Where to find the best public Palm Springs golf courses

Where to find the best public Palm Springs golf courses

Nestled in the mountains in and around Palm Springs are some of the nation’s best golf courses. With more than 100 top-tier, skill-testing courses, a golfer could legitimately play a different Palm Springs golf course every day for months and not hit them all.

The area’s love affair with golf began in 1961 with the first course built inside the city limits, Indian Canyons Golf Resort. In the years since, the courses have only grown — in number, in size, in style and in complexity. Add in the area’s amazing restaurants, first-rate hotels, stellar activities and mountain views, and it’s easy to see how this golfer’s paradise came to be.

If you’re planning a trip to the desert and looking to hit the links, we’re shining the spotlight on four of the best public golf courses in Palm Springs where you’ll find unparalleled play alongside unforgettable settings.

A General View of the 17th hole on the PGA West Palmer Golf Course in Palm Springs, California. The dramatic sights at PGA West are some of the best you’ll find at any golf course in America.

David Cannon/Getty Images

PGA West: Disney World for golfers

Carved into majestic mountains and only minutes from Palm Springs, PGA West is Walt Disney World for golfers. It’s home to a dizzying 162 holes of championship golf across five of the best public golf courses near Palm Springs and four private ones, with five clubhouses and numerous restaurants for good measure.

The course architects who made it possible are a who’s who of golf greats — Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Pete Dye, Greg Norman and Tom Weiskopf — and that heritage shows in PGA West’s Pete Dye Stadium Course, which has a reputation as one of the most challenging courses in the world. This iconic venue is so tough, in fact, that after its PGA Tour debut at the 1987 Bob Hope Classic, the pros refused to return in 1988 until changes were made, a ban that effectively ran until 2015. Hey, they didn’t call Dye “The Marquis of Sod” for nothing.

Si Woo Kim of South Korea celebrates a birdie putt on the 17th hole at The American Express tournament on the Stadium course at PGA West on January 24, 2021 in La Quinta, California.  The Pete Dye-designed course is regarded as one of the toughest in America.

Si Woo Kim of South Korea celebrates a birdie putt on the 17th hole at The American Express tournament on the Stadium course at PGA West on January 24, 2021 in La Quinta, California. The Pete Dye-designed course is regarded as one of the toughest in America.

Harry How/Getty Images

Nowhere is the Stadium Course’s infamy more evident than on Hole No. 17. The most notorious hole in the entire Coachella Valley, this par 3 is known as Alcatraz: a threatening island green, ringed with rocks and backed by a game-crushing pot bunker for those who overshoot. Golf fans will recognize Alcatraz and PGA West’s other challenging holes from the PGA Tour’s annual American Express tournament, aka the Desert Classic.

Beyond the fairways, three resort clubhouses are welcome the public. The Tournament Clubhouse, anchored by Ernie’s Bar and Grill, features sports-bar dining, from wings and local beer to filet and Opus One. The Greg Norman Clubhouse is a low-slung ranch-style slice of the Australian Outback that serves up casual Wine Country fare in Wallaby’s West. The Pete Dye Clubhouse is home to Pete’s Grill focusing on locally sourced fruits and vegetables, lean meats and California seafood.

Find it: 55-955 PGA Blvd., La Quinta, CA 92253; 760-564-7111

Escena Golf Club's fairways reveal the type of natural beauty that's common around Palm Springs, California, but still somehow unbelievable.  Escena's public course is well rated by players.

Escena Golf Club’s fairways reveal the type of natural beauty that’s common around Palm Springs, California, but still somehow unbelievable. Escena’s public course is well rated by players.

Smitha B. via Yelp

Escena Golf Club: Choose your own adventure

A round at Escena Golf Club blends championship golf with a classic setting. This Nicklaus-designed course ranks yearly among the best Palm Springs public golf courses and is known for stunning scenery, unspoiled sightlines, classic bunkering and room to experiment with approaches.

Escena challenges golfers not with a gauntlet of obstacles and blind shots, but by mixing up a nice variety of par 3s, 4s and 5s, with a wide balance lengths. There are plenty of challenges, especially from the tournament tees that stretch the course to over 7,100 yards, but Escena lets you choose your own adventure, be it going head to head with every bunker and hazard, or taking advantage of generous landing areas for a more leisurely day off the tees. And if you fly into town without your clubs but can’t resist the urge to play, Escena offers premium sets of rental clubs that come with a couple sleeves of balls.

Round out your day with a meal or a drink in the mid-century modern Escena Lounge and Grill, a popular dining destination in its own right. Escena serves up eclectic California-fusion cuisine — visitors say the fried chicken may be the best in Palm Springs — with retro vibes and fairway vistas. It’s part of Escena’s 16,000-square-foot clubhouse, a stunning steel-and-glass monument to the area’s architectural heritage. The dog-friendly patio is one of the desert’s most remarkable settings for outdoor dining: an expansive lakeside terrace dotted with sculptures, dining tables, lounge seating and panoramic views from every seat.

Find it: 1100 Clubhouse View Dr., Palm Springs, CA 92262; 760-778-2737

Desert Willow Golf Resort is renowned for using sustainable practices in the design and care of its golf courses.  The views are incredible and the conditions of play match them.

Desert Willow Golf Resort is renowned for using sustainable practices in the design and care of its golf courses. The views are incredible and the conditions of play match them.

Desert Willow Golf Resort via Yelp

Desert Willow Golf Resort: Embrace the valley

Desert Willow Golf Resort feels every bit like a private club, with 36 holes across two great courses. This municipal course’s eye-popping scenery and conditions scream members-only, and if you let its muni status deter you, you’ll miss out on an exceptional Palm Springs golf course that’s strikingly different from most others.

Where other Palm Springs golf courses appear conspicuously green and obviously manufactured, Desert Willows works fairways seamlessly into the hostile terrain of an arid desert. Course architects Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry have limited the grassy lawns to a meager 80 acres, relying on plants native to the desert valley to fill in the gaps. The result is a design that’s distinctly desert and environmentally sound, with terrain so varied and curves so organic, they pass at first glance for nature-made.

Areas just beyond the roughs look like desert botanical gardens and water hazards take the form of streams and ponds bursting at their banks with verdant plant life. This xeriscaping balances out thirsty Bermuda grass, requiring many times less water than other courses its size and earning Desert Willow braces for its environmentally conscious design and construction.

The clubhouse at Desert Willow Golf Resort in California's Palm Desert.  The venue has two award-winning courses that are open to the public and lean into the natural landscape of the area that's just minutes from Palm Springs.

The clubhouse at Desert Willow Golf Resort in California’s Palm Desert. The venue has two award-winning courses that are open to the public and lean into the natural landscape of the area that’s just minutes from Palm Springs.

Desert Willow Golf Resort via Yelp

Amongst this wild, natural beauty binds two tournament-quality courses: Firecliff and Mountain View. The Firecliff course, measuring 7,056 yards from the black tees, is a frequent mention in national rankings of best public courses, and rightly so. It’s a true test of precision, in which golfers must navigate a tight track loaded with extensive natural areas and more than 100 bunkers. Water hazards come into play on seven holes, and a few others require forced carries. Players love how secluded Firecliff feels.

Mountain View is designed to be a bit more user friendly, with more forgiving fairways, water features and limited waste areas. But let your guard down at your own peril. Measuring 6,913 yards from the blacks, Mountain View scores only slightly less difficult than Firecliff, according to USGA Slope Ratings. Both courses at Desert Willow demand the best of golfers — and every club in your bag.

Just like the golf courses, the on-site Terrace Restaurant offers ambience rivaling the dining at private facilities. Numerous outdoor terraces offer fairway views for alfresco dining – the perfect 19th hole at which to unpack your Firecliff victory and toast a golf course so deliciously natural.

Find it: 38-995 Desert Willow Dr., Palm Desert, CA 92260; 760-346-0015

A bird's-eye view of Indian Wells Golf Resort shows the pristine conditions that players are treated to virtually all year in Palm Springs, California.

A bird’s-eye view of Indian Wells Golf Resort shows the pristine conditions that players are treated to virtually all year in Palm Springs, California.

Seth S. via Yelp

Indian Wells Golf Resort: Discipline is key

This Palm Springs golf resort boasts 36 holes on two courses known by locals as “Beauty” and “The Beast.”

Architect Clive Clark is renowned as a sculptor of land, molding the earth into courses that inspire rather than intimidate. With the Celebrity Course at Indian Wells, aka “Beauty,” he has carved from the desert a beauty with elevations and water features rarely seen outside private clubs. Waterfalls connect split-level lakes, rippling across ambling fairways, with mountain views from every hole.

The John Fought-designed Players Course, meanwhile, is “The Beast,” with a classic American design that belies its difficulty. Despite the scenic waterscapes and friendly greens, danger lurks at every hole, and nowhere more so than the sixth green. The wide fairway doglegs around a finger lake, narrowing all the way to the flag. With every yard comes a mighty temptation to clip the lake for the shortest route from tee to flag, but wavering even a little will send your ball on a deep dive or a desert trek. Similar quandaries lie in wait across the course.

Part of the Celebrity Course at Indian Wells Golf Resort near Palm Springs, California.  The course, one of two at the venue, is known as "Beauty," while its counterpart is called "The Beast."

Part of the Celebrity Course at Indian Wells Golf Resort near Palm Springs, California. The course, one of two at the venue, is known as “Beauty,” while its counterpart is called “The Beast.”

Lisa D. via Yelp

While nearly all courses close at dusk, Indian Wells will just be getting started then on many weekends. At the popular Shots in the Night evening events, cosmic bowling meets mini golf as putting greens and hitting stalls transform into a neon-lit party scene. Think glow-in-the-dark golf balls, laser projections, fog machines, inflatable LED sculptures, food trucks and a full bar. The young and young-at-heart will appreciate this more laid-back approach to the game.

Find it: 44-500 Indian Wells Lane, Indian Wells, CA 92210; 760-346-4653

This story was edited by Hearst National Editor Kristina Moy, you can contact her at kristina.moy@hearst.com.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *