Great Moments in Sports

Great Moments in Sports

The size of Rancho Mirage would never put the city on the map, but the imagination — and audacity — of the people who call it home would propel this charmed locale for generations. Spread over 26 square miles and with fewer than 20,000 full-time residents, Rancho Mirage has played an outsize role in professional golf and tennis.  

Tournaments Propel the First Golf Courses

More than two decades prior to its incorporation as a city in 1973, Rancho Mirage was making waves in the sporting world. At the time, there was only sporadic nine-hole play, including at O’Donnell Golf Club in Palm Springs, the Coachella Valley’s original course. With desert getaways gaining popularity among the Hollywood elite, top amateur golfer and budding course developer Johnny Dawson figured it was time to change that. He purchased the Thunderbird Dude Ranch and set forth on a vision that would forever change the narrative of Rancho Mirage and its surrounding communities.

111_Thunderbird First Tee_Webphoto_duoThunderbird Country Club opened in 1951 as the desert’s first 18-hole golf course, an immediate hit with an A-list of founding members and a penchant for top competition. Designed by architect Lawrence Hughes, the club quickly gained a reputation for both invention and inspiration. In 1953, associate pro Eddie Susalla designed the original golf cart, and two years later, Thunderbird served as the namesake for the eponymous Ford model, with club member Ernest Breech, then chairman of the Ford Motor Company, asking Thunderbird’s permission for use of the moniker.

“When we tell our story, we talk about Thunderbird being a place of firsts,” says Brett Draper, the club’s general manager. “As the first master-built community with homes being attached to the infrastructure of the clubhouse and course, Thunderbird set the foundation for what is now one of the golf meccas of the world.”

A year after its debut, the club hosted its inaugural Thunderbird Pro-Member Open, an unofficial, 36-hole event that featured a premier field including Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Jimmy Demaret, and co-winners Jim Ferrier and Dr. Cary Middlecoff.

The same year, nearby Tamarisk Country Club, designed by William P. Bell, debuted as the second 18-hole course in the desert, with reigning Masters and U.S. Open champion Hogan as its first head pro. In 1953, Tamarisk hosted the desert’s first LPGA event, the Palm Springs Open, won by Jackie Pung, setting the stage for future women’s competitions.

In ’54, Fred Haas authored a 20-under tally and set the aggregate scoring mark at the newly renamed Thunderbird Invitational, then recognized as an official tournament for the pro touring division of the PGA of America (precursor to the PGA Tour).

109_Ryders Cup posterThe club earned international notoriety as host of the 1955 Ryder Cup matches, pitting the United States against Great Britain. “A club hosting the Ryder Cup just four years after its inception would, of course, be unheard of in this day and age,” Draper says.

Two years after narrowly defeating the Brits on English soil in the biennial matches, the Thunderbird turf saw the U.S. team retain the Cup with a convincing 8-4 win in ’55, with four American players, including Sam Snead, going 2-0-0 in the event.

Demaret captured the Thunderbird in ’56 and ’57, before rising NorCal start Ken Venturi won in ’58. The season following was the last for the Invitational, but not before leaving an impression that would last a lifetime. Felling Demaret and Venturi by three strokes was reigning Masters champion Arnold Palmer, who charged to the podium with a final-round 62, earning $1,500 for the victory and beginning a love affair with the Coachella Valley that lasted the remainder of his life.

In the ’60s, the Invitational became part of a new tournament called The Palm Springs Desert Classic, the genesis event of today’s annual American Express on the PGA Tour. Hosted by four founding clubs in 1960 — Thunderbird, Tamarisk, Bermuda Dunes Country Club, and Indian Wells Country Club — the rotation-style event found a familiar winner in Palmer, who would go on to capture the tournament five times, a record that stands today.

Thunderbird co-hosted the Classic for two more years, and Tamarisk was part of the rotation 19 times between 1960 and 2004. Both Rancho Mirage clubs continue to present a purview honoring their history.

For all the local legend swung by the fellas, the biggest golf splash in Rancho Mirage may well have been authored by the ladies.

112_Colgate Dinah Shore DUOMission Hills Country Club opened in 1971 and soon became a global sporting nexus and the site of a colossal cultural narrative. Shortly after the club’s unveiling, David Foster, president and CEO of Colgate-Palmolive, announced that Mission Hills would host a new LPGA tournament on its Desmond Muirhead-designed course, and entertainer Dinah Shore would be the event’s namesake and hostess. The Colgate–Dinah Shore Winner’s Circle tournament was nationally televised and sported a purse of $110,000. The $20,050 winner’s check usurped the entire purse of six LPGA events at the time.   

“I think it’s underplayed, just how important it was at the time and how various things through the tournament helped our marketability and our presence in the world of sports,” recalls Hall of Famer Judy Rankin, co-runner-up in the 1972 event and winner in 1976. “I don’t think we had been as well known, ever, as we were thanks to Mission Hills, Colgate-Palmolive, David Foster, and Dinah Shore. It feels like that tournament is our history.”

The nascent Dinah Shore Tournament Course, as it’s known today, played a role in initial outcomes. “A lot of sand dunes,” says Rankin, who later had a condo on the course and was sponsored by Mission Hills. “There were only houses down the first fairway, and maybe just starting on the second hole. Sand dunes everywhere, and the [eucalyptus] trees were about as tall as me.”

The men’s game also found Mission Hills, with the 1976 World Cup of Golf played on the Tournament Course, where Seve Ballesteros led Team Spain to a victory over Americans Dave Stockton and Jerry Pate.

113_Dinah Shore 19_duo_pink ccFor the ladies, the colloquially known “Dinah” tournament matured to become a sentry of women’s sport. In 1983, the event, then known as the Nabisco Dinah Shore, graduated to major championship status. It was also the first major of the season. For better than a half-century, it was the game’s longest-running tourney continuously held at the same locale, save for The Masters.

Already featuring a past champions’ list with the likes of Rankin, Mickey Wright, Sandra Palmer, Kathy Whitworth, and Nancy Lopez, the event became a fairway toward the Hall of Fame.

Amy Alcott won in ’83, followed by the triumphs of Juli Inkster in ’84, Pat Bradley in ’86, and Betsy King in ’87. Alcott’s second event title in ’88, however, gave the tournament, the LPGA, and all of women’s sports a signature moment and inspired the next generation of female athletes. In a moment of spontaneity, Alcott, with caddie Bill Kurre in tow, leapt into the lake adjacent to the par-5 finishing hole. Three years later, with a 75-year-old Shore by her side, Alcott made the leap again after her third capture of the tournament. Come 1994, the victor’s leap into “Poppie’s Pond” became the annual winner’s ritual, with the dive serving as rare rite of passage into major champion status.

Played under eight different iterations across 51 consecutive years — including the ANA Inspiration (2015 to 2021) and under the new sponsorship of All Nippon Airways — the event was last played as the Chevron Championship at Mission Hills in 2022, before it moved to Houston, Texas.

However, the following year, Mission Hills announced it would host the PGA Tour Champions’ debut of the Galleri Classic. David Toms, winner of the 2001 PGA Championship, authored the new chapter with aplomb, taking the inaugural top honors by four shots and a three-day tally of 16-under.

Pros and Presidents Tee Off at Sunnylands

In stark contrast to the global visibility of other sporting moments of lore in Rancho Mirage, some of the city’s most famous golf rounds took place behind the pink walls of Sunnylands, the estate of Ambassadors Walter and Leonore Annenberg.

Out of view from the press, Sunnylands has hosted Bob Hope, Warren Buffett, Hall of Fame golfers, and every President of the United States from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama, save for John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter.117_Nixon and caddie cc - Copy

The nine-hole golf course at Sunnylands was unveiled in 1965, a year before final touches of construction of the estate home. Designed by noted golf architect Dick Wilson — known for his work at Cog Hill No. 4 (“Dubsdread”) in Lamont, Illinois, and Doral’s Blue Monster in Miami, Florida — the Rancho Mirage design sports eight corridors of play coupled with eight spacious greens (one double-flagged). The golf course presents 18 tee boxes, thereby offering a full round. After finishing the front side, the back nine is experienced by teeing off from different routing angles toward a reflagged, previously played green, which, in essence, creates an entirely new hole.

Until his death in 2002, Walter avidly enjoyed late-afternoon rounds (after the stock markets closed on the East Coast), just as Leonore sited the course for her a regular ladies’ game until her own passing in 2009. 

Set as centerpiece amid the estate grounds’ 200 acres, the parkland-style course reflects the Annenbergs’ passion for culture, with the famed totem pole on the par-5 fifth hole and the stately Chinese Pavilion.

In concert with the artistic workmanship, Sunnylands’ tee sheet of time proves as unique as its singular routing pattern.

Eisenhower, the first U.S. president to play Sunnylands, remarked that the course lacked native trees; only days later, he would find twin palms on the property. 118_Reagan cabinet golf cc

For two decades, President Reagan and wife Nancy would bring in the New Year at the estate, with no shortage of swings amid the celebrations. Among the most notable of Reagan’s turf visits was a 1988 round played alongside George Schultz, his Secretary of State, and World Golf Hall of Famers Tom Watson and Lee Trevino. (Watson notably shot a 64 on the par-73 card). Four years later, another group of legends included Vice President Dan Quayle teeing up with Hall of Famers Raymond Floyd and Arnold Palmer.

President Richard Nixon found swing solitude on Sunnylands following his resignation, and his Wilson X-31 clubs, with the presidential seals stamped on the back, remain in the locker room. Part-time desert resident President Gerald Ford was a regular golf visitor to the property, and both Presidents Bush found the tee sheet Sunnylands. President Clinton’s love for the Coachella Valley has founding in his Valentine’s Day visit in 1995, and, during his two terms in office, avid golfer Obama made six trips to Sunnylands and has returned to play multiple times since his presidency concluded.

The Tennis World Turns to Mission Hills

Rancho Mirage has shown an equally ardent love for tennis, and the 1970s brought the desert fresh and legendary personalities amid the game’s budding popularity and set stage for what is now one of the sport’s largest gatherings.121_RF-Mission Hills 1976 - Copy

With an all-star administrative and teaching cast chronology at Mission Hills that ranged from Dennis Ralston to Tommy Tucker to Tom Gorman, the club’s pro staff has been ubiquitously ready to serve-up greatness.

Mission Hills unveiled its first American Airlines Tennis Games in 1976, plucking the pro tennis tourney from Tucson, Arizona. The debut men’s event instantly brought a luminary cast to the desert, with the singles draw featuring top-ranked Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, Bjorn Borg, Ilie Nastase, and Rod Laver. The field also included future International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee Charlie Pasarell, whose desert legacy would grow far beyond his playing days.

“I moved to the desert in 1974 and was living in Rancho Mirage at Sunrise Country Club,” Pasarell recalls. “I was still active on tour, so I did get to play at Mission Hills. From the beginning, the tournament attracted the world’s best, and that’s a tradition that began at Mission Hills and has continued.”

Connors, amid a then-record 160 consecutive weeks at No. 1 in the world, defeated Roscoe Tanner, 6-4, 6-4, in the finals.

“Joe Linsk, the tournament chairman, was instrumental in bringing the event here and making it a success,” Pasarell remembers. “He’d literally pick up the phone and call the Who’s Who in the Coachella Valley — the Sinatras and the Hopes — and say, ‘I’ve got you down for four seats,’ and would sell the tournament that way.”

The following year saw American   take the title, bringing more star power to Mission Hills. That same season debuted the women’s Colgate Series Championships, coupled with a massive, $250,000 playing purse. The game’s top-ranked player, Chris Evert, defeated Billy Jean King, 6-2, 6-2, the 11th singles title of the season for Evert.122_Chris Evert cc

In February 1978, Tanner redeemed his ’76 loss with a straight-set title victory in the American Airlines, and, later that year, Evert felled Mission Hills’ touring pro Martina Navratilova in the Colgate finals to go back-to-back in the two years the club hosted the event.

In 1978, Mission Hills, in something of a court coup, was awarded the Davis Cup finals, the international tennis event that was stimulating in global interest for the sport. In the tournament’s almost-80-year history prior to Mission Hills, no venue west of Ohio had hosted the finals.

120_RF-Bjorn BorgThe Americans, by virtue of beating Borg and the Swedes in the semifinals, advanced to the finals against Great Britain. Led by a 19-year-old John McEnroe, who crushed both John Lloyd and Buster Mottram in singles, the United States cruised to a dominating 4-1 win, and the performance landed McEnroe on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the Americans celebrated their first Davis Cup title in six years.

Come 1979, the men’s event, played as the Congoleum Classic, saw Tanner capture back-to-back desert titles. At the start of the new decade, the tourney reached but the semifinal stage before torrential desert rainfall washed out the event’s conclusion.

The drops almost washed away more than a few days of play. With the ATP wanting to move the tournament to Florida, despite the success at Mission Hills, Pasarell saved the event’s local status, moving it to a stadium he had built at the La Quinta Resort. In time, with Pasarell as co-founder and tournament director, the tournament became the Pacific Life Open and then today’s BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Regarded as the game’s unofficial “fifth major,” the BNP is the world’s largest combined WTA and ATP tournament.

With prologue comes past.

“If the tournament at Mission Hills hadn’t happened,” Pasarell reflects, “I don’t think there would be a BNP Paribas Open today.”

With both the men’s and women’s events having moved on, the courts at Mission Hills returned to international renown in the new millennium. In 2006, the club hosted the quarterfinal of the Davis Cup, with the United States on home soil versus Chile. Team captain Patrick McEnroe, the longest-tenured U.S. captain (2001-2010) in the history of the Davis Cup, believed his squad’s best chances for success would come on grass courts; the strategy led to Mission Hills, in concert with the United States Tennis Association, building two temporary courts on an existing stadium.

“It’s a decision I made as captain, based on the surface that I thought gave us the best chance to win against that particular opponent — and not a decision made lightly,” recalls McEnroe, who had to miss the quarterfinals as he and his wife were expecting their first child. “We had many conversations with Mission Hills and the USTA, and we had a lot of confidence that the club could do it right. We decided on grass, which is an unusual decision, because it’s actually quite difficult to find grass courts that can handle professional matches.”

As an homage to a history of victories in Rancho Mirage, the United States, won the duel, 3-2, to advance to that year’s Davis Cup semifinals. While the Mission Hills victory was followed by a semifinal loss that year, the U.S. team went on to capture the Davis Cup in 2007.

“It was one of the major pieces for us,” McEnroe says of the desert victory. “The team had a nice five-, six-year run, and the tough home win at Mission Hills was a component of that team chemistry and overall success.”

Now Serving: Desirae Krawczyk

Born and raised in Rancho Mirage, Desirae Krawczyk became known around the globe before she was 30 years old as one half of one of the most formidable women’s doubles teams in world tennis.

During the year that the City of Rancho Mirage was celebrating its 50th anniversary, Krawczyk and her Dutch partner, Demi Schuurs, pierced the top 10 of the Women’s Tennis Association doubles rankings.

The left-handed Krawczyk developed her love for the doubles game while playing at Arizona State University, where she was required to pair up. She has since thrived as part of a team, claiming top honors in mixed doubles at four Grand Slam tournaments, winning the 2021 French and U.S. Opens with Joe Salisbury, and Wimbledon in 2021 and 2022 with Neal Skupski, as well as 10 doubles titles on the WTA Tour.

Our Neighbor, Timothy Bradley

Rancho Mirage resident Timothy Bradley, aka “Desert Storm,” was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame June 11, 2023, in Canastota, New York.

Bradley started his 12-year career Aug. 20, 2004, knocking out Francisco Martinez in a ring set up in an industrial space in nearby Corona, and ended it with a loss to Manny Pacquiao at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas. His record was 33 wins, two losses (both to Pacquiao), and one draw. Pacquiao, the Filipino boxer-turned-politician whose rags-to-riches personal story won fans around the globe, won 12 world titles in eight weight divisions. He lost only eight of 72 fights; one of those losses was to Bradley.

Bradley is now an established, upbeat, and amiable boxing analyst for ESPN, and his wife, Monica, owns and operates two Haus of Poké restaurants (one in Rancho Mirage) and a food truck in the Coachella Valley.