Greater Palm Springs: The Prose (and advice) From the Pros
A quartet of FORE’s regular contributors – – Matt McKay, Ken Van Vechten, Judd Spicer and Jay Stuller – – recently attended the 15th Annual Golf Media Classic, which, for the second time, was held in Greater Palm Springs. Just as sun-seekers are descending on the desert for the Career Builder Challenge Golf Tournament, these veteran golf and travel writers offer some of their impressions of the Coachella Valley.
You guys travel a lot, for a living in fact. How does Greater Palm Springs stack up against other golf destinations, such as Bandon Dunes, Myrtle Beach or Scottsdale?
Stuller: It’s equal to or better than just about any destination in the United States. Other than golf, there’s not much else to do at Bandon. To put it politely, Myrtle Beach is not the epitome of fine taste. In the valley you’ve got great food, abundant cultural events and, of course, dozens of great golf courses.
Van Vechten: The Coachella Valley tags all the bases – golf, an iconic backstory, outdoor bounty, weather, lifestyle, resorts of every size and ilk, food, shopping, art, non-golf activities. It’s the one place on the Big Blue Orb where you could plan a family holiday, a friends’ golf junket, a chill out vacation and a bridal shower simultaneously and bring all the participants together.
Spicer: I’m bias, as I call the desert home, but I genuinely do believe that, pound-for-pound, Palm Springs really is one of the country’s primo destinations. From a golf perspective, the variety is pretty staggering, considering the vast amount of options one can chose from, ranging from all different styles of courses.
Name your favorite three restaurants in the area and explain why you chose them.
Stuller: For mouth-water brisket and steaks, there’s Babe’s Bar-B-Que & Brewhouse in Rancho Mirage, and Arnold Palmer’s steakhouse in La Quinta, just because it’s all about Arnold. A sleeper beloved by locals is Miro’s in south Palm Springs, which serves superb Mediterranean fare.
Van Vechten: Vue Grille & Bar at Indian Wells Golf Resort – chophouse, sushi, bar grub and stellar views. Solano’s Bistro in old La Quinta – call it Left Coast inspired, Baja to Puget Sound. Shanghai Reds – only Palm Springs could squeeze a dayboat-fresh fishhouse into what effectively is a speakeasy.
Spicer: Put me down for Shabu Shabu Zen in Rancho Mirage (probably the nicest staffing in the area), Morgan’s in the Desert (for a fine dining night) and Melvyn’s (to get a flavor of old school Palm Springs).
McKay: This golfer is not super-big on two-hour, $75 meals, or filling my belly with meat until I swell up like a toad. I like to keep it light, and simple, and give myself an option on calorie intake. So I’m partial to the Windmill Market and Produce in North Palm Springs, offering convenience-store basics, designer bottled sodas, and a variety of foods you can eat with your hands – except the chili cheese dog, it’s a knife-and-fork affair. To get honky tonk satisfaction, stroll a block east down Dillon Rd. to Dillon’s Burgers & Beers. Wood floors, loud music, fun bar, flat-screen TV’s, a full pub menu – and beer! Haven’t ingested a bad food item yet. If I must pack my gullet to capacity, I’ll do it with enchiladas from Casa Blanca in Desert Hot Springs. There are many Mexican restaurants in the valley, but no one hits the Tex-Mex bullseye like Casa Blanca.”
Which of these major events has the best vibe and why – – The Career Builder Challenge golf tournament, the Coachella Music Festival or the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament at Indian Wells?
Stuller: The BNP Paribas at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden is nothing less than a live wire experience. The venue is packed with fans who all seem in a great mood; the Bryan brothers band plays a live concert; players practice just a few feet away from viewing areas; and, the tennis is world class.
Van Vechten: None of the above! The ANA Inspiration. Duh. A major golf championship populated by players who really care about those on the other side of the ropes? Thank you, LPGA (and Dinah Shore).
McKay: If Burning Man hadn’t ruined every other music and art-based festival for me, I’d probably say Coachella, or even Stagecoach. Since it has, I’m going to say I’m partial to the ANA Inspiration. It’s the year’s first major, all the top players are there, the weather is always fantastic, borderline warm (hey, it’s a desert!), and it’s always played at Mission Hills, where Dinah Shore’s vibe still adds a sparkle to the sunny skies.
Stadium Course at PGA WEST is one of those courses that players know and talk about, even if they’ve never personally played it. Collectively you guys have played it probably umpteen times. What hole do you hold out as the most dastardly or iconic or simply the best of the bunch?
Van Vechten: Island greens aren’t that unique and a 25-foot-deep bunker is design by Stalin with an assist from Satan, so no on 17 or 16 for this guy. I like the long par-3 6th that plays diagonally over water to a distended hip of a peninsular green. And the green is larger than some New England states so a greenie easily can be a double.
Spicer: If you’ve ever had the misfortune of finding the San Andreas Fault on the par-5 16th, you’ll understand why even Mickelson couldn’t escape the sand fronted by a massive wall, both left of the green and behind the putting surface.
It is possible to play golf and skip the 19th hole, but, really, why? Where would you send someone to have a cold or a stiff one, and it need not be at a course?
Stuller: The joint above the Indian Wells Club, known as the Vue Bar & Grill. Or, if you’re feeling kind of frisky, The Nest.
Van Vechten: It’s like a bunker inside – not sandy, the paranoid person variety. But there are 14,000 TVs and easily that many brews: La Quinta Beer Hunter.
McKay: Since I’ve already mentioned Dillon’s – it’s right around the corner from Desert Dunes – and one of you other connoisseurs will surely mention The Nest, Beer Hunter, Tilted Kilt, Jackalope Ranch, Hair of the Dog, or Ernie’s at PGA WEST, I’m going to go with the Escena Lounge and Grill. It’s got your quintessential Palm Springs feel (you’ll be tempted to order a martini), with new mid-century modern construction, sweeping views of the San Jacinto Mountains, and a stylish round bar. It’s a swingin’ way to end your round, whether you played at Escena or not.
Spicer: I agree! Escena GC in Palm Springs has a truly awesome patio view of the San Jacinto Mountains, coupled with a full bar and an excellent series of menus across the day.
Let’s say you’re in the Coachella Valley on vacation, but you can’t touch the sticks one day. How would you fill out your dance card for that day?
Stuller: I’d drive around Old Town Palm Springs, and through the neighborhoods where folks from Hollywood built houses that feature landmark mid-century architecture.
Van Vechten: OK, this is going to be one busy day; I suggest carving out several to tag all these bases: Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, Indian Canyons, Joshua Tree National Park. Oh, spa time, too.
McKay: That’s an easy one. I’m gonna jump on the 62 and head through the “high desert” to Joshua Tree National Park. It’d be better to have three days and an RV to even begin to take it in properly, but one can get a good feel for why so many are simultaneously awestruck and smitten by the national expanse with just a day trip. On the way back, it’s essential to visit Pioneertown, just north of Yucca Valley, to drink and dine at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a proper roadhouse if there ever was one. Pioneertown began as a 1940s Western set used in movies and television, and a great majority of the set remains intact. If your timing is really right, Pappy & Harriet’s will have live music and dancing during your visit – Sir Paul McCartney played there in conjunction with his appearance at Coachella 2016. And if it gets really good to you, the Pioneertown Motel is right out back – for those who like to go down slow.
What’s the funniest or most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you while playing golf in the valley?
Stuller: Leaving The Nest by myself.
Van Vechten: With my game, embarrassment is the 15th club. Several years ago I hit a hosel rocket that clanked around beneath the 18th-hole bleachers during the ANA Inspiration pro-am. I flashed my caddie one of those looks and he fired back: “Your swing champ, not mine, go get it. Oh, and tip your cap.” The latter brought a cheer. I did not retrieve the ball.
Spicer: When I first moved to the desert in 2011, I had a summer membership at Woodhaven CC in Palm Desert and played there constantly, running out in the late afternoon for a quick solo round. The first hole runs adjacent to Hovely Ave. and a bad hook . . . well, let’s just say I ended up paying some dude $300 cash for a smashed windshield after he and the cart guy tracked me down, alone, on the No. 1 green. Not a lot of other culprits in sight. Epilogue: With the adrenaline pumped, I parred the next five holes.
Please finish the sentence in this (unlikely) scenario: You make a hole-in-one, which is witnessed by an impressed cart girl. She says, “After your round, take me to a place in the desert as beautiful as your swing.” You say, “Get ready to see ____________.”
Stuller: Uh, “my wife, at dinner.” For what kind of fool do you take me?
Spicer: Two Bunch Palms Resort & Spa up in Desert Hot Springs. Grab a mud bath, sit by the pool with a cocktail, and watch those worries wash away.
You just won $1,000 in a skins game and are ready to let it ride. Which of these six areas casinos are you going to and why: Agua Caliente, Fantasy Springs, Spa, Spotlight 29, Augustine or Morongo.
Spicer: A lot of my pals dig Agua for the clean scene and the desert’s only live poker, but I’ve come to kinda’ dig the machines over at Spotlight 29, which seem to truly have the loosest slots.
Do you think the CareerBuilder would benefit from bringing back the celebrity element and, if so, which celeb do you think should top the marquee?
Stuller: Yes, because that element is what made this tournament – – and the old Crosby – – so special. George Lopez is a loyal supporter of celebrity golf and has been given the short straw of late. He deserves to be the headliner and would do it well.
Van Vechten: I’ve loved the “Bob Hope” my entire life. It was the first tourney I attended eons back. My team won the one-day pro-am last year. I truly wish I knew what would help. PGA TOUR pros are a fickle bunch. They put up with the amateur/celeb element at Pebble Beach because it’s Pebble, not because of the ghost of Bing, and most of the ams are their investment advisors or partners, anyway. Apparently in the music world Timberlake is a big name, yet even he couldn’t put a buzz in the Vegas event. Does LeBron play golf? If so, get him on the phone.
Spicer: I’ve spoken with multiple touring pros on this, and all of them are of the opinion that, yes, this element should be brought back into the fray. Personally, I think a fella like Mark Wahlberg (who does play out here on occasion) would be a great get to bring non-diehard types out to the tourney.
McKay: I don’t. In fact, I believe one of the reasons the CareerBuilder Challenge has been able to survive and to a certain extent, come back, is because A) it keeps coming up with sponsors, B) it reduced the competition from 90 to 72 holes and C) it eliminated the celebrity element. Let’s face it – for whatever reason, the top stars of the Bob Hope era not only played golf, they wanted to play in the desert event desperately. And for whatever reason, things have changed. Blame it on golf, blame it on the stars for not playing the game, blame it on the pros for complaining about having to play with celebrities, whatever. The way it was going wasn’t working.
Not every track in the valley can be PGA WEST or Desert Willow. Give me your favorite underdog play that would prove a worthy round for the desert guest:
Stuller: Shadow Ridge, one of the best designs by six-time major winner Nick Faldo, inspired by the great sand belt courses in Australia. But far more important, the staff there really knows how to treat guests with respect, personal interest and sincere hospitality.
Van Vechten: I’ve been saying the same thing for three decades, and writing it for nearly two: Desert Dunes GC out toward Desert Hot Springs.
Spicer: Really, a lot to choose from (I already mentioned Woodhaven), but it’s with some regularity that I recommend Mountain Vista Sun City in Palm Desert. With fairways like a landing strip, it’s a great confidence builder for rusty swingers and also very well-conditioned.
McKay: I’m not sure how “underdog” it is, but I’m a big, big fan of Indian Canyons North – which opened as the Canyon CC in 1961. If you come to Palm Springs, or love Palm Springs because of its golf and mid-century modern architecture, you’ll get your kicks at the North Course. The Donald Wexler-designed clubhouse remains basically unmolested, with its massive windows in the rear of the building. And the William F. Bell golf course – son of William P. Bell – is a classic example of what the Bells produced all over Southern California. The kicker for this 6,943-yard, par 72 course? It winds through the surrounding Indian Canyons’ neighborhood of Palm Springs, exposing golfers to a virtual museum of mid-century architecture. Playing late in the day allows golfers to watch George Nelson and hanging orb lamps come to life through plate-glass windows, swanky owners on the verandas, clinking their swizzle sticks against martini glasses while Dean Martin and Jack Jones tunes waft from their speakers.
One cannot live by golf alone. What other attractions does the valley offer that you/golfers find compelling?
Stuller: Where else can you find spas where you can smoke artisanal cigars during a deep-tissue massage while also getting a straight-razor shave? Well, that’s a bit apocryphal, but only because you can get only two of the services at the same time.
Spicer: Great question. When visitors come to down, I generally try to arrange an itinerary of some hiking, some gambling, some dining and a spa day.