PGA West (Pete Dye Mountain): A Thrill Ride in the Desert

On my trip to Palm Springs this winter, I came home with two key learnings:

  1. Pete Dye has become one of my favorite all-time golf architects.
  2. Don’t mess with the desert.

More on that second point later.

Regarding Dye, it feels odd that I love his work so much, given my general disdain for the late 20th century pro-focused, penal style of course design that Dye championed and even accelerated in the industry at the time.

But the fact remains that all of the Dye venues I’ve played, now four, have resulted in exceptional and highly memorable golf experiences. To me, this illustrates that Dye was able to do what his contemporary peers were largely unable or unwilling to do – create courses that look intimidating but can still yield a low score to a mid-handicapper playing the correct set of tees and executing their game plan well.

The Pete Dye Mountain Course at PGA West gave me this epiphany on a gorgeous winter morning in the desert. This well-regarded track was one I was looking forward to playing, but I didn’t fully know what to expect as it tends to be overlooked by Dye’s more famous works. Of course I’ve loved Dye’s epic championship masterpieces such as Whistling Straits and The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, but experiencing one of his lesser-known layouts gave me a deeper look into his design prowess.

There isn’t much water to contend with on the Mountain Course by Pete Dye standards, but the par 3 second offers one of his signature features: railroad ties!

The 1980’s ushered in an explosion of golf development in the Palm Springs region. Developers and former professionals Ernie Vossler and Joe Walser, Jr. saw an opportunity to build a golfing oasis in the Coachella Valley to cater to West Coast retirees and vacationers. Starting with the Pete Dye Mountain and Dunes courses at La Quinta Resort, Vossler and Walser went on to build the main PGA West apparatus a few years later, a sprawling residential golf hub now donning seven courses. The resort was a smashing success, and Dye’s notoriously difficult Stadium Course became host to the PGA Tour’s Bob Hope Desert Classic shortly thereafter.

With a prestigious Tour event taking center stage in La Quinta as part of the West Coast Swing each January, the Mountain and Dunes courses have slipped into relative obscurity as resort-only courses. However, this 36-hole facility occupies a much more dramatic and picturesque site than the nearby PGA West mothership property. The venue sits at the base of (and even within) the Santa Rosa Mountain Range, offering panoramic close-up views of the mountains on nearly every shot.

Even the more “ordinary” holes at the Mountain Course, like the par 5 seventh pictured here, feature sublime views of the omnipresent mountains just hundreds of yards away.

Say what you will about Pete Dye and over-engineered golf courses of the modern era, I find his properties fun and engaging, and feel like I have a real shot at scoring well on his dramatic layouts. Every time I’ve played a Dye course I’ve left in an upbeat mood, loving the game more than when I arrived. And that was certainly the case after my round at his Mountain Course on a beautiful January day in the Coachella Valley.

This layout dials back the extreme penal features commonly found on the Dye’s designs, making it one of his more playable tracks. Water hazards and forced carries are in short supply, for instance, and moderate-to-wide fairways allow for lower-pressure tee shots that are beautifully framed by the mountain range in the background (there may not be anything sweeter than tracking a well-struck shot against a mountain backdrop).

The 10th kicks off a brief tour of the property’s residential area, with an inviting looking tee shot to a wide fairway.

Ease off the tee is offset by challenging approach shots into tiny, elevated greens. These were some of the smallest greens I’ve seen on a modern design, and the visual angles made the elevation changes tough to judge. I wish I hadn’t left my RH Fore back home in Madison by accident, as I sorely missed its slope assistance!

These elements provide plenty of challenge, and place an extreme emphasis on chipping. Thick, lush rough plagued my round in the early going as I struggled to make clean contact on chips from just off the green while shaking off two months of rust. While I’ve played some simulator golf this winter, that doesn’t count as real practice in my book for chipping purposes.

Once on the green, undulating slopes combined with the small green sizes meant that many pins were necessarily placed near slopes, making putting a very tough proposition, as well. Failing to get up-and-down and three-putting from moderate distances were unfortunate recurring themes early on in the round.

The par 4 third features a miniscule back tier – good luck two-putting here!

The property crescendos between a lush, parkland setting and two incredible stretches literally carved out of the towering Santa Rosa Mountains. Holes 13 through 18 go into full throttle, journeying into the mountains and using the topography to create memorable risk-reward opportunities. This six-hole stretch is one of the most impressive closing sequences I’ve experienced, a feat of golf engineering on the face of a mountain.

The extremely elevated back tee on the 16th offers a superb vantage point of the mountain-straddling 14th and 15th holes

Course Summary

PGA West (Pete Dye Mountain)

La Quinta, CA

Established 1980

Architect: Pete Dye

Par 72, 6666/6280/5732/5292/4844/3745 Yards

Course Highlights

After three somewhat ordinary, “inland” holes to kick off the round, #4 through #6 amp up the drama, closely hugging the mountains to the left. This is a great preview of what’s to come on the back nine.

Hole 4 – Par 5, 508/494/437/414/384/285 Yards

The 4th is a relatively short, uphill par 5 that bends slightly left around a massive Dye-signature fairway trap. Long hitters will need to challenge the bunker off the tee to set up a possible go at the green in two. The approach to the fourth follows a recurring theme on the Mountain Course – it’s deceptively uphill, and extra club is required.

On the 4th, the approach shot is more uphill than it appears

Hole 5 – Par 3, 162/151/122/112/95/93 Yards

The 5th is a downhill one-shotter where I learned a lesson about desert golf the hard way. Before we get to that, I’d be remiss not to mention the terrific overlook from the unused, elevated back tee – be sure to hike up the slope and check it out!

The pro tee built into the mountain on #5 provides the front nine’s best vista.

So, about that desert mishap. I under-clubbed off the tee (again), came up just short of the green and rolled backwards into the front bunker. From an uphill lie, a thinned sand shot found its way to the desert behind the green. With frustration boiling and my ball visible next to some brush, I foolishly climbed up the slope in an attempt to play or at least retrieve my ball.

Unfortunately for me, what appeared to be harmless brush next to my ball was actually an incredibly thorny bush with long branches that completely ensnared me. Briefly trapped in the thorns, I carefully struggled my way out and took the drop I should have taken to begin with, with two bloody gashes to show for it. After incurring the wrath of the local vegetation, lesson learned – don’t mess with the desert. Swallow your pride and take a drop if you find yourself in a similar situation!

Hole 6 – Par 4, 400/352/321/301/264/206 Yards

Literally licking my wounds from the desert disaster on the fifth, we headed to #6, the last mountainside hole until the back nine. This shorter par 4 features one of the property’s most demanding tee shots, which must avoid water and sand to the right and the desert left. Accuracy off the tee is also essential to set up the approach shot to a tiny, shallow green perched into the mountainside, a surface will only accept a deftly-hit short iron from the fairway.

The sixth has one of the layout’s most demanding approaches.

The rest of the front nine heads away from the mountain, weaving between palm trees and past large bunkers and ponds.

Hole 9 – Par 4, 433/403/ 352/302/200 Yards

The ninth (shown in feature photo) stood out as the most interesting hole of the front nine’s closing stretch with a huge fairway split by a centerline bunker. The left route off the tee may cut off distance, but yields a poorer approach angle than the right. I wisely chose to aim at the center bunker to play my fade, and after my best drive of the day was left with a mid-iron and a favorable angle, setting the stage for an easy par.

The Palm Springs area is packed with golf courses winding their way through residential areas, replete with houses on both sides of many holes. Overly residential settings can produce a bit of a boring experience, but only three holes on PGA West Mountain fall into this category – 10 through 12. This is a relaxing part of the round, traversing a lush oasis setting with gorgeous Spanish Colonial homes framing the property beautifully.

The short par 4 12th blends in seamlessly with its residential surroundings.

These three consecutive par fours of similar length all boast compact and well-defended putting surfaces, making for a taxing start to the nine as a prelude to an unforgettable concluding stretch that awaits.

The 11th green offers little margin for error on the approach shot.

Hole 13 – Par 3, 183/162/140/134/108/95 Yards

The short thirteenth emerges from the La Quinta Resort neighborhood and takes a beeline into the mountains. This mid-length par 3 is all carry over sand to a small, elevated target. I thankfully exited the bogey train here after a solid tee shot to the center of the green.

The picturesque 13th doesn’t provide many options – either hit an accurate iron shot or face a daunting recovery.

#14 – Par 4, 389/377/358/310/303/215 Yards

The 14th is where the true magic starts. Playing up a slope into a valley carved between the mountains, we found ourselves suddenly transplanted into a secluded, surreal setting. While bunkers border the front and left sides of the fairway, it’s important to avoid favoring the right side off the tee, which drops steeply into the desert short of driver distance for most players. The best play is to aggressively take aim over the fairway traps to a blind fairway that collects at the base of a hill. From there, it’s a short iron uphill to a well-protected green.

The mountain-touring 14th plays to an elevated green (lower left center) fronted by deep bunkers.

#15 – Par 5, 517/502/490/464/456/370

As far as risk-reward par 5’s go, the 15th is one of the most impressive I’ve seen, plunging down a hill that gives more players an opportunity to get home in two. First, the tee shot must bisect the mountain to the right and a long bunker all the way up the left side. The fairway then bends sharply right around the mountain to a semi-hidden green with trouble surrounding three sides. The layup route is fairly straightforward and sets up a very manageable wedge shot to a flat green.

After a very good drive, I found 250 to be too long of an all-carry distance with a mountain deflection in play, so I wisely chose the layup route. My patience was rewarded with the first of two tap-in birdies of the day.

#16 – Par 3, 167/157/89/69 Yards

Pete Dye brought island greens to the masses, most famously with his penultimates at TPC Sawgrass and the PGA West Stadium Course. At #16 on the Mountain Course, he gave us a new take on an island green, one that is completely surrounded by the desert instead of water.

This vantage point offers a sweeping view of the Coachella Valley and the city of La Quinta, one of the best vistas I encountered on the entire trip. Into the breeze, my nervous choke-down 7-iron sliced precipitously towards the desert. Thankfully, I found the island of grass (albeit in the rough) and managed an up-and-down par.

The 16th plays spectacularly downhill to a unique type of Pete Dye island green.

#17 – Par 4, 446/412/371/323/274 Yards

The 17th completes the thrilling descent down the mountain, with steep slopes looming down its right side. However, drives up the right side of the fairway will be rewarded with a better angle into a green that is protected short-left by a deep bunker. After an accurate but short tee shot, I was unable to run a hybrid onto the right side of the green, due to a repelling shoulder short and right. For that reason, it’s best to let loose off the tee and get as far down the fairway as possible.

The 17th concludes the routing’s exploration of the mountains in dramatic fashion.

#18 – Par 5, 504/475/456/407/399/292 Yards

This is the perfect closer for a resort course – a very short, reachable par 5. Slightly bending to the left around residential OB, bold drives up the left side will be rewarded as a slope will funnel them into position for a go at the green.

I shook off my winter slice in timely fashion here, bombing a straight ball into optimal position. That ultimately led to my second stress-free birdie of the day, a memorable way to close out the golfing portion of the trip. After being even bogey through 12 holes, it felt pretty good to finish strong on the spectacular final six holes to salvage an 84.

Worse fates are in play on the 18th than my own, with an elevated, tiered green surrounded by bunkers that could impose some late scorecard inflation.

Closing Thoughts

As I walked off the 18th green, my immediate reaction from playing this course was wow, that was fun. And that sums up this property aptly – simply put, it’s a highly enjoyable resort course that basks in its incredible natural setting. It’s very playable for all levels of golfers (did you see those front tee yardages?), provides plenty of challenge with its microscopic elevated greens complexes, and is one of the most scenic courses I’ve ever played that doesn’t border a large body of water.

The amenities at the Mountain/Dunes facility are fantastic, as well. Its sprawling modern clubhouse features a large dining area with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the course and the mountain-framed Coachella Valley in the background.

The driving range is located in a surreal setting, where I could spend hours hitting shots into the mountain backdrop and not get bored.

The driving range at PGA West’s Mountain and Dunes courses boasts one of the coolest backdrops I’ve ever seen at a practice facility.

Add it all up and you have a course that will debut just inside the top 25 of my course rankings, no small feat when you consider that top-notch Wisconsin properties Minocqua Country Club and The Club at Lac La Belle made similar first impressions on me last season.

With his Mountain Course, Pete Dye proved that his design genius went deeper than the most famous courses in his portfolio, and he really showed off just how fun he can make the game with a lighter, more playable touch.

On a Palm Springs-area golf trip, missing the Pete Dye Mountain Course at PGA West would make for a true hole in an itinerary, and I’ll be sure to include it on any trip to the area in the future. And next time, I’ll take a drop instead of wandering into the desert for my ball.

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