Classic Club

Classic Club, Palm Desert. Arnold Palmer, 2006.

A course with water in play on 12 holes, at least 15 waterfalls, and 68 bunkers sounds like typical Palm Springs fare, but Classic Club isn’t really that. With wall-to-wall grass, and no housing in sight, within a few holes I had more of the sense that this is more the Coachella desert’s daily fee answer to Shadow Creek. The course is in the desert but apart from it and over-the-top in every way—the clubhouse is ridiculous, the carts plush, and I already mentioned that the waterfalls are too many to even be counted.

Shadow Creek, of course, is a Fazio design—maybe the ultimate Fazio design—and while I have my issues with much of his work, even the least interesting Fazio design I’ve seen is close to the level of this course. And yet this is surely the best Arnold Palmer course I’ve played. Whether this says more about The King’s course portfolio or just the courses of his I’ve seen is a fair question.

The course was built with the hopes of being a site for the PGA Tour and it was for a few years, but ultimately the lack of planned development around the course and complaints from the pros sent the event away. More than a decade later, some of that development may now be on the way—an arena, hotels, and other development that, if the tournament were still being played here, would help block the awkward views of Interstate 10 when looking down the 18th fairway. But the course, alone on the north side of the freeway is still more exposed to the high winds Palm Springs area is prone to than the La Quinta courses that the tournament favors and of course the players don’t love that, especially if it blows hard one day and not the others. That Classic Club is 20-30 minutes away from PGA West and the other La Quinta courses that tend to host the tournament was probably another issue that was against it.

So now you have a high end daily fee course that was built by Arnold Palmer to challenge Tour pros. The disconnect is obvious and it is this awkward quality above all else that really keeps the course from having a stronger identity.

There is plenty of trouble to be found here—recall the 12 water holes and 68 bunkers, but the fairways are generous and the corridors even more so, no doubt to accommodate for the fact that some days the wind really blows hard here. But the result is that on days when the wind howls, the course is difficult for everyone. On days when it is more calm, the course is relatively easy for better players, who not only are adept at avoiding the one side of the hole where water threatens, but generally have plenty of room to do so without even worrying too much about bunkers or giving up an angle. Meanwhile poor players lose a lot of balls and shoot a million here.

Looking back up #16 from the green, with #15 on the left

How this works is obvious even from the first hole, a 400 yard par 4 with a lake down the left side (two waterfalls in the creek by the tee and four more in the lake itself along the fairway, if you’re counting). But there’s no real reason to challenge the trouble over there. The fairway is a good 40 yards wide and though it pinches a bit when a fairway bunker cuts in on the right, the hole is short enough you could easily drive to the wide part of the fairway short of the bunker and still have 135 yards in. It’s basically a gentle handshake hole as long as you can block out the visual distraction left of the fairway and not hit it over there. But if you do, you start your day with a scorecard wrecker. And so it goes throughout much of the day.

As is often the case, many of the best holes on the course are those without water in play, and the bulk of those come early. The par 3 second was the first hole that gave me whiffs of Shadow Creek—the property line is right behind you, but looking toward the green all you see is a gently uphill hole fronted by sand and ringed by pine trees. Your only memory of the desert is the glimpse of the Little San Bernardino mountains in the distance.

The fourth is a par 5 that bends left. There are three bunkers along the left side of the hole but anything left of them goes well down a big hill into a deep depression where you may find thick rough, a clump of pampas grass, or a view blocked by trees. Even just a few holes in, the prospect of having to go down to the bottom of the hill and find your ball is somehow more intimidating than just losing it in a pond. Moreover, because the hill is not a certain lost ball taking on the risk is more tempting.

The fifth is a medium length par 4 playing back in the opposite direction, with a fairway pinched and turning right between two bunkers. The green is a bit of a plateau with four bunkers surrounding it and everything else running away. Finally, the sixth is the last of the early run of non-water holes, this one a par 3. Back tees play across a deep valley while others play along it with the deep fall of to the right. A bunker right (or in front, from the pro tee) of the green is very deep and not good news, though being in there would at least keep your ball from going 30 feet further down to the bottom of the valley. Better to miss left.

The water holes that follow, though dramatic—including the 7th, which feels almost more like the 18th the way it plays right back to the clubhouse—do not inspire as they mostly have a paint-by-numbers quality. At seven and eight there’s water down the left. At seven it threatens on the second shot, while on eight it’s more in play on your drive.

Nine is a more interesting hole, but it’s an interesting mess. 540 yards from the blue tee (the pros played it at 595) the tee shot is downhill and to a somewhat divided fairway. If you can drive it right of or over the bunker in the middle of the fairway, you can make the hole reachable, in theory anyway. The problem is, the green is on a peninsula, with water short, left, and behind and the bank short of the green is shaved so anything that misses even slightly will come back into the creek. In short, even if you can reach it, it would be very hard to hold this green and if you cannot hold the green your best hope for a miss is probably the back bunker, which—given the shaved slope to the creek on the opposite side of the green—is hardly appealing. So it’s a simply layup and wedge on but it’s not hard to imagine how a few tweaks could turn the hole into an exciting one where at least some players might be tempted to take a chance that could have high variance outcomes. As it is, it’s pretty much just a three shot par 5 with water around the green.

The 10th is one of the tougher holes on the course, with water right and a narrow fairway. The hole has no bunkers but left of the fairway is a hill so if you bail that direction and miss the fairway, your second shot will be from an awkward lie in the rough to a green with a rock water hazard immediately right and short.

The approach into #11

The 11th bends right around a water feature that then crosses in front of the green. A fade off the tee is the best option here, or else choose your line wisely. The carry over the edge of the water is longer than it looks, but tempting. And yet if you bail left it is easy to find one of two big bunkers through the fairway and those bring the water in front of the green much more into play.

The 12th is the course’s postcard hole, just 160 yards but the green is on a peninsula with waterfalls to the right. The green is big enough that, without wind, it is not the most intimidating shot, given all the water, but on a windy day there aren’t many options to miss here.

There’s plenty of green on #12, but it’s hit it, or else

There’s water in play for some on the drive at 13, but the real strategy of the hole is the angle of the fairway and the three bunkers left of it in line with the green. From the blue tee this is only a 350 yard hole and the sensible play is at the right edge of the right bunker—a 240 yard drive on that line leaves just a wedge in; hit a driver with draw on that line and you’ll have a shot wedge. The problem with that line is it feels like you’re aiming too far right. Taking that line means you’re aiming right of the lake, right of all the bunkers right of the green that you can see out in the distance. It’s hard to do. The golfer is trained that the best play is to take on some trouble. And, sure, it is true that if you carry the furthest bunker you can get a little better angle into the green here and a shorter shot, but you also run the risk of not making the carry over the bunkers, or of missing left and ending up well down below the level of the fairway in rough and trees.

The tee shot at #13 tempts you to go left

The 14th is another intriguing hole without water. At 510 yards from the blue tees it is a reachable par 5, but you have to hit a good drive close to (or past) the huge fairway bunker down the right. The second shot is mostly blind, really all you can see are the three bunkers that cross the fairway about 70 yards short of the green, and maybe the top of the flag. If you can clear these bunkers with your second shot, you may well get a kick off the back side of them that propels your ball onto or near the green. If you lay up short of them they are likely to block your view of the flag completely.

The view from short of the cross bunkers on #14. The top of the flag is just visible.

Water right and left dominates the view from the tee on the 15th, though the water down the right isn’t as much of a threat as it seems. This is a relatively short par 4, slightly back uphill, and the fairway is narrow. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the 15th hole—you can lay back off the tee or challenge the narrowing fairway for a shorter second shot; it’s pretty; there’s a nice waterfall behind the green, because of course there is.

On a lot of courses it would be the signature hole, the one with the waterfall. Here it is approximately the ninth hole with a waterfall. At a certain point, you need something more than waterfalls and something more than holes that are just fine. This would have been a good spot in the round for a tempting reachable par 4, the kind of real risk-reward hole that this course severely lacks. Instead it’s just another water hole. There’s something about returning to this, after two pretty decent holes that don’t feature water (at least as a primary component of their strategy) that just broke my patience.

The 16th, at least, has no waterfalls, though it does feature a lake all down the right side of the hole. Because you get numb to the water after a while, the real memorable feature on this hole is the green, not tiered exactly but with a few rolls in it that helped define the back-to-front slope, which was severe. I had a front-right hole location and played a conservative shot to the middle of the green. I didn’t hit what I thought was an aggressive putt, but I still nearly ended up putting into the water. (And the greens were not exactly tournament quick when I played, either.)

#17 was made for spectators but was it worth watching?

I said earlier that most of the holes without water were the most interesting. The 17th is the exception. With apologies to the 16th at TPC Scottsdale, the 17th at the Classic Club now holds the distinction as the least interesting back nine Tour par 3 I’ve ever seen. The hole was clearly built for spectators, with a green set down in a large hollow to create an amphitheater effect, but the hole itself seems like it would have been dreadfully boring to watch. Downhill and 160 yards from the blue tees (just a bit longer from the Tour tee) to a tiered green protected by a large bunker in front and another behind, I suppose it was fun on the days they put the hole front right, where a funnel made holes-in-one a real possibility.

The 18th is a bore, too, just in a different way. It’s every closing par 5 with water you’ve ever seen, whether playing, watching on Tour, or anywhere else. From a somewhat elevated tee, you drive to a fairway with a few bunkers and water right. With a big drive, you can try to reach the green, over water, or play safe. The only intriguing thing about the hole is that they accidentally left a direct line to the green by playing down the ninth fairway. For everyday play a local rule makes playing right of the lake out of bounds; I suppose they put this rule in place for the pros as well, but it seems like it would have been more fun if they hadn’t.

I suspect most people will like Classic Club more than me. Fair enough. The conditioning, the service, the amenities are great. For most of my round I liked it more than I did by the end, at which point it had just become too much.

California 3rd Quintile [2021]