PGA West highlights incredible desert golf in the Palm Springs area

Remember the Bob Hope Classic? It was a golf tournament full of celebrity antics from the likes of Hope and the Rat Pack, played on great courses with incredible scenery. It ushered in the West Coast Swing on the PGA Tour. And while the Bob Hope Classic no longer bears the name of the late comedian, its legacy lives on with the PGA Tour’s The American Express, played each January.

It’s the time of year when golfers, especially those residing in the northern states where their golf clubs are hibernating in the winter, can only dream about what they are seeing on TV — golf being played at the highest levels on lush, green fairways, sparkling white sand, and snow-capped mountain peaks in the background. And while the American Express is no longer a celebrity pro-am event with hundreds of amateurs over five days, it is still played at one of the finest desert golf venues in the world — PGA West in La Quinta, Calif.

The best part is that you can play there, too. Two of the courses in the rotation (the other is La Quinta Country Club) are open for resort play. The Nicklaus Tournament Course and the Pete Dye-designed PGA West’s Stadium Course, which stages the weekend play, are both available to public golfers. The American Express utilizes three of the nine courses at PGA West.

Let’s take a look at the courses available to resort guests, plus some other great options in the Palm Springs area.

PGA West’s Stadium Course

PGA West’s Stadium Course

Golf Digest has named this “Dye-abolical” layout as the fourth most difficult golf course in the United States, and that point is hard to argue. Also a perennial site of PGA Tour Qualifying finals, the Stadium layout will definitely get your attention. But it’s also lots of fun to play (just pick the right tees). Originally private, the Stadium Course is a par-72 that’s 7,300 yards from the tips. But the yardage isn’t the main challenge; it’s the greens, bunkers and approach shots. 

There are so many good holes here, but the most famous is the par-3 17th, known as “Alcatraz.” It’s reminiscent of another famous 17th hole, the one on TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course. Both are island greens, but Alcatraz is a little different with the rocks lining the greens complex. 

PGA West’s Stadium Course, which is on multiple top 100 lists by the major magazines, is an adrenaline rush from start to finish.  Pot bunkers loom to catch misplaced shots or errors in calculations. And there’s water on lots of these holes, like the double dogleg fifth, a par-4 with a lake on the left off the tee, and one on the right on the approach all the way to the green. And then there’s the 255-yard, par-3 sixth. It doesn’t have an island green, but it might as well with water on three sides, including the carry all the way to the green. It’s probably more intimidating than Alcatraz, but then again, Alcatraz comes at the part of the round when if you’re protecting a lead, it gets that much dicier.

Nicklaus Tournament Course

Opened in 1983, the Nicklaus Tournament Course is arguably one of the Golden Bear’s best layouts ever. It’s been tweaked over the years, so it just keeps improving with age. The course is also visually stunning with dramatic bunkering and water features defining the holes, all of which are unique and will test your ball-striking ability. The course is fairly generous off the tee, but the approaches are exacting with a couple of holes featuring island greens or a series of foreboding bunkers.

Highlights of this 7,200-yard layout include the difficult par-5 15th. It requires a well-placed drive to avoid the large deep fairway bunker off the tee. The lay-up is paramount, given that most will not entertain the notion of trying for the island green in two. You’ll want to leave a comfortable yardage for your third shot. 

PGA West Nicklaus course

More great golf you can play at PGA West

Not to be overlooked is the Mountain Course at La Quinta Resort. While it isn’t part of the American Express, it should definitely be on your list of courses to play if you make the trip to the Palm Springs area for golf. 

Why? Because it’s fun, and the vistas as amazing, as several holes play into the surrounding Santa Rosa mountains. Originally opened in 1981, it underwent renovations after some flooding in 2013 and 2014 and is better than ever. The views don’t get any better than the last few holes, particularly the par-3 16th, which has an elevated tee playing down to a green at least 100 feet below. 

Operating out of the same clubhouse is the Dunes Course, also a Dye design. It’s just 6,600 yards or so from the tips, but it’s packed with intrigue. A bit of a Scottish links-style layout, the signature hole is arguably the 420-yard, par-4 17th, a dogleg left with a lake down the entire left side. It’s the most difficult hole on the course, with a large fairway bunker on the left side of the fairway and several others on the right. Thankfully, that large bunker can save some tee shots from going into the water, but from there, you’re left with an incredibly tough shot to the green.

And finally, the last course open to resort guests at La Quinta and PGA West is the Greg Norman Course, which opened in 1996. Water comes into play on half the holes on this 7,200-yard layout, which also features more than 100 crystal white sand bunkers. Like all the courses at PGA West, there are also great practice facilities and an outstanding clubhouse with terrific dining.

PGA West Norman Course

Other great golf options in the Coachella Valley

While staying at the La Quinta Resort & Club and playing the courses available at PGA West is a bucket-list golf vacation unto itself, it’s hardly the only choice when it comes to golf in the Coachella Valley.

For example, the two courses at Indian Wells Golf Resort represent two of the best municipal courses in the country. That’s right, they are city-owned, but look more like resort courses than any muni you’ve ever seen. During peak season in the winter, green fees can be north of $200, but that’s still very competitive when it comes to golf this high-end. And in the offseason, the prices drop dramatically.

As for the courses, Ted Robinson designed and redesigned the Celebrity Course (originally the West Course), which was the site of the LG Skins Game, where in 2008 Fred Couples holed out of a bunker for an eagle on the par-5 15th for a big payout. The 7,038-yard par-72 course is a visual feast with bountiful floral landscaping, cascading water features and gorgeous mountain views. With its wide fairways and light rough, it’s as playable as it is picturesque.

The other course is the John Fought-designed Players Course. Not as fancy as the Celebrity, it’s more of a shot-maker’s layout. It too played host to the Skins Game. The greens are a little tougher to putt, and the bunkers are perhaps more penal, providing a great contrast to the celebrity.

Best of all, both of these courses are served by a magnificent clubhouse, The VUE, which has one of the best spirit and wine collections in the Valley to go with its incredible food menu. Plus, there are lots of great hotel options right next to the golf courses. 

Other public options worth considering include Desert Willow Golf Resort’s Firecliff and Mountain View courses; Marriott’s Shadow Ridge Golf Club (designed by Nick Faldo); Arnold Palmer’s Silver Rock resort course and the Classic Club (both of which used to be part of the Hope rotation); Escena Golf Club (Nicklaus); the Westin Mission Hills Gary Player Signature Course; and the 36-hole Ted Robinson designed Tahquitz Creek Golf Resort, just to name a few. 

Indian Wells Celebrity course


Although there aren’t nearly as many courses in the Palm Springs area as there are in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, many desert golf enthusiasts prefer the Coachella Valley with its spectacular mountain views and incredible winter weather. The area still maintains that celebrity vibe with not only the golf but the famous Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival as well as the Paribas Open, one of the best events in professional tennis conducted each March at the Indian Well Tennis center. 

There are lots of golf packages available at a variety of resorts to fit nearly every budget, especially if you’re willing to go during the offseason. The summer and early fall can be hot, of course, but it’s the desert, so get out early or late, and you can enjoy great golf at big discounts. And remember, it’s a dry heat.