When the sun goes down across the 120-course bounty of the Coachella Valley, the swings don’t cease.
Amid the Southern California desert’s golf-rich region of notable estate, one-percenter, super muni and community courses — counted among the most unique is an 18-hole par-3 layout approaching its golden anniversary.
And the grounds may be shining brighter than ever.
Aptly named, The Lights at Indio plays as one of the longest par 3s in the country. Charting at 3,003 yards and with six holes of at least 160 yards (including the 230-yard No. 4), the city-owned grounds don’t derive their most renown based on distance alone.
Rather, flanked by well over 200 50-watt HID lamps affixed to 70 soaring poles, the course is the region’s only track lit for evening play. Swinging in concert with one of the area’s only public-access driving ranges and an active FootGolf scene, the grounds are seeing record-setting tee sheets across the pandemic timeline — during day and night.
“We’ve seen so many beginners (during the pandemic), and it was great to see the city of Indio invest in a lot of course improvements for us at the same time,” says David Ruvolo, manger and director of golf at The Lights, who has been at the course since 2004. “We’ve probably doubled in play; we were maybe doing about 15,000 rounds annually before, and now we’re doing around 30,000. Just in the past 20 months or so.”
Popular with a diverse range of skill levels, the course — pandemic timetable or preceding — has long been popular for players seeking solace from the summer sizzle and sticks looking for kicks after the workday ends.
“The lights are a big factor, especially in the summertime. It’s a value to the community, something for the locals to do at night, especially in the heat of the summer,” Ruvolo adds. “And it’s also great for people who work until 5 o’clock, especially a lot of guys, really solid players, we see out here who work in the golf business who can’t play in the day.”
Among said solid players: The Lights has a history of seeing pros and/or their caddies come out during tournament week of the PGA Tour’s annual American Express desert stop in January. Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson are among those who have made the rounds.
From shining stars to bulbs, amazingly, despite near five decades of operation, the course is on just its second set of lights, which the city put in about a decade ago.
“And you can imagine how the lights were built way back then, with switches and stuff like that; and I’m sure they used more power then, too,” Ruvolo says. “Now, they’re computer-programmed.”
Honoring the rise in play, Ruvolo credits both the city of Indio and management company Landmark Golf for addressing needed property upgrades in recent years, while reinvesting in the course with everything from a new pump station to improved playing conditions.
“Among those things, we cut fairways now. For the higher handicaps who don’t hit the greens, we’ve found the fairways are great. They can roll and bump a ball up there now. Before, it was just plain old rough grass between tee and green,” Ruvolo says. “And we’ve finally got all of our tee boxes flattened out; it was a three-year project plan, which took an extra year because of COVID. And we worked to widen and lengthen the tees. But with the amount of play we’re getting now, working the tees is still keeping us busy. We added another guy on the crew — we had to, just to help keep up with the tee divots.”
Working with a three-worker grounds’ staff (four strong in the desert’s winter peak season), the upgrades have ranged from touches small to overt.
“There’s, of course, a lot of deferred maintenance that doesn’t get done on golf courses in general, let alone municipal courses,” says Bruce Brown, account manager at The Lights who oversees the grounds for locally-based Vintage Landscape, which provides maintenance for five area courses. “But we’ve been able to come in and do pre-emergent herbicides in January, to do summer aerations, to do solid tining on the greens, a light topdressing on the greens every six or eight weeks and a core aeration with sand in July. Just all the maintenance practices that go into the routine of a championship course.”
And yet, despite sporting less than half the yardage of a championship card, manning The Lights does come with its own set of unique challenges. Considering the illuminated play window, The Lights is open 28 hours more per week than an average course.
“Maintenance-wise, our water window is really narrow,” Brown adds. “Normally for a course, the grass has a chance to recover. In the winter out here, a normal course is wrapping up play around 4:30 p.m. or so. Here? People are playing until 10 p.m., so we’ve got about an eight-hour window for the grass to recuperate. Then, come about 6:30 in the morning, people are back, sometimes lined up at the gate, all ready to get back out there at 7.”
The constant assault on tee boxes presents an additional challenge.
“On a normal golf course, you have four par 3s, and, of course, those are the tees that take a beating with divots,” Brown says. “But working with 18 par 3s, that’s the biggest challenge, tee marker rotation. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we spend about 40 hours a week working on the tees, just trying to keep playable turf on the boxes.”
And from ne’er do wells to actual rodents, the lights at The Lights also require regular oversight. “We’ll see the occasional copper wire theft issue, and we do run into an occasional thing where the lights’ copper wire gets eaten by a gopher,” Ruvolo says. “And then it’s trying to trace where the power problem is, and the next thing you know we’re digging ditches and replacing wire.”
From sunrise to sundown, the singular site also sees Ruvolo wearing two hats — literally. The pro shop also serves a secondary purpose as a City of Indio Postal Annex. Going from the mail counter to the golf counter finds Ruvolo rotating between a postal ballcap and a Srixon hat. Granting the extra responsibility that comers with balancing stamps and swings, the manager enjoys making light of the twin billing.
“People come in here to mail a letter and it’s, ‘Oh, man. I gotta get something for the grandkid. Can I get one of those hats?’” Ruvolo says. “Or people come in to ship a package and stay for a hot dog and a Coke. Maybe when they’re here for stamps or something, they get interested in the golf course and then come back out to play. We do joke about it, but, really, it’s a great idea.”