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Revitalized Rancho Las Palmas a surprise in Palm Springs golf

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,
Rancho Las Palmas golf course - hole 6
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Rancho Las Palmas West's No. 6 is tiny hole and big water bully. (Chris Baldwin/WorldGolf.com)

There was a time Rancho Las Palmas Resort was lost among the golf courses in the Palm Springs area. But a new ownership group has the course on track for a 180-degree turnaround. Golf here is suddenly in the Coachella Valley's big leagues.

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- No one expects a 129-yard hole to intimidate them like a bookie looking to collect.

But the sixth hole on Rancho Las Palmas' West Nine does just that. Coming upon this dinky hole is like going on a fishing charter and realizing Tony Soprano's sharing the boat. This is a straight-on water clear, a little shot right at the flag.

Only this water clear is two-tiered. The water runs from a higher level near the green down a two-foot rock wall to the pond near the tee. That means a miss doesn't just go splash. It runs down the mini waterfall right back towards you.

Did we mention there's a good chance vacationing families, bored businessmen and hot nannies will be watching you? This dramatic hole sits right in the middle of the Rancho Las Palmas Resort.

Duck hook a shot way crazy and you could even send a Pro V1 screaming into a pool (tip: hot nannies are not thrilled by this).

The green's small too. From the tee, it can look like the landing strip for your kid's spaceship toy.

Pretty much everything about this hole is set up for your humiliation. Isn't a golf vacation grand?

Well, yes. On second thought -- though probably not on second or third tee shot from this 129-yard hole -- isn't that what a golf trip is supposed to be all about? Don't you want a course that's a little more distinct than the one you play every Saturday?

The surprise comes in that Rancho Las Palmas is the golf course delivering it. There are more than 120 golf courses in the Palm Springs area.

Recently, there have been a number of brand new high-profile celebrity architect design openings. It's easy to get lost in the crowd of golf courses in Southern California's desert playground.

Especially if a course has been around since 1979, like Rancho Las Palmas. Especially if it's a Ted Robinson design in a seemingly endless California sea of Ted Robinson designs.

Rancho Las Palmas Country Club has been largely forgotten in the Coachella Valley for a long time, mostly for good reason. Houses crowd around the fairways and that used to be the least of its problems.

A new ownership group for the next-door resort — KSL, the same company that runs the famed La Costa in greater San Diego -- has given Rancho Las Palmas something it hasn't had in years, though. Money is being put into the 27 holes, and course conditions have taken nearly a 180-degree turn.

"This is the best shape this course has ever been in," said Don Loving, who estimates he's played Rancho Las Palmas about 50 times over the years as the close friend of a member.

Rancho Las Palmas Resort wants the golf course that shares its name to be in good condition because it's touting golf as one of its special amenities. Guests at the resort get playing privileges at the course, which is technically a private club (a good golf packager can also get you on).

This means that Rancho Las Palmas' golf is suddenly in the big leagues.

A new irrigation system has been put in. Green's no longer out of style. Instead, the 1,500 palm trees on these three nines now loom over fairways with mostly good lies to go along with the interesting looks.

And the club is promising more.

"We have a one-, two- and three-year plan and we're just getting started," said Gary Lynx, the new director of golf.

There's still not much buzz around Rancho Las Palmas now, which means you can be one of the first outside golfers to experience it.

You want to play the West and South nines (the North nine is by far the most forgettable). The West starts with the three toughest holes at the club: a par 4 down in a wash up to the green, a 235-yard par 3 in a valley and a par 5 that stretches as long as a Lord of the Rings flick (it's 645 yards).

Then, it's on to the fourth, which has its dogleg fairway scrunched tight by towering palms, including two that are crossed right near the turn, creating a goal post effect.

"You split the uprights!" one golfer shouted as a shot satisfyingly sailed between those two tall palms.

Sounds about right. If you've found Rancho Las Palmas, you've definitely scored.

Rancho Las Palmas Golf: The verdict

Rancho Las Palmas can be the surprise course that pushes a Palm Springs golf trip from good to great. It's not going to be the best course you play, but it might be one of the best times.

No course in the California desert uses water obstacles more effectively than Rancho Las Palmas. Many golf courses have prettier bodies of water, more visually arresting scenes. But Rancho Las Palmas' water creates interesting shot dilemmas — and second-thought swings.

Take West's No. 5. This is a very short (276 yards from the back tees), very narrow par 4 with water along the entire right side and a forced water clear right in front of the green. Attempt to drive the green and you have a great chance of swimming with the fishes.

You want to try, though. Just like you want to go for it on South's No. 9, a par 4 that puts an even bigger lake in your way on the approach shot.

Of course, there's also West No. 6 -- the tiny bully. Here, you just want to try and not lose your cool.

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Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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