California golf course which hosted 1955 Ryder Cup gets first renovation in 40 years

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — As the oldest 18-hole golf course in the desert, Thunderbird Country Club has a natural affinity to its history. It’s a history that includes hosting the 1955 Ryder Cup, holding a PGA Tour event from 1952 to 1959 and being one of the original courses in the tournament that would become the Bob Hope Classic and now The American Express.

But at 70 years old, and 40 years removed from the last major renovation on the Rancho Mirage course, the members and administration at Thunderbird have begun a $6.5 million renovation project that will extend to the fall of 2022. The renovation is not designed to fundamentally change but improve the historic layout.

“We are not trying to change our footprint,” said Brett Draper, general manager and COO of Thunderbird. “We are just trying to move it into the next phase of its life. Really, the members don’t want to see massive changes. They just want to see improvement, aesthetic improvement.”

The renovation is starting this summer with the first three holes of the golf course as well as practice facilities. Workers are basically scraping all of the Bermuda grass turf off the tees, fairways, rough and greens to allow for shaping work on greens and other areas of the course. The end result will include more modern Bermuda grasses to be sprigged onto the course later this summer.

“We are doing a full 18-hole renovation,” Draper said. “Basically we are going to touch every hole on the golf course. We are going to rebuild five greens, we are going to re-do our bunkers, new designs, new liners, new sand.”

The first three holes and practice areas will be open in November, but before that the course ground crew under superintendent Roger Compton will work to eliminate Bermuda grass on the remaining 15 holes. That means golfers this winter and next spring will play on a cool-weather grass without a traditional Bermuda base. Then, as the cool-weather grass dies off naturally, the old Bermuda grass will not be a concern as the renovation project begins again.

Overseeing the work is architect Tripp Davis from Oklahoma, who shared the same vision of restoration rather than change that the Thunderbird membership had, said head professional Nick Dekock.

“Some outstanding candidates applied to retain the job. But Tripp was one who was really accepted by the membership,” Dekock said. “He also wanted to bring it back to the restoration, to the original historical design and not try to create a golf course. There might have been one or two others who in my opinion wanted to completely transform Thunderbird, and that’s not what any of the membership wanted. They wanted to keep the original design.”

First of the great 1950s desert courses

That original design, by Lawrence Hughes, was naturally a relatively flat course in 1951 when bulldozers still weren’t used much in building golf courses. Through the years, the course has been modernized, but the last true renovation of the course came in 1980 by architect Ted Robinson. Davis proved his work to the club members with some minor restorations to the layout in 2020.

“There is more of a rustic, natural flowing shape to the bunkers,” Dekock said. “He redid the two bunkers by the first green last summer, and it just had a more natural flow. Aesthetically, you can see the bunkers from the fairway, and they just have a more natural look.”

The work this summer and next year is just the beginning of updates to Thunderbird, Draper said. The club is focusing on many of the changes and additions that other desert private country clubs are trying to retain members and attract new members.

“This is kind of rebranding of the club. We call this Thunderbird 75, honoring the history, building the future,” Draper said. “Obviously, it’s golf, and that’s what is at the forefront, but addresses all our non-golf needs. We have a plan in place now to address $15 million in capital improvements in the next eight to 10 years. Golf is the first because it is the most important thing we have.”

Like other clubs, Thunderbird officials say the COVID-19 pandemic has actually been a boon to the amount of play at the course.

“We haven’t seen the number of rounds of golf reach these levels since 2006, so around 15 years since we have the amount of play that we saw this year,” Draper said. “We had a lot of members, I think, it reminded them how important the clubs is to them in their daily lives and how it is an outlet for them to come out and allow our team to serve them.”

But renovating the course and other facilities in the coming years isn’t just about current members, Draper admits.

“The excitement level of our current members is through the roof. They are extremely excited about seeing this,” he said. “We had an 87 percent approval vote for this. What we saw with that excitement level is new member interest has exceeded what our expectations were.”

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