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Desert Oasis: Shadow Ridge Perfect for a Winter Tune-Up

Golf is supposed to be one of those things that brings people together, but in this land of two solitudes, even the game exposes significant differences across the east-west divide — not the least of which is one’s preferred destination for a welcome winter golf vacation.

For obvious reasons of geography, folks east of Winnipeg have traditionally vacationed on the east coast — Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Myrtle Beach — while western Canadians are generally far more familiar with the west side of the continent and the desert climes of the U.S, like Las Vegas, Arizona and California.

The elaborate green complex looking back at the tricky par-5 2nd hole

As a transplanted Albertan — Edmonton to Ottawa, by way of Toronto — I grew up appreciating everything the west had to offer: Pacific Coast Highway instead of Route 1; Disneyland, not Disney World; Torrey Pines rather than Ponte Vedra.  The sweltering summer humidity of my adoptive home, and its inherited vacation spots, has been a particularly tough adjustment.

So imagine my delight when, earlier this year, I was afforded the chance to revisit the Hollywood playground of Palm Desert, Calif., a part of the world I hadn’t seen since the epic winter family road trips of my youth, one where anyone used to the dry Prairie climate of dust-bowl Alberta is going to find themselves right at home among the palm fronds of the Coachella Valley.

The specific destination was Marriott’s Shadow Ridge Golf Club, a challenging but eminently playable, resort-style Nick Faldo layout — his first design on the West Coast, built in 1999 — where I was embarking on a three-day golf school run by the Faldo Golf Institute.

I had the good fortune to land in the capable hands of Mike Ellis, the institute’s senior instruction and himself a transplanted East Coaster who migrated to Palm Desert 12 years ago from the Faldo facility in Orlando. I was uneasy about the prospect of having someone squeeze my game squeezed into a Faldo-esque template, but as it turns out, Ellis had the same concerns when he first came to California.

“I had taught quite a few years before coming here to Shadow Ridge 12 years ago, and my concern was was I going to have to change my philosophy in teaching, and really, I haven’t,” Ellis said in an interview.

“Our firm belief is we get your fundamentals in order — the posture, the grip, the alignment, the ball position — and then work on obviously the swing. The swing is much easier with those things working for you, you know what I mean? If you have bad posture, then swing plane is going to be an issue for you, typically. If you have a bad grip, your clubface is going to be not so timely. If your alignment is bad, your swing path is going to be not so good.

“So we feel if we can get you set up there, and we have problems with direction and ball flight, we go from there.”

In other words, Faldo’s instructional philosophies tend to revolve around the fundamentals, ensuring there are no culture clashes when it comes to how the experts believe the golf swing works. Anything that an experienced and talented instructor like Ellis is able to bring to the table beyond mere fundamentals is not only valued, but encouraged.

“That was a big concern of mine, right in the interview: ‘Am I going to have to talk in ‘Faldo-ese,’’ type of thing,” he recalled.

“But in a way, this is his philosophy, certainly; it’s not like we’re trying to teach our own philosophy. Because I think the shame would be if you went to Shadow Ridge as a couple and went to a golf school, and then went to Grand Vista in Orlando the following year, and they’re talking about something totally different. That’s not good.”

The massive double-ended practice range at Shadow Ridge

The three-day Faldo program covers all the basics, from the short strokes on the greens through chipping and pitching all the way to the full swing and the game off the tee. One of the most critical components is the fact that your instructor gets to watch you play, rather than just toil away on the practice range; if you’re making fundamental errors in judgment on the course, or letting the pressure of the circumstances change the fundamentals of your swing, he or she will be there to see it for themselves.

Also critical is a state-of-the-art video lesson that goes beyond the usual scratch-the-surface affair. The instructor puts you on camera at the beginning of the lesson, looking for specific faults and issues to work on, then again when it’s all over, in hopes of illustrating a degree of progress and nailing down principles and drills to work on at home. Video lessons — which include a side-by-side comparison with Faldo himself (who else), remain accessible indefinitely via the Faldo Institute website to allow you to review basic concepts, listen to your instructor’s advice and see with your own eyes what you were working on.

As a golf course, Shadow Ridge more than holds its own. It might lack the eye-candy factor or brand recognition of some of its better-known neighbours, like Indian Wells or PGA West, but the ample fairways, sophisticated bunkering and elaborate greens make it an excellent match for the teaching facility like the Faldo institute, especially given the hands-on approach of the staff.

The pitch and roll of the fairways make it hard to find a level lie, even in the centre of the short grass, while well-placed hazards — including a multitude of man-made lakes — help to ensure there’s not an easy approach shot anywhere on the golf course. Every swing seems inbued with a sense of risk and reward, no matter how well-placed the tee shot.

Where Shadow Ridge really shines, however, is the practice facilities. A sprawling double-ended practice range, complete with an outdoor club-fitting studio (equipped with Trackman launch monitor), is just the beginning: there’s also an adjoining “scoring V” — a short-game practice area where you can practice just about every shot from 100 yards and in, whether it be from a grass lie or out of a bunker. There are spacious putting greens around virtually every turn. And a massive practice bunker-and-green complex is ideal for working on your chipping game and greenside bunker play.

So, if you’re looking for a place this winter to shake the rust off your game, whether on your own or under the watchful eye of a conscientious, attentive professional teacher, you’re not going to do much better than Marriott’s Shadow Ridge in Palm Desert. And thanks to guys like Mike Ellis, it won’t seem like pulling teeth.

“We try not to overcomplicate things,” says Ellis, gesturing to his head. “You know how difficult the game can be; it can get pretty complicated up here.”

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James McCarten

When James McCarten isn't at the Ottawa offices of The Canadian Press, where he works as parliamentary news editor, he's either on the golf course or putting off his latest freelance golf-writing gig to spend time with wife Lisa and school-age kids Claire and Lucas. With 20 years of experience in Canadian journalism, James also suffers from a financially crippling addiction to all things Scotty Cameron.

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