Sunday, February 26, 2017

71. California Desert, February 4-11, 2017

California Desert, February 4-11, 2017

I made a lot of trips to the CA desert in the mid-1980’s.  I had started a process of revamping my golf swing with Hank Haney in November 1984 (when he was at Sweetwater CC southwest of Houston) and about a year later Hank became the head of golf instruction at PGA West in La Quinta, CA. 

Back then, the courses at PGA West were immaculate and extraordinarily well run. They had been developed and managed by Landmark , a company formed by two PGA professionals (both of whom had played on the PGA Tour) Ernie Vossler and Joe Walser, both of whom unfortunately passed away in the last 5 years.  At one time Landmark was involved with PGA West (CA), La Quinta Resort (CA), Mission Hills (CA), Oak Tree CC (OK), Oak Tree GC (OK), Kiawah (SC), and Palm Beach Polo (FL).   They had purchased an S&L bank (remember those?...a US Gov’t conceived industry with 100% of assets being fixed rate 30 year mortgages funded almost exclusively by short term savings accounts…so when interest rates exploded there was a problem…anyhow, the whole story is toooo long).

I had been back to the desert twice (each time for one day) in the last three years, and conditions were not the same.

On this trip, I was hoping to play two of my 4 missing Ryder Cup sights, plus two courses on my USA Top 100 Ever bucket list.  Both Pat and I have old friends who live in the desert so getting on courses proved fairly doable and our calendar for dinner filled up quickly.

We rented a villa through Air BnB again (did the same thing in Melbourne last year).  It was located in Rancho Mirage about one mile north of Mission Hills CC.  It was well furnished, in a nice neighborhood, and well located…about all we could ask.  Saturday night 2/4 we unpacked and settled in. 

Thunderbird CC, February 5, 2016: Founded in 1951, Thunderbird was the first golf club in the Cochella Valley as the stars and power brokers flocked to the desert to get away from LA on weekends.  At its 4th Annual Invitational Tournament in the 50’s, the entertainment committee consisted of Phil Harris (Chair), Desi Arnez, Hoagy Carmichael, Dean Martin, Gordon MacRae, and Perry Como!!  In 1955 it hosted the Ryder Cup, and in its early years it developed the world’s first motorized golf carts.  It has never been on a Top 100, and I am sure couldn’t care less.  It served as the “home” course for the initial Bob Hope Desert Classic (again, to our generation this event will always be “The Hope”) in 1960, and was one of the other host courses the following two years.  It also hosted the pre-cursor tournament known as the Thunderbird Invitational from 1954-59.  These days it plays to 6801 yards (par 71).

The head pro at T-bird is Nick DeKock who had worked at Brookline before heading west.  He was before my time at Brookline but Pat remembered him well.  Unfortunately, we learned upon arrival that he had torn up his left ankle in an accident while riding a golf cart, and was confined to his home for another few weeks.

When we arrived at the first tee, I remembered that Thunderbird was always considered the easiest course on the PGA Tour, and I started thinking that this might be the change to shoot my age.  A 3-putt bogey on #1 followed by a double on #2 made those thoughts disappear fairly quickly.  At that point, I started grinding and focusing on very shot and my play improved vastly (playing holes #3-#11 in two under)…until I got to #14 and started getting ahead of myself again.  As it turned out, I ended up with a 73 after being stymied by palm trees on holes #15 and #17, so I still really had a chance…  Truth of the matter is that the course was playing as a par 69 as two par 4’s were shortened to par 3’s due to flooding the prior week. 

Thunderbird was always one of the great old clubs of the desert.  Many of the homes have wonderful outdoor sculptures but one house (I did not find out who owns it), had an interesting photo in its almost all glass living room and I took a pic here so you would not miss it (look carefully):

Look inside on the left side of the sliding door...
We finished the round just after 3pm and were invited to watch the Super Bowl in the club's beautiful grill room and bar.  Pat, of course, was close to clinically depressed as the first half rolled on (the couple behind us rooting for the Falcons did not help).  We got back to our villa and watched the second half and the amazing 4th quarter and overtime at home.  Incredible what the Patriots can do when they don’t have to play the NY Giants in the Super Bowl.  Best part of the game for me was watching Roger Goodell getting roundly booed during the trophy presentation.  My problem with Goodell has nothing to do with deflategate…it revolved about his handling of Colin Kaepernick and his denial of a Dallas Cowboy request to display a decal honoring the five Dallas police officers who were killed in July.  Enough said!

Thunderbird fulfills the needs and desires of its membership beautifully and superbly.  While I have no access to the Club’s demographic data, allow me to just say (as a 72 year-old) there were not a whole lot of “spring chickens” around the club that day.  The fairway grass is a little long, the greens are a little slow, the bunkers a little shallow etc etc etc.  It is also a great great club, beautifully maintained with outstanding service.  Isn’t that exactly what most 70-90 year old golfers want??  I can tell you that if I haven’t shot my age in few years, I’ll be back at Thunderbird!!

One other important note.  After the Super Bowl, the new “version” of “24” started its first season…no “Jack”, as Keith Sutherland is busy with “Designated Survivor”, but pretty good based on the first hour.  So now I have two shows worth watching on TV other than, of course, Fox News and golf.

La Quinta Country Club, February 6, 2017:  Founded in 1959, LQCC was a frequent host for exhibitions and events featuring pros from The Tour and in 1964 served as a host course for the first time and to date has been one of the The Hope’s host courses for 43 years, including 5 years as the “home” course.  Like Thunderbird it has had it share of Hollywood stars (but no great pictures displayed in homes) and Presidents.  In October 1960 during his last year in office, President Eisenhower flew in by helicopter for the club’s dedication.  Other notable members have included President Ford, Bob Rosburg, John Brodie, Clint Eastwood, and Andy Williams.  In terms of USA Top 100’s, LQCC was included in the 91-100 grouping in Golf Digest’s 1969 “Best Tests” listing.  It has not been on any other USA listing or any Global listing

We played at 9am with Susan & Larry B., friends from Brookline who started coming to the desert in 1983.  After hitting a few balls at the range, we were off, and at least for a while I was on fire, going birdie, bogey, par, birdie, par, birdie, birdie to be 3 under through 7.  I made the turn at 2 under and started thinking the wrong things.  Had a 40 on the back for a 2 over 74..two strong days of golf…hit the ball well but no cigar.  Now to put things in perspective, about 2 weeks earlier, Adam Hadwin fired a 59 playing from 7060 yards (we were at 6175 yards)! Course is very enjoyable to play and in perfect condition (for a “green” golf course).  Amazing the conditions out here.  The weather in generally perfect year round (it gets brutally hot in the summer but bermuda grass loves heat) so it is like growing grass in a laboratory.  The greens here, and at Eldorado and Tamarisk were as good as any greens I ever played (again except that they were too “soft” for my taste).  On the other hand, from an architectural standpoint building courses in a desert present a new set of problems.  Yes, you start with an “empty canvas” and my guess is that costs are lower, but generally the land is void of features such as creeks and hills (although the mountains here present a fabulous background).  But the real problem is that nature tends to create better shapes and contours than we do. 

La Quinta is a great club with a very good course…and it is was my 900th.

Monday night was a dinner with Margorie M. and Rick H., a couple who currently split their time between the desert and Bend, OR.  We met Margorie and Rick at the ISAGS event in South Africa and I played Crosswater and Pronghorn-Fazio in Bend with Rick (both in 2015).   We were sorry that they did not do the Cabo trip, but it was great catching up as these are two wonderful folks, even if Rick is clearly a monopolist, having had his 31st (yes, that says thirty-first) hole-in-one in January 2017.  This is further proof that life is not fair, as in 61 years 7+ months I have a total of one (of course, it is generally believed that Ben Hogan only had two).

Eldorado Country Club, February 7, 2017: To my mind, desert golf to date is divided into three “eras”:

1.     startup phase that featured Thunderbird, Tamarisk, La Quinta, and Eldorado;
2.     “growth” era bringing huge developments with courses by Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus and others, which started with La Quinta Resort and PGA West and received nationwide attention with the advent of the televised “Skins Game” each Thanksgiving weekend; and
3.     “over the top/boom-bust” era that has seen a new “king of the hill” club open about every five years proclaiming to be the latest and greatest (in order: Vintage, Quarry, Stone Eagle, and Madison Club) and todays world with no “full” clubs in the desert.

Everything I had heard through the years indicated that Eldorado was the major domo of the first era.  Also, having played Thunderbird on Sunday, I needed to play Eldorado, to bring my “missing” Ryder Cup course list down to two (Portland GC and Greenbrier-Greenbrier).   Several months ago, I asked a golf pro friend if he knew anyone at Eldorado, and he quickly advised that a mutual friend, Barney Adams (as well known as Barney is in the golfing world, might as well use his full name) was living full time in the desert and played at Eldorado.  I first met Barney around 1992 when he set up a custom fitting shop at Hank Haney Golf Ranch in McKinney, TX.  He may have been the first custom fitter in the game, and was also hawking a “two-putter solution” consisting of two putters identical to each other except for loft.  One was for bent grass greens with a loft of about 3-4°, and the other was for Bermuda (as bent grass is “smoother” putting on bend requires less loft to carry the ball before it gets rolling).  A few years later came the “Tight Lies”, golf's first successful infomercial, and Adams Golf (and a myriad of other inventions and patents).  BTW, he has a new one in the works so watch out, golf world!!

Pat loved the round with Barney...he is truly a fascinating character and brilliant.   Remember, aside from all his inventions, he also came up with the concept of “Play It Forward.”

Eldorado CC was founded in 1957 and two years later hosted the Ryder Cup (even making the cover of Sports Illustrated.  In early 1961 President Eisenhower retired and became the first of three US Presidents to be named an honorary member (followed by Presidents Ford and Reagan).  From 1961 through 1989 Eldorado was one of the clubs utilized for the Bob Hope, including 1964 when it was the home club for the event.  In 1966 and 1967, Eldorado was included in Golf Digest’s “200 Toughest” lists (listed alphabetically).  In 2003, the course was totally renovated by Tom Fazio.

The golf course is very very good.  Well bunkered and a fair amount of water affecting play on six holes.  Given how flat the property was in 1956, today it has nice elevations and excellent contouring.  I thought the best holes were 3, 5, 12 and 18.  I started well and was even par through 5 and had a 2 over 37 on the front…followed by a 40 on the back.  All in all three strong days of golf.

Tuesday night we joined Brian and Linda M. for dinner.  I first met Brian in 1981 in Scotland…he is one of the world great golf and golf course photographers and we have stayed in touch over the past 45 years.  Brian and Linda now split their time between the California desert and Italy’s Tuscany Region.  He is a long time member of the Golf Magazine Top 100 panel and has an incredible eye for the natural beauty of golf courses.  Plus, those of you who have seen my office may have noticed a photo Brian took of me at Prestwick in 1981...obviously ranking upon there with the photo of Hogan's 1-iron to Merion's 18th.

Stone Eagle Golf Club, February 8, 2017:  Stone Eagle was designed by Tom Doak, and is his only course in the CA desert.  Opened in 2005, it hit tough times during the 2008-9 financial crisis and then was bought out by a small group of members in 2010.  It is located in Palm Desert, high above the desert floor.  The temporary clubhouse sits at about 600’ of elevation and the highest point on the course is 1100’…a vertical rise equivalent to a 40-50 story building.   This is a bold design with wide wide fairways and greens that flow in almost every direction.  Yes, the fairways are very hard to miss…but depending on pin location, precision off the tee is critical in terms of angles into the greens.  Had a 38-43 = 81 here which was pretty good for seeing it for the first time.

In terms of golf holes, it is by far the best course I have seen in the CA desert.  However, it is unwalkable and has long drives between most greens and tees.  To date it has not made a World or USA Top 100 listing.  While I simply loved the individual holes, the lack of “flow” was important to me.  A golf course is not simply 18 individual holes…they are pieces of a puzzle that needs to fit together.  I will be the very first to admit that I could not do a better job of fitting a golf course into this piece of property, but I certainly question why one would try to put a course here.  Site selection is job #1!!

Finally I took some pictures here.  See them below and you can get a sense of the enormity of the place and the views of the desert floor:
Approach on #1, 402 yd par 4

From tee on #2...uphill dogleg left 398 yd par 4

Look at the ridge on 2nd green!!

Downhill par 3 3rd 164 yards

464 yard par 4 4th sharply downhill and turning left...tough hole

6th is uphill and turning right...this is uphill approach on 364 yd par 4 

#7...sharply downhill par 3...reminded me of #15 at  Essex County (NJ)...218 yards

#10 386 yards uphill to highest point on course---this is approach shot

Tee shot 404 yard #11 steeply downhill and turning left

Captivating but dangerous #12 153 yards of peril 

#13 548 yd par 5 downhill off tee and then uphill to sharply sloping green...neat hole

par 3 #15 185 yards

A friend from the desert greeted us off of 9th tee!!  Didn't get his name.

We had dinner that evening at Alberto’s, a wonderful old fashioned Italian restaurant suggest by Larry B. with Larry and Susan B. and Barney and Jackie Adams.  It proved to be a very nice dinner…and Pat was looking forward to the day off from golf and I was looking forward to a late start the next day.

Tradition Golf Club, February 9, 2017: Located on an old estate nestled against the Santa Rosa Mountains of La Quinta, this enchanted land was an escape for the very wealthy and famous until the 1990’s.  It was converted into a private club with 18 holes designed by Arnold Palmer, and opened in 1997.  Many of the holes are right up again the Santa Rosa Mountains.  Tradition has never been on a USA Top 100 but it was #91 on the GW Modern USA Top 100 in 2002…which has been its only appearance. 

Tradition plays to 6895 yards (par 72) from the back and the fairways are well contoured so as to confront the player with uphill, downhill, and side hill lies on almost every hole.  I started off well again and was even thru 7, then bogied 8 and 9 as I got caught behind a group ahead for 38.  Coming in on the back 9 I ballooned to a 41 (for a 79) having lost concentration during the waits.  No one to blame by myself, and getting to be a old story this week…hitting the ball great on the front nine and giving it back on the back.  The course finishes very strongly with #16 and #17 being very strong.  #16 is a 395 par 4 straight up hill on its approach to a crested green that is tough to hit, and #17 is a sharply downhill par 4 of 340 yards with the Santa Rosa Mountains to your right…a beautiful hole and I birdied it!  See picture of #17 below:

#17 at Tamarisk

Yours truly while waiting on 8th tee...even par and before game went south

Thursday night was another night at an Italian restaurant…somehow we managed to book Italian restaurants for 5 straight nights, included at the same place Thursday and Friday night.  Thursday night we ate with a couple from McLean, VA, John and Sally V.  Pat and I had met Sally a year earlier in Melbourne.  After dinner we started packing…as we had a full day scheduled Friday and an early flight Saturday.

Tamarisk Country Club, February 10, 2017:  Tamarisk is the second oldest club in the desert, founded in 1952, a year after Thunderbird.  At that time, Thunderbird was a 100% gentile club and Tamarisk was the desert’s first Jewish club, with an early membership that included Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, George Burns and 4 of the 5 Marx Brothers.  The first head pro at Tamarisk was none other than Ben Hogan.  The Bob Hope was played at Tamarisk 19 times including 1961 as the home club. 

We were set up to play by a friend of Tom B. (of LACC) and we played with the current club champion, Rob P., who is from Des Moines, Iowa and Paul L., a long time golf pro at The Vintage in the desert.  Both had superb games and were even finer gentlemen.  Tamarisk plays to 7003 yards (par 72) and was included on GD’s initial “200 Toughest” in 1966 (listed alphabetically) and their 1969 100 Best Tests list in the #91-100 group (as was LQCC).  While all of the courses in the desert were in excellent shape, the conditions here were close to unbelievable.  The greens were as true as can be and the fairways and greens just perfect.  However again, I would have preferred to see the fairways and greens firmer and faster (Rob offered up the same comment before I said a word).  In any case, I was please to finish off the trip with a 40-39 = 79.  I hope Rob can get up to Boston this summer…I would enjoy showing him TCC and I have heard many great things about courses in Iowa (one of 5 states I still have to play) and hope to get there this summer.

Friday evening we enjoyed a nice dinner with Frank and Sandy R., who we have known for years in Pinehurst.  Was great to catch up…and we were ready to head home!!

The flight home went smoothly, but I apparently caught the flu bug, probably on one of the flights back.  I went on Tamiflu about a week after our return and am now about to deal with the bronchitis that has followed the flu.  Certainly not fun, but could be worse.

All in all a wonderful trip.  Saw a bunch of old friends and met a bunch of new ones.  Reached #904 on my course count and made some progress on remaining bucket lists.  From a golf standpoint, highlight was Wolf Point Ranch (TX) as it is so unusual.  Behind Wolf Point are LACC-North and Riviera…was great to revisit those and meet Samm Klapara.  The Super Bowl was amazing and I was happy for Pat and my New England friends.  Plus "24" is back on the telly!!  Lastly, I started hitting the ball real well…need to keep that up!

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