Golf in California’s Coachella Valley -- think Palm Springs -- moves out of its retirement-age time warp.
n a sun-splashed day last fall, Zach Johnson, the reigning Masters champion, stood on the first tee of the Celebrity Course in Indian Wells, California. Johnson was a sports star of the present surrounded by reminders of the past. On the horizon behind him loomed the dramatic outline of Eisenhower Peak, a mountain named for the former golf-mad president. Across the street stretched the emerald fingers of a lavish country club where Bob Hope and Bing Crosby frequently cavorted and whose grounds an irked Frank Sinatra once stalked, itching to coldcock Desi Arnaz.
As much as any region in the country, Coachella Valley -- home to Indian Wells and neighboring cities such as La Quinta, Rancho Mirage, and Palm Springs -- celebrates icons of days gone by. Tributes take the shape of everything from street signs (Frank Sinatra Drive) to supper clubs (Bing Crosby’s Restaurant and Piano Lounge). And that’s fitting, given Indian Wells is where retired presidents such as Gerald Ford and Ike indulged their golfing habits and where Rat Pack–style carousing once ran rampant (Frank and the boys liked to belt shots on the fairways and then belt back a few more at the clubhouse bar).
On this particular afternoon, however, Johnson was in town for serious contemporary competition. He was playing in the LG Skins Game with Fred Couples, Brett Wetterich, and Stephen Ames, fellow standouts from the PGA Tour. When Johnson bombed his drive from the opening tee box of a freshly renovated golf course, his ball hovered in the warm air like an airborne symbol: the launching of a new era in local golf.
been trapped in a time-share presentation, you may not have noticed all the changes occurring to this golf-rich swath of Southern California. Swank new courses have arrived, and legendary layouts have received face-lifts. For example, the Mountain Course at La Quinta, a stout, scenic track that cuts through the shadow of the Santa Rosa Mountains, marked its 20th anniversary by unveiling reworked greens, tees, and fairways. (The upgrades are part of a $7.5 million renovation project that has brought improvements to five first-rate courses at La Quinta Resort & Spa and its affiliated property, PGA West.) And just up the road, the city of Indian Wells cut the ribbon on two overhauled municipal courses, which now boast the fine designs and pristine conditions of the poshest country clubs.
Country clubs, of course, have long been part of the valley landscape. But even these staid, blue-rinse institutions have taken on a younger, hipper veneer. Designed by Tom Doak, one of the most respected golf-course architects of the modern era, Stone Eagle in Palm Desert offers fractional ownerships at its residence club, giving avid golfers access to a country-club lifestyle without the cost of purchasing a second home. A similar program at the Residence Club at PGA West in La Quinta provides fractional owners with discounted rates and preferred tee times at five courses designed by such marquee names as Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, and Pete Dye.
“A lot of people who’ve never been here think of the area as a sleepy place to retire,” says Joe Williams, director of golf at Indian Wells Golf Resort. “But a lot has happened here since the days of the Rat Pack. And the golf is better than it has ever been.”
He is standing on the first tee of the Players Course, gazing down the fairway of the tight par-five, with a yawning bunker on the right. The Players Course is one of Indian Wells’ two beautifully refashioned munis. When it opened last fall, it replaced the East Course, a solid if unspectacular track that had been around since the late 1980s. Architect John Fought preserved the mature trees that have long shaded the grounds, lending the Players Course a throwback look. But little else of the original layout remains. For all its classic bearing, it’s a rollicking modern test, bucking and rolling past creeks, lakes, and barrancas (but no houses), offering unobstructed mountain views from every hole.
The Celebrity Course, the Players’ sister course, is a perfect complement, replete with waterfalls, white-sand bunkers, and more flowers than in the gardens at Versailles. Its telegenic face made it the ideal backdrop for last November’s Skins Game, which played out in kaleidoscopic color on national TV.
In La Quinta, the Stadium Course at PGA West is pretty too. But it’s better known as being a punishing test. The story goes that when Dye designed it, he was out to build the world’s most difficult course. And the architect didn’t fail: With cavernous bunkers, abundant water hazards, and a par-three 17th hole aptly dubbed Alcatraz (it has an island green ringed by jagged rocks), it’s right up there. Recently, though, in a generous gesture, management removed thousands of bushes from the course, creating a safer landing zone for errant shots.
Additional changes are also on the way. Dye has been enlisted to pursue upgrades to all his designs at PGA West and La Quinta Resort, including the scenic Mountain and Citrus courses. Those improvements will be phased in over the next three years.
If that seems like a long way out, remember how the years fly when you’re having fun. Though it seems like only yesterday, it was actually 1963 when Sinatra summoned his close friends from the world of sports and entertainment for a golfing celebration in Palm Springs. By most accounts, Ol’ Blue Eyes’ sense of timing didn’t translate to the golf course (plus, he had a temper; just ask Arnaz, whom Sinatra reportedly once confronted on the fairways over the portrayal of Italian-Americans in a TV show Arnaz produced). But the man knew how to throw a party. The Frank Sinatra Invitational unfolded as a five-day swinging shindig starring the likes of Crosby, Danny Thomas, Billy Casper, and Sam Snead.
Originally intended as an annual event, the Sinatra Invitational unfortunately took place only one time. A couple of years later, though, in 1965, Hope revived it, loaning the tournament his famous name. Perhaps that rings a bell. Even in the fast-changing Coachella Valley, the past is always present. The Bob Hope Chrysler Classic remains on the PGA Tour schedule today.
if you go
where to stay
la quinta resort & club
renovated guestrooms with flat-screen tvs, 90 holes of world-class golf, and an indulgent spa. from $329.
(800) 598-3828, www.laquintaresort.com
renaissance esmeralda resort and spa
plush, freshly renovated rooms with private balconies. walk from the front door to the first tee of the players and celebrity courses. from $179.
(760) 773- 4444.
where to eat
bing crosby’s restaurant and piano lounge
swank, throwback supper club and piano lounge adorned with memorabilia from the crooner’s iconic career. (760) 674-5764.
the point after sports pub & grill
over a hundred varieties of beer. dozens of tvs. burgers and fries. what? you want more? (760) 770-6337
azur sushi bar at la quinta resort & club
fresh sushi and sashimi, plus tempura; inventive combination platters; and a house special with shrimp, crab, and seared jalapeños. (760) 564-7600, www.laquintaresort.com/dining/azur.asp