Johnny Dawson and Lawrence Hughes originally designed the golf course at Thunderbird Country Club and its tees opened for play in 1951 on the site of a former dude ranch. Historically, the club was the first to use golf carts and these were in action at Thunderbird from the early beginnings and this was also one of the first Californian desert golf courses to be constructed.
Thunderbird Country Club played host to the 1955 Ryder Cup matches between the USA and Great Britain. Team Captains were Chick Harbert (US) and Dai Rees (GB). The Thunderbird course was only four years old and was considered insufficiently challenging for the Ryder Cup. However, the rough was grown and the fairways were narrowed enabling the American team, spearheaded by Slammin’ Sam Snead, to cruise to a comfortable victory. This was the seventh consecutive Ryder Cup title for the USA, which prompted Lord Brabazon of Tara, then president of the Professional Golfers Association of Great Britain, to pass his Winston Churchill-influenced comment at the closing ceremony. USA 8 - GB 4. The Ryder Cup was played at Wentworth in 1953 and at Lindrick in 1957.
In the Rock-n-Roll 1950s, the Thunderbird Country Club attracted celebrities from all over the USA and it wasn’t long before the Ford Motor Company heard about the place. Ford subsequently named their iconic Thunderbird car after the Country Club and even used the club’s logo as the car’s insignia.
Located in California’s Coachella Valley, the golf course at Thunderbird was the site of the first Bob Hope Classic (formerly known as the Thunderbird Invitational), but the club’s biggest claim to fame was when it hosted the 1955 Ryder Cup matches. Team USA beat Great Britain convincingly. Lord Brabazon of Tara, then president of the Professional Golfers Association of Great Britain, said in the closing speeches, “We have learned a lot, although we have lost, and we are going back to practice in the streets and on the beaches.”
Today’s golf course bears no resemblance to that of the original rock-n-roll layout. Thunderbird was completely remodelled in 1986 by Ted Robinson. However, it’s still a relatively short and pleasant desert layout, but further course expansion is restricted by attractive real estate that line most of the fairways.
Thunderbird is the quintessential country club from yesteryear. The layout has been updated and the facilities sport an elegant side of things with a desert motif that clearly shines. The issue for Thunderbird is that the overall level of golf architecture has truly ramped up throughout the greater Coachella Valley. The elite private clubs in the area now not only provide all the amenities but also have sophisticated designs that truly have more lasting memorability via design heft.
Thunderbird is fairly basic and you get the formulaic array of vanilla holes promoting an intense manicured look but hardly delving below the surface with any lasting depth.
Thunderbird had a clear role in the greater Palm Springs area when serving as a host for a Ryder Cup match. That fact will forever be in the archives. Alas, the Thunderbird that exists today provides an elementary golf connection but one that hardly conveys a feeling of "I must return".
M. James Ward