A Windy Day in the Desert

It was an interesting day in the desert. The wind was whipping, the dust was flying and I experienced two very different levels of challenge on two very different courses. The main event was a visit to the notorious TPC Stadium course at PGA West, but of course I had to get a morning warm-up in…

The Oasis Country Club • Palm Desert, CA • 3/30/14

This is truly a “warm-up” kind of course, but it has a lot to offer and is better than most other “executive” layouts you’ll ever play.

I had always heard pretty good things about the course, but generally looked past it as I was on my quest to play all the regulation layouts out in the Coachella Valley first. I booked a 6:52 “hot deal” time on GolfNow for just $27. Good deals aren’t always easy to find this time of year in the desert, so that price was more than enticing enough to finally check The Oasis out.

Myself and another single teed off second behind another twosome, but they ultimately let us play through about halfway through the front nine. We enjoyed our own brisk pace of about two hours.

The weather was the big story today. I didn’t realize that it was supposed to be as windy as it was, but it was interesting. As I drove into the valley while it was still dark, clouds of sand were blowing across the freeway and it was quite eerie. During my round at The Oasis, it was pretty gloomy early on and the wind was blowing hard at times. Every time we thought it was calming down, another big gust would come through. The sun eventually came out, though, and it wasn’t too bad by the time we finished.

As mentioned, The Oasis is an executive layout that plays to a par of 60, with six relatively short par-4s and a variety of par-3s. From the black tees, the rating/slope is just 54.2/87. To show you how “easy” this course is considered by the USGA raters, I shot a 6-over-par 66, which I felt pretty good about. However, when I posted my score, it registered as a 15.3 differential!

I don’t think the course is as “easy” as they make it sound, but there are plenty of good scoring opportunities. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Oasis is the feature that undoubtedly gives the course its name. There is a water hazard on every single one of the 18 holes. Some don’t come into play as much as others, but most are prominent enough. So, if you find a handful of hazards, the penalty strokes can add up quickly.

Other than being a shorter course, the look and layout of The Oasis mirrors that of many of the older “country club” courses found throughout the Coachella Valley. And like those others, there’s a lot of great scenery and exceptional conditioning.

The conditions at The Oasis were fantastic. The greens were maybe a tad firm (aided by the wind), but otherwise the course was near immaculate from tee to green. The course looks and plays beautifully, so I was very impressed with what I encountered.

For the price and convenience, The Oasis is a very enjoyable little course and ideal for a quick warm-up or cool-down round out in the desert.

Some pictures from The Oasis Country Club (3/30/14):

The real reason I went out to the desert today was for a long-awaited rematch with one of Southern California’s most feared and revered courses…

PGA West (TPC Stadium) • La Quinta, CA • 3/30/14

The only other time I played here was quite a few years ago. In fact, it was of the first few courses I ever played out in the desert and I didn’t remember much about that experience other than the course pretty well kicked my butt.

After playing a LOT of golf last year, I earned numerous rewards through GolfNow including a free “hot deal” single round, as well as a twosome and a threesome. I used the twosome last year, but have been holding onto the others for awhile and waiting for just the right opportunity. Today was finally it.

The Stadium course was high up on my list of courses where I wanted to use one of those rewards, so I booked a 12:09 tee time. When I booked last week, the price was listed at $230! The prices here tend to go down as the dates draw nearer (down to around $155 last I checked), but either way I looked at it as a very expensive round for FREE!

I got there quite early and everyone working here was super friendly. The wind scared a lot of players away today, so I ended up teeing off with a threesome around 11:15. But I ultimately broke off and joined another single as he played through on the 4th hole. We played through one foursome on the front and otherwise had nobody in front of us all day, which was nice.

I figured I’d catch the course in peak condition on a picture-perfect March afternoon, but neither of those expectations really panned out as well as I hoped.

The wind was strong all afternoon and there was a lot of sand/dust blowing in the air, so it was pretty brutal playing conditions. Also, with clouds of dust obscuring the surrounding mountains, it was not as picturesque as I would have wanted. But free is free, so I can’t complain too much.

The Stadium course is regarded as one of the toughest layouts in all of the country. I came in confident today, wanting to tame the beast, but I ended up getting quite humbled. The windy conditions certainly made a difficult course even more challenging, but I still struggled to hit shots all day. Needless to say, I already want another rematch!

What makes the course so difficult? There’s a number of factors. On paper, nothing seems like it should be so tough, but there are a lot of little things that add up throughout this Pete Dye creation.

The fairways are relatively narrow with a number of forced carries off the tee and diagonal landing areas that entice you to bite off as much as you can. If you miss a fairway, you’ll find a water hazard or one of the many, many grass mounds or sand traps, and you’ll be left with a tough recovery shot depending on the lie, stance and angle.

Most holes have a gap between the end of the fairway and the green complexes. Sometimes it’s in the form of water and other times it might be a bunker or a big patch of rough. Nasty sand traps surround the greens and recovery shots out of them are never easy. And, as you can expect with a Dye design, there are plenty of run-off collection areas around the greens, too.

Lastly, the greens have some funky shapes/undulations and relatively small amounts of surface area. With all these factors working together, very few pins feel accessible on approach shots.

It all adds up to a much more humbling experience than you think it will be, but still a sadistic sort of fun.

There are many memorable and unique holes on the Stadium course, but the finishing stretch is legendary. The 16th is known as “San Andreas” because of the earthquake chasm-like bunkers that run all along the left side of the hole. It culminates in a greenside bunker that should be avoided at all costs because of a huge, steep shelf going pretty much straight up between it and the green perched atop the anthill.

The 17th is the signature hole here and is known as “Alcatraz.” Dye is obviously no stranger to island greens and this is one of his most notable ones. There are many different tee boxes to provide different angles on different days. Like his most famous island green at Sawgrass, it’s not a super long shot from tee to green, but there is very little room for error with big rocks encircling it for added intimidation.

The 18th doesn’t get quite as much acclaim, but it’s a beast of a finishing hole with water from tee to green.

I must admit the conditions weren’t as immaculate as I would have expected from a course of this caliber. The tee boxes were good and the fairways were perfect. The bunkers were also good despite plenty of sand having been blown out during  such a windy day.

The rough didn’t look as nice as I expected. I’ll admit my disappointment was a bit more aesthetically, but it did detract a little–especially after playing a course in the morning that was so much cheaper, but gorgeously maintained. During most of the winter months, the Stadium course keeps its rough as dormant bermuda, which frames the fairways nicely. Unfortunately, now the bermuda is starting to come back to life and things are kind of in the “transitional” phase. It doesn’t look as nice visually, but mostly plays fine.

What’s interesting about the rough here is there are multiple cuts that weave in and out with one another–sometimes without any real rhyme or reason, it seems. There’s a collar of sticky, thick rye that comes in and out of play (especially around greens, where it’s a real nuisance). Then there are deeper bermuda sections along with others that are cut down pretty tight. It makes for a lot of different lies and it adds yet another layer of difficulty.

One thing the starter pointed out to me is that they had filled in a lot of the “native” desert areas on the outer edges of many holes. I don’t know when that was done, but you can see the grass in those redone areas is clearly more patchy. Apparently it was done to help speed up play. It did remove one additional element of challenge, but unfortunately it also takes away a little from the overall aesthetic presentation of the course.

The greens were also super duper firm, thanks in large part to the heavy winds that sucked any moisture out of them. No ball we hit made much more than a tiny dent in the surface and greens were nearly impossible to hold from any distance. However, there’s also nowhere to land the ball short and run it run it up to any green. If you tried that, you would likely catch that thick rye collar and the ball would go nowhere.

So, yes, it was a brutal day on a tough course with difficult windy conditions. But I still had a lot of fun getting beat up.

To me, Stadium is a course you come back and play every few years just to put yourself to the test, but there are quite a few other courses in the area that I strongly prefer over this one for a number of reasons. Still, if you haven’t played it yet, a battle with Stadium is a rite of passage for anyone visiting the Coachella Valley. You have to play it just to say you did.

Some pictures from PGA West (TPC Stadium) (3/30/14):

(That’s not smog, it’s dust and sand filling the skies!)

A view of the “San Andreas” bunker:

My playing partner after hitting his “just for fun” shot from the bunker (to show the scale):

Views of “Alcatraz” #17:

Views of the uber-intimidating 18th hole:

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