This week, the PGA Tour pros make the long flight back from Hawaii to another sunny winter location in the middle of the Southern California desert: PGA West Resort in La Quinta.
PGA West has a total of six courses that are either private (Palmer, Nicklaus, Weiskopf) or resort courses (Norman, Nicklaus Tournament and TPC Stadium). However, when people say “PGA West” the one that comes to mind immediately is the TPC Stadium layout. It’s consistently ranked as one of the top 100 courses in the world and regularly finds its way onto “Toughest Courses in America” lists thanks to its 76.1 course rating and slope of 150!
PGA West TPC Stadium Course architecture and history
Designed by Pete Dye in 1986 (only four short years after TPC Sawgrass), PGA West’s TPC Stadium Course measures 7,300 yards from the tips and bears some striking resemblances to TPC Sawgrass. Also a “stadium” course, there are plenty of hills surrounding various holes for better spectator sight lines. At the time the course was built, TPC Sawgrass was seen as hugely popular (if not by tour pros) and Mr. Dye was, in part, given direction similar to: “Do what you did at Sawgrass.” To this end, it’s painfully obvious to see the numerous similarities or downright self-plagiarism within the design of PGA West.
For example, PGA West’s 17th hole — Alcatraz — is a round, island green over a man-made lake with a small, pointless bunker at the front. Ditto for the famous 17th island green at Sawgrass. The yardages are probably 1-2 clubs different (168 vs 138 yards) depending on the wind. Then the pros head to the 18th hole, which is a long, dogleg-left par 4 with water running down the length of the left side of the fairway. Ditto the 18th at Sawgrass.
Difficulty. That is the operative word at the TPC Stadium Course. A story is told by Tom Doak (who worked for Mr. Dye when he was coming up in the architecture world) that he was in the room when PGA West developer Joe Walser asked Mr. Dye to build the hardest course in the world. Mr. Walser wanted the course to be so tough that “people in Japan, who have never been here, will complain about how hard it is.” Now that’s tough. Mr. Walser at one point didn’t even want the course to have forward tees, but Mr. Dye insisted on them.
When the course opened for play it hosted the formerly named Bob Hope Classic in 1987, the tour pros were so upset with its challenging layout during their “off” season they successfully petitioned to have the course removed from the rotation. The event plays across multiple courses (La Quinta Country Club and the Nicklaus Tournament Course are the others) the first three days. And the crux of their grudge was that players who had to play the course on a windier day were at such a disadvantage they couldn’t hope to recover on the other courses.
So, the players won out and the course stopped being a host for the event. With that unofficial ban in place, changes were made to soften the course, and the tour finally returned last year in 2016. Again, this narrative is similar to TPC Sawgrass where the course opened and Ben Crenshaw famously said, “It’s Star Wars golf, designed by Darth Vader.” (For what it’s worth, they’ve also continued to alter/tinker with Sawgrass.) So, if you’re watching this week and pay close attention to the look and feel of the holes you’ll probably think some of the holes were transported from the marshes of Ponte Vedra to the desert mountains of La Quinta.
PGA West TPC Stadium Course: Holes to Watch
Even if PGA West (TPC Stadium) has a number of similar holes to TPC Sawgrass its best feature are a group of short but challenging par 4s. All of these holes are under 400 yards from the back tees.
Hole 2 (Craters) – Tour pros will likely challenge (read: carry their ball) the bunkers on the left side of the fairway that can leave a short iron/wedge, which is necessary to go at pins on a tricky, undulating green.
Hole 7 (Black Hole) – Slight dog leg right with water all down the right side and against the right side of the green. Drive the ball too far pros will find themselves in a large bunker. A bail-out left is no bargain. With a very receptive green hitting a straight tee shot to leave the proper distance and angle is imperative.
Hole 12 (Moat) – Pick your poison: half-blind approach or a half-wedge from a tougher angle? Pros will keep their tee shots down the right side thus avoiding a huge bunker complex left. Driving the ball into the narrow neck of the fairway leaves the aforementioned half-wedge. Laying back into the widest part of the fairway leaves a semi-blind approach to a green three quarters surrounded by a bunker short, left, and long.
Hole 14 (Cavern) – Similar to the 12th but flipped; bunker lines the right side and fairway that bends slightly left-to-right. Pros will favor the left side off the tee and play to a distance that leaves them the best angle into a green with multiple greenside bunkers. One of which (left) should be avoided at all costs.