Thomas Arthur O'Donnell was a successful oilman who started visiting Palm Springs in the 1920's. He spent time at Nellie Coffman's Desert Inn, and lacking a golf course in the desert, played pitch and putt around the property. In 1925 O'Donnell purchased two parcels of land and gained title to what had been a campground adjacent to the Desert Inn. In 1926 he started to build his golf course with the aid of a friend from the petroleum industry, Capt. J. F. Lucey. They laid out the golf course according to how far the men could hit the ball. John Kline, who had been working for the O'Donnells as a chauffeur, became the first superintendent and manager of the nascent course which O'Donnell had built for himself and his friends.
By the mid-thirties, O'Donnell was suffering from recurring heart ailments and was unable to continue to play golf. Initially, he felt that he couldn't bear to watch as others played the game he so loved, and he planned to close the course. He decided to keep the course open for three last days to give all his friends an opportunity to play one more time. As he watched them play while he drove around the course in an old Ford equipped with balloon tires, or sat on a bench at a tee box, he realized he could enjoy the course as an observer. The course remained open. He liked to sit at the 7th tee and bet the players a dime that they couldn't hit the green with their tee shots. He also organized putting contests in which he could participate.
The Desert Golf Course, as it was originally known, was costing O'Donnell a lot of money to maintain. In 1941 he suffered a severe heart attack and in 1944 Tom realized that his failing health required him to make some kind of arrangement to preserve his golf course. He proposed a 99-year lease arrangement to his golfing friends for a specified fee if they would continue to maintain the course. His friends agreed, and in July 1944 the O'Donnell Golf Course was incorporated. O'Donnell selected 25 leaseholders who became the trustees of the lease. They elected a Board of Directors which was responsible for the club's governance. The lease specified that the property was to be used solely as a golf course, and rent of $3000 per year was to be paid to the lessor beginning July 1, 1945.
In late 1944 O'Donnell met with the mayor and city council of Palm Springs to inquire if they had an interest in accepting a gift deed for the golf course. Acceptance required compliance with the existing lease between O'Donnell and the club. In December 1944 the city approved O'Donnell's proposal.
O'Donnell Golf Club exists today much as Tom O'Donnell laid it out. Enhancements have been made over the years: elevated greens, bunkers, and paved cart paths. Recently the old bent grass greens, difficult to maintain in the desert environment, have been replaced with hybrid Bermuda. O'Donnell Golf Club thrives today as the Jewel of the Desert, an oasis of beauty in the center of downtown Palm Springs.
O'Donnell Golf Club is governed by a 25-member Board of Trustees and a seven-member Board of Directors. The original group of twenty-five members established a system of perpetuating the twenty-five leaseholders by choosing replacements from among the to-be-expanded membership, which today numbers approximately 250. The Board meets monthly, the Trustees annually or semi-annually.
Many confuse the Committee of Twenty-five with the original twenty-five friends of Tom O'Donnell who formed the nucleus of O'Donnell Golf Club. The Committee of Twenty-five is a mens' club formed in 1948 by James Kemper of Kemper Insurance. They needed a meeting place and approached the young golf club about renting John Kline's home on the property. A satisfactory lease was arranged, and the lease has been renewed to the present time.