LA QUINTA, Calif. — What I did on Arnold Palmer’s 80th birthday: Played my favorite Arnold Palmer golf course. What else?
You may not find the Tradition Golf Club on your handy-dandy list of top courses in the United States. If so, there’s a reason — instead of engaging in overblown promotion, this club would rather concentrate on quietly providing great golf. In a word, the Tradition is understated and likely to remain that way.
The Arnold Palmer Design Company was founded in 1972 by Palmer and golf-course designer Ed Seay. More than 300 courses later, the Tradition stands among the best of the Palmer courses.
In my mind, it is the best. Period.
Several years before Seay’s death in 2007, I spent a day with him in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., then the home of Palmer’s architectural firm.
Seay loved the Tradition almost as much as he loved University of Florida athletics, but that’s another story. The Tradition was unique from the time it opened in 1997. A dozen of the 18 holes are tucked among the foothills of the marvelous Santa Rosa mountains, and the course has a rugged appeal that always makes me think I might see Billy the Kid or some famous outlaw riding down a mountain pass.
This is a golf getaway in an old-time sense. Modern civilization may be close, but everything at this private club speaks of old California.
The clubhouse is an extension of the original hacienda, which was first constructed in 1902 and later expanded in 1910 and 1920. I don’t know of any clubhouse in golf that fits more perfectly into its surroundings. With its stone and adobe, it is beautiful and natural without being obtrusive.
Hacienda del Gato, as it was called, was named after a cat that saved the life of the mistress of the ranch. Legend says she was about to be bitten by a large rattlesnake when the cat intervened.
The cat, we are told, lived another 20 years. Bravery and virtue are highly rewarded in this culture.
The golf course gained another distinction when Palmer’s first restaurant, called Arnold Palmer’s, opened a short distance away in downtown La Quinta.
Why would Palmer consent to a restaurant in his name after declining many such offers over the years? Because he trusted David Chapman, who put together the Tradition project and also was involved in the restaurant.
The Arnold Palmer Design Company is now located in Orlando, Fla., at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge, owned by Palmer and often referred to as his winter home.
That’s nice, but I have seen Palmer many, many times around the Tradition in the winter. He and his wife, Kit, have a residence here, and the uncrowded Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport, located a wedge away, can accommodate Palmer’s jet plane.
Bay Hill is a fine example of the work of golf course designer Dick Wilson, but I’ll take the Tradition and its cozy location among the panoramic mountains of the Palm Springs area.
While I’m celebrating Palmer’s 80th birthday, I will celebrate this grand golf course as well.