Course Review: Thunderbird Country Club

On Sunday, I was able to play one of the oldest courses in the Coachella Valley, Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage. It was my last SCGA outing of the year, but it was a big one at this classic desert track. Ultimately, things worked out in my favor because last year’s outing here got cancelled due to some major storm damage on the course. I wasn’t signed up for it, but some of my buddies were and got transferred over to this year’s outing. That allowed me to sign up for this one and join up with them for a more fun round.

I had read the history of the club on their website and it’s pretty interesting. To read the full thing, click here. In a nutshell, Thunderbird was opened in 1951 and is the oldest active 18-hole private club in the valley. It helped make Palm Springs such a hip retreat for the Hollywood stars of the 50s and 60s. It’s where the first motorized golf carts came to be. Thunderbird CC was also the inspiration behind the Ford car of the same name. The course hosted the 1955 Ryder Cup, as well.

Knowing these tidbits of history helps one to appreciate Thunderbird prior to playing. Because it has this classic reputation, I was expecting a more modest clubhouse and simpler presentation of the overall facilities. That is not what you get. The clubhouse is obviously much newer. It is massive and beautiful, adorned with a Native American design flair and all the modern amenities you could want. It’s a very impressive presentation.

From the moment I rolled up to the valet, the staff was very attentive, friendly and helpful. They get you all set up and everything else was easy from there. They had some breakfast items out by the driving range to enjoy before the round and then we also got a pretty good box lunch during our round that came in a souvenir logo cooler tote bag. It was a simple touch, but a nice one.

My group started on the 11th hole of an 8:30 shotgun. We never really pushed the group ahead much and the group behind never came up on us at all, so it was a nice and relaxed four-hour pace. That is rare for an SCGA outing, especially a pretty full shotgun.

I mentioned how the history and overall presentation/service add a great deal of positive vibes to your visit to Thunderbird. That’s because the course itself isn’t anything super memorable. Had I not played so much out in the desert and seen so many similar courses, I might be more impressed, but the course itself is rather straightforward. The fairways are very wide open and everything about the course is quite forgiving from tee to green. Some of the greens have shelves and undulation to make them a little tricky, but they are easy to get at on approaches. Most holes have generous run-up areas in front allowing for both high-ball hitters and low-ball hitters to have a field day.

There are some nice-looking water hazards in play and you do go down and through the wash on some of the more interesting holes, but it’s never anything too challenging or dramatic. I found it to be a nice confidence boost after some of the more difficult courses I played in Tucson last week. Thunderbird is not a bad track at all and a lot of people will prefer the classic simplicity compared to more modern tricked-out designs. I can appreciate that, so I was able to enjoy it for what it is. But if you’ve played a lot of the older courses in this area, you’ll feel a strong sense of déjà vu while working your way around Thunderbird.

I should note that though the course opened in the 1950s, it was renovated in 1987 by Ted Robinson, who designed and redesigned so many of these similar courses in the Coachella Valley. That’s a big reason it feels so familiar. I imagine the original layout was even more simple and those undulated greens and water hazards were added in typical Robinson fashion to dress it up.

The 8th hole is undoubtedly the signature hole at Thunderbird, and it reeks of Ted Robinson. It’s a fun, short par-3 over water with a multi-tiered green. It’s a nice hole, but it sure looks familiar!

The conditions at Thunderbird also helped its cause because they were nearly immaculate. There is no “turf reduction” happening here and the drought has no effect. Things are beautiful, lush and green throughout. It looked great and played just as nicely. The greens were a tad slow, but they rolled true and were super smooth on putts. The breaks on this course are minimal and subtle, so we were over-reading putts all day.

This SCGA outing came with a hefty price tag ($190) that is hard to justify even with all the great service, conditioning, souvenirs, food, etc. It is one of the more difficult clubs to gain access to, so we paid up for the exclusivity. Overall, I still enjoyed my visit to Thunderbird, but I wouldn’t ever imagine paying that much to play here again.

Some pictures from Thunderbird Country Club (12/6/15):

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