Palm Springs Golf Sinatra's Way

The only thing that's more prevalent than golf courses in Palm Springs, California, is Frank Sinatra. He lives on in such places as the Date Palm Country Club, where earlier this year about 100 of The Chairman's contemporaries sat in the clubhouse for a show called "The Rat Pack Is Back." Sinatra sound-alike Dave Salera sang standards like "Come Fly with Me" and "My Way," and then the crowd motored back to their mobile homes in their custom golf carts. Sinatra's legend survives in golfers like Jack Koennecker, 89, the former pro at Canyon Country Club. Sinatra played there and took lessons from Koennecker, and the club hosted the Frank Sinatra Open Invitational in November 1963. In Palm Springs, the epicenter of a sprawling desert golf mecca of more than 100 courses, about 40 of which are open for public play, you can get your hair cut by Rico Picone, Sinatra's former barber, at Rico's Barber & Styling on Baristo Street. And you can eat at one of Ol' Blue Eyes' favorite restaurants, Lord Fletcher's Inn, where the grandmotherly, bouffant-sporting Dorothy gladly served customers until her recent retirement, providing morsels about waiting on Sinatra himself. "Honestly, Frank wasn't much interested in the food," she told me. "It was mostly the drink: Jack Daniel's."

For fans of Sinatra and lovers of '60s-era Rat Pack ambiance, Palm Springs is tops. You could go just for the golf too, because the variety of courses is mind-blowing. During a recent trip I indulged on both fronts, checking out Sinatra's old haunts and playing a half-dozen rounds. (If you follow my lead, note that in late autumn many Palm Springs courses close periodically for overseeding.)

First I looked up George Jacobs, Sinatra's personal valet for two decades starting in the early 1950s. Now living in a shabby apartment near the Palm Springs airport, Jacobs is a frail 77, his eyesight failing, but he tells Sinatra stories with a verve and frankness (pardon the pun) that humanizes the American icon. Many of the stories are contained in Jacobs's warts-and-all bestseller, Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra (2003; HarperEntertainment). And Jacobs is all too willing to repeat them in person.

He has his own table at Tony's Pasta Mia & Copa Lounge, a red-sauce Italian joint in downtown Palm Springs where Sinatra liked to eat. There, Jacobs tells me that Sinatra played golf mostly for social reasons. "Dean Martin was the only real golfer in the bunch," Jacobs said, sipping a vodka on the rocks. "Dean would leave a party early and get up at five or six so he could play. Sammy and Frank, if they hit their ball in the rough, wouldn't look for it. Just drop another ball and play on. Frank could hit it pretty well off the tee, but that was about it. He would hack it around, having fun, you know?"

Hacking it around was all I could manage later that afternoon at Cimarron Golf Resort, just two miles east of the Palm Springs airport, in Cathedral City. Cimarron's Short Course and Long Course offer 36 holes of links-style golf. I played the latter. A wicked wind whipped across the open terrain, making me feel like I was on an Irish seaside links -- albeit backdropped by craggy mountains. Just four years old, Cimarron is a huge expanse of grass punctuated by deep-faced bunkers, wide fairways, and big, rolling greens. The wind was so strong that on the second hole, a 416-yard par 4, I hit a 350-yard drive (downwind, of course) and reached the green with a lob wedge. On the seventh, with the wind in my face, I needed a driver, 3-wood and wedge to get to the putting surface of the 467-yard par 4. Still, I found the course a joy to play.

In search of post-round Rat Pack sustenance, I repaired to the Caliente Tropics Resort, a tiki-inspired hotel at the foot of the mountains bordering downtown Palm Springs. Frank and the boys frequented its Cellar Bar. I found The Reef bar, but Joel Cutler, the hotel's director of sales, told me the Cellar Bar had gone under. "A previous owner filled it with concrete," Cutler said, later joking that if I wanted to unearth any Rat Pack secrets, I should "come back with a jackhammer."

That night I bedded down at the Oasis at the Orbit In (yes, that's how they spell it), a shrine to mid-20th century design. Recently restored to its original 1957 glory, the Oasis is the sister property to the Orbit In's Hideaway, another modernist masterpiece. Under towering palms at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains, the Oasis' nine rooms surround a swimming pool, beside which stands a boomerang-shaped bar. True to Rat Pack form, there was always a drink within reach.

An early tee time at the Nick Faldo-designed course at the Marriott's Shadow Ridge pulled me back to the 21st century. The new property, comprised of 512 one- and two-bedroom villas, a Faldo Golf Institute, a restaurant and a big pool, is in Palm Desert, 12 miles west of Palm Springs. As at Cimarron, wispy, golden grasses blew in the wind, defining the fairways and lending a seaside feel to some of the holes. The buzz of circular saws accompanied my round, as construction crews built villas beside some holes. Luckily, the distinctive Faldo design pushed the housing to the back of my mind. The course features dramatic mounding, deep bunkers, fairways as wide as 70 yards, and heavily sloped greens.

Hungry for a good lunch and more Sinatra lore, I retraced my steps to Palm Springs and joined Koennecker in the glass-walled dining room of the Canyon Country Club. Impeccably dressed this day in pressed khakis and a tropical-themed shirt, Koennecker has been a friend and instructor to a long list of celebrities -- Sinatra, Jack Benny, Robert Wagner, George Burns, Milton Berle and Bob Hope.

"Frank loved this club," Koennecker said over chicken soup and Cobb salad. "Not long after we opened, in 1961, we made him an honorary member. At that time he was about a 12 handicap. He had a beautiful short game. Then he had a problem with his left hand, carpal tunnel syndrome, I think. The guy who operated on him did a poor job. Frank's left hand -- he couldn't open it all the way. He lost elasticity, and a little bit of control and touch."

Crib Sheet
Cimarron Golf Resort
Greens fees: $85-$99 (Long Course); $19-$45 (Short Course); 760-770-6060;
cimarrongolf.com

Marriott's Shadow Ridge
Greens fees: $95; 760-674-2600
marriottsshadowridge.com

PGA of Southern California
Golf Club at Oak Valley

Greens fees: $66-$92; 909-845-8996
scpgagolf.com

The Golf Resort
at Indian Wells

Greens fees: $90-$100; 760-346-4653
thegolfresortatindianwells.com

The Westin Mission
Hills Resort

Greens fees: $125; 760-3285955;
troongolf.com

La Quinta Resort & Club
Greens fees: $145-$175; 760-564-7686
laquintaresort.com

Trilogy Golf Club
at La Quinta

Greens fees: $79-$119; 760-771-0707
trilogygolfclub.com

TPC Stadium Course
at PGA West

Greens fees: $145-$235; 800-PGA-WEST
pgawest.com

Sinatra's Palm Springs compound sprawled beside a fairway at nearby Tamarisk Country Club, but Sinatra preferred to play at Canyon Country Club, a gently rolling Billy Bell Sr. design set against a mountainous backdrop. "He was a helluva person, and he loved golf," said Koennecker.

Fortified by lunch and filled with nostalgia, I played that afternoon at the Golf Resort at Indian Wells, a 20-minute drive east of downtown. Although 25 years younger than Canyon Country Club, the East Course at Indian Wells, a Ted Robinson design from 1986, feels like a classic, with tree-lined fairways and big elevation changes. The par-5 sixth stands out: The 496-yard dogleg-left requires a 240-yard shot to the bend in the fairway, after which you fire downhill to a big green that slopes back to front and joins the green of the eighth hole. Unfortunately, the course loses its rhythm after the 16th. A massive flood channel isolates the last two holes from the rest of the course.

I spent the next couple of days exploring the more contemporary courses east of the city. But I also made a side trip to the remote and remarkable PGA of Southern California Golf Club at Oak Valley, a 36-hole complex in Beaumont, 40 miles west of Palm Springs. I played The Legends, which stretches to a whopping 7,442 yards from the green back tees and carries a course rating of 76. I opted for the slightly more reasonable black tees (6,803 yards, 73 course rating), and still found a real test. Most of the terrain is dominated by encroaching hills, which create blind or partially blind shots into several greens. A pro-shop staffer described The Champions as "more wide-open than The Legends but heavily bunkered."

Back in Palm Springs, I played three Pete Dye courses, enjoying each for different reasons. The famous TPC Stadium Course at PGA West -- a 2,200-acre community with six courses, 25 miles east of Palm Springs -- was deliberately artificial and extreme, with deep bunkers, fairways that produce uneven lies, and beaucoup forced carries over water, including to the island green at the famous 17th. I got lucky and birdied it, popping a 6-iron within eight feet of the flag, the highlight of an arduous round.

Gentler and more enjoyable was the Pete Dye Course at the Westin Mission Hills Resort, a 20-minute drive east of downtown. The Dye Course is a short (6,706 from the tips), rollicking layout with fast greens. Dye's Mountain Course at the La Quinta Resort & Club, 40 minutes southeast of Palm Springs, proved to be the most dramatic of his layouts, especially the 14th, 15th and 16th holes, which climbed into rocky hills and then plummeted back down to the desert floor.

Also on my roster of contemporary courses was the new Trilogy Golf Club at La Quinta, a few miles south of the Mountain Course, where last year Annika Sorenstam became the first woman to compete in the Skins Game. Stuck in a surreal, middle-of-nowhere landscape, Trilogy is a trippy experience, notable for its wide, sweeping fairways and fast, hard greens.

In the midst of my golf binge, I rested briefly in a poolside bungalow at La Quinta Resort & Club -- the kind of quiet, romantic place where Sinatra might have conducted one of his many famous trysts. I also ate at two restaurants with enough style and sophistication to have attracted the Rat Pack at its most decadent: Azur at La Quinta, the new outpost of New York City's famous French seafood restaurant, Le Bernardin, and nearby Omri & Boni, where the curvilinear interior created the feel of a hip dance club. Oh, and the meatloaf was good.

To cap off my golf-trip-cum-homage to Sinatra, I decided to have my last meal at Lord Fletcher's. I sat alone at a two-top, and Dorothy approached, pen and pad in hand and bouffant balancing gloriously atop her head.

"I'd like to have whatever Frank would've had," I said brightly.

"Beef short ribs, salad with special dressing -- no garlic," she said without missing a beat. "Mr. Sinatra never ate garlic."

She returned with the food -- and a big glass of Jack Daniel's on the rocks. I pushed away the food and took a swig of Jack, flashing a smile at Dorothy.

"That's exactly what Mr. Sinatra would have done," she said.

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