The Renaissance of the World’s Lowest Golf Course (-214 Feet)
This is Where Phil Mickelson Got His First Set of Left-Handed Golf Clubs; It Was a Girls Set – That’s the Only Set They Had.
The t-shirt in the pro-shop features a skeleton playing golf. On the first tee, whirligigs of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote spin in a never-ending chase at minus 214 feet below sea level on what once was an ancient seabed.
Welcome to The Furnace Creek Golf Course at Death Valley, an 18-hole course located in a true American oasis within the three million acres that is Death Valley National Park.
Begun in 1927, the legendary course with its famous drive-through 19th hole has just undergone a renaissance and renovation overseen by Fred Dickman, Director of Golf Course Maintenance and Hotel Grounds for the legendary Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs (home to the 2018 Seniors Open and the course where a young Jack Nicklaus earned his first U.S. Amateur title). The renovations were primarily focused on water conservation and transitioned 15 acres of maintained turf to desert with low-water-use native plantings. The result will ensure that these links with the ultimate waste bunkers continue to take on and entertain golf enthusiasts for generations to come.
The Inn and The Ranch at Death Valley (formally known as The Inn and The Ranch at Furnace Creek) are also undergoing a massive renaissance thanks to Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the company that owns and operates the private property.
But be prepared. While all links have challenges and house rules, out here some of the hazards include coyotes that like to one-way fetch golf balls (you are allowed a free drop) and the perplexing fact that golf balls don’t travel as far at 214 feet below sea level as they do at sea level. They just don’t.
The Furnace Creek Golf Course at Death Valley has been recognized by Golf Digest magazine in its list of “America’s 50 Toughest Courses.”
Located two hours from Las Vegas and four hours from Los Angeles, the course is located in a true American oasis, where ancient waters bubble up in amazing quantities from the ground. The Native Americans knew about it and the ‘49ers stopped on the way to the gold fields and the famed Borax Mule Teams quartered here.
Murray Miller, one of the date-palm caretakers at Furnace Creek, set up a three-hole golf course in 1927 to give the Borax miners something to do in their spare time. In 1931, a nine-hole course was developed around the old ranch land and date-palm orchards. It was the first grass golf course in the California desert.
It was a simple affair. In the hot summers, the course was closed, the fairways were irrigated with oasis water, and it was home to cattle. In the spectacular winters (November through April) the cattle gave way to sheep during the golf season who kept the fairways properly “mowed.”
Somewhere along the way, with the advent of motorized golf carts, a drive-through 19th hole evolved that nearly every golfer finds amusing and aspirational. The old wooden ramp and structure allows golfers to just drive up and practically into the 19th hole to order and grab a bite and refreshments. Even if they don’t order something, they almost all drive up and through it.
In 1968, noted designer William F. Bell expanded the course to a full 18 holes. Perry Dye of Dye Designs reworked the course in 1997, and a state-of-the-art irrigation system was installed to allow the course to remain open all year.
Now The Furnace Creek Golf Course at Death Valley is water neutral and features more native foliage and lined water holes that are highly sensitive to and respectful of the environment.
It’s best to be humble and not fooled by the wide-open fairways and the length of the course, which plays to a par of 70 and is only 6,215 yards from the back tees. From there, the course has a USGA rating of 74.7 with a slope of 128.
Think of where you are: on the floor of Death Valley, an ancient ocean bed, embraced by the Panamint and Funeral Mountains.
The 573-yard fifth hole is a highlight on the front 9, a par-5 dogleg right that wraps around a line of tamarisk trees running down the right side of the fairway, which rises slightly halfway to the hole and then slopes down to a diabolical green.
The drive from the back tee on the par-4, 440-yard sixth hole — the most difficult on the course — must carry more than 200 yards over a lake to a fairway that doglegs to the left.
Then there is hole number 7, called the “Goalpost Hole” because the drive must split two large trees in the middle of the fairway, 150 yards from a two-tiered trap-door green that drops off dramatically in the back.
The quirky 17th hole is only 310 yards, and the 414-yard 18th hole features three of only 10 bunkers on the course.
It’s also important to point out that The Devil’s Golf Course in Death Valley, located a few miles from Furnace Creek and pictured below is not a golf course, but a terrible wasteland on an expansive salt field created by evaporated bodies of water, and you can see the crystallization process at work. Someone with an odd sense of humor named it and last time we were there an old 7-iron was leaning against the wooden sign post for potential photo opportunities.