The first among equals for me in rating a course is the land a course occupies. In my mind, the quality of the land is no less than 60% of my total evaluation. There's no set guarantee but often when you have a great piece of land the probability is that the golf there will be really special. There are exceptions to this -- Old Head in Ireland is blessed with incomparable beauty but the overall golf product is not in the same league as what Mother Nature provided.
On the flip side you have places like The Old Course at St. Andrews nearly dead flat yet utterly magnificent for the range of obstacles a golfer must avoid in order to score well.
The Coachella Valley area in the California desert has an incredible array of golf courses -- roughly in the neighborhood of 125. The golf originally was created as a seasonal getaway for snow birds eager to enjoy the comfort and warmth of the desert. Being located near to large metro areas such as Los Angeles and San Diego respectively provided a steady base of customers wanting to enjoy what the area provides.
Unfortunately, much of the golf design that exists in the area is simply formulaic and pedestrian in character. The courses are often non-descript and frankly nearly indistinguishable from one another. Much of that has to do with the land which is often dead flat, and, as a result, architects have had to create numerous features which clearly are either overdone or simply completely forgettable once the round concludes.
Finding quality land is no easy chore since many developments have used such land for real estate purposes.
One of the most striking aspects when going to Stone Eagle in Palm Desert begins with its location. As you trek up highway 74 from the downtown area you must pay close attention to the small entrance way that leads to the facility. It is so easy to miss it and believe the nearby development at Big Horn is where the course is located.
Stone Eagle is tucked away -- located on rolling terrain high above the desert floor -- and nestled in a cove of land that is part of the San Jacinto Mountain Range. The isolation plays a key role in setting the mode for the round ahead. The facility is also blessed with no major housing intrusions -- the adjoining mountains you see throughout the round allow for a true "disconnect" from daily life.
The acclaimed architect Tom Doak designed the course and if there's one thing Doak attempts to do with his designs is to provide a "fun" connection through hole diversity and clever routings. Often times Doak eschews courses where the measurement is strictly on over-the-top slavish desire for overall difficulty. The Doak mantra often involves complex putting surfaces where recovery is often far from elementary.
Stone Eagle is not long by today's standards - coming in just under 6,900 yards. However, the elevation change is present with a few holes playing noticeably uphill and downhill.
When you arrive at the 1st tee you see an expansive piece of land -- not segregated by the predictable fairway cuts often seen at countless other courses. Stone Eagle blends from one hole to the next -- often with expansive fairways that carry over to adjoining areas with nothing more than isolated circular desert areas sprinkled about and must be avoided whenever possible.
The unique element of Stone Eagle is that even with its noticeable elevation changes you don't feel as if there is major shot distortion between uphill and downhill holes. The first three holes get the juices going and when you arrive at the 4th and 5th holes you encounter two superbly done par-4's The former is listed at 464 yards but it is the latter which is listed at 418 yards that plays quite a bit longer because of the elevation change uphill in the opposite direction.
The risk/reward par-5 8th is another well-crafted hole -- stronger players need to decide if carrying the desert-surrounded green complex is worth the gamble. At the downhill 9th you encounter the encroachment of the aforementioned desert islands which restrict the fairway the deeper the tee shot is played.
The inward half begins with a quality par-4 -- playing uphill and likely adding 1-2 additional clubs. At the downhill par-4 11th Doak brilliantly narrows the fairway to prevent long hitters from simply slugging away with impunity. The key starts at the tee -- does the player take an aggressive play or follow a more cautious route avoiding two pesky fairway bunkers wonderfully positioned.
Stone Creek constantly provides quality hole differentiation -- the short par-3 12th is followed by another risk/reward par-5. Here the players must decide how close to play to the more demanding right side -- fiercely protected by a bunker on that side. Assuming players get tee shots to where the fairway comes to an end you're left with an uphill shot to a contoured green. Birdie is doable -- just never given away.
The finishing five of holes at Stone Eagle is well done. The uphill 14th is Stone Eagle's finest hole in my mind. The tee shot is challenged with a progressively narrowing fairway -- you have to be especially straight as the desert pinches in from both sides and eventually cuts the fairway off. The green is well done -- protected by a lone bunker left and with falloffs to the sides. You make par here and you've done yourself proud.
The 15th is a good par-3 -- desert pushing in from the right and the green hugging that side. The short downhill par-4 16th once again tightens up the more the player opts to get closer to the green off the tee. Just a solid strategic hole where birdie is possible but a quick bogey is very much a reality.
The uphill par-5 17th provides a clear counterpoint to the last few holes played. This time you ascend the hill and the desert circular areas encroach at different positions. The green is protected by two frontal bunkers and any shot hit deep into the green will have a difficult two-putt situation.
The closing hole at Stone Eagle ends the day in rousing fashion. It's the longest par-4 -- 490 yards and all downhill. At the tee the player must decide just how risk to take. The deeper the tee shot the more pressing the need for accuracy is required. The green is diagonally angled and the back left portion is especially hard to reach. A very deep bunker guards that side like a junkyard dog.
For those so inclined Doak added a "19th hole" -- a short par-3 of 151 yards to settle any remaining wagers. It's a fine way to conclude the day's play.
Stone Eagle will likely never host any major championship or PGA Tour event -- the logistics would not make that possible. Unlike so many other courses where such hosting big events is crucial to their identify such as not the case with Stone Eagle.
Doak has made his mark on maximizing character as the central motif of his designs -- not the single minded pursuit of sheer difficulty. Often times desert courses have been labeled as being one-dimensional with little playability. That's not the case here. Stone Eagle is one of those rare places where the land and shotmaking merges in a scintillating fashion. Anyone coming to the greater Coachella Valley area that has the opportunity should by all means play Stone Eagle. This bird certainly flies high in a big time way.
by M. James Ward
Date: March 20, 2017