Course Rater Confidential: What are the best public golf courses to play in Palm Desert?

January 18, 2020

GOLF’s Top 100 course panelists are among the most respected and well-traveled course evaluators in the game. They’re also keen to share their opinions. In this GOLF.com series, we’ll unlock their unvarnished views on all questions course-related. The goal is not only to entertain you but also to give you a better understanding of how to understand and appreciate golf course architecture. You can see GOLF’s latest Top 100 Courses in the World ranking here, and meet all of our Top 100 panelists here.

La Quinta, Calif., home to this week’s newly renamed American Express, has no shortage of great golf options. Help the Average Joe/Jane out — what are your top two public courses to play in the Palm Desert area?

Jim Urbina (Panelist since 2015; has played 69 of the Top 100): PGA West and the Mountain Course at La Quinta. Both Pete Dye designs. At PGA West, in particular, Pete was taking high-end intellectual design to the masses. Like Raynor, he had a knack for adding drama to fairly ordinary sites.

Noel Freeman (Panelist since 2010; has played 81 of the Top 100): I’ve always liked the Mountain Course at La Quinta for the walk and the scenery. Also: PGA West. One hole alone makes it worth playing: the terrific Alcatraz par-3.

A view of the 17th hole at PGA West's Stadium Course.
Getty Images

Steve Lapper (Panelist since 2009; has played 84 of the Top 100): I’m partial to Desert Willow (Firecliff), Escena, and if you are up for potential ego-bruising, PGA West Stadium. Desert Willow (Firecliff) is a well-maintained and fun design by Hurdzan and Fry that has plenty of natural beauty, strategy and desert authenticity. Escena is a bit more quirky and interesting, built into a valley wash that makes for a highly enjoyable round. PGA West Stadium is a Pete Dye brute that swallows up bad shots, yet provides both a great experience with a certain charm. A word to the wise: Choose a tee length shorter than your usual. You’ll have more fun.

Thomas Brown (Panelist since 2015; has played 95 of the Top 100): PGA West Stadium. Pete Dye polarizes us into love or hate, particularly hate if we’re losing golf balls. I enjoy the all-or-nothing approach shot on the par-5 16th hole named San Andreas. Watching Phil Mickelson play the bunker shot from the monster bunker on the left in The American Express PGA Tour event (below) has been entertaining. A second course to consider, just west of Palm Desert, is Oak Quarry. Golf architects Brian Curley and Lee Schmidt created a dramatic layout with Gil Morgan. Previously, the site served as a mine for limestone and marble. The par-3 14th hole, with a large rock outcropping background, is a spectacular challenge.

Phil Mickelson blasts out of the massive bunker left of the green on the 16th hole of PGA West's Stadium Course.
Getty Images

Brian Curley (Panelist since 2011; has played 65 of the Top 100): The desert developed over the years by hugging the slope of the mountains to avoid the strong winds (there is a reason there are heaps of wind turbines near Palm Springs). I think the best golf options are on these sites. I like the Pete Dye Mountain Course (essentially core golf along the mountain) and PGA West Stadium, probably the only “must play” in the public realm given the over-the-top elements and reputation. Very few courses have been built in the area in the last 20 years, so you will not find many options that evoke a new/old look of ruggedness. Most courses are real estate driven where “pretty” drives the bus. Many rely on expansive lakes and waterfalls that double as barriers to housing. I always liked Desert Willow but it’s been awhile since I’ve seen it. My design firm worked on Shadow Ridge with Nick Faldo and it has a good showing of the rugged transitional theme. There is some perimeter development but not much in play as it is mostly a large swath of golf experience. There are a number of courses that are very similar and offer feel-good golf. I tend to stray from the condo-lined options. As for Oak Quarry, thanks for the nod Tom! Crazy site. I add that I did the work with associate Grant Haserot carrying a big load. Lee had little involvement other than the initial site visit (we were splitting courses by this time), and the good doctor showed up to cut a ribbon and take a photo. Just sayin’.

Kye Goalby (Panelist since 2019; has played 70 of the Top 100): PGA West for the reasons others have mentioned, and Cimarron, where you don’t have to play through condo canyons and you get a close-up view of San Jacinto Mountain. Plus, it’s close to the airport!

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