By Greg Nieman
Visitors to Palm Springs often ask about the Spanish-style house that sits on a ledge of the mountain—right above downtown. The golf course that sits below the house isn’t quite as visible, but the two landmarks are related, and the man behind them both is Tom O’Donnell, an oilman who left lasting tributes to Palm Springs.
Thomas Arthur O’Donnell (1870-1945) was a Long Beach wildcatter who got rich in oil fields in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, as well as Mexico, in the years before World War I. It is said that he arrived in California from his native Pennsylvania penniless, but he was worth millions when ailing health brought him to Palm Springs in the early 1920s.
He stayed at The Desert Inn and became a close friend of Nellie Coffman, who established the resort in 1909 originally as a sanatorium. O’Donnell bankrolled the expansion of The Desert Inn, and in exchange, Nellie leased him the land on the hill behind the hotel. This reportedly became the first land lease in Palm Springs history that did not involve an Agua Caliente member.
There, the famous home “Ojo del Desierto” (Eye of the Desert) was built in 1925. The Mediterranean revival home, designed by William Charles Tanner, was designed to be consistent with the buildings of The Desert Inn below.
The Desert Inn is gone now, originally replaced by the Desert Fashion Plaza and the Desert Museum. The Desert Museum has since morphed into the Palm Springs Art Museum, and the mall was torn down to make way for various downtown development—most recently a new city park, which was officially dedicated in October 2021.
The house on the hill is still an “eye over the desert” and a Palm Springs historical site. With a red-tile roof, stucco walls, a broad porch and an open second floor veranda, it looks much the same as it did in the 1920s, and today hosts various leased events.
Even though O’Donnell suffered from respiratory ailments—one report indicated he had tuberculosis—he still kept active. He sat on several presidential commissions and was a founding member of the American Petroleum Institute.
O’Donnell loved golf, however, and there was no course in the desert at the time, so he was often seen swinging clubs and practicing shots on the lawns between The Desert Inn’s cottages. Since he was a wealthy man, he soon did the obvious thing—he built his own course! With his house finished, he bought 33 acres of land against the mountain immediately to the north, specifically for his own golf course.
Later expanded to 40 acres, the private nine-hole O’Donnell Golf Course opened for the winter 1926-27 season. O’Donnell spent more than $200,000 (in 1926 dollars) bringing in Bermuda and rye grasses, fertilizer, shrubs, bushes, sand and palm trees. He added large tamarisk trees to enshroud the course in privacy.
Many of today’s golf courses are laid out by leading pros and expert course designers. Not here. O’Donnell got a few buddies, including Capt. J. F. Lucey, a Texas oilman, and John Kline (who remained the groundskeeper for years), and they designed the course themselves. After seeing how far they could drive and chip, they placed the greens at distances with which they felt comfortable.
Their system worked well enough to create a challenging nine-hole, par-35 traditional course. The hardest hole is a par-5 472 yards, while the easiest is a par-4 274 yards. It is considered a tight course with fast greens.
The private O’Donnell Golf Club became exclusive and has limited membership through the years to about 250, with charter limits at 300. Membership has included some of the city’s most prominent names, including Bob Hope and Kirk Douglas, with many other celebrities playing the course as guests. Presidents Eisenhower and Ford have played the O’Donnell Golf Course. Early tournaments at the intimate course attracted golfing’s top stars, including Ben Hogan, Ken Venturi, and Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
O’Donnell did more for Palm Springs than open the first golf course. He bought shares in the Whitewater Mutual Water Company and got involved in numerous civic ventures. He coordinated the drive to raise $26,000 to build the Welwood Murray Memorial Library, personally donating $10,000 of that amount. He helped establish the Palm Springs Desert Museum (now the Palm Springs Art Museum) and the first hospital. During the Depression, he had a road built up the side of the lower slopes of the mountains to the location of long-time Easter sunrise services. While his plan was originally to build another home there, the road helped provide employment for residents. But his greatest gift to the city was his golf course.
Tom O’Donnell loved his course with a passion. After his health deteriorated so much in the late 1930s, he considered closing it, but he constantly visited it and sat around there, even though he couldn’t play. When he saw his friends enjoying themselves so much, he decided to keep it open. He reportedly wanted to donate it directly to the city, but was afraid leaders might be tempted to use it for something else, like a park or a civic center.
So the shrewd businessman figured out a way to make it happen. In July 1944, less than a year before he passed away, he leased the golf course land for 99 years to 25 Palm Springs friends and homeowners. A lease proviso stipulated that if the land was to be used for anything other than a golf course, it would require unanimous approval of the 25. He later deeded the land to the city, subject to that 99-year lease. Those 25 people became the board of trustees of the course, and has included some prominent Palm Springs pioneers and merchants, as well as a few celebrities, including Bob Hope.
O’Donnell received a huge tax break, and the city continues to this day to receive rent payments and a use tax. As O’Donnell feared, attempts have been made by organizations and civic leaders on several occasions to break the lease, for various reasons—but the lease structure prevailed.
Tom O’Donnell died at the age of 74 in February of 1945. Services were held at noon on March 2 on his beloved golf course, with many prominent citizens in attendance.
While a golf course was opened at El Mirador in 1929 for several years, it would be 20 years before the valley received its second permanent golf course, the 9-hole Cochran-Odlum course—expanded to 18 holes in 1974—on Floyd Odlum’s Ranch in Indio. Over the next few decades, golf courses sprang up like wildflowers after a wet winter.
By the late 1970s, the Palm Springs area boasted more than 40 golf courses, making it the world’s No. 1 desert playground. During the year 2001, the 100th golf course opened in the desert, giving the Coachella Valley floor the appearance of a green quilt from the air.
Today, there are more than 130 courses—and it all started with a can-do oilman who built that first course hard against the San Jacinto Mountains in downtown Palm Springs.
And thanks to his shrewdness, it will be there at least until the year 2043.
Sources for this article include Nellie’s Boardinghouse by Marjorie Belle Bright (ETC Publications, 1981); Palm Spring History by the O’Donnell Golf Club; Palm Springs Legends by Greg Niemann (Sunbelt Publications, 2006); Palm Springs Public Library archives; and Palm Springs Limelight News, 1945.