Of life and “death” at California’s Furnace Creek golf course and resort

Of life and “death” at California’s Furnace Creek golf course and resort


On the “Out There” spectrum, charting somewhere between Remote and The Surface of Mars, Death Valley, Calif., idyllically leans toward the latter. For literally millions of reasons.

The largest park in the contiguous United States at 3.4 million oft-otherworldly acres, Death Valley’s psychedelic spread of mountains and dunes, colored with the full palette of the crayon box, has proven a forever destination for adventurers, gold hunters, artists, nature seekers and family RV trips.

Not to mention the sportsman.

While most travelers are wont to tow tents, dune buggies or bikes in lieu of clubs, Death Valley offers some stellar life for the intrepid golfer.

With roots dating to a three-hole loop built in 1927, Furnace Creek Golf Course plays as the world’s lowest-elevated course, at 214 feet below sea level. It’s perhaps apt that the track’s most modern iteration was re-worked by Perry Dye, whose famed father, of course, once quipped, “The ardent golfer would play Mount Everest if somebody put a flagstick on top.”

The depths of elevation are more than a novelty, however, just as the destination is far from mere drive-thru territory.

Part of The Oasis at Death Valley, Furnace Creek enjoyed fruits of the resort’s $100 million renovation plan in recent years. Reinvestment across the sister-site spread included modernizing the four-diamond Inn at Death Valley, updating food and beverage across the grounds and current work on new, extended-stay cottages at The Ranch at Death Valley, located within steps of Furnace Creek’s first tee.

With the fresh cottages set to be finished before the close of 2021, the times of pandemic have seen a rush of Death Valley travel.

“Coming out of the regional stay-at-home orders, people have really gravitated towards us,” says John Kukreja, general manager of The Oasis at Death Valley. “People are really looking for elbow room, to feel safe taking off a mask; being outdoors is an increasing attraction these days.”

With California’s Covid-19 travel restrictions eased in late January 2021, The Oasis was well-prepped to appease visiting ball strikers.

“We’ve taken note of how golf has really picked up during the pandemic, so we introduced our new packages to that effect,” Kukreja adds. “With our ‘Unlimited Package’ you can play as much as you want from check-in until departure, and just pay once for a party of two people.”

Located about four hours from Los Angeles and two hours from Las Vegas, an activity array at The Oasis and surrounding park — hiking, biking, horse rides, tennis, swimming and Jeep tours – finds the course rolling with the resort’s flow. Amid the pandemic months, with reservations booked in full, the destination’s popularity is in full swing. And despite its well-reputed summer sizzle, the region sports ideal conditions across eight months of the calendar.

“You can clearly see that travelers want to be in the middle of nowhere right now, instead of visiting a city,” Kukreja says. “As we’ve had to close and reopen, we’ve seen first-hand how quickly people gravitate to the open spaces. And we’re finding that people are looking to stay here for longer periods of time.”

Playing at a shade under 6,300 yards, Furnace Creek’s par-70 card presents a full test for all comers. Despite a dearth of distance, the nascent will gain a fast appreciation for why one leading outlet has charted the course among the nation’s “50 Toughest Courses” — a rather amazing acknowledgment considering it is nearly free of either greenside or fairway bunkering.

Across the rustic routing, sneaky water, 360-degree mountain surrounds and an Audubon Society-certified swath of sweet solitude, a demand for club-down tee placement plays in concert with the sub-elevation, making for an ongoing mesh of club math.

“Overall, it’s a tough-but-fair test. Tricky, but fair,” says Jordan Wetsch, head golf professional at Furnace Creek. “The front nine is fairly open compared to the back, and that’s really when the strategy comes into play. You don’t need to hit driver off every tee; but even the shorter holes which you might think are easy – they’re not."

To wit: The par-4 No. 7, tipping at just 351 yards, sports a hidden water hazard left of the minute putting surface; on the latter side, the penultimate 17th tees at a mere 310 yards, yet all but forces a layup play to a super-skinny, tree-lined chute fronting the small green.

Thematic throughout, the table-top putting surfaces do not a GIR-heavy round make.

“A lot of false fronts on the greens, which are generally small, crowned targets and can often slope from back-to-front,” Wetsch explains.

Chipping and bumping skills prove key for scoring, though flighted wedges make for ongoing study. Minus-elevation seems to crush lofted ball flight, haunting apex like an invisible Mutombo finger wag.

“The barometric pressure knocks the ball out of the air a bit quicker,” Wetsch details. “You don’t see a soaring ball flight here; it’s more of a drop-out-of-the-air type of shot. It can be about 10 yards difference in clubbing. When you tee it high, it’s not gonna fly. Here, it’s gonna drop.”

From turf to sky, the grounds welcome far more than just club-wielding, biped birdie-seekers.

“I've seen some unique things out here,” Wetsch says. “So much nature and wildlife; every day you might run into something different. Owls, hawks, lots of coyotes, roadrunners; along with our golfers, the course is also really popular for birders.”

Flocking isn’t limited to those with wings. With the game’s recent rise in popularity and all manner of traveler seeking natural social distancing, Death Valley, The Oasis and Furnace Creek create a timeless, mystical visit.

“Since the property was allowed to re-open, it’s been packed, which finds us a lot busier,” Wetsch says. “Some of it is avid or regular players, some of it is a sprinkling from people who take a day off from the park. And we have our ‘locals’ — people in for day trips from Vegas or Pahrump or certain parts of California; but we really do see guests from all of the country, all over the world. This is a good, safe destination for people to come enjoy the outdoors. We’re secluded, in our own element. There’s a different kind of energy here; it’s very unique, and people get that vibe.”

About the author

Judd Spicer

Judd Spicer is an award-winning writer, co-host of The Press Box radio show on ESPN 103.9 FM-Palm Springs and contributing columnist to The Desert Sun newspaper. A Minnesota native, he relocated to the Palm Springs area in 2011 to pursue his Champions Tour dream. Sporting suspect accuracy off the tee, he refers to his 56-degree as his Magic Wand. Visit www.JuddSpicer.com or @JuddSpicer for more.