New Gil Hanse-designed California golf club is ultra-exclusive

New Gil Hanse-designed California golf club is ultra-exclusive

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It sits at the end of a half-mile gravel road leading to what was once 306 acres of lemon and mango trees in Thermal, 10 miles south of downtown Coachella. It is located where no desert golf course has been built before.

For more than a year, Ladera was the Coachella Valley’s mystery golf course, known mostly for who was building it and its rumored ultra-exclusive future. Few people knew about the project and fewer had seen the course during its construction and opening months of play.

Now, one of the co-owners of the layout is unafraid to say what he hopes the golf course’s stature will be in the desert and across the country.

“When people talk about the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, I want them to say that’s the home of the Coachella (music festival), home of the (BNP Paribas Open) tennis tournament, home of The American Express, home of the Acrisure Arena and home of Ladera,” said Irving Azoff, a long-time music industry mogul and co-founder of Oak View Group, builder of arenas and other venues including Acrisure Arena in Palm Desert. “That’s really what I care about.”

The first Gil Hanse design in the golf-rich Coachella Valley that features 120 courses, Ladera covers a sprawling 165 acres with an 18-hole regulation course, a nine-hole par-3 course and native landscape surrounded by what is still a working lemon farm. The landscape slopes 140 feet from the high point near the Santa Rosa Mountains across once-level land.

But the golf course — Golf Digest reported the course alone cost $40 million to build and does not include flood control and other costs — is only part of what Azoff and his best friend and co-owner Eddy Cue, a senior vice president for Apple, envision for Ladera. The experience of the course for the exclusive membership should be like no other course in the desert, Azoff said.

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“I want them to go out there and say I had the most peaceful, enjoyable, relaxing, one of the greatest golf days ever,” Azoff said. “I want it to be an all-day experience.”

The golfers enjoying the course, for the most part, won’t be Coachella Valley residents. Ladera is designed as a destination golf course, meaning members can be from anywhere in the United States who spend time in the desert or who fly into the area specifically to play their golf course. That’s similar to the idea of the national membership at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters in Georgia.

“If someone said you can come to Augusta or you can come here, without hesitation, it’s 100 percent here,” said Rich Bressler, who fits the course’s membership profile as president and COO of media firm iHeart Radio. “I really do feel like the experience here is second to none.”

Bressler is one of just over 40 members at the club now, with Azoff saying perhaps the membership could grow to 100 in coming years. The membership needs to fit a certain devotion to golf, Azoff said.

Friends and golfers

“What we want for the membership is really a group of our friends and business associates. You have to have respect for golf, the game of golf,” Azoff said. “You don’t have to be a great golfer, but you have to have respect for the game of golf, and you have to be able to appreciate why there are no cart paths, why there are no ponds, why there are no palm trees. And you might look at the greens and go, well, that one might have been inspired by Seth Raynor (an architect active in the 1910s and 1920s).”

Among current members and friends of Azoff who are members include Bressler, Golden State Warriors co-owner Fred Harman, Rob Light, the managing partner of Creative Artists Agency, and even English pop star Harry Styles.

Other tributes to the game at Ladera include a preference for walking the expansive course, though golf carts are available. It’s all a spirit of the game and a membership size and demographic that appeals to Paul Marchand, the director of golf at Ladera.

Marchand is well known in golf circles as a long-time coach for Fred Couples, but he is also a member of the Texas Golf Hall of Fame and was for years the director of golf at places like the 1,200-member Houston Golf Club. Marchand met Azoff and Cue when he was director of golf at Madison Club in La Quinta, where the co-owners of the new course explained their concept of a club honoring the purity of the game and the golf experience.

“At all high-end private clubs, the head of the pro staff is trying to help create or maintain a wonderful experience that is unique to that place,” Marchand said. “A place with a smaller club or a place with a big staff where you can have time to be in that lane yourself, to be the leader and actually spend time with the members, which is what I prefer to do, like hands on, one on one, spending time on the lesson tee or on the golf course, that’s my passion.”

Azoff, who is also the head of entertainment rights company Iconic Artists and at one time owned TicketMaster, is a member at golf courses ranging from Madison Club to Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. He also travels the world with his family to play the game. So why would he and Cue build a golf-centric club like Ladera in the Coachella Valley?

“I guess it’s because we can,” Azoff said. “I’ve worked hard for over 50 years, 55 years and it’s just the opportunity came up. I’m spending a lot of time down here at my house at Madison Club. Eddy and I were sitting there one day and he said to me, ‘let’s build our own golf course.’ I was just in the middle of opening the (Acrisure) arena, and I knew I was going to be spending a lot of time down here and our family has such a great affinity for the desert.”

Large white sand bunkers, a tribute to George Thomas bunkering at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, are a major part of the look at Ladera Country Club in Thermal. (Photo: Channing Benjamin/Special to the Desert Sun/USA Today Network)

Like Azoff, Bressler says the experience at Ladera is what compels him to live in Miami but search out the Thermal course.

“What is so interesting about the experience is not that it feels different the first time. Everywhere feels different the first time,” Bressler said. “But the 10th time or the 12th time, you feel the way you felt the first time you come here. You still have that and you grow with the experience. Every time you are here, you feel a little bit different about the experience.”

Hanse’s first desert course

As for the course itself, the first Palm Springs-area design by Hanse who is perhaps best known as the designer of the Olympic course in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Games, the layout is unlike other area courses. Ladera does not feature any homes on the course, and the course sits away from any other development, giving it the feel of being part of the native desert.

The first 18-hole course built in the Coachella Valley since 2008, Ladera’s fairways can be 70 or even 80 yards wide, but there is no rough on the course. Off the fairways are areas of native desert landscape, either natural or recreated through the moving of 2 million cubic yards of earth. The black tees measure 7,365 yards, though the course with five par-5s and five par-3s can stretch back to more than 7,700 yards and also has several sets of shorter tees.

Throughout the course are large, white-face bunkers, a tribute to architect George Thomas and his bunkering at Riviera Country Club. A barranca that cuts across the fairway of the par-5 first hole is also a tip of the hat to Riviera’s first hole. Many of the white-sand bunkers are large cross bunkers in fairways or deep greenside bunkers making precision shots into sloping and undulating putting surfaces vital. Azoff laughs that many of the bunkers are ornamental and may never see a golf ball. Rugged, often jagged bunker lips are a reflection of nearby mountains that aren’t part of the course but serve as a backdrop for many shots.

“The 15th (a 320-yard par-4) is kind of inspired by No. 10 at Riviera. The only difference is instead of the sand, you have the big runoffs,” Azoff said. “You noticed on the par-3 12th, there is a biarritz (a gulch running through a green). Well, we did kind of a half biarritz, with the dip in the back of the green.”

The design is Hanse’s interpretation of what Azoff and Cue wanted.

“Gil asked us questions about what we liked. He asked what do you think about barrancas,” Azoff said. “The one thing we all spit out at that time was no palm trees, no ponds. This is not a Palm Springs golf course. We want the desert to feel natural. We want the mountains to feel natural. And we wanted to keep some sort of tradition from the lemon trees.”

A day at Ladera can end on a nine-hole par-3 course where golfers can basically hit from any tee box to any green.

As for the legacy of his new course, Azoff says he and Cue want to pass Ladera down to their sons. Azoff’s two sons are strong players who pulled their father into the game, Cue is a golfer who wants his own sons to embrace the game. Azoff admits he wants the course on top-100 lists as a way to add luster to what he feels is the faded glory of Palm Springs golf. He also wants people to understand his excitement about the course and its place in golf.

“It’s the spirit of the place. It’s the staff, it’s the practice facilities,” Azoff said. “Look, I’ve built a lot of stuff, and usually if it comes out 75 percent of what you have envisioned, it’s great. This came out 200 percent. It nails it as far as we are concerned.”

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