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Best New

Gil Hanse's Ladera Golf Club is an ultra-exclusive desert oasis outside Palm Springs. We got a first look

January 10, 2024

Editor's Note: Ladera Golf Club was named Best New Private course by Golf Digest for 2023. We will announce the winners of our other categories in the coming days.

When building Ladera, their new course in the southern end of the Coachella Valley, Los Angeles-based entertainment executive Irving Azoff and Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of services, kept instructions to Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner simple: no water features, no palm trees. Otherwise, the architects had creative freedom to reinvent 300 acres of lemon groves and mango orchards as a broken landscape of swashbuckling golf holes and dry arroyos.

Removing ponds and palms from the golf vernacular of Palm Springs—a land of walled-off Edens and enclaves of ornately manicured courses—was already a radical idea. Hanse and Wagner stepped outside the desert paradigm by manufacturing a kind of pre-modern Southern California agrarian landscape. The Ladera site slopes 140 feet from the high point near the Santa Rosa Mountains toward a low end that Hanse and Wagner propped up to reorient sightlines over the valley toward the eastern Mecca Hills. Through the center they carved a network of arroyos and sandy riverbeds that emulate the pathways of rushing water. The golf holes flow around, over and through the sunken ravines, the first nine looping clockwise around the counterclockwise second nine a la Muirfield.

Hanse and Wagner turned desert into a pre-modern agrarian landscape.

Above: The stunning par-5 first sets the stage for what's to come at Ladera: enormous landing areas, slick playing surfaces, arroyos that criss-cross the property and meditative views of the Santa Rosa Mountains and Coachella Valley.

Above: The short par-3 eighth: Gil Hanse aced this hole during a preview round.

The arroyos are integral to the effectiveness of Ladera—stunning visual accompaniments to the spirited golf shots rendered with eroded edges and contrasting compositions of grasses, brush, sycamores, sand and native stone that often fall in pattern with the mountain backdrops. They are also hazards brimming with danger and enticement.

“We tried to focus on setting up good diagonals off of tees,” Hanse says. “We were thinking about Sand Hills and some of those beautiful diagonals that Bill [Coore] and Ben [Crenshaw] created, and we had an opportunity to build those big diagonals for good players to take on while providing the width for average golfers.”

Above: The steeply elevated green at the drivable par-4 15th was modeled after an early version of the 10th at Riviera, before bunkers were added.

Above: Only the most precise pitch shots, or drives, will hold the narrow 15th green that falls off on all sides.

The fairways are enormous—60 to 100 yards wide—but they bend and slink around bunkers and the arroyos, requiring an element of edging and corner-cutting for the best approach positions. The greens are a kaleidoscope of shape and movement, from the broad saucer of the 535-yard par-4 fourth to the stepped and fractured 14th to the 285-yard par-3 12th that inverts the typical Biarritz recipe by playfully placing the deep swale at the back of the putting surface rather than the middle or front.

The green at the 545-yard par-5 10th, nestled in the ravine and obscured by a dune, is 40 yards deep and just 11 paces across, and missing it with long second shots leaves near impossible up-and-downs. The drivable par-4 15th presents a fairway 125 yards across, but the sliver of green with cropped, fallaway surrounds (think of the 10th at Riviera, only bunkerless and perched 10 feet higher) can be inaccessible from wide angles.

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CHANNING BENJAMIN

Ladera is by far the most land Hanse and Wagner have previously moved, but it looks like they have been doing it for their entire careers.

“Some people will realize it was created, but we want others to believe that the land could have naturally occurred as it is,” Hanse says. “If anyone is going to be well-suited to build a maximalist landscape where you’re creating everything, it would be a minimalist who is wired to pay attention to those small details and to what real landforms look like.”

Above: After a wild and enticing voyage across a rugged but sensuous desert landscape, Ladera lands gently with the broad 18th, a par 4 open to a running approach.

Ultimate credit for turning lemons into Ladera goes to Azoff and Cue, Hanse says.

“Irving, and to some degree Eddy, is so comfortable being around artists that he understands that every creative person has a different process. He innately knows that process allows artists to do their best work, so he let us be as creative as we wanted and provided all the resources and support that enabled us to do our best work. Those two were uniquely qualified to allow us to build a golf course like Ladera.”

Ladera Golf Club
Private
Ladera Golf Club
Thermal, CA
Ladera breaks the mold of desert golf in Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. The design does not incorporate unnatural water features, it’s not lined by palm trees, and it’s not constrained by housing considerations. Instead, it is a beautiful and varied expression of what desert golf can be in its most natural form, though nothing about it is natural. The 300-acre site slopes 140 feet from the high point near the Santa Rosa Mountains across once-level land that was formerly lemon groves and mango farms. Hanse and Wagner propped up the low side of the property to reorient sightlines over the valley floor toward the eastern Mecca Hills and moved millions of cubic yards of earth to create each particle of golf.Ladera’s fairways are generous, 60 to 100 yards with no formal rough, but strategy abounds with options to play to wide parts of the fairway though the best approach angles and lines-of-sight are reserved for those who skirt the boundaries of the hazards. Even completely straight holes, such as the par-5 seventh, are full of options with staggered bunkers and a treacherous side slope short of the green. The greens reveal a tremendous variety of sizes and forms, some modestly contoured like the enormous saucer third and others a pattern of ridges and falling tiers (the 14th). But the most distinctive features at Ladera are the attractive dry gullies and arroyos that Hanse, Wagner and their team cut through the site emulating sandy, eroded vegetative lows that water would rush through during rare periods of heavy rain. The excavated sand was used to create sweeping elevation changes and to prop up greens like the par-3 fourth, the altar-like 15th, the par-3 16th and the par-5 17th that hangs over the edge of a deep arroyo.
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