by Brad King
A combination of member devotion and the design talent of renowned golf course architect and former professional golfer Clive Clark has resulted in a fully renovated and modernized golf course at Desert Horizons Country Club in Indian Wells, Calif.
For nearly four decades, Desert Horizons has stood proudly in one of the most desirable locations in the heart of the Coachella Valley — an oasis through the years for movie stars, snowbirds, sun lovers and sports enthusiasts. Opened in 1979, the Desert Horizons golf course was designed by acclaimed architect Ted Robinson, Sr., who loved his creation so much he lived on its 14th fairway for more than a decade during his later life. The club is blessed with ideal topography, surrounded by towering mountain peaks and situated well away from the prevailing desert winds along the Interstate 10 corridor.
Like people, however, golf courses age and appearances alter with time. Through the decades, Desert Horizons’ common Bermuda push-up greens with no substructure had changed significantly, resulting in greens that were elevated and out of proportion with surrounding bunkers. The bunkers, both greenside and fairway, also needed a facelift as their shape, scale and positioning had lost relevance with evolutions in the game and modern golf course construction.
“The golf course had very good bones but had become a little tired,” said Clark, who as a young man studied architecture in London before becoming a professional golfer.
With nearly 125 golf courses dotting the desert, Desert Horizons faced plenty of competition. Like many area private enclaves following the economic downturn of the last decade, the club found itself dealing with declining membership numbers and financial challenges as it battled to stay viable in a highly competitive private club market. Many neighbouring clubs were forced to make significant changes in their operating and ownership structure.
Desert Horizons took a different approach.
“We were determined to remain a private country club owned by its members,” said Bob Lemon, a Seattle resident who joined Desert Horizons 12 years ago. “We wanted to make this entire community more attractive to prospective homeowners and golf members. We knew we needed new green complexes. While we were at it, we thought about what else we could we do to improve and bring the club up to modern standards. We not only needed to attract new members, but also keep the ones we had.”
Buoyed by a desire to refurbish and modernize the golf course, Desert Horizons turned to Clark — who once finished third in the British Open behind Jack Nicklaus and Roberto de Vicenzo, and later became a renowned BBC golf broadcaster — a resident of neighboring La Quinta for nearly a quarter century.
“Clive is an artist who also has a highly regarded body of work in the desert,” said Lemon, who was appointed by the Club Board to chair the renovation committee, which also included longtime members Stewart Thomson and Dave Taylor. “He performed a digital photo rendering process and showed us possibilities of what we could do on each hole, with all the different options.”
Clark’s experience as a golfer and a broadcaster allowed him to see most of the world’s very best golf courses, which has played an important role in his design work. “My philosophy is to let people have fun; let them enjoy the golf course,” said Clark. “Give them some challenge, but don’t overdo it. There needs to be a balance.”
Thrilled with what Clark showed them, the Desert Horizons Board introduced their plan to the membership and took a vote on an assessment. The vote passed, albeit by a narrow margin. Some golf members downgraded their status and the club was concerned that it would lose others, so the Board put the assessment on hold.
That was when Desert Horizons came up with a different plan.
“At church, when we have a need, we reach out,” said Club President Ken MacKenzie. “We did not have a strong enough majority, so we elected not to do the assessment.”
Instead, the Board decided it would “pass the plate” and see how much money it could raise through a voluntary contribution campaign. With an oversized thermometer display to track progress in the clubhouse foyer, the donations were kept anonymous and the club didn’t accept pledges, only cash. “We didn’t count it until we had it,” said Taylor, who spearheaded the fundraising efforts. “We just said, ‘Write us a check.’”
The campaign proved to be quite successful.
With a goal of raising $1.8 million, Desert Horizons received three quarters of what it needed in the first round of fundraising. Knowing they couldn’t renovate all 18 holes in one summer given the overall project scope, the board decided to work on the front nine first during the summer of 2016. The club engaged Indio-based Earth Sculptures to perform the renovation work, local landscape architect TKD
Associates for landscape design, and Indian Wells resident John Fitzpatrick of Sunrise Golf, Inc. to manage the project.
“We knew the membership would be excited to see the work being done,” said Lemon. “We were confident we could raise the remainder of what we needed and, thanks to the great work of our project team, we actually raised more.”
By the end of the contribution campaign, Desert Horizons had raised nearly $2 million.
“More than 80 percent of the golfing members contributed, but they weren’t the only ones,” said MacKenzie. “Some non-golfing social members and senior members also donated, which I consider to be a strong descriptor of the quality of people at our very inclusive club. It was very gratifying to see the loyalty.”
”When I tell the story to my peers, they cannot believe it,” said Director of Golf Rick Ruppert, who has been at Desert Horizons since 1985. “I’ve had other pros tell me that because of what we’ve done, their clubs have followed suit. The renovation is remarkable, but the story of how it was achieved is even more so.”
Under Clark’s direction, Desert Horizons redesigned all its green complexes, including bunkers while also reworking the fairway bunkers to enhance aesthetics and playability. The greens also gained more contouring, particularly on the back nine.
“We wanted to add some movement and new visual elements into the golf course,” Clark said.
Constructed to industry specifications with state-of-the-art drainage and hydration, the Desert Horizons greens are now Tif-dwarf Bermuda — a far superior surface to common Bermuda and more conducive to year-round play.
Every fairway bunker on the golf course was addressed: either renovated, moved or removed, and some were added. Several trees that were superfluous or problematic for re-shaping green complexes and bunkers were removed. While the course stretches to just over 6,600 yards from the back tees, a completely new set of forward tees was added to offer members a 4,500-yard option. The four sets of tees now combine to offer members a total of seven different course lengths on the scorecard to suit golfers of every ability level. The renovation project also included the practice putting green, which now offers 40 percent more usable space.
“Like most clubs we have broad range of members who play for different reasons. We wanted to make the golf course inviting, but we didn’t want to dumb it down,” said Thomson, who was frequently on-site on sweltering summer days to assist with design decisions. “The course may be slightly more open now from tee to green, but the green complexes, bunkering and additional forward tees create a completely new dynamic, and the options to play different types of shots to and around the greens provide an added degree of enjoyability and challenge.”
One of the most noticeable changes has been the elimination of about 120,000 square feet of turf and conversion of these areas to low-water use landscaping. With a wide variety of hearty and colorful perennial flowering plants, these new landscaping areas add dramatic flare to several holes and enhance the overall visual appeal of the course.
Desert Horizons also benefited from a grant program offered by the Coachella Valley Water District to convert turf areas to lower water use vegetation, allowing the club to add a bit of sweetener to the renovation budget.
“The landscape enhancements generated nearly as much excitement as the golf course changes,” said Clark. “Combined with the strategic elements of the renovation, the club now offers a complete and relevant golf package. It’s a truly beautiful and enjoyable golf course. I think everybody’s a winner.”
For Jesse Ayala, Desert Horizons’ golf course superintendent, the significance of the renovation runs deeper. “My father was the superintendent here and still works as a greenskeeper, so this club is a big part of our lives,” said Ayala. “This project demonstrates to our crew that the membership cares not just about the club, but about our people. It is really motivating for us.”
The club’s new relevance in the market has led to an immediate return on investment. Desert Horizons experienced the strongest third quarter in terms of new club memberships and community home sales in recent memory. The average age of the club membership has gotten younger.
Damien Gallardo, the club’s General Manager, says the renovation has instantly separated Desert Horizons from the myriad of the desert’s private club offerings. “Our members are excited to show the new Desert Horizons to their friends,” he said. “This leads not only to new members, but also to increased participation in club activities, and inspires our staff to create new ways for the members to enjoy the club.”
Perhaps most importantly, the success of the golf course renovation campaign has started a trend to enhance other elements of the club.
“The tennis and pickleball players said if the golf members could do it, so can we,” said MacKenzie. “The culture and attitudes of the members have totally turned around. Everyone here is excited about what we’re doing.”