Unless one grew up playing the likes of Torrey Pines, Bethpage Black or, for today’s millennial generation, Chambers Bay, chances are strong that the traditional municipal golf property that reared your game was, in no particular order: accessible, affordable and with a course routing apparent.
For today’s younger set, chances are even stronger, believe it or not, that a government-owned golf property played a crucial role in paving your golf future. According to the National Golf Foundation’s 2019 “Golf Facilities Report,” a record number of domestic, muni facilities (2,515 golf properties accounting for approximately 2,800 courses) tallied about 17 percent of the total course count across the country.
Yup, the municipal is as relevant as ever in the United States, though it’s probable that the most recent muni round for many players was a day endeavored within proximity of one’s home — and, to borrow verbiage from that millennial set, it’s likely that twentysomethings may say of said course’s routing, adornments and dining: “Ya’ basic.”
Amid one of America’s more sought-after golf pockets, however, there’s little that’s considered basic.
A two-hour drive east from L.A., and stretching just about 40 miles long, the golf-rich Coachella Valley (or the “Palm Springs area” to some) sports 120 courses, is host to an annual PGA Tour stop, plays home to golf’s first major championship of the season and is the seasonal, winter oasis to some of the world’s more affluent golf snowbirds.
In addition, if not moreover, the desert spread lays claim to what may be viewed as the most unique and potent coalescence of municipal golf the globe over.
Across a mountain-framed, palm-lined spread of just 10 miles, the valley boasts a trio of unique, muni properties (five courses all told) that can respectively lay claim to being a former PGA Tour host; a one-time Skins Game home and setting for The Golf Channel’s “Big Break”; and the first golf property to ever grace the cover of Smithsonian Magazine.
Welcome to the Super Munis.
Conceived and constructed at the height of the domestic golf boom and set in the heart of a premier golf getaway destination, the Coachella Valley’s triple play of all-star municipal properties has collectively redefined government-owned golf.
Opened in 1997, the 36-hole Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert, California, debuted to instant applause, and fast became regarded among the top city-owned properties in the nation. Revered for its environmentally-sensitive design (cue the Smithsonian nod) and manicured desert routing, the creation from the former architectural tandem of Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry (working in consult with 11-time PGA Tour winner John Cook) is more popular than ever as its 25th anniversary swings closer.
Between Desert Willow’s Firecliff and Mountain View Courses, the property is coming off two consecutive years of record revenues.
“I think we may be the most utilized 36-hole property in this desert. We did over 92,000 rounds last year,” says Jared Stanek, the former head superintendent at Desert Willow who, in February, was hired as director or agronomy at Toscana Country Club in nearby Indian Wells.
Ardent course support from both the city and Desert Willow’s management company have been crucial to maintaining the property’s high-end aesthetic.
“Yeah, it’s a challenge to provide world-class playing conditions under that much stress on the courses, and it’s all cart traffic,” Stanek continues. “But between our management company, Kemper Sports, and the city, they recognize this and they’ve been very generous with great equipment I get to use and maintain the product to meet the high investment and high expectations. So I don’t feel like I’m the rubber band being pulled between that investment and that expectation.”
Complementing its courses, Desert Willow’s amenities set high said expectations: Valet service greets guests as a segue to a gorgeous clubhouse, which includes outdoor patio dining overlooking the golf grounds. The on-site Palm Desert Golf Academy tracks as one of the region’s more respected instructional schools, and the property proves popular for meetings, events and weddings.
Fifteen minutes away, the City of La Quinta-owned SilverRock Golf Resort is an Arnold Palmer Signature design that debuted in 2005 and quickly entered the rotation for the PGA Tour’s annual American Express from 2008 to 2011.
“The municipals out here are not your traditional muni courses,” SilverRock head superintendent Scott Werline says with a smile.
Idyllically set adjacent to the Santa Rosa Mountains, it’s little wonder the city has had a longtime master vision to match the course with a full-on destination spread. After better than a decade of planning, SilverRock is now well in the works of a $420 million renovation that includes adding two hotels, a conference center, resort village and city arts park. The plan, which resulted in a re-work and re-route of the golf course in 2017, is pacing to debut in 2021.
While the desert’s muni courses are vying for crucial vacation business, the still-compact community continues to subscribe to the philosophy that what serves one, serves all.
“There’s a healthy competition out here; everybody wants to look the best,” Werline adds. “But through our Hi-Lo Desert Chapter of the GCSAA, we do get together a lot and people are close out here. We do share a lot of ideas. Basically, any guy out here, you can walk across the street with, ‘Hey, how do you get your greens looking so good?’”
Once a more modest golf property, the Indian Wells Golf Resort enjoyed a complete overhaul after the turn of the millennium, resulting in the unveiling of the Clive Clark-designed Celebrity Course in 2006 and the John Fought-drawn Players Course a year later.
From 2007 to 2008, the Celebrity was host to the final two playings of the Skins Game and, in 2011, the property was home of The Golf Channel’s “The Big Break” series.
“It’s pretty unique to have three properties of this level in close proximity,” Jonas Conlan, director of agronomy at Indian Wells Golf Resort, says of the desert’s muni scene.
Akin to Stanek’s agronomy backdrop, Conlan cut his teeth at a more traditional municipal property.
“I grew up working on a municipal golf course back in Michigan, when I was in college. And, yeah, a lot of municipal courses can be straightforward, basic and easier from a maintenance vantage,” Conlan continues. “Whereas, at our municipal property, we’ve got two championship-level, challenging courses with high-level conditions. From a maintenance standpoint, there are challenges, but it’s fun to maintain two courses of this magnitude.”
Not bad for city work
Balancing rounds and respective bottom lines between city resident play and desert guests is one thing; working amid a seasonal environment that sees the heft of revenues come during a five-month window is another.
While each property has a sturdy, annual maintenance budget in the neighborhood of $1.6 million per course, and each is armed with grounds staffs ranging from about 30 to 43 employees, learning the ropes of maintaining premier conditions while working with city governments is still a study for superintendents when it comes to spending, supplies and schedules.
In his previous superintendent experiences, Conlan worked at resort, public and community courses across the desert.
“The unique thing with municipalities is, typically, they have a management company and, for us, fortunately, we have Troon to manage the contract with the city,” says Conlan, whose grounds saw more than 76,000 rounds in 2019.
Key differences in course oversight can be keeping homeowners happy versus keeping vacationers and city residents happy.
“When you’re at a resort or community property, those are generally overseen by a greens committee or a board of directors. They are, of course, living on-site and on-property daily. So, the challenges can be not just upkeeping their golf course but also their property values,” Conlan continues. “Here at Indian Wells Golf Resort, we’re working with resident golfers, the hotel industry and our (adjacent) hotel campus and trying to garner those return golfers to come back here every year.”
Adds Stanek: “It’s a bit different in working with two different entities. There’s the city of Palm Desert and that’s an interesting dynamic, one you don’t have at a private club, where things can be more nimble and decisions can come a little quicker on occasion. But at the same time, the city of Palm Desert is very supportive of Desert Willow, and what it means to the citizens of the city. They’re a great partner and they want this property to be one of the finest golf resort facilities that players will ever come across.”
Werline’s career included agronomy work at community club and public courses before taking the head super role at Landmark Golf-managed SilverRock, which saw about 45,000 rounds in 2019.
“There’s more hands in the cookie jar calling the shots, but it doesn’t change a whole lot what we’re trying to produce from a conditions standpoint,” Werline says about the contrast of city-owned golf and alternate ownership parameters. “From a private or community course, a pump goes out and you’re dealing with an owner or a manager. With a municipal, you have to get three quotes if a project is a certain price point, then have the city approve. It kinda slows the process. But I can say that we certainly don’t fall short on our equipment here — we’ve got a great equipment package that the city has always kept up.”
Werline’s desert colleagues empathize with the need for patience and planning.
“In a private club setting, I’d present a proposal, the members and ownership would look at it and then we go. A bit more straightforward,” Stanek says. “Here, I’ve learned that if I have a need, it better be something I need two months down the line, because you need to be ahead and allow the city the courtesy of the time it needs to get everything stamped and signed. It’s a matter of taking initiative and planning ahead early. I’ve learned that I need to be a little bit more patient. They’re great, they want to support us, but it is a city process.”
Conlan notes more similarities than differences between munis and resorts or homeowner properties, but adds that a long purview is also key to his plans.
“Things do have to get approved and, for larger projects, it can take a bit longer for such approvals, as it requires a city council vote,” Conlan says. “It can be a bit slower process at times to get something cleared and schedule that around the city’s monthly meetings. But our city does have reserve or capital funds set aside for potential projects, whether it’s anything from irrigation to new equipment.”
Hiring out for contract work for munis may involve a competitive salary wage union bidding process, while particular project price points further denote the city-owned process of assessing levels of spending scrutiny.
“Take, say, purchasing fertilizer,” Stanek says. “We overseeded Firecliff in September, and I needed to fertilize the second week of October. So, first there’s a required public posting. Then I needed to secure competitive bids from three different vendors, and lots of forms there. It can take a month or two before securing the funding from the city manager before making the purchase.”
For muni courses, spending requires validation.
“You do have to ensure that a project makes sense, to draw out that a project will have returns,” adds Stanek. “But in trying to achieve our high-quality conditions that take a certain labor force or particular equipment, it’s just a matter of presenting that to the city and hopefully doing a good enough job of justifying the project. If you’re not proving yourself, that can create doubt, but if you’re producing, then things fall into place naturally.”
On occasion, appearances at city hall meetings are necessary to justify a project.
“Generally, attending a city council meeting falls under the purview of our GM,” Stanek says. “But when there’s a big project coming down the line, that would require me to attend and present the project as a maintenance expert to address any technical questions.”
Werline has also been called upon to appear at city meetings a few times a year. “If they need a technical breakdown, then, yeah, they’ll bring me in every once in a while,” he says.
From the minutes of a city meeting to maintenance of unique city-owned properties, keepers of the Coachella Valley’s Super Munis are simpatico in authoring a new era of government golf.
“I’d like to think that if you go play a nice private club, or one of the top publics, that we’re able to compete with them and hold our own with the best of the best,” says Conlan, echoing the same sentiments of his desert colleagues. “It goes back to working to keep those visiting golfers coming back year after year. I tell my guys that our goal is to consistently be one of the top resort properties in Southern California.”