Travelin’ Joe: Desert Gems
PALM SPRINGS SIZZLES WITH SUN, MASSIVE MOUNTAINS AND SENSATIONAL PUBLIC-ACCESS GOLF
You can find terrific golf courses virtually anywhere in the Palm Springs area. You’ll also encounter year-round sunshine, soothing desert breezes, tall, shadow-casting palms and awe-inspiring mountains, making the Coachella Valley a splendid desert golf playground, especially in autumn. Since I first put it in the ground here in 1987, I’ve made more than two dozen return trips.
Here’s my take on the best of the best of the Palm Springs public golf scene.
BEST COURSE TO WALK IN FAMOUS FOOTSTEPS
PGA West (Stadium Course), La Quinta
The must-play of the desert is Pete Dye’s 1986 West Coast answer to his Sawgrass masterpiece — only this one is tougher. Technology has rendered the course the PGA Tour pros refused to go back to less dangerous than in its big-hair ’80s heyday, but for less proficient ball-strikers, it remains terror-inducing with its arsenal of nightmarishly deep bunkers, Vail ski-hill moguls and exacting carries over water and desert. Lee Trevino captured the 1987 Skins Game against Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Fuzzy Zoeller when he aced the par-3, island-green 17th, but even afterwards, he advised, “Do not shoot for the flag — go for the center of the green, like Jack Nicklaus would do.” Since the PGA Tour returned to the Stadium Course in 2016, Jon Rahm, who won the tournament (now called the American Express) in 2018, and Phil Mickelson, runner-up in 2019 and the current tournament host, are among the modern masters who have trod these legendary fairways.
BEST RESORT FOR A GIRLS’ BUDDIES TRIP
JW Marriott Desert Springs, Palm Desert
OK, this sprawling spread — the region’s largest hotel — may be best for groups of every kind, but the ladies will definitely love it. Water in the desert? Well you won’t need to pack scuba gear, but you’ll encounter Venice-like canals at the strikingly modern hotel and an ocean’s worth of lakes and waterfalls at the two on-site Ted Robinson designs, Palm and Valley. Even with water everywhere, neither course is a beat-down. Mature palms and attractive flowers grace most holes, there’s a dedicated 18-hole, par-54 putting course for flatstick fun, and the well-stocked pro shop features the resort’s hummingbird logo, one of golf’s most distinctive. Guests can glide the waterways in a gondola right up to their restaurant for dinner, luxuriate in one of the region’s best hotel spas or swat tennis balls on clay, hard or grass courts. Oh, and the recently renovated guestrooms feature a deep soaking tub and well-lit vanity. My wife tells me that’s a good thing.
BEST STRETCH OF HOLES IN THE DESERT
La Quinta Resort & Club (Mountain Course)
La Quinta’s Mountain course is home to one of golf’s most memorable back nines, especially the unforgettable stretch of 14 through 16. The 389-yard, par-4 14th calls for a drive over a barranca, followed by an all-carry approach to a three-tiered green. Fifteen is a reachable 517-yard par-5 that hugs the mountain, with a green that button hooks into a secluded cove, while the 167-yard, par-3 16th plunges downhill to a green isolated by rocky desert scrub. This is Pete Dye at his finest.
BEST RESORT FOR A GUYS’ BUDDIES TRIP
Westin Desert Willow Villas, Palm Desert
Frankly, there are a slew of hotels in the area where your golf-crazy guy group would thrive. However, the Westin Desert Willow Villas make a case as strong as any. One- and two-bedroom villas can ac-commodate up to eight individuals. Full kitchens and kitchenettes, fully furnished balconies, a WestinWORKOUT fitness studio, swimming pool and the Agave Grill & Bar are among the amenities. The Villas sit adjacent to the Desert Willow Golf Resort, a 36-hole complex owned by the city of Palm Desert. Both the Firecliff course and its sibling, the Mountain View, are Hurdzan-Fry designs, the team that brought us the 2017 U.S. Open venue Erin Hills. The kaleidoscope of desert flora plantings, sprawling bunkers and hand-some mountain vistas that seamlessly meld into the landscape once landed Firecliff on the cover of Smithsonian magazine, the only golf course ever to do so. Mountain View has slightly wider fairways, fewer forced carries and smaller greens and bunkers, but both share the same lush landscaping and marvelous par-5 closing holes.
BEST GOLF HOTEL FOR COUPLES, FOODIES AND HISTORY BUFFS
La Quinta Resort & Club, La Quinta
Hollywood elite have been regulars at La Quinta Resort since it opened back in 1926. It’s easy to see why. As legendary “It’s a Wonderful Life” director Frank Capra put it, “It was the kind of place everybody was looking for. It was a wonderful green oasis in the middle of the desert and it was absolutely private.” Mr. Capra, rest assured: It’s still wonderful. The one- and two-story casitas, with whitewashed adobe walls and red clay-tiled roofs, are tucked in among palm and citrus trees and bougainvillea, with in-your-face views of the surrounding mountains. Especially admirable are the King Starlight Casitas which come outfitted with patios and outdoor fireplaces. Many of the accommodations come with their own jacuzzi or pool. If you need more refreshing, a world-class spa awaits. It’s a toss-up as to which is better, the golf or the dining. Why pick? Do it all. A La Quinta stay provides access to both of the resort’s Pete Dye designs, the Mountain and the Dunes, as well as three available courses at PGA WEST. Now it’s chow time. Post-pandemic, feast on the sublime experience at Morgan’s in the Desert, the resort’s signature dining venue, where locally sourced Coachella Valley ingredients fuse with contemporary American, expertly presented. If chargrilled prime steak, Hokkaido scallops or Baja shrimp paired with a side of ginger-scented Indio sweet corn sounds appetizing, march to Morgan’s. Of course, in a nod to the resort’s Old World heritage, first-rate Mexican cuisine is on tap at the Adobe Grill. Celebrate the day with a classic or custom margarita, guacamole made tableside and some sizzling sea bass and shrimp fajitas. Remember — these calories don’t count. You’re on vacation.
BEST ALL-AROUND FACILITY IN THE PALM SPRINGS DESERT
Indian Wells Golf Resort, Indian Wells
Since the late 1980s, there’s no place in Palm Springs where I’ve had more fun, nor any property I know of that has transformed itself into something so special. The city-owned Indian Wells Golf Resort replaced its two original courses nearly 15 years ago, and in their stead are two marvelous tracks. Clive Clark’s Celebrity Course blasts you with a cornucopia of flowers, water features and mountain panoramas, while John Fought’s Players Course is the more rustic and open, with bigger, bolder, deeper bunkers. Within the past two years, Indian Wells Golf Resort upped its game with two marvelous additions. The centerpiece of its 53,000-square-foot clubhouse, Vue Grille & Bar, reopened in September 2019, embracing a gastro pub and bourbon bar theme. It worked to perfection. The rectangle-shaped bar and the new windows and layout have yielded incomparable golf course and mountain views. The food, service and overall vibe are all outstanding. The second addition was the updating last fall of the resort’s “Shots in the Night” after-dark golf and entertainment experience, which debuted late in 2018. Open in normal, non-pandemic times from sundown to 10 p.m., Shots in the Night offers Glow Golf on a 12-stall practice range, a Putting Experience powered by Nextlinks on a seven-green putting course, a food-truck dining option, music, and the availability of clubhouse food and beverages.
BEST BARGAIN COURSE
Escena Golf Club, Palm Springs
Now 15 years old, this Nicklaus Design effort appeals on many levels. First, it serves up a fun-to-play layout with amply wide fairways, greens that are quick but not massively undulating, bunkers that a rusty 15-handicap can escape from, and just enough challenge with lakes, streams and elevated greens that the single-digit crowd stays entertained. Toss in a way-cool, postmodern clubhouse and an appealing price tag no matter what the season, and you have a terrific value. As a bonus, Escena’s location puts it a half-hour closer to L.A. and to the Palm Springs Airport than some of Palm Desert and La Quinta’s best courses