IN THE PUBLIC EYE: Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert, Calif.
THE LAYOUT: Palm Desert was not the first or last community in the Coachella Valley to get involved in golf as a capital venture. But to do it right, the city enlisted John Cook of the PGA Tour and the Champions Tour as an expert for its design team.
The results are exactly what the city fathers were seeking.
Cook, a former resident of the Coachella Valley, teamed with architects Michael Hurdzan and Dana Frye to create two exquisite golf courses -- the Firecliff and the Mountain View.
The design team took desert wasteland and turned it into a golfing wonderland with spectacular rock and water features, complemented by some incredible bunkering.
Desert Willow, which opened with the Firecliff Course in 1997 followed by the Mountain View Course a year later, has become known almost as much for its rugged, natural beauty as for the memorable golf.
In addition to being featured on the cover of numerous golf magazines, the resort has graced the covers of Smithsonian Magazine (the only golf course to be so honored) and National Geographic Traveler.
The Firecliff Course probably is a bit more of a challenge at 7,056 yards and appears to be more intimidating, even though there is ample driving room on both courses. However, the 6,913-yard Mountain View layout offers its own difficulties.
"Some other courses in the desert are entirely too difficult for the average resort player," Cook said. "They're designed to challenge the best players in the game at tournament time, but what about the other 51 weeks of the year?
"I have no ego, so I don't care if people go out and shoot the best round of their lives on a course I've worked on. ... I just don't see the point of beating people's brains out. Golf is supposed to be fun."
DIRECTOR OF GOLF: Darrell Souza.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: The Mountain View Course is friendlier to the resort player, but from the back tees it's still a difficult test because of its small greens. If you're hitting long or mid-irons into them, it's going to require some real shot-making to make birdies.
Another thing immediately evident when the courses are compared is that the Mountain View Course is greener, while there is much more desert vegetation on the Firecliff.
Both courses have large waste-area bunkers that can extract a penalty if your ball winds up in one, such as on the 227-yard fifth hole of the Mountain View Course. There is a waste area going down the right side of the hole all the way to the green, where it turns into a deep bunker.
No. 6 is another unique hole, a par 5 that measures only 476 yards from the back tees, but there is water to contend with off the tee, down the right side and all around the green. It's a great chance to make birdie or eagle, but also bogey or worse.
There is more water on No. 11, a par 3 with a 200-yard carry across a lake, but there is no water at all on the No. 1 handicap hole, the par-4 14th, which measures 448 yards but is dotted with bunkers all along the way.
The best stretch of holes on the Firecliff Course comes at the finish.
The 16th hole, which measures 420 yards, requires a carry over a waste area to a fairway and elevated green guarded by several traps.
No. 17 is a 204-yard par 3, with a large lake to the right where some pin placements require a carry across the water, but there is plenty of bailout room to the left.
The final hole is a risk-reward par 5 measuring 536 yards, with another large lake waiting on the right for any second shots that fall short of the green. It's a tight squeeze approaching the green because of palm trees, sand and a stream on the left.
OTHER COURSES IN THE AREA: Palm Desert is not as well known as some of its neighbors, such as La Quinta and Rancho Mirage, but it offers plenty of good golf.
There are two excellent Ted Robinson-designed courses, the Palms and the Valley, at Marriott's Desert Springs Resort and Spa, and Nick Faldo's renowned layout at Marriott's Shadow Ridge Resort. Also worth a try are the semiprivate Palm Desert Resort Country Club, Palm Desert Country Club, Mountain Vista Golf Course at Sun City and Desert Falls Country Club.
There's also the College Golf Center, which offers possibly the best public driving range and practice facility in the desert.
WHERE TO STAY: Palm Desert is in the middle of one of the world's destination golf meccas. Within the city limits are Marriott's Desert Springs Resort and Spa and Marriott's Shadow Ridge Resort. It's a short drive to the Coachella Valley's other renowned resorts -- La Quinta Resort & Club, the Westin Mission Hills Resort in Rancho Mirage, the Doral Desert Princess and the Cimarron Golf Resort in Cathedral City, Rancho Las Palmas Resort in Rancho Mirage, Indian Canyon Golf Resort in Palm Springs, the Golf Resort at Indian Wells, Indian Palms Country Club and Resort in Indio, the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort and Spa in Indian Wells.
ON THE WEB: www.desertwillow.com
THE LAST RESORT: La Quinta Resort & Club in La Quinta, Calif.
THE LAYOUT: Guests at the resort, which has been a hideaway for Hollywood stars since 1926, have the luxury of choosing to play on five magnificent and varied courses.
There are the Mountain and Dunes courses on the hotel property, as well as the TPC Stadium Course, the Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course and the Greg Norman Course right down the road at PGA West. All of the properties are owned by KSL Resorts.
Both courses at the hotel and the famed Stadium Course were designed by the legendary Pete Dye.
The Mountain Course, which plays along the base of the San Jacinto Mountains and opened in 1960, has hosted the World Cup of Golf, the California State Open and the PGA National Club Professional Championship. It measures 6,756 yards from the back tees and plays to a par of 72.
Even though the Dunes Course (opened in 1981) runs alongside the mountain, the 6,742-yard layout meanders through flatter desert terrain. It is a kinder, gentler Dye layout for the resort golfer, although it can provide plenty of challenge. The Dunes Course has hosted PGA Tour Qualifying School six times.
The TPC Stadium Course, which opened in 1986, is most famous as host of the Skins Game from 1986 to 1991, with Fuzzy Zoeller, Lee Trevino, Curtis Strange (twice), Raymond Floyd and Payne Stewart hoisting the trophy. It stretches to 6,753 from the tips, plays to a par of 72 and was part of the Bob Hope Classic rotation in 1987.
The Nicklaus Tournament Course, which opened in 1987, is a tamer version of the Stadium Course and also has hosted PGA Tour Q-School. It measures 6,556 yards and plays to a par of 72.
The Norman Course is the youngest of the five, having opened in 1999. It lies in an ancient seabed 40 feet below sea level and is surrounded by dark, forbidding mountains that contrast the grass and the white crushed marble in the bunkers. The Norman Course can play the longest of the five at 7,156 yards and a par of 72, but there are five sets of tees.
The Jim McLean Golf School is located on both properties.
DIRECTOR OF GOLF: Bill Shaw.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: The most famous hole among this fabulous fivesome of courses is the 147-yard 17th hole on the Stadium Course, which is known as "Alcatraz" because of its island green. Lee Trevino made the hole part of golfing lore with the only hole-in-one in the history of the Skins Game in 1987.
Before you get to Alcatraz, try to stay out of the 19-foot deep waste bunker on the par-5 16th hole. Short-game guru Dave Pelz once started an instructional show on the Golf Channel from the bottom of the bunker.
Even though the Dunes might be the most user-friendly course of the bunch, its 17th hole is annually selected by the PGA of America as one of the most difficult par 4s in the United States. The 433-yard monster wraps around a large lake that runs all the way down the left to a treacherous, two-tiered green.
And No. 18 on the Dunes is no picnic either, even though it is only 390 yards, because this time the water is on the right.
No. 16 is the signature hole on the Mountain Course, a gorgeous 167-yard par 3 from an elevated green. It runs alongside a huge talus slide and has been called one of the 500 Best Holes in the World by Golf Magazine.
Best of the Nicklaus Course probably is the par-5, 561-yard 15th, which features a well-bunkered island green. The finishing hole, a 432-yard par 4, requires an approach shot over water to a huge double green it shares with the ninth hole.
No. 8 on the Norman Course lists at 617 yards from the back tees, with water running all the way down the right side of the hole, one of nine ponds on the course covering 18 acres.
When you get on the greens, remember that putts in the Coachella Valley tend to break toward Indio to the East.
OTHER COURSES IN THE AREA: If five courses are not enough, the city of La Quinta also boasts another world-class course at Trilogy Golf Club, which hosted the Skins Game from 2003-06. There are more than 100 golf courses across the Coachella Valley and 300-plus sunny days a year on which to play them. What more could a golfer ask?
WHERE TO STAY: The La Quinta Resort and Club features 800 guest rooms tucked away in Spanish-style casitas throughout the 45-acre property. In addition to five championship golf courses, guests also have the use of 23 tennis courts, 42 swimming pools, 52 hot tubs, five restaurants and the world-famous Spa La Quinta.
Other golf resorts in the Coachella Valley include the Doral Desert Princess and the Cimarron Golf Resort in Cathedral City, Rancho Las Palmas Resort and Westin Mission Hills Resort in Rancho Mirage, Indian Canyon Golf Resort in Palm Springs, the Golf Resort at Indian Wells, Indian Palms Country Club and Resort in Indio, the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort and Spa in Indian Wells.
ON THE WEB: www.laquintaresort.com