Might this be the year you swap Arizona and Nevada for Southern California and Palm Springs?
It's a bittersweet time of year for golfers in the Pacific Northwest. The long, blissful days of summer with its 36/54/72-hole weekends, twilight rounds you managed to squeeze in unexpectedly, and after-work leagues the anticipation of which made you somehow more productive in the office, have vanished giving way to the occasional nine-hole outing for which raingear and waterproof shoes will likely be necessary. The Washington golfer's melancholy can be overwhelming as the blue skies disappear, replaced by the uncompromising grey of fall and winter. And yet, the siren call from warmer climes to the south rings loudly in our ears evoking images of palm trees, lush emerald grass, pristine water features and perfectly manicured greens surrounded by imposing mountains and rocky deserts.
The pull that a place like Palm Springs exerts on Pacific Northwest golfers between November and April makes the pull of a Seattle Starbucks on a party-goer the morning after all-night revelry seem feeble by comparison. It makes the appeal of a cold Portland microbrew following a full day of sweaty exertion look half-hearted.
We simply have to go.
Chances are you've done Scottsdale and Las Vegas, and no matter how many times you've been before, they'll always draw you back. You may have avoided Palm Springs in the past though, largely because you perceived it as a little pricey, but also because you pictured flat, mundane courses lined by tightly-packed houses and thick with snowbirds taking six hours to get round.
To be sure, you'll find a lot of that in Palm Springs. But while other golfing hot spots put a curb on building in the middle of the last decade, a handful of new facilities sprung up in Palm Springs while others were redesigned and upgraded. The variety of golf available is now on a par with anywhere else, course conditions are uniformly top-notch, and we've found a handful of really good deals that might make Winter 2011-12 the time you finally head for Southern California and the Coachella Valley.
There you'll enjoy December-February temperatures in the low to mid 70s, and average rainfall of only an inch per month. And with 354 days of sunshine a year, you can be fairly confident you won't be sat in your hotel room twiddling your thumbs and wondering when it's going to clear up outside.
The first golf course in the Valley opened at the Walter Morgan-founded La Quinta Hotel in February 1927. The nine holes were designed by Norman Beth and green fees were a dollar a day. The course went to seed during World War II, but Chicago attorney Leonard Ettleson who purchased the hotel and some adjoining land in 1955 had big golf-related plans and was instrumental in developing the La Quinta Country Club which opened in 1958 and to which hotel guests had access.
By then golf in the Valley was really beginning to take root. Businessman Tom O'Donnell's self-financed nine-holer in Palm Springs, 25 miles northwest of La Quinta, had been around for years but in the 1950s and '60s, as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and other stars of the stage and screen began seeking refuge in the desert, a number of private country clubs – Tamarisk, Thunderbird, El Dorado, Indian Wells, Shadow Mountain, Marrakesh - surrounded by condos began appearing, igniting the Valley's golf boom.
Today there are almost 2,500 holes squeezed into an area of roughly 150 square miles, from Desert Hot Springs in the northwest of the Valley down through Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Palm Desert, La Quinta, Indio, and finally the City of Coachella.
Feel free to base yourself anywhere in the Valley as getting from one world-class course to another should take no more than a few minutes.
If you have the budget, you first choice might well be the exquisite La Quinta Resort, home of Pete Dye's superb Mountain Course, and similarly enjoyable Dunes Course. And, just across the road, are three more must-plays at PGA WEST including Dye's infamous Stadium Course which might have had some of its more controversial features softened in the 25 years since it opened, but which will most likely live longest in your memory. It might be Palm Springs's most sought after tee-time and yet its peak green fee of $215 is $80 less than Troon North's (Scottsdale) peak rate and $285 less than Shadow Creek in Las Vegas.
Better still, La Quinta will this winter be offering its Season Golf Pass which gives you three rounds at the resort and/or PGA WEST for just $379, the equivalent of about $125 a round. With that $215 Stadium Course rate and peak rates at the Dunes set at $155, and $185 at the Mountain, PGA WEST's Nicklaus Tournament and Greg Norman courses, that represents quite a substantial saving. One round must be on the Dunes Course, and there's a $50 surcharge should you wish to take on the Stadium, but if you were to play the Dunes, Mountain and Stadium you'd pay $429 instead of $555. A combination of Dunes, Mountain and Nicklaus Tournament would cost $379 against $525. "It's a great deal and we obviously like the fact guests who purchase the Pass play three rounds with us rather than at another facility," says La Quinta Resort & Club's Golf Sales Manager Leven Shirey. "We also have some unlimited golf packages which are perfect for people who rise early and play until late. And the twilight Season Golf Pass costs only $239. Twilight times depend on sunset but in January and February they'll start around 1.30pm, and move back to 2pm by March.Savings like these can be found at most Valley courses especially if you frequent one facility. At Indian Wells Golf Resort, Platinum Twosome Card holders who pay $200 for the card receive a $40-$60 discount on green fees along with one guest. The March rate of $180 will cost the card holder $120. With a guest, that means $240 for a two-ball rather than $360. The card holder also receives complimentary practice balls on the day of play, one complimentary Platinum Club tournament, invitations to special events throughout the year, 15% off apparel, 10% off clubs and balls, 50% off one Callaway fitting session at the Callaway Performance Center, 50% off one private lesson with video analysis, 20% off club repair, and automatic enrollment in Troon Rewards.
That's quite the incentive to park yourself at a resort that offers two of the finest courses in the Valley. Both are actually municipal layouts, owned by the City of Indian Wells, and both ranked inside the top 20 of Golfweek's best city-owned courses in the country. They're also among the magazine's best courses you can play in California. The Celebrity Course, a Clive Clark redesign of Ted Robinson's original West Course which opened in 1986, does not possess a single bland hole. All 18 are notable for one reason or another and much the same is true of John Fought's Players Course which opened for play in 2007. Fought also added a floodlit putting course.
The Indian Wells Resort offers four luxury hotels and the newly-opened, 53,000sqft IW Club which features fine and casual dining, a pretty impressive pro shop, event space and the Callaway Performance Center, one of only nine in the country.
Indian Wells Golf Resort got its share of exposure in the summer when it hosted the 15th series of the Golf Channel's Big Break reality show. Both courses were used for the competition which was filmed over 16 days in January. "We have enjoyed an almost 100% increase in web traffic since the show first aired on May 16" says the resort's Director of Sales and Marketing Michael Tebbets. "And we've also seen an increase of 25% in advance group golf sales to date."
Another place where the reservation line tends to get a bit busy is Desert Willow in Palm Desert which has a 4½-star Golf Digest rating and is consistently listed among the Valley's best facilities. There are two courses – Firecliff and Mountain View – both designed by Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Champions Tour player John Cook. Firecliff is the more challenging of the two and opened in 1997 while Mountain View came along a year later. It too has a loyalty program – the Desert Willow Platinum Card – that rewards regular guests. Non-residents pay $299 for the card and receive a long list of benefits in addition to hefty discounts on green fees. Between January and April, the peak rate of $185 (8am – 10.55am) costs the Platinum Card holder just $110. And it's not just the card holder that pays that rate, but up to three of his guests too. "He also receives 30% off apparel, a 10% discount in the restaurant, and 50% off balls at the range," says the resort's Director of Sales and marketing Bruce Nation. "The card is valid from September 26th to May 27th and we've already sold over 450 of them."
Then there's the ever-popular Tahquitz Golf Resort where, between January 9th and the end of March, you can purchase the Double-Play Pass and play both the Legend and Resort Courses, and get free breakfast, and free lunch, and two draft beers, and a yardage book, and a bottle of water, and 15% off in the golf shop, for $145. And it's $130 between November 18th and January 8th.
And there's dozens more courses worthy of your time and money, among them Escena which reopened in 2009 following a two-year economy-forced hiatus and which is a splendid Nicklaus Design course with perhaps the coolest clubhouse in the Valley; Rancho Las Palmas which was severely damaged by floodwater in December last year but spent half a million dollars rebuilding the Ted Robinson-designed course; Desert Dunes in Desert Hot Springs, Robert Trent Jones's first and only public-access course in the Coachella Valley; and two great Palmer Course Design layouts – SilverRock in La Quinta and Classic Club in Palm Desert.
You really don't have to look too hard for exceptional golf in the Palm Springs area. And with a little research, you'll find good golf you can afford this winter. Consider focusing on one or two venues and taking advantage of loyalty programs and season passes. Discovering Palm Springs might be the best thing you do this winter, especially when you realize you spent about the same, possibly less, than what you might have done in Scottsdale or Vegas.
(This story first appeared in Golf Today NW)
When to go: Anytime between now (12/15/11) and mid-March. After that it can get a bit warm - mid to high 80s.