The shoulder season has arrived in the Coachella Valley, and the early May traffic is light on the I-10 heading eastbound. A piercing 7:30 a.m. sun has narrated the annual snowbird exodus, with desert morning temps already cresting 90 degrees.
The desert cities of Palm Desert, then Rancho Mirage, then Indio all eventually fall into the rear view; ahead, in the foreground, a wide stretch of desert interstate spreads open, the hot highway framed by seemingly endless acreage of agricultural lands which serve as the overshadowed backbone of the valley economy.
It is here that I will construct my dream.
Like many, if not most driven golfers, I have a vision of designing my own golf course. And, sure, playing and writing about several hundred courses over the years may serve as an internship for the complex reality of course architecture. But all told, as a one-man design crew with poor drawing skills, no engineering acumen and clumsy spatial awareness — these are still very much flights of fancy.
I press on, veering briefly south onto CA Route 86 for a few miles before exiting into the City of Coachella, which holds but one (a nine-hole track in an RV park) of the desert’s bounty of 120 golf courses.
Between the I-10’s rocky rise out of the valley toward the Arizona border, and the 86’s lonely descent toward the Salton Sea, there lives a verdant pocket of farmland, with half-paved roads winding the unwelcomed interloper through fields of grapes and olives and lettuce and palm trees.
It is on this site where I will craft my nine-hole introductory design.
Pejorative signage narrates this path with “No Trespassing,” and “No Outlet,” and “No Parking,” and “No Dumping,” and the pickers and tractor men and bosses in massive Chevy pickups eye me with curiosity as I perform my faux designer duties time and again over the course of the morning: drive; pull over; take pictures; take notes; sketch and re-trace my course layout.
There are no signs which read, “No Dreaming,” or “No Designing.”
A COURSE IN PHILOSOPHY
Over the years I’ve collected notes for my core design philosophies and beliefs; in no particular order, they read:
– Short & strategic
– Generous landing areas from tee
– Hole-to-hole segues (green to next tee); aiding pace of play
– Environmentally sound; no watering of course periphery and Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program certified
– Natural environment/not “resorty” or contrived
– No/few homes, routed by desertscape and scrub, but enough space to allow players to hit back into play from off fairways and secondary cut
– Large, but undulating greens with room for upwards of five pin placements
– Five sets of tees (tips; middle/back; senior; ladies/forward; junior)
– Practice range facing west; shouldn’t have to look into sun for morning tee times
– No cart paths
I want my course to be fun and fast, playable and strategic; if there’s anything I really abhor about a particular course design, it’s when architectural cruelty comes into play. Golf is hard enough, and when a designer doesn’t generally reward a player for a well-struck or well-flighted shot … well, there’s just nothing more frustrating.
Additionally, I really, really dig when a golf experience makes you feel like you’re “out there” somewhere, in a natural environment amid which you most likely wouldn’t be unless you were there to play golf. And, yeah, that serves as a dig at the design elements of myriad resort courses around my Palm Springs’ area home; I’d much rather be surrounded by unkempt, raw desert scrub than a fake waterfall.
I also want my course to be environmentally-sound: The Audubon certification will ensure unperturbed natural habitats, and the dormant fairway peripheries will help save water. Cosmetically, the mix of green and brown doesn’t work for those with the expectation that everything on a course should be lush, but, heck, if one is hitting from my brown Bermuda, they’re playing as a result of a shot askew — and for that, players shouldn’t be rewarded.
Lastly, I want my course to be readily inclusive. My specific location is about the farthest east a course could reasonably be placed in the Coachella Valley, meaning it’s close enough to existing infrastructure, but far enough into the rural areas that lower-income kids — many of whom are supported by parents doing the hard work at desert courses — are afforded more ease-of-access to be introduced to the game.
Clive Clark is everything you’d expect of a proper Englishman: witty, distinguished, gentlemanly. Think of a seasoned Hugh Grant hitting an effortless 5-iron.
A prolific course designer in the Coachella Valley and across the globe over the past three decades, Clark further holds one of the most unique C.V.’s in the spectrum of great course architects: He’s a five-time winner on the European Tour and member of the 1973 Ryder Cup team for the GB & I side. He would go on to work 18 years announcing golf for the BBC. And oh, he also has formal training in both art and architecture.
While close to groundbreaking on his newest project — Dumbarnie Links on the Scottish coast, a meaty endeavor in which he’s both designer and project founder — Clark was kind enough to carve out some real time to assess the feasibility of my fictional course.
Meeting in the clubhouse of The Hideaway Club in La Quinta, home to one of Clark’s most lauded designs, we spread out my amateur sketches and routing and philosophies and let the master go to work.
“Designing is an art, but there is a lot of common sense within that art,” he said. “And it’s also a measure of keeping interest on the golf course for all levels of player. I believe a good golf course should be like a game of chess … you have to think about your next move.” Several of Clark’s courses are known for an equal measure of playability matched with aesthetic beauty. His Hideaway course and his Celebrity Course at nearby Indian Wells Golf Resort both play as comely cousins to less benevolent courses at each property (the Pete Dye Course at Hideaway; John Fought’s Players Course at IWGR).
“I don’t like designing penal golf courses,” Clark continued. “Any course, if you’re playing poorly, is going to be penal. I don’t believe, for instance, in highly-contoured greens.
Peter Alliss, my old design partner, used to say, ‘I’ve never heard anybody come in from a round and say they had a great day after four-putting three times.’”
A BAGFUL OF ERASERS
Delving further into his design approach, Clark shared more tradecraft.
“For a new project, I want to first see the site, obviously, but I’m not necessarily planning holes when I walk around the first time,” he detailed. “I might see an odd hole, here or there, but you can sometimes get trapped when you get locked into, ‘I must have that hole.’ In the end, your layout can suffer because you got trapped by those holes. So you must keep an open mind and be prepared to find a few other magic holes in the layout.”
While most course designers come from a landscape background and happen to play golf, or, come from a championship playing career and probably can’t sketch, Clark draws from both backdrops.
“Vision is huge,” he explained of the trade’s key tenets. “I like to see the site, then get back to my drawing board, and then eventually my computer. But if you can’t draw, you can’t sketch, and particularly if you can’t draw grading plans, you’re dead in the water. How do you then give something to a contractor and price it? They won’t have any specification about land movement, or what sort of sand, what sort of bunker faces and drainage and liners.”
I begin to see all the shortcoming of my dream course. While Clark is ever the gent going over my rudimentary drawings and wistful ideas, he also dropped concurrent nuggets about how complex the process can be.
“It’s more than you ever think,” he smiled.
Thumbing through my plans, he finds a host of ideas which will confront challenges. Of my old school, green-to-tee segues, Clark candored: “They’re good for walking. Though, out here in the desert, of course, it’s all carts.”
As for my plan to have no cart paths? “I’d be delighted if we never had them; they don’t look good on a golf course, and I go to great pains to try and disguise them,” Clark continued. “You can mask them with moving dirt and landscape. Here (at the Hideaway), yes, you’ll see some paths, but about 90 percent of them are disguised. In the desert, you’ve just got to have them.”
And what say you, good sir, about my aims for dormant Bermuda periphery? “It works great for core golf, but for a private housing estate, you don’t want brown on the edges,” Clark advised.
Along with paying no mind to budget or permits or land movements, I’ve also skipped the critical step of how my course will be maintained by a grounds crew.
“I always encourage the owner or developer to bring in the superintendent when we start construction,” Clark explained. “And I’ll tell them, ‘If you’ve got anything to say, mate, say it now; don’t say it when we’re seeded.’”
As for my actual hole designs, Clark offered appreciation for the strategies, but sobering realities for how several of the holes would actually play. My host of short, shot-making par 4s, for example, could prove pure pushovers.
“They’re hard to work into a design,” Clark said. “Short and strategic is good for your club golfers, but the young guys today can hit it a mile.”
Breaking down the design of my 320-yard, dogleg-right third hole, Clark took pencil to paper and included mounding, native grasses, contours and measures of scale and slope.
“If it’s going to be a drivable par-4, I’d take these (massive bunkers the fronting green) out because, with these, it’s not drivable anymore. How’s a player going to get on the green? Too tricky. And then I’d pull some of this mid-fairway out more to create a better landing area; you need something more there for somebody just trying to hit a straight shot.”
My par-3 ninth home hole — included for quicker snacks and restroom breaks at the turn — received a philosophical edit. “Personally, I’d stay away from that,” he said. “I feel like, for a final hole, there’s that one hole left, a last chance to get the driver out and pound it. Or, perhaps a player is one hole down in a match, and needs to try and get it back, and a par 3 may give that player less of a chance than on, say, a long par 4.”
Review of my routing concluded, Clark and I jumped in a cart and took a ride along his colorful Hideaway design so he could point out tangible examples of architectural elements and philosophies discussed over the morning.
“It all looks fairly simple in the first place, but it’s like going down a river and navigating,” he concluded Clark. “There are all these tributaries and then tributaries off of the tributaries. It all becomes more complex than just throwing down 18 holes.”
As we returned to the clubhouse to gather my things, I noticed that every writing utensil in my bag was a pen. And as I ingested the newfound realities of golf course design, I knew that, if I ever found the opportunity to design a real golf course, my first investments will be in a stack of pencils and a bagful of erasers.