A Coachella Valley Original: O’Donnell Golf Club
Nestled in the shadow of the San Jacinto Mountains sits O’Donnell Golf Club, the oldest golf course in the Coachella Valley. O’Donnell exudes charm. It’s quaint and unpretentious, and is the sort of place you never want to leave.
“Besides being perfectly located in downtown Palm Springs with a beautiful mountain backdrop, O’Donnell has a unique camaraderie within its membership that is rarely found in comparably-sized golf clubs,” says longtime member Bud Webster.
Sally Mahoney, O’Donnell’s golf professional since 1992 and club manager since 1994, agrees that the club is a unique place. “What truly makes O’Donnell special is the laid-back atmosphere. Members are able to arrive at any time and have access to the course. It doesn’t get any better than that,” she says.
A ONE-OF-A-KIND ROUND
The club was the brainchild of oilman Thomas A. O’Donnell, who came to Palm Springs in the mid-1920s seeking relief for a respiratory condition. He purchased land in 1925 and just two years later, the O’Donnell course was open for play. The course was built very near the iconic Desert Inn, a world-famous hotel and top choice for Hollywood’s elite, captains of industry and anyone wanting a premier lodging experience in Palm Springs.
O’Donnell, a frequent visitor to the Desert Inn, was so enamored with the area that he built a home on the mountainside overlooking the Inn. Years later, due to a heart ailment that made it difficult for him to get down to and back from the course, he built a new home next to the club. That structure today serves as O’Donnell Golf Club’s charming clubhouse.
The par-35 nine-hole course at O’Donnell can be played from two sets of tees to comprise an 18-hole, par-70 routing. It’s a charming, quirky and enjoyable experience, and quite unique from today’s 7,000-plus yard designs.
The course’s distinctive character starts to show at No. 2, a par-4 of 357/367 yards. A drive short of the lake on the left side of the fairway leaves a second shot over three towering palm trees less than 100 yards from the green. The trio of stately palms features one tree on the left edge of the fairway, one in the middle, and one on the right edge. Their placement leaves plenty of room to maneuver a shot towards the green, but players get the sense they’re in for a one-of-a-kind round.
One of the most talked about holes on the course is No. 5, a par-3 of 125/130 yards. Normally, a hole of this length wouldn’t create too much concern. But No. 5 stands apart. Like a hole you’d expect to find in Ireland but rarely built in the United States, the green is blind from the tee, hidden over the side of a mountain. From the tee box, players are required to pick a palm tree in the distance, or a spot on the mountain directly in front of them, and trust their swing. The anticipation of seeing where the ball ends up is almost as fun as the shot itself.
Not only does O’Donnell have a rich history in the Coachella Valley, but it also played a part in the early history of televised golf. In 1957, O’Donnell was the site of an All Star Golf match in which Billy Casper defeated Bob Toski. It was one of the earliest made-for-television golf matches, and All Star Golf was a precursor to shows like Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, Challenge Golf and Big Three Golf.
Although the All Star Golf match brought the attention of a national television audience, the draw of top players to O’Donnell started more than two decades earlier. The Palm Springs Invitational attracted tournament players to the Valley as early as 1936 when it played host to a group of competitors that included future PGA TOUR professionals, Ryder Cup and Walker Cup members and multiple major championship winners. For more than 30 years, players including Ken Venturi, Gene Littler, Al Geiberger, Dave Stockton, George Archer, Tommy Jacobs, Butch Harmon, Dick Harmon and Harvie Ward graced the fairways of O’Donnell.
Littler, who won the tournament in 1953, also went on to win the U.S. Amateur and the California Amateur the same year, while being named to the Walker Cup team. He would win as an amateur on the PGA TOUR in 1954, and added the U.S. Open in 1961. Geiberger, “Mr. 59,” who won the Palm Springs Invitational in 1958 and 1959, would go on to win the PGA Championship in 1966. Archer, the 1961 Invitational champion, won the Masters Tournament in 1969.
In addition to the well-known players who competed in the Invitational, O’Donnell has had no shortage of the game’s elite players making appearances at the course. Walter Hagen showed up in 1934 to compete in a tournament, while Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Jackie Burke were among other professionals who stopped by the club.
PLAYGROUND OF THE STARS
Not only did O’Donnell attract the top golfers of the day, many of the entertainment world’s top celebrities often found their way to the picturesque club on Belardo Road. Bob Hope and William Powell were members, while other luminaries such as President Gerald R. Ford, Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, Kirk Douglas, Gordon MacRae, Phil Harris, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Weissmuller could be seen strolling O’Donnell’s verdant fairways by day.
It was at O’Donnell that Hope was approached about lending his name to a fledgling PGA TOUR event in the Coachella Valley. Hope agreed, and that tournament has been a staple of the TOUR’s West Coast Swing for more than 50 years.
In 1944, O’Donnell organized the club as a private, non-profit club and 25 initial members were named as trustees to hold the club’s 99-year lease from the city of Palm Springs. It was at that time that the philanthropist O’Donnell made a gift of the entire golf course property to the city of Palm Springs. With the creation of the lease and deed, O’Donnell ensured that his friends, their descendants and countless others would be able to enjoy his creation well beyond his lifetime, and the city would eventually acquire a most valuable and beautiful piece of land at the base of the mountains.
Today, the club continues the philanthropic efforts of its founder by hosting a wide variety of charitable events benefiting numerous desert organizations. The lease from the city of Palm Springs expires on Oct. 31, 2043, at which time the property is to be named the Thomas A. O’Donnell Municipal Park. It would be a fitting tribute to O’Donnell’s graciousness and generous spirit if city fathers at that time have the foresight to keep the golf course open for play.