INDIO, Calif. – There are 22 people standing on the first tee with me, pegging their golf balls in rapid-fire succession. I’m about to play 18 holes of night golf in less than four hours in a twenty-three-some.
Aside from the size of the crowd, I am most intrigued by the attire. It’s a comical array of golf shoes, cross-trainers and Chuck Taylors. One player goes barefoot. There are board shorts, plaid shorts, polos and T-shirts. This is the traditional Tuesday night skins game at Indio Municipal Golf Club, an 18-hole par-3 layout, and the attire sums up the mood.
The stadium lights are switched on at dusk here on the southeast end of the Coachella Valley, transforming a hohum muni into an after-work playground.
On this cool night, one player fires up a radio on the first tee, and the game begins to the sounds of Blind Melon. Distance approximations fly (many are purposefully wrong), and there’s no sacred order to the tee. Some shots are simultaneous. Balls fly around the green from every direction until the last men standing study over their birdie putts, a skin on the line.
The rules to this birdie-or-bust game are simple. Any player not in the hole after two shots picks up, and a lone birdie on a hole merits $1 from every other player. To collect, the birdie-maker must scream the name of the game: Whip it out! (Said properly, vowels are drawn out significantly.) Local rules apply, too.
“If you hit a light pole,” one player called Rodeo says, “you get to do it over.”
The lights go dark promptly at 10 p.m., no exceptions. The skins game might rule the course, but young families frequent the fairways, too. This Indio muni has an endless-summer kind of feel.
Palm Springs tends to get a geriatric rap – the combination of dry desert weather and plentiful golf has retirement written all over it – but on this end of the Coachella Valley, there’s a different vibe. It comes from the Coachella locals, a breed with above-average golf skills. Many of the players in the Tuesday game are caddies at nearby clubs (some wintering in the desert before returning north to caddie jobs at Bandon Dunes), others work in the service industry and some are aspiring young pros. Regulars report with a grin that the few women who have shown up to play never come back.
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While the Indio skins game is a wacky diversion, Pete Dye’s Stadium Course at PGA West is a true bucket-list item. It ranks No. 7 among Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in California, and the closing three-hole stretch holds the potential of a scorecard-wrecking adventure.
From the tips, PGA West has been penal enough to host PGA Tour Q-School finals every other year. But Alice Dye’s hand is noticeable here. The carries over water are less intimidating from the gold tees, which play to 5,700 yards, and the angles into greens are less severe. From the appropriate tees, PGA West is challenging but hardly unfair.
Good players, such as Mike Karlberg, a sometimes-caddie who looped for Bhavik Patel at 2012 PGA Tour Q-School finals, roll the golf ball firm and fast on PGA West’s slick greens. You might say Karlberg has seen the best and the worst of this course. He relates tales of carnage from the Stadium’s island-green par-3 17th, famously known as Alcatraz.
“It’s not the long holes out here; it’s the short ones,” says Karlberg.
That treacherous hole is flanked by No. 16, named San Andreas Fault – the ominous names suggest a theme – which is a par 4 that features a 30-foot drop-off to a bunker short and left of the green. Hit it in that hazard and you practically need rope and a rappelling harness to get back up to the green. The 18th, a par 4 named Coliseum, is bordered by water all the way down the left side.
PGA West is serene, at least, in its aesthetics – clear blue skies give way to purplish mountainsides, which are reflected against the bright turquoise bodies of water on the Stadium Course. Terra-cotta-roofed timeshares dot the perimeter. While the Santa Rosa Mountains provide a lovely backdrop to the Stadium, they’re in play nearby at La Quinta Resort’s Mountain Course.
One of two Pete Dye designs at La Quinta, the Mountain Course often delivers the compelling sight of white ball soaring against a background of solid rock. I’m playing down the third hole at the Mountain Course when I realize a rockslide would not only take out this green but much of the fourth hole, too. The steep gray cliffs muffle highway noises and provide sharp contrast to manicured green grass.
The front nine is a relatively open layout, coiled tightly. By No. 13, the course has wound its way out of the residential section that began next to No. 10 tee, but the brief presence of other humans is comforting. Late on a Wednesday afternoon, a young family sat behind the 12th green as two children hawked homemade Arnold Palmers and used golf balls for $1.
The sun is behind the mountaintops and the temperature nearly perfect by the time I’ve reached No. 14, perhaps the most interesting hole on the course. The surrounding mountainsides play with my depth perception on this par 4, where bunkers are plentiful and a series of plateau-like landing areas make me question my strategy. This is a theme in Palm Springs golf: penal designs often masked by distracting views. Still, I scratch out a bogey on No. 14, and shortly arrive at the par-3 16th, where the view from the back tee box is the highest, and best, of the day. The green? A small, tricky target.
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The aforementioned theme holds true at Indian Wells’ Players Course, too, even though it doesn’t always feel like desert golf. This course’s terrain is more extreme than it might seem from a distance, with relatively narrow fairways.
“If I had to name them, I’d call (the Players) the beast and (the Celebrity) the beauty,” director of golf Joe Williams says of the two courses at Indian Wells.
The Players’ occasional blind shots (most notably at Nos. 1, 9 and 13) illustrate its beastly side.
Call it a design flaw or just a step back to reality, but upon reaching the 18th tee box, the sound of voices, splashing and island music wafted over the pool fence at Indian Wells’ Renaissance Resort and onto the finishing hole.
By night, the pool and lobby have a glowing, ethereal quality, as guests gather for after-dinner cocktails and firepit S’more sessions. By day, it lends a whimsical quality to the otherwise regal hotel, serving as another reminder that this desert playground isn’t reserved solely for the seniors set.
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If you go . . .
Making a golf trip to the Coachella Valley is a little like visiting wineries in Napa Valley or sampling the finest restaurants in New York. You’re likely to have a great time but leave knowing that you’ve just scratched the surface. The Coachella Valley has more than 130 golf courses, about half of which are open to the public, and more stay-and-play resorts than one could hope to tackle in a single trip. Here are a couple of can’t-miss options:
Indian Wells Golf Resort: indianwellsgolfresort.com; 760-346-4653
La Quinta Resort: laquintaresort.com; 760-564-4111
While you’re there . . .
You might want to experience some of the Coachella Valley’s natural and manmade wonders. They include:
• Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: The rotating tramcar rises nearly 6,000 feet up the Chino Canyon in 10 minutes, stopping at the Mountain Station (elevation: 8,516 feet). Pstramway.com; 760-325-1449
• Palm Springs Air Museum: Visitors can get an up-close look at the museum’s still-flyable World War II aircraft. Palmspringsairmuseum.org; 760-778-6262
• Red Jeep Tours: Go offroading to get a better perspective on the desert with tours of the San Andreas Fault, Joshua Tree National Park and other destinations. Red-jeep.com; 760-340-2345
– Information: Greater Palm Springs CVB, visitgreaterpalmsprings.com; 760-770-9000