Must-play Rams Hill Golf Club in Borrego Springs: Rebirth in the southern California desert

BORREGO SPRINGS, Calif. -- Driving in to this sleepy, artsy desert town doesn't prepare you for the rebirth -- the oasis that Rams Hill Golf Club has become.

The course actually borders the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park -- California's largest state park. Everywhere you look is tawny desert, 90 miles of back roads and winding pavement from San Diego but still in San Diego County.

But if you walk out on the patio of The Yacht Club, the excellent restaurant at Rams Hill, there's a spectacular panorama of lush green fairways bordered by tall golden grasses, blooming desert flowers sprinkled with succulent plants, water features streaming over rock, and finally a mountain backdrop.

Golf praise phrases apply here -- ideal conditioning that's lush but plays firm and fast and smooth bentgrass greens normally found only at ritzy country clubs.

Hard to believe this beauty was shut down in 2010, a casualty of economic downturn and water rights. Rams Hill was placed in exodus mode with little hope of a future a genesis.

For more than three years, Rams Hill returned to brown. Even the landmark resort, La Casa del Zorro -- dating back to 1936 and less than a mile away -- was closed. It has hosted President Nixon and President Reagan.

But new ownership and an excellent superintendent named Steven Gregory brought Rams Hill back to life.

If Director of Golf Mike Setchell has heard it once, he's heard it hundreds of times. "I'm constantly told this is the best conditioned public golf course I've ever played."

Rams Hill Golf Club: The rebirth

Bill Berkley, as CEO of T2 Borrego, a Rancho Santa Fe real estate investor, purchased the property and its 3,000 acres in 2013 for $842,000. Berkley said the company has since invested millions.

The irrigation system had to be updated since sprinkler heads had been sold. Bunkers and greens were restored with new sand and seed, and dining options were added.

"We started in November 2013 and a year later, reopened," Setchell said.

Water concerns in today's California drought? The club now has six wells. "The water is non-potable ... so we aren't taking anything from the local drinking water supply. And we added native grasses and drought-resistant plants trying to do our part to conserve."

Rams Hill: A Fazio journey you won't forget

Ted Robinson initially designed a 27-hole layout in 1983. That layout was loved, but in 2007, Tom Fazio was brought in to re-design. The new ownership and name -- Montesoro Golf & Social Club -- only lasted until 2010 when real estate values faced an economic downturn.

Thankfully, 2014 brought back the must-play with a return to the Rams Hill name.

"This land is just a perfect fit," Setchell continued. "We are 72 miles from PGA West, but with an altitude of 1,000 feet, it is just cool enough in the evenings to be successful growing bentgrass greens. And a little breeze comes up the afternoon to cool things off a little. It is not tricked up, and you can see what is in front of you all day long."

One of the best examples of seeing the entire hole is no. 18, a 577-yard, par 5. It sweeps downhill on the drive, a swinging dogleg right. Hit a down slope and have a breeze to the back, and it could be your longest drive of the day.

Numerous fairway bunkers are left and right with a pond on the right catching water that rolls downhill from the clubhouse in small water fall stages over large rocks. Water even wraps behind the green.

There's no excuse to miss this massive fairway and envision your trip to a birdie. Oh yeah, the mountains form a flawless backdrop.

I can't think of a bad hole. Back-to-back par 3s at 10 and 11 will challenge you at 151 and 213 yards. While the 17th hole is only 331 yards, it's a minefield of bunkers with a left turn on the approach to an elevated smaller and harder to hit green.

This golf course was as fun as any I've played in Palm Springs. It is easily as good as any in San Diego County.

Rams Hill Golf Club: Stay and play

La Casa del Zorro (lacasadelzorro.com) has a can't-miss stay-and-play with Rams Hill Golf Club for $192 double occupancy. You will pay twice that in Palm Springs for the value of Rams Hill and La Casa del Zorro.

This iconic resort spreads out on 42 acres giving you star-gazing solitude and offers 19 private casitas, with your own pool. Don't miss the Butterfield Dining Room and the Fox Den Bar & Cantina.

Zorro's 44 poolside guest rooms are perfect rustic desert charm with modern comfort -- high-vaulted ceilings, tile floors, wood-burning fireplaces and marble bathtubs.

Both the guest rooms and the casitas are appointed with free wifi, terrycloth robes, coffeemakers and large flat-panel TVs.

Zorro has six lighted tennis courts, three guest-use pools, fitness center, yoga studio, conference center and spa.

David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter @David_R_Holland.
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Must-play Rams Hill Golf Club in Borrego Springs: Rebirth in the southern California desert
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