The toughest of the three public tracks at the PGA West golf complex, Pete and Alice Dye’s TPC Stadium course plays host to the PGA Tour “Q-School” Finals every two years. And such is the scale of the operation at this facility, there are another three 18-hole layouts – designed by Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf – available for private play.
First opened to the golfing public in 1986, the TPC Stadium course was one of the earliest venues for the end of season Skins game – the popular televised 4-ball match that ran for twenty six years – and golfers of a certain vintage might still remember the hole in one that Lee Trevino made in 1987 at the par three 17th, winning a carry-over skin of $175,000.Water plays a prominent part in proceedings at half the holes on the card, most notably at the 5th to the 7th, around the turn and on the closing two holes. “Alcatraz,” the aforementioned 168-yard 17th, is probably the toughest of all these aquatically-challenged holes as it requires a do or die tee shot to a tiny island green – now where have we seen that sort of Dye feature before?
One of the toughest courses I have ever played. A Pete Dye design it throws a little bit of everything at you. For a desert course it has an amazing amount of water hazards. It is so difficult that after the 1987 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, the tour players created a petition to have it removed from the rotation. The La Quinta Resort opened in the late 1920s as an exclusive enclave for Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable, Greta Garbo and Errol Flynn. Located in Palm Springs, California, golf first started being played there in the 1930s. Today the La Quinta Resort itself has five courses with a myriad in the surrounding area. From the tips it is 7300 yards with a Slope Rating of 150. Just about every hole is a white knuckler. As an example, the 6th hole is a 255 yard par 3 that is all carry with the bailout left. My foursome deposited 9 balls in the water hazard before we finally moved on. The 550 yard plus par 5 16th gained notoriety when Tip O’Neill could not extricate himself from the left green side bunker at the Bob Hope Dessert Classic. To fans’ amusement, after ten attempts, he finally tossed his ball out; in fairness to the former Speaker of the House, the bunker is over 18 feet DEEP! The 17th hole, named Alcatraz, an island green par 3 is probably the most famous hole, partially due to Lee Trevino’s hole in one at the 1987 Skins game that paid him $175k.
I usually make at least one trip to the Coachella Valley each year to play ‘desert’ golf, but this week I made my first trip to La Quinta to the PGA West resort to play the Stadium Course. As with many people, I picked late spring/ early summer to take advantage of reduced green fees and to avoid the triple digit temperatures that are imminent.
They include all the facilities you would expect of a top resort, GPS carts, great practice facility, well stocked shop, training academy etc.
What I hadn’t realized was that the Stadium course weaves through PGA West resort properties, though they are rarely the focus of your attention on this Pete Dye layout. Typically, you are standing on the tee boxes looking out over water or extensive bunkering and trying to figure out whether to play safe or go risk/reward. This was also the first time I have played a Pete Dye layout. Whilst it is true of many of the desert resort courses, it is obvious at the Stadium course that this was a man-made landscape. There is very little that looks natural about the mounding that frames almost every hole and green (which looks a little more like Hobbiton/ Tellytubby land at times).
The bunkering on every hole is extensive, often with a large trap lining one side of the fairway landing areas, stretching 50 yards or more on many holes. On the 16th hole (San Andreas) the greenside bunker must be over 20 ft deep and runs at least 50 yards up the left greenside approach.
For a desert course, there is a surprising amount of water on the course, typically in the form of lakes/ lagoons that will allow several holes to encircle each one treacherously, whether forced carries from the tee or tricky approach shots. Perhaps the most infamous hole is Alcatraz, the par 3 17th, where there is a plaque commemorating Lee Trevino’s ace at the 1987 Skins Game (which I watched as a kid). There really is no easy option here but a solid shot to the green.
With all that said, if you pick an appropriate tee box (the course can stretch to over 7300 yards), then this course is actually a lot of fun. During our visit, (last day of May), the course was in beautiful condition, with firm, true greens, lush fairways and modest rough. Bunkers generally contained consistent levels of sand (though I managed to avoid all bar one) and the tee boxes were green, well mown and well repaired from divot marks. I ended up breaking 80, playing a little under 6500 yds (not bad for a 13 handicapper).
Don’t expect traditional golf design. I don’t know much about Pete Dye, but clearly he has created an entirely different approach to designing golf courses. I really did have to think my way round the course both off the tee and approaching the greens, which keeps me interested and engaged. Yes, there is lots of ‘target’ golf, and major opportunities to ruin your scorecard, but if you can control where you hit the golf ball (which is what we are all attempting to do), then you can be rewarded with a good score here.
Generally speaking, if you leave your approaches short of the greens will be punished either by deep bunkers or water. Go long and there is usually a bail out area and a chance for an up and down.
Am I glad I played this course? Absolutely. Did it help that I played well and got a good deal on tee times? You bet. But this has also been on my bucket list since moving to California, so I can at least have bragging rights to having played ‘that course the pros thought was too hard’.
"Golf is not a fair game, so why build a fair course?" Pete Dye
The course has Dye's stamp all over it, railroad ties, menacing rough and crazily positioned bunkers and greens, all of which can make for a tough round.
That being said, it was quite a treat to play at course with so much history between the skins games, pro tournaments and the Q School lore. Holes can be played well but if you are offline a little bit, Dye makes you pay and my round alternated between being impressed by the vision carved by bulldozers on each hole versus cursing its penal nature.
The 17th hole/Alcatraz is as intimidating as it looks on TV. The straight ahead nature of the shots forces you to trust your swing and distance and hope both line up at the same time.
I played the course during this summer (when you can get great rates for Palm Springs golf) but the downside was that the greens were in horrible shape and really marred the round. I am a huge fan of TPC Stadium but no way would I play there again until checking the conditioning first.
Overall, A+ for the history, a grudging B+ for the routing (if I was playing better, it would be higher) and a C for the then-summer conditioning (which I am sure is fantastic the rest of the year just be careful in June and July) and A+ for the staff and restaurant.
Food tip, definitely get a meal at the restaurant right by the pro shop, really good!