Clive Clark's creative design highlights Indian Wells' renewal

Clive Clark's creative design highlights Indian Wells' renewal

Impressive Celebrity Course laid the groundwork for spectacular improvements

Reid Nelson Editor
image (Photo courtesy of Indian Wells Resort)
The par-5 14th hole at Indian Wells' Celebrity Course exemplifies architect Clive Clark's use of bunkering and water features.

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – In the golf course design profession, Clive Clark is never going to be confused with the likes of Donald Ross, Robert Trent Jones or Jack Nicklaus, all of whom boast portfolios that run on for pages. In fact, in some ways, Clark’s résumé as a designer mirrors his career as a player.

It’s not the quantity of work, but the quality that impresses.

Clark, a five-time winner on the European Tour and a member of the 1973 European Ryder Cup Team, first got into course design in 1990. Since then, he has produced just 30 courses, so you don’t run across a Clive Clark design on every corner of the golf world.

Judging from his work at Indian Wells Resort in California’s famed Palm Springs area, that’s both good and bad – bad because of their scarcity, yet good because you quickly realize that running across the rare Clark design can provide an unexpected treat.

Roughly a decade ago, Clark was one of a number of architects who responded to a request for a proposal to renovate the existing West Course at Indian Wells Resort.  He was subsequently hired to design a new course on the same site.

Note, we said a new course – not a renovation. The City of Indian Wells, which owns the resort, was actually interviewing architects with the idea of sprucing up the old layout. But when it came time to interview Clark, he went them one better, presenting a plan for an entirely new course, better suited to the modern game, for only a few dollars more than they were planning to spend for a “re-do.”

The city fathers were so impressed – both with Clark’s plan and his projected budget – that they gave the talented (and impishly comical) Brit the existing layout, plus 30 additional acres and said “Have at it.”

The resulting Celebrity Course opened on Nov. 1, 2006 and the artistic/challenging/entertaining gem has been delighting area residents and visitors, resort guests and touring professionals ever since.

"From the onset, I was given the liberty to be creative, and that led to 18 truly unique golf holes," Clark said, just prior to the course hosting the LG Skins Game over Thanksgiving Weekend 2007, an event won by defending champion Stephen Ames over Fred Couples, Zach Johnson and Brett Wetterich.

Clark’s creativity is well-rooted. Before turning pro and competing in 36 different countries, Clark attended both art school and architectural college. He supplemented his formal training through the game, itself, competing at the highest level as both an amateur and then longtime member of the European Tour.

He played in the 1965 Walker Cup, 1973 Ryder Cup and 11“majors” –  10 Open Championships and one Masters – from 1964-74 before serving as a golf commentator for the BBC for 18 years, all the while studying many of the world’s greatest courses.

In case you’re interested, Clark’s best finish in a major was a tie for third in the 1967 Open Championship. He also made a hole-in-one at the 1968 Masters, with a 2-iron from 190 yards at the 16th (a hole where short irons are the rule today--and you don’t think modern equipment has changed the game?)

But back to Indian Wells, where Clark sculpted an absolute jewel from the Coachella Valley desert.

Clark moved more than 300,000 cubic yards of desert in carving out the Celebrity Course , a par-72 layout that can measure as long as 7,050 yards or as short as 5,280 yards, depending on which of five sets of tees are played. But numbers do nothing to explain the brilliance of the design.

It’s the way the architecture shaped those massive amounts of earth that make the Celebrity Course such an exuberance. Particularly, it is Clark’s use and placement of bunkers – not to mention seven water features – that give the course its character and make it one of the more interesting “driving” courses you’ll find anywhere.

Yes, Clark makes good use of bunkers and water hazards to define and challenge approach shots, as well. But it is tee shot strategy that truly sets Indian Wells’ Celebrity Course apart. That’s because Clark demonstrates how and why fairway bunkers should be just that – fairway bunkers!

With a great majority of modern architecture, true fairway bunkers have ceased to exist, as bunkers guarding landing areas off the tee have been pushed into the rough. But at Indian Wells, Clark pushed bunkers well into the fairway, most often pinching targets from left and right in offset patterns. The angles created by the staggered bunkering create strategic thought-provoking alternate lines of play that call for both sound decision-making and execution.

It’s something Alister Mackenzie masterfully explained in his book, “The Spirit of St. Andrews.” It’s also one of the main reasons the Celebrity Course not only holds your attention, but stimulates your imagination hole after hole, as you constantly confront questions like, “Do I lay up short of the bunker on the right or try to carry the one on the left?”

Speaking of St. Andrews, it’s worth noting that, like the Birthplace of Golf, the Celebrity Course has just one par-3 and one par-5 on each nine, the bulk of the course comprised by its 14 par-4 holes, one of the more interesting of which is the imminently drivable 12th.

At just 258 yards from the back tees – 248 and 235 from the tees most resort players will choose – it’s little more than long par-3 in today’s distance-oriented game. But again, it’s Clark’s bunkering, especially one particular sandy expanse set some 30 yards short of the putting surface, that is key to the design.

Clark’s skillful job of transforming what had been a worn and dated West Course into a vibrant and artistic Celebrity Course sparked the City of Indian Wells into a more comprehensive renovation of the entire resort, to the tune of some $55 million.

Former U.S. Amateur champion John Fought was hired to redesign the resort’s Players’ Course, and architect Douglas Fredrikson was commissioned to design an impressive and elegant 53,000-square-foot clubhouse in 2007, just a year after the Celebrity Course debuted.

The overall product is now one of many standout properties in the Coachella Valley that make the greater Palm Springs area one of golf’s premier destinations. And it all began because of Clive Clark, who answered a request for a proposal for renovation with an ambitious plan for renewal. 

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