Charlie Sifford made a lot of history on the PGA Tour, but Sifford also made at least a little history in the desert’s PGA Tour event, The American Express.
On Jan. 29, 1964, a new course debuted in the tournament, known then as the Palm Springs Golf Classic. La Quinta Country Club was considered to be perhaps the toughest of the courses in the five-day, four-course format of the tournament that was still a year away from adding Bob Hope’s name to the title.
La Quinta’s tight fairways and small greens might have been difficult, but it wasn’t too daunting that day for Sifford, who had joined the PGA Tour in 1961 as the first African-American golfer on Tour after the all-Caucasian clause for Tour membership had been discarded. In the first round of the 1964 tournament, Sifford fired a 6-under 66, setting the course competitive record and tying for first place after 18 holes with Tommy Jacobs, who had played at Bermuda Dunes Country Club that day.
Sifford eventually finished tied for seventh in the tournament – Jacobs won in a playoff at host Eldorado Country Club – but his place in tournament history was secure. As La Quinta Country Club celebrates its 50th playing in The American Express this year, it may have evolved from one of the toughest golf courses in the tournament to one of the easiest courses on Tour. But its history in the event is equally as secure.
The 50th playing of The American Express at La Quinta sets a record for most years played in the event, snapping a tie with Bermuda Dunes Country Club. That record could have been set in 2021, but La Quinta was dropped from the field for a year as part of COVID-19 pandemic protocols.
La Quinta Country Club hasn’t hosted the tournament since 1983, and for a few years it was in a rotation with Tamarisk Country Club. But with 50 years in the tournament, La Quinta has been surpassed in years played on the PGA Tour by only a handful of courses with names like Augusta National and Pebble Beach.
“I always enjoy playing La Quinta Country Club because it’s such a great course and fun to play on this rotation,” tournament host and two-time American Express winner Phil Mickelson said last year over the prospect of the course not being in the 2021 event.
“We’re going to miss La Quinta Country Club,” Kevin Na said at the time. “It’s a great golf course, fantastic greens there every year. We’re going to miss that.”
Mickelson and Na show the reason La Quinta is still in the event for a 50th time. The PGA Tour players enjoy the old-school nature of the course, which opened in 1959. The layout, designed by Lawrence Hughes and capable of playing just over 7,000 yards for the tournament, has not changed much since its 1964 tournament debut, even with a renovation in the late 1990s.
The course still sports narrow fairways, reachable par 5s, demanding par 3s and homes and palm trees left and right of most holes in a throwback feel to golf’s burgeoning days in the desert in the 1950s. The course offers a pair of scorable par 5s on the fifth and sixth holes, but danger on demanding par 4s like the tricky 14th, one of the toughest holes in the tournament.
Being in the tournament is still important to the club and its membership, even if it takes the course away from members for a week to 10 days in January, said the course’s head pro.
“On the flip side of that, the new members who have joined since I have been here, say the last three to seven years, it’s important to them that that tournament was here,” said Chris Gilley. “You walk down our hallways, it is our club, what was the Bob Hope and is now The America Express. It’s our history. It’s our tradition. It is part of what separates us from similar valley clubs.”
Still part of the event
Still being in the tournament is equally as important, Gilley said. While other 1950s courses have left The American Express rotation, courses like Indian Wells, Tamarisk, Thunderbird and Eldorado country clubs, La Quinta had been part of the event for 11 consecutive years before stepping aside because of the pandemic last year.
“‘Still’ is a key word when we sell our club to our guests or perspective members. We are still host to The American Express, formerly the Bob Hope. That resonates with people as they walk through our doors,” Gilley said.
Tom Nieporte, center, won the Bob Hope Desert Classic at La Quinta Country Club in 1967. He received his trophy from President Dwight D. Eisenhower and tournament host Bob Hope.
While La Quinta has only hosted The American Express four times, meaning it was played during the four-day pro-am and then the pros-only Sunday round, the course has a history of eclectic winners.
In 1967, the first year the course hosted the tournament, a part-time touring pro and full-time club pro named Tom Nieporte edged Doug Sanders by a shot for the victory. In 1970, Bruce Devlin surged in the final round to beat Larry Ziegler by four shots. Rik Massengale set a tournament record of 23-under par in winning at La Quinta in 1977, and Keith Fergus edged Rex Caldwell in a playoff in 1983, the last year La Quinta hosted the event.
La Quinta’s other claim to tournament history came in 2017, when Adam Hadwin fired a 13-under 59 on the course in the third round, matching the low round in the tournament shot by David Duval in 1999 at the Palmer Course at PGA West. Hadwin went on to finish second in 2017 to Hudson Swafford.
Returning to La Quinta Country Club this week means The American Express is again paying honor to not just La Quinta but the courses that helped to make the desert famous. And La Quinta gets to show again it can stand up to the best players in the world.
Courses played in The American Express tournament since 1960:
50: La Quinta Country Club
49: Bermuda Dunes Country Club
45: Indian Wells Country Club
24: Palmer Course, PGA West
19: Eldorado Country Club
18: Tamarisk Country Club
9: Stadium Course, PGA West
8: Nicklaus Tournament Course, PGA West
6: Nicklaus Private Course, PGA West
4: SilverRock Resort
3: Classic Club; Indian Ridge Country Club; Thunderbird Country Club