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Glitzy gambling & golf: Palm Springs to become a mini Las Vegas?

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

Palm Springs is becoming a golf-and-gambling destination, with a half-dozen casinos trying to lure luxury vacationers. It's not Las Vegas, but the casino push can be seen in golf clubs like the new Eagle Falls Golf Course and hotels. It's also a lot closer to Los Angeles.

Eagle Falls Golf Course
Casino money means big waterfalls like this one at Eagle Falls Golf Course.
Eagle Falls Golf CourseChris Tucker - Palm Springs Casinos

CABAZON, Calif. - It's a Wednesday night, and everyone's feeling more than all right. There's a line of cars at the valet outside the distinctive blue glass tower. The casino floor is hopping. You have a better chance of landing tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert than getting a spot at a blackjack table at this moment.

Upstairs, the beautiful people (i.e. college-aged girls in slinky dresses) gyrate to funky music, while the 40-year-olds who want everyone to think they're loaded lounge on couches.

Though it resembles another night in Las Vegas, in fact, you're about 280 miles off. Try the major California golf destination called the Coachella Valley, the land of Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, La Quinta and other towns that are supposed to trend older and more staid than a Frank Sinatra night at the local bingo parlor.

It turns out that casinos are not so slowly helping to transform an area that's long been known as a great sleepy spa getaway. It's no longer just about relaxation when golfing in Palm Springs: There's also action.

"You're not just going to dinner and then pretty much going to bed after you're done golfing for the day anymore," regular Coachella Valley golf vacationer Jeff Fields said. "You can play some poker at the tables, hit a nightclub or go to one of the concerts the casinos bring in."

It's not Vegas. For one thing, you're not walking from casino to casino. They're in completely different towns for the most part, with each one being its own world. On a Palm Springs trip, you pretty much choose one casino to go to for the night and that's it.

Of course, the golf in the Coachella Valley is largely cheaper across the board, with much more certainty of getting good course conditions than in Las Vegas, too. In fact, Palm Springs boasts the best course conditions on the West Coast thanks to a virtual arms race among the area's greenskeepers.

Now, the casinos are competing against each other in a glitz-and-golfers race too.

"You're seeing a different type of guest come into the area," said Robb Mihelic, head professional at Eagle Falls Golf Course, the $200 million Fantasy Springs Casino's foray into golf. "And you need to have the amenities that these guests have grown to expect.

"High rollers want a great golf course and all the trappings."

Fantasy Springs is betting they want a 44-foot waterfall. That Donald Trump-worthy feature is just part of a new Clive Clark design that defies all the conventions of your typical palm-tree-filled Palm Springs area course. Fantasy Springs' management brought in a general manager who worked at a club in Atlantic City, someone familiar with golf in a gambling Mecca.

Not all of the casinos have their own golf course. But they're all trying to court golfers one way or another.

The Spa Resort & Casino sits right in the heart of downtown Palm Springs, one street over from restaurant row. It's one of the pioneers in this Coachella Valley casino push, and its tribe (all the casinos are American Indian properties), the Agua Caliente opened up its own golf course, Indian Canyons Golf Resort, in 2004.

Three years later, coming to Palm Springs to golf and gamble isn't looked at as such an oddity.

"Now people from L.A. are realizing that they don't have to drive all the way to Las Vegas," said Tim Hurja, a Palm Springs golf packager and former area head professional who's seen the transformation up close. "Especially if it's for a short weekend trip.

"You always had the great golf here. Now you've got the gambling too."

It's hard to argue with the convenience. Palm Springs is a 1-hour-and-45-minute drive from Los Angeles. Vegas is four hours through the desert.

Palm Springs casinos do classy or casual

Walk into the Spa Resort & Casino on a weekday afternoon, and you'll be convinced you are witnessing many of gambling's lowbrow stereotypes: old people in walkers wagering away their Social Security checks, guys at the poker table who look like they haven't seen sunlight in three days. Go to Casino Morongo in Cabazon at night, and you'll be sure you have stumbled into a parallel universe of hipness: gleaming sports cars lined up at the valet, twentysometings in designer jeans all around.

Coachella Valley gambling runs the gamut. Out in another local golf destination, Indio, right along I-10, Fantasy Springs Casino fits in between the Agua Caliente's Spa Resort & Casino's smoky old-school feel and Morongo's obsession with coolness. Fantasy Springs has its own bowling alley. But it also has an outside deck pool that draws more than its share of scant bikinis.

"The casinos aren't all glitz here," Fields said. "But they're not all backwards either."

You're not quite in Las Vegas. But you're not golfing in Mississippi, either.

The Spotlight 29 Casino in Coachella leaves little doubt which way it leans with its entertainment acts. Chris Tucker, the comedian star of the blockbuster Rush Hour franchise performed here in June, and there is a new hotel geared toward the plush side under construction.

For a while back in the 1990s, Palm Springs almost became thought of as the West Coast's Myrtle Beach. The casinos are helping to change that, one trend-breaking golf course and rotating nightclub at a time.

Other noncasino resorts like Rancho Las Palmas - under new management in Rancho Mirage - are leaning toward the luxury side, too, now.

"The top-shelf casino player expects to have great golf, great dining and great entertainment acts, too," Mihelic said. "They all build off each other until you have one of the best destinations. Ten years ago to now? You can't even recognize the Palm Springs area."

The electronic clatter of those slot machines translates into high-thread count sheets and 44-foot waterfalls too.

Casino life is here to stay. And Palm Springs will never be the same old place again.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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