INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — When it comes to golf, Indian Wells has a different model than most cities. Just down the road from this Coachella Valley municipality are rows of high-end resort and private courses. The competition isn't just first-rate; it's near perfect in many cases, with conditioning, scenery and quality of golf design often exceptional.
So Indian Wells Golf Resort isn't providing a cut-rate, no frills alternative to high-end golf; it simply competes with it. At times, that means the green fees can be north of $200, which on the surface might be extraordinarily high for a muni. But often it's less, and in the summer, much less. In either case, Indian Wells, which is managed by Troon Golf, represents the proverbial "you get what you pay for," and in this case, that can be a lot.
I discovered this again, most recently during a spring trip to the Palm Springs area in Southern California. Fortunately, for me and some other golf/tennis types who were visiting, this became a dream weekend. Not only did my stay include rounds on the Celebrity and Players courses at Indian Wells and gourmet dining at Indian Wells beautiful clubhouse restaurant, VUE, but it also took place during the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament next door at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. The tennis tourney is akin to the Players Championship on the PGA Tour. In other words, it's the so-called fifth major, and draws the best players in the world. A little more on the tennis later.
This isn’t your grandpa's muni clubhouse
The clubhouse at Indian Wells Golf Resort
If first impressions are important, then the drive up experience to the 53,000 square-foot clubhouse certainly impresses. Inside you'll find luxurious appointments, a spacious and well-stocked golf shop, locker rooms and restrooms that rival most high-end clubhouses, beautiful decking with outside sitting and views of the golf courses and surrounding mountains, and The VUE Bar and Grille upstairs.
The VUE isn't your typical muni clubhouse restaurant, not by a long shot. Not only does it have an extensive menu, which offers fine dining during dinner time, but it also offers one of the best wine collections as well as spirit selections in the entire Coachella Valley. In fact, the VUE has more than 280 choices of bourbons and whiskeys that run the gamut all the way up to the scarce Pappy Van Winkle, a great way to top off a steak and lobster dinner, which how I kicked off my three-day stay and play at this resort.
The visit had another twist as well: While the Indian Wells Golf Resort has several hotels right next to the golf courses – such as the Indian Wells Resort Hotel, Miramonte Resort Hotel, Hyatt Regency and Renaissance, ( a variety of golf packages are available ), I stayed at a new boutique hotel about a mile down the road called The Sands Hotel & Spa.
Located right next to the legendary Indian Wells nightclub, The Nest, The Sands has actually been around since the 1950s. The entire property has been reimagined into a chic Moroccan-themed oasis that features 42 beautifully appointed guest rooms with elaborate entertainment systems, mini-bars and bathrooms that feature open wet areas that combine a deep tub with rain-like shower. The spa and the restaurant hadn't opened yet when we stayed there, but both promise to be first-rate, in line with the luxury resorts in the area.
A look inside the bathroom at the new Sands Hotel & Spa
A two-course combo that's hard to beat
The golf at Indian Wells Golf Resort, though, is still front and center, and the courses couldn't complement each other better.
Ted Robinson designed the original West Course at Indian Wells in 1986. But 20 years later, Ted Robinson imparted an entirely new design, despite keeping most of the old majestic trees.
Perfectly manicured, 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 picturesque. And the holes are certainly memorable, like the reachable par-5 fifth with the approach shot over water to well adorned and well-protected green. In one of the most memorable moments of the Celebrity Course's history, in the 2008 LG Skins Game, Fred Couples (who holds the course record with a 62) went for the green in two. He made it over the water, but wound up in the bunker. Couples then holed out for eagle to win three skins, worth $75,000.
The par-5 fourth on the Celebrity Course
The fourth is, in fact, one of just two par 5s on the course, which means there are only two par 3s, a unique aspect that really doesn't sink in until after the round.
The Players Course, as the name would imply, probably commands a little more skill. Though the fairways are plenty generous, it's certainly more of a shot maker's layout. Designed by John Fought, the course, which hosted the LG Skins Game in 1998, features traditional rectangular tee boxes and sculpted bunkers. Fought , too, used many of the mature trees found on the original East Course that used to be there to impart the feel of a venerable facility while at the same time delivering a modern approach to golf course design.
Said Fought said at the time it was built: "The sand face bunkers are reminiscent of the work of George C. Thomas at Riviera. The mature trees, the California barrancas and stunning mountain views all combine to compose one of the finest new courses in the western United States."
Indeed, the Players Course has a more classic no-frills feel to it and is definitely more difficult on the approaches, where greens are more protected, perhaps, than they are on the Celebrity Course. They are certainly more difficult to reach and to putt on, at least personally anecdotally. I had several three-putts on the Players and no birdies. I recorded three birdies on the Celebrity, which might not be the better test of golf, but arguably, more fun.
"If you're a foursome of guys who can play, then you're going to want to try the Players Course," said Joe Williams, director of golf at Indian Wells Golf Resort. "If you're a couple and you don't play the Celebrity Course, you might be headed for divorce."
My advice: Play them both, and more than once, if you can.
An Indian Wells bonus
As noted above, the folks with the city of Indian Wells were also kind enough to provide us with an opportunity to attend the BNP Paribas Open, which is played only a couple of miles from the golf resort at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
One of the interesting aspects about the Tennis Garden, arguably the finest tennis facility in the world, is that Oracle's Larry Ellison owns it. Obviously a big tennis fan, Ellison has done wonders to elevate the status of the tournament, which a Masters Level 1000 event that draws all the big names. One of those on our first night was Serena Williams, who launched her comeback after giving birth to her first child with a first-round victory (she eventually lost in the third round to sister Venus Williams).
Watching Serena Williams play at the BNP Paribas Open
Ellison loves golf, too. He basically owns the island of Lanai in Hawaii, he also has his own private 18-hole course in nearby Rancho Mirage called Porcupine Creek. Former President Obama has played there, as have other high profile friends of Ellison's. I'm still waiting on that invitation, of course, so I can't report on the course, but like Ellison, I love a good golf-tennis combo, and playing golf and watching tennis in Indian Wells certainly satisfied that itch.