BORREGO SPRINGS, Calif. – It isn’t often that a superintendent gets to grow-in the same course twice. But that’s the résumé builder of greenkeeper Steve Gregory here in the Southern California desert, where he brought Rams Hill Golf Club to life in 2006, then nursed it back from near dead in 2014.
Such is the risk of a high-end real estate development in today’s turbulent golf market. Even with a can’t-miss name such as designer Tom Fazio steering the process, there’s no guarantee. Those risks are compounded by a location that, by any reckoning, is remote – a 90-mile drive south of Palm Springs and 85 miles northeast of San Diego.
A gathering of 40 Golfweek’s Best raters got to play the course as part of a four-day gathering that started in the Coachella Valley. The format was all match play, arrayed in teams of 10, each group captained by a Golfweek staffer. Three days of two-person better ball were capped off by singles matches at Rams Hill.
We started off at Pete Dye’s famed PGA West-Stadium Course in La Quinta, playing it the Sunday after Jon Rahm shot 67 there to cap his 22-under-par victory at the PGA Tour’s CareerBuilder Challenge. For all its mounding and creativity on what was a dead-flat side, it was disappointing to many of us how tightly constricted were the main landing areas. And the greens have shrunk considerably since the place opened in 1986.
The next day at La Quinta Resort’s Mountain Course proved a much-appreciated contrast both strategically and aesthetically. Dye’s 1981 course makes ideal use of a setting at the foot of the Santa Rosa Mountains, with a front nine ambling about in the flat and the back nine slowly working its way into the foothills before deploying dramatic ground for the culmination of the layout on the rocky, desert-like ground of holes 14-17.
For those who have trouble adjusting to stark, unadorned desert golf, there are plenty of options in the region. Chief among them for us was municipally owned and operated Indian Wells Golf Resort. Our group split its time there between two equally lush and colorfully landscaped layouts, the Celebrity Course (by Clive Clark, 2006) and the Players Course (John Fought, 2007).
Then came the drive south through barren, arid country to Borrego Springs, an oasis of 3,500 souls in the middle of such desolate country that it had many of us thinking about the TV show “Breaking Bad” and expecting dinner in town at a “Los Pollos Hermanos.”
The fare downtown proved pleasantly diverse, with the nod going to a Western-style saloon/family restaurant called Carlee’s. But the big surprise was golf at Rams Hills.
When you’re in a massive flat valley and find a golf course community surrounded by the country’s largest state preserve, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, you come to fear that “golf in the middle of nowhere” might amount to nothing.
Far from it, thanks to rolling terrain with 420 feet of elevation change and a frame provided by the Santa Rosa Mountains to the north and west. Add in vast fields of native tawny grasses, barrel cactus, lantana and ponds teeming with wildlife, and you have the makings of a special sensibility.
There always was something of a frontier mentality to golf out here. Three courses in town dating to the 1960s attest to that, though they show their age and limitations. There had been big hopes for the Rams Hill site back in 1983 when Ted Robinson Sr., the doyen of functional Southern California real estate golf, laid out a course there. Two decades later, Fazio, with his design associate Tim Jackson doing much of the on-site work, completely re-routed a course using some of the old corridors of the front nine while abandoning the back nine.
When the real estate crash of 2008 hit, Rams Hill shut down, its fairways left to dry out. Superintendent Gregory left to take an assistant’s job in La Quinta but came back to Rams Hill when the current ownership, T2 Borego LLC, beckoned him to reclaim the place from neglect. That included recovering from the loss of 350 trees while teasing out golf-playable turf from the dried ground.
Today, Rams Hills sports expansive fairways, elaborate bunkering and the contrast provided by tall, wavy native grasses that managed to endure years of abandonment simply by going dormant. (Our course-ratings panel has taken a shine to Rams Hill. It already sits at No. 34 on Golfweek’s Best Resort Courses list in the U.S., and trails only Pebble Beach Golf Links and Spyglass Hill among resort courses in California.)
A 3½-acre solar farm on the site of the old (abandoned) 17th hole provides enough energy to save Rams Hill $400,000 annually in electricity costs. Irrigation water is supplied by six on-site wells. The clubhouse was refurbished and expanded to 18,000 square feet, with a relaxed feel to its California Ranch-style derived from three merged, open-plan octagonal rooms joined at the hip.
Rams Hills, par-72, with tees running from from 4,979 yards up to 7,232, is operated as a private club with daily-fee play and a stay-and-play option. Green fees run $110-$145 in peak season. Ownership has ambitious plans for the 3,200-acre property. In addition to the 326 homes that are built and occupied, the long-term land plan calls for 800 more residences and a 330-room hotel.
Rams Hill Golf Club currently books 18,000 rounds a year – not bad, given a first impression out here of a forlorn outpost. The draw is precisely that sense of isolation and remoteness. The “Borrego sky,” as they call it, admits no nighttime light pollution to compromise a stunning look to the heavens. The same unfiltered look at nature is evident when you scan the land surrounding Rams Hill and see the dried-up floor of an ancient ocean. It’s humbling to play a game that brings us to such extreme landscapes. Gwk
Rams Hill Golf Club
1881 Rams Hill Road
Borrego Springs, Calif. 92004