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Greg Norman Course at PGA West in La Quinta, California: A tranquil shark of desert golf

Judd SpicerBy Judd Spicer,
PGA West - Greg Norman golf course - hole 11
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Don't underestimate PGA West's Greg Norman Course; it's a gem of desert golf. (Courtesy of PGA West)

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- PGA West, "The Western Home of Golf in America," has an outback cabin that is well worthy of exploration.

While lacking the pub of Pete Dye's Stadium Course and the mystique of the Palmer or Nicklaus private courses on these lauded grounds, PGA West's Greg Norman Course lives as an oft-underestimated gem of desert golf.

Opened in 1999 and the most modern of the tracks at PGA West and La Quinta Resort & Club, the Norman mirrors the career of its maker: a mysterious mosaic of successes framed by hardened ground that finds your ball bounding both forward and askew.

"The natural desert, decomposed granite areas along every fairway is the first thing that jumps out at everybody," says Dale Butler, the general manager and head professional of the Norman Course. "And also the minimal turf combined with the use of bunkering for direction and framing. I don't know of any other course in the desert quite as spectacular in regard to use of bunkers."

The decomposed granite (known as the "DG") is indeed the name feature of the Norman. When the golf course opened a dozen years ago, the firm, rustic areas were replete with plantings of sage, smoke trees and desert willow that proved aesthetically pleasant, but ultimately served errant shots as calmly as shark-infested waters.

In the mid-2000s, the course was shut down for consecutive summers to scale back on the plantings (and also to cut down vegetation on bunker faces). The resulting layout is a track that's become more playable and time friendly, with golfers now more often able to play from the DG instead of searching for balls.

"I played there the first time last year, and I like it," says Dave Brown of Sacramento, Calif.

Brown makes yearly visits to PGA West, rotating among the courses. He finds the Norman among the most engaging.

"It's well maintained and easily played, even if you don't know the course," Brown says. "It's well laid out."

Butler agrees.

"Really, I think this course is conditioned better than any of the other courses here at PGA West," Butler says. "Just by virtue of age, it's got a better strain of Bermuda, state-of-the-art irrigation and very efficient use of water. And combined with the conditioning, it's also charming, cozy, and kind of isolated. It's not a multi-course operation with carts running all over the place."

The Norman Course indeed has its own, relaxed Aussie vibe. Situated alone, away from the buzz of PGA West, there are fewer than 200 residences in the complex, and none of the fairways are double-lined with homes.

The loudest noise at this walkabout will come via the player's prayers to the DG. Yet, Norman regulars have learned to use the granite to their advantage; with the framing feeding toward the minimalist use of turf (fewer than 70 acres all told), the studied Norman player can use the DG to bound up the carpet (there is no rough on the course), sometimes up to 30 yards.

A pro tip from Butler: Approach these granite lies the same way you would a fairway bunker, picking the ball cleanly with a quiet lower body.

The bunkers are myriad, totaling more than 100. But Norman weaves them throughout in a truly interesting manner. With about 80 percent of those babies on the back nine, they become a gradual presence. But perhaps mercifully, given their depth, you'll require a rake less than you might think. Despite the gaudy number count, many of these bunkers are peripheral guides, serving as distant turn signals to guide the player along the greener path.

PGA West's Greg Norman Course: Holes of distinction

The Norman isn't about signature holes; rather, it's a desert round penned as a stellar novel instead of highlight chapters. Among the most engaging moments are the shorter par 4s, where the player who finds life off the tee will discover engaging shot selections to ensue.

The 380-yard, par-4 fifth hole plays with water on the right of the box and requires accuracy with your tee shot, followed by a patient approach to a raised green that sports aggressive bunkering to the left. Four holes later, the 359-yard ninth is another manageable par 4 that frames with water alongside the tee box and requires finite touch to reach in regulation with the approach. The DG fronts this green, so carry is key, but beware of the collection area beyond the putting surface. Playing short may find your ball bounding forward from the granite surface, but going too long will make par a challenge.

On the back side, the 337-yard, par-4 11th serves as a thesis of how the Norman can toy with mirage. Nearly 20 bunkers are in play. The accurate striker, however, can avoid trouble with a precise tee shot and a studied approach.

The Norman closes with aplomb, presenting one of the desert's most pleasing finishes. The 16th hole is a 537-yard par 5 with water playing along the right of the fairway from the tee before weaving toward the center of the turf. The par-3 17th follows with water guarding the green and a slope banking balls toward the drink, making the 180-yard distance from the tips appear a 200-yard decision. Coming home on the 18th offers little respite for the weary, as this 461-yard par 4 is the Norman's No. 2 handicap. Unlike a number of the home holes at PGA West, there's no water here. A skinny second shot, however, finds the player dueling with a boomerang-shaped green ready to toss your ball to the collection areas that surround the putting surface.

Instruction and facilities at PGA West

PGA West is home to the Jim McLean Golf School, offering myriad instructors for both beginning and advanced lessons. The grounds of the Norman Course present a full practice facility with driving range, short-game area and large putting green. For dining, Wallaby's West is on-site, offering indoor and patio service for breakfast and lunch.

Greg Norman Course at PGA West: The verdict

Situated away from the main clubhouse at PGA West, the Greg Norman Course is a tranquil marriage of quiet beauty and desert challenge. At 7,200 yards from the tips, this regular host to both PGA Tour Q-School pre-qualifying and The Prestige Intercollegiate Invitational is a formidable challenge for the low-handicapper. From the forward tees, it serves as a more subtle shark, offering the teeth of deep bunkering and framed decomposed granite surrounds to enforce a studied, shot-shaping mentality over the well-groomed dearth of turf.

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PGA West - Greg Norman golf course - hole 7PGA West - Greg Norman golf course - hole 17

Judd Spicer is an award-winning, veteran freelance writer hailing from St. Paul, Minn. After 12 years of covering MLB, NBA, NCAA and the active golf landscape of the Twin Cities, he relocated to the Palm Spring, Calif. region to further pursue his golf work and Champions Tour dream. Sporting measured distance off the tee, Spicer refers to his pitching wedge as his "magic wand." Follow Judd on Twitter at @juddspicer.

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

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Good Article

    Ryan Malone wrote on: Aug 18, 2011

    This is a very good article. I want to play this course - sounds challenging.