At a glance the phrase appears almost oxymoronic, conjuring up images of British expatriates blasting their way across the Outback or endless expanses of colonial African sand. But modern agronomical and engineering techniques have changed all that, making golf not only viable but a prime recreational drawing card throughout the American Southwest — and nowhere more than in Southern California's legendary golfing mecca, Palm Springs.
Of course, Palm Springs golf wasn't always so very far removed from those British back-to-nature expeditions. The region's first recorded courses — 1920s nine-holers at the La Quinta and El Mirador hotels, as well the still-extant O'Donnell Golf Club — comfortably predated man's ability to grow tight, manicured turf on a blast furnace landscape. Modern irrigation techniques eventually solved this problem, leading to construction in the 1950s of many of the desert's Old Guard — clubs such as Thunderbird, Tamarisk and Indian Wells.
By the early 1960s, it was places such as Bermuda Dunes and the Canyon Country Club and, as the population of the Coachella Valley grew, so followed a nearly unparalleled boom in golf development that allows the region to claim well more than 100 courses today.
It must be noted that desert golf is hardly the darling of traditionalists, who will correctly point out that a pancake-flat landscape provides none of the natural contours (gentle or otherwise) so integral to great golf design. Further, they will argue, the concept of implanting brilliant swaths of green fairway in an otherwise barren desert is inherently contrived, making the entire exercise antithetical to the naturalness — or, at the very least, the carefully cultivated appearance thereof — inherent in virtually all first-class courses.
On this latter point, however, the courses of the Coachella Valley get at least a partial reprieve. The valley, after all, sits above one of the West's largest underground aquifers, making its golf courses exempt from the sort of 90-acre turf limitations that are necessary in many water-poor desert locales. The result is a collection of courses that, instead of showing only patches of maintained grass, are green from stem to stern; lush oases whose emerald hues and stately palms juxtapose neatly with the often-snowcapped peaks of the surrounding mountains to create a uniquely beautiful, almost surrealistic golfing landscape. Not quite as natural-looking as St. Andrews or Cypress Point, perhaps, but these Gardens of Eden must surely be less contrived — at least in golfing terms — than hopscotching among grass islands in the middle of the Sahara.
Although many criticisms of desert golf design may be somewhat valid, public course players in the Coachella Valley do at least enjoy the opportunity to experience a pair of facilities that, in their own ways, represent genuine landmarks in modern course design.
The first is Pete Dye's 1980 Mountain Course at the timeless La Quinta Resort & Club, a unique layout described by that most candid of critics, architect/writer Tom Doak, as "unquestionably one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world." Built only yards from the spot where English emigre Norman MacBeth laid out the valley's first course in 1926, the Mountain Course is a drawing card for golfers and a carefully designed flood control basin, protecting the village of La Quinta from waters racing out of the adjacent Santa Rosa Mountains after flash rainstorms.
Aside from providing this novel public service, the Mountain Course also broke ground as the first American desert course to use surrounding peaks for more than purely scenic purposes, with not less than seven holes climbing into the Santa Rosa foothills in a fascinating, occasionally thrilling manner. Today this practice is common here and in Arizona, yet despite many imitations, the Mountain Course remains one of modern golf's more strikingly original designs.
Six years later, and less than five miles to the southeast, Dye opened the valley's second seminal public design, his self-proclaimed "hardest damn golf course in the world," the now-legendary Stadium Course at PGA West. Open to all comers from its inception, the Stadium's design was noteworthy as a feat of engineering (a fact supported by anyone who saw the dusty, featureless tract before work began), yet is generally recognized exclusively for its extreme difficulty. Indeed, beyond its invasive use of water and some frighteningly deep bunkers, the course's raw numbers — a rating of 77.1 and a slope of 151 — are indeed among the game's highest.
Critics have suggested that the Stadium Course is not Dye's most original work, inasmuch as the 17th and 18th are virtual copies of his closers at the original TPC in Jacksonville, Fla. Yet the Stadium Course remains, after two high-profile decades, largely unique in terms of challenge, style and aura. Over the top by design, it is a mountain that most serious golfers must attempt to scale at least once.
But beyond the uniquely beautiful setting and the superb winter climate, beyond even the opportunity to empty one's bag at PGA West, the Coachella Valley also offers something especially vital to Los Angeles-area golfers tired of scarce tee times and six-hour rounds at Rancho Park: accessibility. For among its 100-plus courses, more than half allow the public at least some entree. Further, while PGA West and the Mountain Course may squeeze one's wallet, so broadly competitive a market always provides a range of lesser-priced, reasonably palatable options. And for those willing to play in the warmer months of the off-season — when the valley's courses manage somehow to stay green despite the onslaught of heat — things become significantly more affordable still.
It is a different golfing world, this desert experience, but with more than 100 courses active and more on the drawing board, the players keep coming.
And why not?
In the world of Southern California golf, it represents a uniquely accessible, relatively affordable and aesthetically special option — with a handful of the country's best public courses as icing on the cake.