Building the Home of Golf in the Coachella Valley
Many know the story of select factors which brought golf to the Coachella Valley and Johnny Dawson to the Thunderbird Dude Ranch; a property with an artisan well producing 2,000 gallons of water a minute and excellent views of snow-capped mountains in the distant. Few know that Thunderbird almost never happened as after Dawson and friend Barney Hinkle invested $15,000 to hold Thunderbird Ranch in escrow trouble stepped in in the form of Ben Hogan.
"One day" recalls Dawson "Ben and his friend from Dallas Pollard Simons showed up in Palm Springs looking for a site to build a golf course. I figured it would be disastrous to have two courses going in at the same time and that with Hogan the competition would be too tough. I thought well if I can't lick 'em I would join them so I brought them to Thunderbird to take a look. Thunderbird in the day was fairly disheveled with little to offer but sand and brush. The ranch house didn't have glass in the windows, just canvas draped over the frames. I remember Hogan saying" "you will never build a golf course here" "and that was the end of that."
So the Hogan group, Dawson now included as a minor member, settled on a site in Garnett, California, about 10 miles North of Palm Springs. The property had a unique series of fertile dunes and solid vegetation fed by water directly under the surface.Hogan was sold on the site and went back to Fort Worth leaving the team to complete the purchase. Dawson was secretly dismayed. And then nature took a hand in the future of Thunderbird. "The day Hogan went home" says Dawson "Simons and I had breakfast and we decided to take one more look at the site. Well the wind suddenly started to howl. It blew so hard it nearly blasted a nearby train right off the tracks. 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. And I could get started on Thunderbird again."
Thus the history of the first golf course in the Coachella Valley began. Dawson hired renowned Golf Course Architect Lawrence Hughes, who with his father Henry T. Hughes,studied under legendary Grand Master of golf course architecture Donald Ross. The Hughes brothers, Lawrence, Frank and Henry originally worked with Ross on construction crews supervised by their father Henry T Hughes. The brothers worked as a team in the late forties producing as one of their first works the magnificent Club de Golf de Mexico in Mexico City. Lawrence eventually located in the rapidly developing Southern California area. With brother Frank supervising the construction, he built beautiful layouts in wasteland areas like Thunderbird Country Club, Tamarisk and Eldorado Country Clubs in Palm Springs. Lawrence's work under the influence of Donald Ross inspired his classical golf course architectural style.
What transpired at Thunderbird was a fun and challenging routing with large undulating greens, strategically placed bunkers and before the construction of homes; significant influences of desert sand encroaching on play. The course routing Hughes designed remains today even after a devastating rainstorm destroyed much of the golf course in 1979 when veteran desert architect Ted Robinson was called in to restore the Hughes layout. The historic layout re-opened in 1980 with former President, and Thunderbird Member, Gerald Ford presiding over the festivities.
Besides the deep and impactful history Thunderbird enjoys, golf was then, and is today, the soul of the club.