Palm Springs calls itself the winter golf capital of the world, and rightly. On the desert floor of California's Coachella Valley a concatenation of 16 golf courses has emerged from the sand to form a colorful playground (next eight pages) of plush greenery, dazzling flowers and tropical foliage of the kind seen at right on Eldorado's 10th fairway. This year there will be 400,000 rounds played on this...
HOGAN SAID 'NO,' BUT DAWSON SAID 'YES'
Until 14 years ago California's Coachella Valley was a barren stretch of desert where lizards blinked in the sun, where General Patton once took his 1st Armored Corps to get it ready for the Sahara and where the drowsy little settlement of Palm Springs served as a bleached health spa for a few businessmen and movie types who fled the whirl of Los Angeles to ride horseback, play tennis, soak quietly in mud baths or lounge motionless and blinking, like the lizards. Then, suddenly and surprisingly, the grunt of the bulldozer was heard across the sand. A man named John W. Dawson had discovered that a desert could be a perfect place to build a golf course.
"When I first started coming to the Palm Springs area 25 years ago," says Hugh Mann, a wealthy California real-estate man, "I would not have given you 10¢ an acre for the place. It was all sand. There was nothing to do for excitement except get drunk and tear up and down Palm Canyon Drive on a motor scooter."
January 13, 1964
Today people in Palm Springs still take a nip now and then, but the motor scooter has been replaced by the golf cart, and the once quiet town is so filled with traffic, people and hubbub—at least between October and June—that Patton's tanks would scarcely be noticed in the jam. In 14 years the resident population has jumped from 7,000 to a high of 35,000 during the peak months of the season. On a big day the Palm Springs area, a full 100 miles from Los Angeles and 125 miles from San Diego, has been host to more than 75,000 visitors. To absorb this influx, the place has been transformed from a slim and trim one-street town into a real-estate broker's dream, a 16-mile checkerboard of hotels, motels, apartment houses, office buildings, nightclubs, restaurants, luxury homes, housing developments, swimming pools, putting greens and—the cause of it all—more than a dozen green, gleaming, glorious golf courses.
Primarily, the new bulge of semipermanent residents came from the large cities of the West Coast, but a wide scattering of prosperous and notable business people from Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington also own homes in the area and come west each winter. Palm Springs has grown into the most cosmopolitan desert on earth. It can appeal to the flashy taste of the show-business crowd (Frank Sinatra owns a $200,000 home on the 17th hole at the Tamarisk Country Club) or the conservatism of a former President—Dwight D. Eisenhower's house is just off the 11th fairway at Eldorado.
Real-estate values have soared along with the quantity and quality of the population. Land on Palm Canyon Drive, the main street in downtown Palm Springs, now sells for $3,000 a front foot. A 630-acre tract that went for $36,000 in 1946 is a golf-course development worth $20 million today.
"We used to say that the summertime population and the temperature were the same, 130," says Frank Bogert, who has done a little bit of everything in the 37 years he has spent at Palm Springs, and is at present its appointed mayor. "Now we visualize a weekend winter population of 350,000 in the Palm Springs-Palm Desert-area. A lot of people try to take credit for what has happened here, but I think you've got to give most of it to Johnny Dawson."
The name Johnny Dawson means as much to golf followers of the 1930s and 1940s as it does to real-estate people of the 1950s and 1960s. Bobby Jones once called him probably the greatest amateur golfer in the world. Unfortunately for his amateur status, Dawson spent his peak golfing years as a high-level sales-and-promotion man for the sporting-goods firm of A. G. Spalding and as such was under a cloud as far as the U.S. Golf Association was concerned. Between 1928 and 1946 Dawson held himself aloof from all national championships. During that time, however, he accumulated an impressive collection of sectional titles. In 1942 he won the Bing Crosby Invitational by three strokes over an impressive field of pros that included Lloyd Mangrum, Ralph Guldahl, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead. During the war, with rubber in short supply, selling golf balls was hardly a time-consuming occupation. So in 1942, at 39, Dawson began a career in real estate. In addition to supplying the experience that later was to prove so useful at Palm Springs, his new vocation returned him to the good graces of the U.S.G.A. For a few years he was able to give an indication of the kind of golf he might have played on a national level during his prime. His record in the first three U.S. Amateurs he played in after the war is extraordinary: each time he lost to the eventual champion. In 1946 he was beaten by Ted Bishop on the 17th hole of the first round, the following year he lost to Skee Riegel on the 35th hole of the final round and in 1949 he took Charlie Coe to the third extra hole in their quarterfinal match. That same year he was named to the Walker Cup team and won both his matches decisively.
Dawson first came to Palm Springs to play, but he stayed to build. Thomas O'Donnell, a California oilman, had installed a very short (2,647 yards) nine-hole course on his property and each year invited his friends, including Dawson, down for a tournament. By 1946 Dawson was convinced that Palm Springs could support a course more substantial than O'Donnell's backyard plaything.
"I was impressed by the climate and the area's closeness to L.A.," says Dawson, a tidy, gray-haired man who now lives in Los Angeles and commutes back and forth between there and Palm Springs. "People would come down in large quantities, I figured, if they could have first-rate golf facilities."
This was not the first time anyone had conceived of such a project—an 18-hole course had been built in Palm Springs in 1927, and was desert again a year later—but few people had either the vision or the energy to hurdle the difficulties involved in coaxing a golf course out of the sand. The most formidable barrier appeared to be the absence of the two ingredients essential for growing anything, fertile soil and water in quantity. This handicap was, as Dawson later proved, imaginary. Fertile soil and water were what the desert around Palm Springs had in abundance.
By 1948 Dawson had completed an extensive survey of the Coachella Valley. He decided that there are six factors that must be taken into consideration when building a desert golf course. They are water, soil, wind, sun, view and washes, the latter being the dry channels that suddenly fill with boiling rivers of rainwater following a storm. Failure to consider any of the six would mean ruin.
By running tests, Dawson discovered two water tables not far under the desert floor, making water not only plentiful but accessible. One was formed by the melting snow and rain that sluiced down from the San Gorgonio mountain range to the north, the other by water rolling off the San Jacinto range to the west. The water was clear and nutritious, and high in mineral content. Spot samplings of the valley's soil revealed that most of it was saturated with sodium clays, a deterrent to the growing of grass, but something generous quantities of sulphur could easily overcome. A few trips over the valley in a light plane showed Dawson where the wind was likely to be too strong, either for comfort or for growing grass. The various paths of the wind were etched as clearly on the sand formation of the desert floor as turnpikes on a road map. Finally, all Dawson needed was a watch to reach the conclusion that by moving east, away from the mountains that hovered over the western fringe of Palm Springs, he could obtain an extra 90 minutes of sunshine each afternoon. This is an often overlooked, but always vital, point in desert building. In winter, sunshine is to Palm Springs what oil is to Texas.
Consideration of these factors eventually brought Dawson to the Thunderbird Dude Ranch, a 182-acre spread in the desert wilderness, about 10 miles from town. It had an artesian well that produced 2,000 gallons of water a minute, and an excellent view of snowcapped mountains in the distance and some smaller ones close by. On the site stood a 20-room ranch house and one adjoining building, which could serve as the nucleus for a clubhouse. An extra economic attraction was the ranch's losses of $136,000, which could be applied against future taxes.
Dawson invested $9,000, and a friend named Barney Hinkle put up $6,000 to hold the property in escrow. The idea was to construct a golf course that would have numerous homesites on and around it. They formed a limited partnership, kept one-sixth of the stock themselves and worked out a campaign to sell the rest, hoping to raise enough money to start building the course. Then trouble loomed in the dour form of Ben Hogan.
"One day," recalls Dawson, "Ben and a wealthy friend, Pollard Simons of Dallas, showed up in Palm Springs looking for a place to put a golf course. I figured it would be disastrous to have two courses going in at the same time, and that Hogan's competition was too tough. I thought, well, if I couldn't lick 'em, I'd join 'em. I brought them over to Thunderbird to take a look. I must say things were pretty disheveled out there. The desert was nothing but sand and brush. The ranch house didn't even have glass in the windows, just canvas drapes hung from the frames. Hogan was shocked, I guess. 'You'll never build a golf course out here,' he said, and that was the end of that."
So the Hogan group, Dawson now included as a minor member, looked at a number of other sites and finally settled on one in Garnet, about 10 miles north of Palm Springs. It was in a unique series of fertile dunes that were covered with a solid growth of vegetation fed by water directly under the surface. In addition, the property contained several hot mineral springs. Hogan was sold on the site and went back to Fort Worth, leaving Simons to complete arrangements with the owner and put the property in escrow. Dawson was secretly dismayed. Then nature took a hand.
"The day after Hogan went home," says Dawson, "Simons and I had breakfast together at the Racquet Club. It was a gorgeous day, and we had just called the owner in Pittsburgh and agreed on a price for the property. 'Let's take one last look,' Simons said. So we drove over. A gentle breeze was blowing, and the site could not have looked more beautiful. On the way back to town we stopped at the railroad tracks. The overpass had not been built yet, and we had to wait for one of those long, slow freight trains to go by. Well, the wind suddenly started to howl. It blew so hard it almost blasted the train right off the tracks. Simons turned pale. 'Let's go back and take a look at the property,' he said. 'Let's see if it's blowing there.' You can bet it was blowing. So much dust and sand was in the air you could hardly see the dunes. I knew the deal had fallen through right then and there. I could get started on Thunderbird again."
But Hogan and Simons were not the only skeptics where building a desert golf course was concerned. Dawson ran into an immediate wall when he tried to round up investors for his Thunderbird project. Bluntly put, Dawson's friends and business associates thought he had lost his mind. Some of them sought out Fred O'Bannon, Dawson's partner in the real-estate firm of John W. Dawson Company, Inc.
"These were big real-estate people, with lots of common sense," says O'Bannon. "They were Johnny's best friends, they loved the man. They pointed out that it was 130° in the shade during the summer, that the winter season was too short, that the town was too small, that it was nothing but a barren waste, that there wasn't enough water in Palm Springs for a pot of petunias. They asked me couldn't I stop him, that the attempt was not only impossible but actually insane."
This was hardly the climate needed to attract potential investors. The master plan called for a total outlay of $1.9 million, and Dawson's offer to investors was an option to buy a lot for $2,000 if they would also buy $5,000 worth of stock in the corporation. Financing moved slowly, if at all, until a Houston oilman, D. B. McDaniel, put up $100,000. Then other well-known personalities, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Phil Harris and Ralph Kiner, bought in. Dawson was able to start construction in 1950. Compared to the difficulties he had encountered trying to arouse interest in his work, Dawson found putting in the golf course itself anticlimactic.
"Building the course was just a question of pushing sand around," he says. The original seeding of winter rye was planted as soon as the summer heat abated in September, and the course opened about three months later. Dawson had made extraordinarily efficient use of the land at his disposal. The golf course, clubhouse, driving range, roadways, 87 building lots and 15 three-bedroom cottages were all laid out on 182 acres. The project met with instant acclaim. By May 1952 every homesite had been sold.
A substantial part of Thunderbird's success lay, of course, in the soundness of the original idea, but an important factor was Dawson's meticulous execution. "John leaves nothing to chance," says O'Bannon. "When he built Thunderbird he planned for 150 palm trees. Well, John was out in the sun all summer, placing each tree at just the right spot and at just the right angle to give each golf hole the character he decided it had to have. I remember we were having lunch at Thunderbird with a business associate one day. It was early, and one of the waitresses was going around to the tables placing a menu upright on each. On one table she put the menu upside down. Johnny saw it, got up and walked all the way across the dining room to set it straight. He plays a lot of golf with General Eisenhower, but even then he doesn't forget the details. In the middle of a hole with Ike he will excuse himself to duck over to the next fairway to pick up a scrap of paper. He is always changing dead light bulbs, picking up bits of paper or brushing lint off your jacket."
Dawson may keep a sharp eye on everything, but to say that others were watching Dawson pretty closely while Thunderbird was being built is a considerable understatement. New real-estate-golf-course projects were launched almost before the first birdie had been shot at Thunderbird. Tamarisk Country Club opened two years later; Indian Wells in December of 1956; Eldorado, another Dawson project, in November 1957; and four more courses between January and November of 1959. Today there are 16 golf courses in the Palm Springs-Palm Desert area, and more are being built.
"Trying to outguess humanity is the toughest thing in the world to do," Dawson says. "A person today hardly knows his own mind. But if you give a man a good golf course, a good view and a concept that eliminates the millions of petty irritations he is going to run into elsewhere in life, you are off to a pretty good start."
And how about people who just want to ride horseback, play tennis, soak quietly in mud baths or lounge peacefully, like lizards, in desert sunshine? People, in short, who don't like golf? Well, they are going to have to go someplace that Johnny Dawson cannot find.