6,666 yards, 135 slope from the Black tees

La Quinta, California, one of my favorite places in the winter. For its weather, scenery, general laid back desert feel and its golf. As Palm Springs started growing east away from LA towards the Salton Sea, desert towns were born altogether or experienced unprecedented development. The Hollywood elite were pulled in that direction for its quiet isolation and privacy. Golf was the name of the game and among the earlier courses meant to draw more attention eastwards was this one. In 1981, Pete Dye’s first sojourn in this desert, where he would go on and build a number of courses throughout the years, including the PGA West Stadium. Here at the La Quinta Resort & Club, there is the Mountain and Dunes courses, both built in 1981. Coincidentally, 1981 is also when Dye built TPC Sawgrass, on completely different terrain, completely opposite coast.

Similar to Sawgrass, however, the terrain was initially entirely unsuitable for golf. While it seldom rains here, when it does the water surges down from the Santa Rosa Mountains and collects at its base, right where the course now sits. The solution was to turn the entire course into a flood retention area, where a channel at the base would direct the floodwaters elsewhere. You see the channel and tee over it on the Fourteenth, as you make your way higher and higher into the mountains. Yet one of several ways Dye and his colleagues have shown some of the upside to a more maximalist approach to course design in certain circumstances. Here and at Sawgrass, turning problematic terrain into artistic enjoyable open space.

The Mountain course climbs and slides and climb and slides along the base of the Santa Rosa, getting as high as possible into them on the back. The rocky, moonscape, craggy terrain is incorporated into the course, especially at the famous par 3 Sixteenth, its green surrounded by it as far as the eye can see, all of it below. The course is an early example of how desert golf can move beyond aerial target golf, following in the footsteps of places like Desert Forest. A blend of elevation changes and slopes with shaping and massive bunkering on the more flat terrain, it’s a fun course that I simply had to get to because of my adoration for Dye and his recent passing made it more pressing.

I specifically remember on the ride out to the desert from the airport hearing about the “novel Coronavirus,” with early cases showing up near Seattle. Less than two months from then, an unprecedented crisis unfolded, now global and still many questions left unanswered. Staggering loss and change. A barrage of travel that began with this trip and ended at the cusp of the shutdown, golf became more and more of a refuge as time carried on, and uncertainty loomed. All of this was in the distance but I still remember hearing the news report on the radio then, hoping there was a way for this virus to stand down. That hope continues today.

A crisp perfect January day in La Quinta paved the way for our round at the Mountain course. More or less peak season for the area around this time, the vastness never makes it seem crowded. My game in decent shape, finding strides of improvement simply being in the warm weather, we stepped to the First to savor this Dye classic.

The First is a 368 yard par 4 (from the Black tees). From the get go, the course gets you a bit off kilter and sets itself apart, especially from the courses being designed at the time. The waste bunker on the left is expansive and needs to be carried from the tee. Some may try to aim to the right of it, but will likely end up too far right, over the mounds and in purgatory for the approach. The fairway eventually ends, a grassy pit between the fairway and green, which must be carried. A deep green with bunkers over on the left, a bit away from the green. A dip on the right side, almost a thumbnail, complicate the slopes and undulations, appearing like the entire green pulls towards the dip. All this on the starting hole, we have arrived.

The First
Approach shot territory
The green
Looking beyond the First to the Dunes course and a green surrounded by those railroad ties

The Second is a 205 yard par 3. The group ahead graciously waved us through so I couldn’t take a photo off the tee but water is along the entire left side while a hillside is on the right, the lone bunker far right side. Yet again deep, the green should be hit from the tee since those that went right will be well above the hole on the hillside with the water waiting on the far side. The nervy opening continues.

The Second, right side of the green

The Third is a 349 yard par 4. We now make our way to the foot of the Santa Rosa. An elevated tee shot to all the room you could want and you get the sense things will now settle a bit. Vast bunkers on the left bring decisions on that side as they encroach towards the center, between you and the green. The right side runs clear to the green but gets pretty narrow. Still, the option is there for those that don’t prefer the carry over the bunkers to the green sitting above the fairway.

The Third
Approach shot territory

The Fourth is a 508 yard par 5. Running along the base of the mountains, the fairway seemingly darts further into them from the tee as the hole dog legs in general to the left. It’s almost like two dog leg lefts; the first off the tee into an enclave carved into the mountainside, then yet again from there to the green. Dye yet again plays with visuals and angles here; those trying for the right side from the tee will end up going off and downhill while those going left and trying to cut off too much on that side will end up in the larger waste bunker. The fairway continues to the green, more constant on the right while the left expands and constricts with the mountainside and waste bunker. The green is perpendicular to the green with its entry point off to the far right. All other approaches must carry that waste bunker I keep talking about, which constantly nags at you for attention. A fun par 5 toying with the mountainside, which looks down at you, likely with disdain, for no other reason than you’re so small and not at all majestic and rocky looking.

The Fourth
Down the fairway
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Fifth is a 162 yard par 3. Still right up against the mountainside, it’s a straightforward enough shot, which we’ve learned can be rare here. The green actually moves towards that mountainside, which brings the bunkers on the right side more in play. I wonder if anyone has been able to hit the mountain and have their ball then bounce on to the green, maybe even for an ace. Stranger things have happened.

The Fifth
From the right side

The Sixth is a 400 yard par 4. Still along the mountains on the left, water makes an appearance off the tee to the right. The fairway curls around it yet widens after a large bunker that’s short right. The green is perched above, using the mountainside and likely sharing in its disdain for us all. Going too far or to the left risk hitting the mountainside, where your ball could end up almost any where.

The Sixth
Approach shot territory
A little closer
Looking back just before the green
I bet I could climb up to the top, easy enough

The Seventh is a 492 yard par 5. Starting to move away from the mountains, the tee is placed well back into it. Heading straight out, the water on the right and a large bunker mercifully before it. The fairway then dog legs right, its fluctuations in width suggesting where the shots towards the green should be while massive bunkers are strewn about on the right. The green is above, the fairway ramping up to it, allowing a panacea of approaches therein. Have at it.

The Seventh
Moving down the fairway
From the right side
Approach shot territory

The Eighth is a 400 yard par 4. Back on the flatlands, the fairway starts off wide and a bit to the left, then narrows as it turns to the right and leads up to the green. Off fairway was dormant yet tangles up the ball just fine, so while fairway is ideal, off fairway in the rough is not the end of the world. The green is a good one, sloping towards the bunkers below it on the right, deep and set at an angle form the fairway. Considering the configuration of fairway to green, the off kilter theme continues, so lining up and hitting the best spot of the green are invariably more challenging than it initially seems.

The Eighth
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Ninth is a 433 yard par 4. Even wider fairway than the Eighth to start out, with a bunker dead center forcing you to choose a side. Water runs along the entire left side so the right side is best but the better angle into the green is the left. I remember looking at this green when we were near the clubhouse and remarked how tough it looked. Bunkers on each side, the green moving heavily to the left, even figuring out where to have it land seemed to be a riddle. For me, the answer was the very front, where it flattened out before going haywire more towards the center are rear. But again, the Eight and Ninth have touchy approaches yet give you all the room you could ask for off the tee, which actually needs to be used wisely.

The Ninth
Approach shot territory and the clubhouse, mountains in the background
The green, from the left

The front nine takes you out to the mountains then back to the clubhouse, using the elevation undulations near the mountain and the flatter flood plain terrain differently yet creatively. It makes you think, can be challenging and the par 4’s were especially spirited. I would rank them 3, 4, 6, 1, 9, 7, 8, 2, 5.

The back nine starts with the 372 yard par 4 Tenth. Marching back to the mountains, but the first few holes have housing a little too close for my taste. A large waste bunker pools off to the right while the wide fairway slopes towards it. The fairway ends into rough, which runs into a large bunker guarding the front of the green. The green is small and undulating, which makes that tee shot all the more important to pull off. The houses close in, maybe they’ll help you with your line.

The Tenth
Approach shot territory, albeit from the waster bunker on the right
Approach shot territory, center fairway
Shorter approach

The Eleventh is a 398 yard par 4. Set off to the left, the fairway is wide before narrowing and ending into the rough, this time the waste bunker is narrower and off to the left. The green is a forced carry with a large bunker now off to the right. Fine but too similar to the prior hole.

The Eleventh
Approach shot territory

The Twelfth is a 373 yard par 4. We continue to navigate through the houses but more to the point, the opening sequence of the back feels mailed in. Complacency seeps in. Waste bunker off to the one side from the tee, this time the left. Fairway is wide, then narrows. At least here, the fairway runs all the way to the green, which sets itself apart with its width and menacing front and center bunker. The green actually makes the hole with its movement and accessibility to the ground game.

The Twelfth
From the left side in the waste bunker
Approach shot territory

The Thirteenth is a 183 yard par 3. The foray within the labyrinth of houses is almost at an end as we inch closer to those mountains. The waste bunker encompassing short of the green, yet a trench bunker slashes in diagonally after it and the deep green dips on the front left. It’s essentially a forced carry to the green, which has a lot of cool movement and its depth makes many of the putts rip roaring.

The Thirteenth

The Fourteenth is a 389 yard par 4. Breaking away from the houses, we run to the hills, run for your lives. Not even that big of an Iron Maiden fan but had to get that one in. Dual fairways off the tee but the left one doesn’t seem to make much sense to try for. Perhaps there’s a preference for the approach over there? The right side looks more appetizing but the green does become a forced carry over the native mountainscape. The fairway narrows and climbs to the green. The background of the mountains can’t help but impress. Man climbs mountain because it’s there and from here, it’s easy to feel that. I suppose man golfs, or plays golf, depending on who is trying to make this an issue, because it’s there as well. Either way, we’re now at the base of the Santa Rosa.

The Fourteenth
Approach shot territory

The Fifteenth is a 517 yard par 5. Running along the base, the flood channel is off to the left but the fairway is large and inviting. Dog legging right and slightly up, the fairway is on the narrow side yet off fairway is manageable. Waste bunkers start on both sides towards the green for another level of challenge while the green settles in an alcove. It’s a long and lazy par 5 with plenty of mountainous marrow to take in.

The Fifteenth
This looks like that channel that diverts the floodwaters, making all of the golf possible
From the left side
Looking back

The Sixteenth is a 167 yard par 3. This hole is famous but I knew nothing of it as we climbed the cart path in the photo below. I suppose you can say I expected something like it. Pushing the envelope, making as much use of the mountain surrounds, I wonder if this drew inspiration from the Seventeenth at Sawgrass or inspired it. The green is amidst a sea of mountain rocks, which we tee off to from above. There’s a bunker to the left and below the green but for the most part, you’re hitting the green or the mountain. An impressive setting.

We ascend
This looks like a river came through here, many moons ago
The Sixteenth
Stairs to the back tees
The back tees
A view of the Fifteenth
From the left
Looking back at the tee

The Seventeenth is a 446 yard par 4. The mountainside close at hand, the tee shot hops over some native area and avoids the massive waste bunker off to the left. Yet do not stray too much to the right, for the fairway dives down before reaching the curtilage strewn about the hills. A lot. The approach is straightforward, making the tee shot more imperative. The setting remains serene.

The Seventeenth
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Eighteenth is a 504 yard par 5. The fairway dog legs left after the tee area. The fairway is wide but ends at the cart path (ugh) before picking up on the other side, much slimmer than before. Bending to the left around a smattering of smaller bunkers on the left side before the green, a smaller more spaced out smattering on the back/rear side. A tamer par 5 to end things, knowing the crescendo was a few holes ago, so strikes the right note of a more relaxed enjoyable finish.

The Eighteenth
Moving down the fairway
The green

The back nine starts off rather generic with housing pressing a little too much but the holes closer to the mountainside were worth the wait, all of them different and using the terrain well. I would rank them 17, 14, 16, 15, 18, 10, 12, 13, 11.

Generally, the Mountain course was trailblazing for how it married the natural landscape with shaping with engineering, all relying on the other for its existence and appeal. The holes adjust to the terrain, which goes on through to the style of play. There’s diversity with that while it lacks some what at the start of the back, which also happens to be the least interesting and confined terrain. For when this course was built, it went against a good amount of what was considered necessary for a successful course but was widely acclaimed. Sawgrass on the other hand was not initially well received and went through a lot of work subsequent to its opening to get to where it is today. Yet here, again, there was some great terrain. A great setting that Dye used well in his style yet let the natural landscape flourish. Definitely worth playing for those fond of Dye’s work and in the area looking for a course that sets itself apart from the standard desert course fare.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop: A Spanish style airy and open throughout, a cool breeze always seems to be flowing through. A great place to relax even if you’re not there to golf.

Practice area: A range looking out to the mountains, a short game area and putting green.