorish architecture brings to mind California in the 1900s. More-ish is also what you'll want in the hotel's Bella Vista Restaurant, where Executive Chef Joel Delmond's cooking is way above par.

Pete Dye designed the cleverly named, par-70, 6,706-yard "Pete DyeCourse," adjacent to the resort. It features a smattering of railroad ties, hidden pins, elevated greens, and scads of eucalyptus, mesquite, pepper, olive, pine, and palm trees to balance upwards of 70 bunkers.

While still an easy romp of 6,158 yards from the regular tees, much of the challenge here is built around the greens, many of which deflect shots from the heart and kick them every which way. The ninth hole snakes through a narrow canyon of grassy slopes on its 452-yard journey to the pin. The back nine continues to demand some tough shots into very small greens. The green complex at the 17th, speckled with pot bunkers, is lovely. The 18th provides a simple risk/reward heavy on the risk, which takes the form of bulkheaded water to the left along most of the hole.

The Dye is perfect for mid-handicappers, who can score well conservatively or take some chances and really blow up.

The Westin is also home to what may be the best golf course in the Palm Springs area -- the difficult, well-designed, and joyful Gary Player Course. This 7,062-yard delight of stonework, waterfalls, receptive greens, and strategic bunkering is as elegant as Gary himself.

It also boasts some of the curviest cart paths ever designed, an additional and uncommon challenge. Several holes are a long hitter's delight so swing hard and sing that old Linda Ronstadt song to your opponent: Blew By You. The Player course encompasses few doglegs and welcomes run-up shots to the greens.

Three other courses fill out our Palm Springs golf dance card. Desert Willow's two layouts -- Firecliff and Mountain View -- were developed by the city of Palm Desert and designed by Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry with the help of PGA Tour pro John Cook.

Expect dunes landscaped with cacti and wildflowers, native-grassed waste areas that transition to greenside bunkers, streams meandering into rock-lined lakes, and other eye candy.

By far one of the most desert-like of Palm Springs's courses, Firecliff opens with a bunker minefield with a fairway in the middle. Tiers and humps protect many pin placements here, hurrying balls away like bodyguards getting rid of photographers. Ridges in several fairways also kick drives to the side, robbing them of length.

The routing of many holes require hitting over whatever sandy hazards you can clear; though this principle repeats, it's executed in many different ways. Firecliff closes with a par three at 17 and then a 536-yard odyssey with palm gardens and a waste area crossing the fairway.

Just down the street from Desert Willow lies Desert Falls Country Club, a grassy, parkland layout with a very private feel. Ron Fream designed all 7,017 yards of this hilly, heavily-bunkered venue. Unlike many other Palm Springs courses, at Desert Falls you can barely miss hitting grass (unless you're in the sand), but seven water hazards abound. On the first, 16th and 17th holes, exercise good judgment and precision to carry the hazards. The 18th in particular, at 470 yards, will test your mettle (or your persimmon). This is the kind of course where you'll benefit from having played before.

Although most places on our two-piece planet max out at four seasons, Palm Springs golf courses may feature as many as nine. High season generally runs from December to March. Tee times prove expensive and hard to come by then, especially on trophy courses. Summer is cheaper and easier if you don't mind the heat. Beware of visiting during mid-October through mid-November, when most courses close for reseeding.

But even if you're timing is off, you'll still have more courses to choose from than the average guy could play in an entire year.


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