A Taste of the Desert’s “Private” Life

With over 100 courses packed into a relatively small area, the Coachella Valley is an excessive celebration of high-end golf. Roughly half the courses out there are considered “private,” so looking for opportunities to play some of them will be a big carrot for me to try and chase over the coming years. I’ll probably never get them all, but that won’t stop me from trying!

I started chipping away at this goal on Sunday with two courses normally considered to be private, though these days the lines are beginning to blur. Many of these classic desert courses are struggling to keep membership up in a tough economy and ultra-competitive geographic market.

Desert Island Golf & Country Club • Rancho Mirage, CA • 2/23/13

A friend and I decided to sign up for a one-day SCGA tournament here. The competition was secondary to us, as it was mainly an opportunity (excuse) to play on the weekend at a new course that’s not normally readily accessible for public play.

The format was four-ball, meaning two-player teams in a best ball net scoring format. We played okay, but finished nowhere near the top of the leaderboard with some gaudy numbers being thrown up by a few of the teams. Oh well, it was still fun and that’s all that mattered to me.

Conditions could not have been better for the round. Not only was the weather ideal, but the course was basically in pristine condition. Barely a blade of grass was out of place anywhere on the property. Excellent tee boxes, perfect fairways and thick rough. The rough, which was also wet much of the round, was definitely worth avoiding as the ball would settle down and it was really tough to recover from.

The greens were fantastic and the bunkers were good, too. All in all, it’s about as nice a presentation and playing conditions as you’ll find anywhere during this peak winter season in the desert.

Like many desert courses, they encourage you not to replace your divots here, but rather fill with the sand and seed mixture. Ultimately, it’s better for the turf. They take this step one step further by having little buckets on the side of each cart where you are supposed to dispose of your divots. Not everybody seemed to follow this recommendation, but it is one added measure to keep the course looking sharp.

The conditions might have outshined the course itself, but this is still a very nice track. It was designed by Desmond Muirhead and features a pretty traditional tree-lined “country club” look that felt like a milder version of the JW Marriott Desert Springs courses. There are some narrow and uncomfortable tee shots, while other holes are pretty wide open. The overall terrain is pretty flat without any crazy undulation.

The greens here offer some defense. They don’t appear to be overly difficult, but the breaks are subtle and speeds are hard to judge. For us, the speeds changed dramatically throughout the round as the surfaces dried out. They went from being somewhat soft and relatively slow in the early morning to firm and slippery by the time we finished.

Also adding some challenge is the presence of several big water hazards. Holes like the 14th and the 18th stand out with uncomfortable tee shots and approaches thanks to water hazards spanning from tee to green.

However, the signature hole at Desert Island is the one that puts the “Island” in its name. No, there’s not a Sawgrass-style island green. Rather, they have an island fairway here. The 9th hole is one of the more unusual and intimidating par-4 designs you’ll come across. On the tee, you can see the green way to the right with a ton of water between you and it. Way to the left, there sits the island fairway. So basically you have to hop across the pond twice to get home and neither shot is comfortable.

The water holes provide the best designs and visual presentations at Desert Island. Otherwise, I would say the course is pretty standard fare for this region. It’s a definite step above most of the “old school” desert country clubs, but lacks the “wow” factor some of the area’s nice resort courses offer (other than the 9th hole, which is a very memorable one).

Our tournament entry fee was $165 for the team (so $82.50 a player), which is a little steep. However, this time of year it’s not too bad a price and the conditions definitely justified these green fees. We played in a shotgun format, starting at 8:00 with only one group on most holes, so the pace was surprisingly quick and we finished in just over four hours.

It was a nice round at Desert Island, so I was very happy I made the trek out there to participate in this event.

Some pictures from Desert Island Golf & Country Club (2/23/14):

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The tee view on the 9th hole below. Green way right behind those palm trees and island fairway way left. The island in between the tee and green is not accessible, so don’t think about cheating with a shortcut!

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We were planning to play a second round while out in the Coachella Valley, but didn’t have anything locked in yet. We had our eyes on a couple of local executive tracks, just for a good price this time of year, but I was able to pull something a little more interesting together at the last minute…

Santa Rosa Golf Club • Palm Desert, CA • 2/23/14

As I was researching afternoon tee time options during the week, I saw some listings for this course on StandByGolf.com. At first, when I saw “Santa Rosa CC,” I thought they were just listings for the Mountain Vista Santa Rosa course, but then I realized it was a different course.

Unfortunately, none of the tee times they had available were late enough in the day for us so I was unable to book one. Once we finished at Desert Island, I decided to give Santa Rosa a call just to see what the deal was. I asked if they had any available public times that afternoon and the guy said “no problem.” He set us up with a 1:37 time as guests. I guess it never hurts to ask.

You can be sure this summer I will be calling around to all these private desert courses. When times are slow in the off season, who knows what I’ll be able to work out!

I knew nothing about Santa Rosa before getting there. I just learned of its existence a few days earlier and didn’t really research it much further. I got the sense that it was a pretty old club and would probably be a pretty standard course.

That expectation was right on.

We checked in and paid a $55 guest rate (with cart). They do offer a walking option here and it would be a pretty easy course to walk (depending on the heat, obviously). It wasn’t super busy, so we teed off around 1:15 and finished around 4:00 for a nice overall pace.

The course itself wasn’t anything too exciting. It’s a very basic design with only a few memorable holes. It’s a very short layout, topping out at 5,568 yards from the back tees and playing to a par of 70. It’s barely much more than an “executive” course and might have been considered that at some point.

In total, there are seven par-3s, five par-5s and six par-4s. The back nine routing is especially unusual with just two par-4s. Three of the par-5s are very short and would be considered par-4s on most other courses. One is 433 yards. Another is 420. And yet another is just 402! Only the 18th hole (the 433-yard one) features a tricky design that might force you to be a little conservative. It’s easily the best hole on the course.

On the other par-5s, though, you can bomb away and be as aggressive as you want for very good eagle and birdie opportunities. That said, I have to admit if I would have eagled one of these holes it probably wouldn’t have felt quite as fulfilling as on a more traditional-length par-5. You can probably file this under “Things a guy who didn’t register an eagle or even a birdie on one of these easy holes would say.”

This course was also in excellent shape. I have nothing at all to complain about in terms of conditions. The tee boxes were good, the fairways were great and the rough was lush. It was not nearly as deep or thick as we had in the morning, so it was much easier to play from. The bunkers were a little crusty on top, but there was plenty of sand to work with underneath. Lastly, the greens were also quite nice and rolling smooth at medium speeds.

I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to play Santa Rosa with so many other great options around. But if you are like me and want to experience as many courses as you can out there, it seems to be one of the more accessible private clubs.

Some pictures from Santa Rosa Golf Club (2/23/14):

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