Desert Willow – Firecliff

6,173 yards, 128 slope from the Lavender tees

Course: In Palm Desert, CA, Desert Willow is a golf resort with two courses; Mountain View and Firecliff. The Firecliff course was designed by the Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry team in 1997. Hurdzan/Fry have designed and renovated a number of well known courses, including Erin Hills (original, with Ron Whitten), Scioto (reno) and locally, the Militia Hill course at the Philadelphia Cricket Club and Pilgrim’s Oak. Both are prominent designers, with Hurdzan having over 300 courses to his credit. The course was named after a Palm Desert supper club that was famous in the 1970’s and 80’s. Playing the course, I assumed it was named for some of the red rock formations seen throughout the course. Either way, it’s a cool name.

An ocean of golf courses are in the area, so how each asserts itself as unique is always something I try to figure out. Some try to wow with conditions and visuals, others with difficulty while others rely on their history. There are detractors for me that can be common as well. The advent of housing developments anchored to golf courses led to even more golf courses out here in the last few decades, so how the housing interacts with the course is always a big factor. At worst, the houses constrain the course, taking away the enjoyment for those who seek out golf to interact with the splendid isolation of a natural environment. Other desert courses simply use the native landscape as something to hit over, while others ignore they’re in the desert altogether and try to amaze you with their counterintuitive lushness. I tend to enjoy those desert courses that embrace their natural environment and find innovative ways to incorporate it into play, thereby showcasing how the unique landscape can lead to a distinct and engaging round.

At Firecliff, there is no housing and the course focuses on providing a challenging and diverse round. The visuals are there, yet are secondary to the golf. The course is challenging, yet is more about execution than anything else. There is very little to strategize here; it’s about hitting the shots, while there is some thought to figuring out what distances you prefer on approaches. The course is set on rolling terrain, with most contouring moving towards the center of the holes, especially when the fairway is on the narrow side. There are holes than cant in one direction or another, usually when there is more width. There is lots of bunkering, all shaped and used in an array of forms, as well as vast native waste areas that are usually directly off the tees or running along one side of the hole. What I’ve noticed about Hurdzan/Fry courses is there is an emphasis on diversity of play and functionality. That is the case here for the most part. The hills and how they were used stuck out for me, as there’s typically not this much heaving and slopes of fairways.

Desert Willow Firecliff is one of the higher end public courses in the area and is also well regarded. Ranked 23rd on Golfweek’s best public courses in California, fantastic conditioning and first rate facilities, the design of Firecliff combines with these other accoutrements to rival many of the private options around.

Enjoying my vacation and time in the sun before having to return back East to the deep freeze, the threesome of me, my father and brother gave Firecliff a go.

The First is a 489 yard par 5 (from the Lavender tees). The challenge starts off right away with the opening tee shot. Trees then bunkers on either side, the fairway looks narrow but there is a lot more room than it looks, especially on the left. The fairway widens for second shots as well, from the second left bunker all the way up to the front green side bunkers. The elevated green is well guarded on the front with a series of bunkers, a rear bank running towards green, while the green runs back to front. The hole guides where you should hit it on each shot, which also helps if you get out of position. The green commands an aerial shot unless you get over to the extreme right and can use the narrow strip running up to the green. And with that, you’re already in the deep end.

The First
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory

The Second is a 364 yard par 4. A wider fairway than the First, the bunkers on the right make the left side look more appealing off the tee, but anything from the center to the right side gives the best angles into the green. The fairway ends with a mild valley forming with the cart path running through, which makes most if not all approach shots aerial. The green is wide and shallow, with the far side no good. There’s a lot of fairway melding into the green, so those off green have options. A bit of a breather from the First.

The Second
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
A closer look, from the left

The Third is a 139 yard par 3. A waste area dominates past the tee to just short of the green, which is protected by a pair of bunkers on each side. The green is fairly small, narrow and deep, moving from back to front. A little longer short of the green is fine, but offline can get problematic quickly.

The Third
A closer look
From the left side of the green

The Fourth is a 387 yard par 4. Generous off the tee until the bunkers on the left, where the fairway bottles up. The right side slopes down to a native area that runs along that entire side. Just like the Second, confronting the bunker off the tee results in a better angle and more options on the approach, whereas avoiding those bunkers by going right leaves you with a more aerial approach because of the lower green side bunker that must be carried. The green is perpendicular to the fairway and approaches can be run up to the green, so long as they come from that left side. It’s a nice hole and fairly forgiving on most shots up to the green.

The Fourth
Approach shot territory

The Fifth is a 380 yard par 4. A slight dog leg left with bunkers in play off the tee to the left. The bunkers can only be characterized as squiggly in shape. The fairway is wide but starts narrowing at the dog leg and continues to tighten reaching the green. Just like the last hole, the right side falls off into a native area, but you really have to try to get it that far right. The greens keep alternating between wide/shallow and narrow/deep, so true to form, this one is narrow and deep, running from left to right. Another nice hole.

The Fifth
Approach shot territory
Left side of the green

The Sixth is a 279 yard par 4. The short par 4 features a fairway with a hillside on the left, which slopes to the right towards water on that side. The neck of the green is narrow and is beset on all sides by water. The tee shot should set up the preferred angle to the green. The further down the fairway and left will align you with the neck, as well as the length of the green. The green moves from the front (left) to the back (right). It’s a tough approach shot since anything that doesn’t hit and stay on the green is wet. And it all starts with a well executed tee shot. A fun short par 4.

The Sixth
Approach shot territory

The Seventh is a 520 yard par 5. While relatively straight, the undulations in elevation and fairway width give this hole definition. The tee shot is over water and to an uphill fairway, which is a blind shot for those able to make it over the ridge. The fairway then dips down before climbing to the green, which is surrounded by bunkers. As we’ve seen on several holes, taking on the fairway bunkers typically leads to a better next shot and that’s the case here with the bunkers on the left. Carrying them on the second shot means a better line into the green and being able to utilize the apron running up to it as well.

The Seventh
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory

The Eighth is a 119 yard par 3. A forced carry over water, which runs along the entire left side, the potato chip green is on a hillside that runs right to left towards the water while large bunkers on the left, front right and back right (near the palm trees) lurk. Lots of room to miss short though and honestly, I’d rather be short than on the rear side of the green with a front pin. A short par 3 that makes the acceptable landing area a little tighter.

The Eighth

The Ninth is a 408 yard par 4. A slight dogleg right that tumbles down to the green. In addition to the tumbling, the fairway narrows as it advances forward. There’s a bunker on the right with a steep backside. Carrying it off the tee will hit the slope on the back side and result in a lot more roll, ending up with a short pitch into the green. Again, taking on the bunkers is usually a good idea here. This theme carries over to the approach shot, where getting as close to the right green side bunker is necessary to account for the movement of the green towards the water. With the oasis of a clubhouse serving as the backdrop, it’s a nice closer for the front nine.

The Ninth
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory

The front nine loops around the northwest end of the property, throwing a little of everything at you but the par 4’s stood out the most for me. Ranking them for me would be 9, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 8, 3, 7.

The back nine starts with the 393 yard par 4 Tenth. The outer sides of the hole slopes towards the center, accommodating the narrowness of the fairway along with the bunkers on both sides that further narrow the landing area off the tee. The hole requires two precise shots and while the slopes help, the approach is tough as well, to an elevated green protected on both sides by bunkers. Hopefully your swing didn’t take too long of a break at the turn.

The Eleventh is a 396 yard par 4.While the hole is straight, the tee placement, contours and slopes make it play much differently. With the tees on the right side and the slope running from left to right, it feels a lot more like a dog leg right. The fairway heaves before running down to the green, which is sunken from the fairway. The right side really moves, so trying to use it to advance into the green is a lot of fun, whereas the bunker on the left of the green makes approaches on that side aerial shots. It’s a nicely shaped hole and I’m a sucker for sunken fairways since they’re the opposite of the overused raised greens. A nice hole.

The Eleventh
Approach from the left

The Twelfth is a 371 yard par 4. At this point, we have three par 4’s in a row of similar distances, but differentiate themselves through contours and fairway shaping. Not forced carries, a lot of bunkering, or elaborate water hazards. The hole breaks that trend with a forced carry approach. The tee shot is to a nice and wide fairway, the execution of which is vital considering the lower native area on the left and rough after the fairway ends, which must be carried to reach the green. It still plays much different than the prior two holes for a strong start to the back nine.

The Twelfth
Approach shot territory
A closer look
Great views of the mountains looking back towards the tee

The Thirteenth is a 502 yard par 5. An uphill hole with the snow capped mountains in the background, the tee shot is a forced carry over native area to a wide fairway, although bunkers lurk short left and long right. The fairway breaks at the cart path, then continues uphill with one bunker on the right and another on the left closer to the green. The green is guarded by several bunkers, on all sides. There is room in the front to run it up if you so choose. Take a sec here to enjoy the mountains in the background. Framed against the green, it’s invigorating.

The Thirteenth
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
A closer look

The Fourteenth is a 141 yard par 3. The short par 3 is even shorter with a raised tee. Unless of course, the wind is blowing against you. In that case, three clubs is not an exaggeration. The left side is a vast sand area before water while the right side slopes down towards the green. The green is small, testing the acumen with the shorter irons. Again, in the wind, acumen with the long irons. Tough hole with the wind, friends.

The Fourteenth

The Fifteenth is a 279 yard par 4. The short par 4 is all before you. The fairway runs from left to right, so decide what distance you’re comfortable with off the tee to set up the approach. The fairway does move towards the bunker on the left, so anyone going for the green or close to it favor center to right of center. Those opting for a more conservative tee shot will face an approach that needs to carry the bunker, but with the green moving from right to left, it’s not a bad angle to come in from. It’s a fun short hole. Right after the short par 3, the nice stretch of holes continues.

The Fifteenth
The green from the left side
A little closer

The Sixteenth is a 368 yard par 4. Another hole that’s straight but the tee placement, feels like a dog leg right. The tees also bring the bunker on the right a lot more into play, and the one on the left for that matter. Carrying the bunker on the right is rewarded with a nice clear look and lie into the green. The green is guarded by bunkers on the sides, but invites the ground game from the front. I liked this green and its movement.

The Sixteenth
Approach shot territory
A little closer

The Seventeenth is a 170 yard par 3. The final par 3 is a fun one, with the trouble leading up to the green, especially the sand area leading into the water. I call it the beach bunker. The hole is deceptively tough. While there is a lot of room to miss, none of it makes for an easy recovery. Hitting the green is the only option and with the healthy distance, it’s a big ask. A great looking hole that plays challenging.

The Seventeenth
A closer look
From the “beach bunker” on the right

The Eighteenth is a 468 yard par 5. Hurdzan/Fry courses like to end with a bang and this one is no different. A downhill par 5, most will steer away from the bunker on the right, but if we learned anything this round, it’s that it pays to take on the bunkers. That hold true here, as the slope will advance the ball closer and give you a better angle into the green. There’s a creek bisecting the fairway, so figure out where you want to end up with your approach, or try going for the green if you think you can. Water is along the right side after the creek, with the fairway and green moving towards it. Bunkers on the left force the issue, leaving little room for misses. The contours and slopes running to the green can be used as well for a safer option. It’s a nice end to what is really a nicely done back nine.

The Eighteenth
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
The clubhouse looks on
The green

The back nine takes up the southeastern part of the property and relies on the ground contours a bit more than the front. The par 3’s are more engaging and the Eighteenth is a nice par 5 where contours are again a nice feature. I’d rank them 11, 18, 15, 10, 17, 12, 14, 16, 13.

Generally, Firecliff does well to assert an identity as a diverse set of holes in play, functionality and visuals. While desert courses can veer towards extremes in an effort to set themselves apart, Firecliff does not. It’s challenging in the shots needed to score well, but allows recovery from most places and other paths to the greens. A balance is kept in the challenge and playability that works well; if the fairway is narrow, slopes help balls to the center. If the green is small, the fairway is wider and more receptive. Risk reward abounds here, especially with the bunkers, meaning taking them on usually translates into a much better following shot. Some of the greens undulated a little too much and were faster than they needed to be. The contours could actually be used more effectively if those were a little slower. Again, this was just a few of the greens. Generally though, I would play Firecliff again when in the area. With fierce competition based on the sheer number of options in the area, Firecliff was refreshingly subdued and relied on the ground contours for most of its character. The beach bunker was a nice touch as well. Golf is the focus here and the course does well to ensure anyone can enjoy their round.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop: The pro shop is large and has just about anything you can want. The clubhouse is well known in the area for its patio and views of the course. We were going to grab a beer after the round on the patio but there was a significant wait, showing its popularity.

Practice area: Grass range, short game area and putting green. A great facility.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.