Carlsbad: Golf’s Ground Zero

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Editor’s Note: This is the my unpublished draft of the Carlsbad golf industry story you have read in the April issue of Southland Golf. Due to the constraints of traditional publishing (space limits, etc.) a shorter version of this piece ran in the mag. I wanted to post the original because I think it provides a lot of detail that was left out of the printed version. Hope you enjoy.

         Three days after Phil Mickelson’s Gulfstream V touched down in California following his thrilling comeback victory at the British Open in Scotland last July, Mickelson texted Callaway CEO Chip Brewer to ask if it’d be OK for him to drop by the company headquarters in Carlsbad.

Mickelson wanted to personally thank the Callaway team. Oh, and he had a special guest.

That afternoon, Mickelson, dressed California casual in golf shorts and flip-flops, emerged through the glass doors of Callaway clutching the Claret Jug and with bottles of champagne in tow. He was greeted to cheers by many of the 518-person Callaway staff and an impromptu celebration ensued in the lobby, the same space where workers had been greeted by live bagpipe music days before to herald Mickelson’s victory.

The party eventually moved back to R & D and the team Mickelson had worked with closely, especially on his then-custom X Hot 3 Deep 3-wood, the club that produced two now legendary shots on the par-5 17 at Muirfield.

Among those included in the celebration was long-time Callaway club designer Austie Rollinson, the designer of the Odyssey Versa #9 putter Mickelson used to roll in the victory-clinching putt.

“I got to take a sip out of the Claret Jug,” Rollinson says, looking at a photo of the moment captured on his iPhone. “That was pretty cool.”

It was a special day at Callaway, but in the golf industry at large in Carlsbad it was another day.

It’s plausible that in that same week Dustin Johnson had dropped by TaylorMade to again test the limits of the Kingdom’s driving range, or Rickie Fowler had popped into Cobra Puma Golf to check out what vibrant color patterns the company would be dressing him in next. And maybe light up the launch monitor.

Over in Oceanside, on the expansive and lush range of Titleist’s test facility, pros from various pro tours could’ve been putting the next generation of the Pro-V1 into orbit.

Were Carlsbad to make its own version of the “This is ESPN” commercials, this is what they might look like. The difference? Carlsbad wouldn’t be making any of it up.

Welcome to golf’s Ground Zero.

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         Carlsbad’s tourism moniker is the “The Village by the Sea,” but that hardly captures what actually makes Carlsbad unique – namely, its place in the golf industry.

With a population of just below 110,000, as they say in boxing, Carlsbad punches well above its weight when it comes to influence in the golf equipment world.

The combined operations of Carlsbad-based TaylorMade, Callaway and Cobra Puma are akin to golf’s version of Silicon Valley. (Titleist has a presence here, too, but is actually based in Fairhaven, Mass.)

In terms of product development, R & D and setting golf’s equipment agenda years in advance for North America and the world, Carlsbad is it.

“The music of the golf industry plays through Carlsbad,” says Bob Philion, President of Cobra Puma Golf.

And, increasingly, Carlsbad’s equipment tune is played to the background music of a cash register. The companies combined reportedly amassed about $3 billion in sales in 2013, with TaylorMade, golf’s top brand, pulling in more than half, $1.7 billion.

How big is the golf industry in San Diego? Well, in 2008, an economic impact study pegged its contribution at $2.6 billion, making it larger than the sectors of legal services, agriculture, computer software and even aerospace.

How did Carlsbad become the hub for all of this? A Sports Illustrated/Golf.com piece in February, titled “Golf’s Ultimate Playground,” delved into those origins, relying heavily on an interview with TaylorMade CEO Mark King.

King challenged the local legend that the industry’s establishment in Carlsbad is tied to golf’s common interests with the military in terms of technology and manufacturing (club casting, in particular) needs as equipment transitioned into its current metal-based technology boom away from wooden clubs.

Instead, King said Callaway coming to Carlsbad in 1985 and TaylorMade in 1982, both destined to change golf forever with the first metal woods and drivers, was more happenstance than plan.

“It’s all folklore,” King told SI. “The whole thing was coincidental. After he sold the vineyard, Ely Callaway bought into a little company in Carlsbad that made hickory-shafted golf clubs.

“Gary Adams founded TaylorMade in Chicago but his West Coast (partner) lived in Carlsbad … so the company moved out here, too. It was all a big accident,” King concludes, noting Cobra golf was established in Carlsbad around the same time.

Ely Callaway got into golf when he used the profits from his winery to buy Hickory Sticks, USA, a golf company in Temecula, in 1982. He moved it to Cathedral City, but the lack of a robust labor pool caused him to move the company Carlsbad, where a golf labor pool existed at TaylorMade and Cobra.

Some of those workers became the original Callaway Carlsbad crew, thus beginning the now common experience of people being recruited from one company to another.

While some of the origins of the golf industry in Carlsbad may be in doubt, the impact is not.

The companies not only changed how clubs are made, but how they’re sold and marketed. Austie Rollinson, who joined Callaway as a club designer in 1991, recalls how clubs were largely only sold at golf courses when he started and how Mr. Callaway was the among the first to transition the business into the retail big-box model we see today.

Rollinson arrived as the industry was transitioning from more mom-and-pop into the manufacturing and marketing machine we see today. Rollinson says the companies maintain a friendly competitive balance, but it’s nothing like the stories he’s heard of the camaraderie of the 80s.

“If Callaway was making clubs that day and was out of Dynamic Gold golf shafts, they’d just call Cobra,” Rollinson says. “I couldn’t see that happening now. It was a much more friendly industry back then, but there wasn’t as much at stake and it was as competitive as it is now, either.”

Palomar Airport Road, a major thoroughfare in Carlsbad that leads to all three company’s offices, was a dirt road when Rollinson arrived. It’s now a major six-lane highway.

Jose Miraflor, Director of Product Marketing at Cobra Puma, recalls the dirt-road days as well.

“Now people pass me doing 70 on that thing!” he recalls with a laugh, knowing it’s possibly one of his competitors, whom he sees frequently.

“When you go out to a lunch meeting, if you’re talking products or design, you have to look over your shoulder to see else is (in the restaurant). We’re a big industry in a small community, and you never lose sight of that.”

Strangely, the one answer you don’t hear as to why Carlsbad became the center of the golf equipment universe is the one that seems most obvious – the weather.

Miraflor says that’s the reason he can’t imagine the equipment companies being anywhere else.

“We’re identifying products right now for 2016. To be that far ahead, you need to be hitting prototypes in Jan./Feb., and really the only place to do that is California,” he says.

But access to that perpetual sunshine doesn’t come cheap.

“It’s expensive,” Miraflor says, referring to taxes, real estate, etc. “The operational cost is high, but the advantages, including the weather, can’t be beat.”

***

         If you’re looking for the future of golf, look no further than TaylorMade’s posh fitting center and driving range, The Kingdom.

Situated across the street from the company’s headquarters, it’s where many of its contracted players come to practice, be fitted and hone their games in a high-tech environment.

Like golf courses, The Kingdom has a graduated set of tee boxes. During a visit there last fall, players from three pro tours were hitting, but none from what would be the tips.

I asked Frank Firman, a Category Manager at TaylorMade, where the company’s big hitters, such as Dustin Johnson, hit from when they come to practice.

“We have to ask Dustin to stand over there (pointing to the back right of the box) and hit it over there (pointing to the remote left side of the range),” Firman says. “Otherwise, if he loses it right, it’s look out College Boulevard.”

Translation: While testing clubs, Dustin Johnson is making TaylorMade’s spacious driving range seem obsolete.

More than high-profile faces for the company, its product and its brands, players have a major impact on product testing and development. The rationale largely is that if the product works for the pros, the product – or a version of – will work for every level of player below.

On my visit to Callaway, Rollinson noted how some clubs the pros use, such as the famed Phrankenwood 3-wood Mickelson once carried, don’t ever become retail products, but the technology advance gives birth to the next generation of retail clubs, such as the X Hot 3 Deep.

Rollinson also mentioned how a custom shaft bend requested by a tour player in the last year gave birth to a new Odyssey putter design.

Rollinson says attention to detail is more acute than ever amongst companies looking to make millions off of what can be fractional advantages in innovation. And the scrutiny of the public, between round-the-clock coverage on The Golf Channel and Internet pundits, has never been higher.

“Our products are watched more closely than ever,” he says.

Tens of millions of dollars annually are put into R & D to keep pace with product launch cycle that is no longer seasonal and, as TaylorMade showed last year, can produce two new drivers in the same calendar year.

But Cobra’s Philion says that competitive pressure has more advantages than drawbacks.

“It puts a lot of pressure on R & D to bring something new and better to the market place,” he says. “But it’s exciting for because we can launch more products and enhance our brand experience for the consumer.

“We like that cadence. It allows us to on bringing innovation to the market place every day instead of just pumping out units.”

But the companies do watch other closely and do exhaustive studies of competing technologies to separate the scientific truth from the marketing hype.

And then there’s brand differentiation, which right now at Cobra is summed up in the succinct motto, “Enjoy Golf,” emphasizing the many pleasures of the game aside from just what’s on the scorecard.

Knowing the competition intimately allows for greater ability to separate, Philion says.

“It gives us a chance to differentiate ourselves,” he says. “We like to zig when others zag.”

Philion launched the Puma golf brand and then oversaw its merger with Cobra in 2009. The company started with 28 employees and now has 150 in Carlsbad and 350 worldwide.

In 1998, TaylorMade was purchased by Adidas and has 1,800 employees worldwide, 800 in Carlsbad.

Callaway has gone through some down-sizing and leadership turmoil in recent years, but after hiring CEO Chip Brewer is back on the uptick.

While the balance of power right now is squarely with TaylorMade, things like Mickelson’s victory at the British can be a game-changer, Rollinson says.

Mickelson’s victory wasn’t just a major for him, it was a major for Callaway, too.

“It’s very satisfying when the fruits of your labor pay off like that and you know you got one of the best players in the world to perform at his very best at a crucial moment. It makes you proud,” Rollinson says.

“It’s bolsters you, and it’s great motivation when you get back to work on Monday.”

 

 

 

JC Golf: Our Professionals Pick the Masters

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         The Masters, the week that speaks to every golfer’s soul, is here.

The world’s No. 1 player, Tiger Woods, not being in the field due to back surgery has left the tournament without a clear favorite.

While a Tiger-less Masters is a buzz kill for some, true golf fans will tune in regardless to see who slips on the coveted green jacket this year.

Some of the professionals at JC Golf sized up the field this week and dared to predict a winner. You’ll find their picks and rationale below, but feel free to add your favorite in the comments.

Enjoy the Masters, and we look forward to you resuming your regularly scheduled golf season with us after.

Erik Johnson, General Manager, Encinitas Ranch

Pick: Harris English.

Why: “He’s my dark horse pick. He’s a Georgia boy. He’s been on a really good run over the last year and a half or so. He’s very confident. He changed every club in his bag going into this season and he hasn’t seen a fall off, which I think is amazing.

“He even changed his putter after he won two or three times with it. That just speaks to his confidence.”

Blake Dodson, Director of Golf, Rancho Bernardo Inn

Pick: Angel Cabrera

Why: “After losing the playoff to Adam Scott in 2013, it has been forgotten how clutch Cabrera was down the stretch.  Angel is in the middle of the 18th fairway when Adam Scott rolls in a 15-footer for birdie to take a one-stroke lead.  And the Augusta crowd erupts with a Sunday roar!

“Imagine watching that scene unfold in front of you.

“Cabrera, in the middle of the 18th fairway, once tied, is now watching Scott celebrate the lead.  After the green clears, in a heavy downpour, Cabrera stays in the moment and sticks his approach shot to two feet, forcing the playoff.   This type of clutch performance wins major championships and should not be overlooked.  Angel Cabrera is my 2014 Masters pick.”

Troy Ferguson, Head Professional, Twin Oaks

Pick: Graham DeLaet

Why: “Go Canada!” (Troy is from Alberta; Graham is from near Saskatchewan.)

Eric Jeska, Director of Golf, Twin Oaks

Pick: Pat Perez

Why: “He’s a San Diego boy, and nobody else will pick him. Then I can celebrate by myself after he wins.”

Paul Miernicki, Director of Instruction, Twin Oaks

Pick: Matt Kuchar

Why: “He’s the hot guy right now. He should’ve won the last two tournaments. He was just two bad swings away. He’s still won a million dollars more than me the past two weeks. My money’s on him.”

Note: Paul’s second choice is Jason Day.

Lloyd Porter, Head Professional, Oaks North & Reidy Creek

Pick: Charl Schwartzel

Why: “He has been in the hunt before, he has good experience at Augusta (2011 champion), and he’s a great putter.”

Curtis Rowe, Director of Golf, Temecula Creek Inn

Pick: Sergio Garcia

Why: “I think he’s due to win a major, and he’s a great player, good enough to a major. And everybody hates Sergio. I’ll go against the haters.”

Note: Curtis’ American pick is Ryan Moore.

JC Golf: The Ranch Grill at Encinitas Ranch Is Now Open

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         The Encinitas Ranch Golf Course’s remodeled bar and grill, now known as the Ranch Grill, is officially open and will soon be serving a brand new menu.

The Ranch Grill is the third phase of an extensive $1 million renovation of Encinitas Ranch.

Encinitas Ranch General Manager Erik Johnson describes the Ranch Grill as a “coastal casual gastropub” that is meant to encourage post-round camaraderie and be conducive to sports-related social gatherings.

“I want it to be like when I was young and for golf to become more social again, like it was meant to be. When I was a young golf professional, players would hang out at the club for another two or three hours,” he says. “We want people to come in here and settle their bets, talk about their rounds and hang out to watch the game.

“It’s healthy for the game of golf to have people hanging out at the golf course.”

Encouraging that sort of activity started with a complete remodeling of the bar and grill space. Wood paneling now compliments new wood furniture that is grouped around eight television sets, including five large flat screens that will soon be connected to a brand new sound system.

Guests will immediately notice three large communal tables made of aged wood that can seat up to eight people comfortably.

Part of the $200,000 investment included doubling the beer taps to eight. Johnson says this was done in part to cater to the new menu, which will pair local craft brews and pub-type comfort food.

“It’s not fancy,” Johnson says of the new dining theme, “but it is upscale and fun.”

Eight-ounce burgers form the base of the new menu, which will also include sandwiches, salads, an array of appetizers and breakfast.

A “secret ingredient” to the new menu is Canadian culinary creation called poutine. Native to Quebec, poutine consists of French fries topped with a light brown gravy-like sauce and cheese curds.

“We’ve added beer and cheddar to make it an amazing gravy to have over any of our menu items,” Johnson says.

While golfers are, naturally, the immediate target for the new space, Johnson says he has ambitions of the Ranch Grill becoming a dining destination for members of the community for the sheer experience of enjoying a delicious meal in the setting of a beautiful golf course.

“I think it’s going to be a cool place to hang out whether you’re a golfer or not,” Johnson says.

Here’s a sampling of menu items you can look forward to soon:

Smoked Bacon & I.P.A Chili – Harvest vegetables, ground turkey, picked herbs and tomatoes roasted and stewed with a local I.P.A.

Waffle Fry ‘Poutine’ – Crisp waffle fries topped with cheese and our house garlic & cheddar I.P.A. poutine gravy.

TJ Dog – Bacon-wrapped all-beef hot dog, chipotle mayo, avocado slices, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce.

Cali Burger – Pepper jack cheese, avocado slices, lettuce, tomato, red onion, mayo.

The Poutine Burger – Topped with cheddar I.P.A. gravy fries.

The Story Behind My Masters Ball

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      Masters fever has officially set in. Seeing as I can’t watch it yet, I can at least write about it, and this will be brief because I’ve only got one story to tell. It’s about the ball pictured above.

      The photo above probably leads you to believe I have been to the Masters. Sadly, I have not. The closest I’ve been is that souvenir ball, which a grateful and generous story subject gave to me after I wrote about his trip to Augusta. The significance of the story was that my friend had gone to the Masters and thus completed his own Grand Slam by having attended all four majors.

      At the time, that made him the coolest person on the planet to me, so I wrote about him for the travel section of the magazine I edited at the time. I now know many people who’ve made the hallowed journey, but at the time, he was about the only one. He told the usual stories about the landscape being so pristine it didn’t seem real, about the iconic Butler Cabin clubhouse and about eating a pimento sandwich. (For the record, that’s now two pimento sandwich references in the blog. Who ever saw that coming?)

      Anyway, the story I remember most is about him attending a day where they had a split start due to weather, meaning one round needed to be finished before the next could begin. He staked out Amen Corner and watched like five or six groups come through, as I recall, and each group had player put a ball in the water on the par-3 12th, where famously Fred Couples’ ball resisted that fate and basic physics during his victory in 2002.

     The detail I recall most is that after the groups came through, prior to the third round, the landscape crews who’d shaved the bank that morning, about 90 minutes after doing so the first time came out and shaved the bank … again. To anyone who knows about course set up, this is rather commonplace, but back then it just seemed a juicy detail and fun and part of the lore of Augusta.

    The story ended with my friend noting a player in each of the first six groups of the next round each went in the water. And that was that. I don’t keep much of my old stuff, but that’s one story I kinda of wish I still had hanging around. Oh, well. I’ve still got the ball. And now a blog post.

     Is it Thursday yet?

JC Golf: Golfers Gone Wild Celebrates a Milestone

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         What do you get when you combine more than 200 golfers, 1,500 hot wings, 36 holes of tournament golf and throw in a few kegs of beer and a band?

You’ve got Golfers Gone Wild, the wildly popular spring tournament at Twin Oaks that will celebrate its fifth anniversary on April 11th.

The tournament is a JC Golf concept that originated at the Rancho Bernardo Inn but has found a home at Twin Oaks.

Tournament director Scott Butler says the tournament has developed such a following that he gets asked about the date months in advance.

“People look forward to it now,” Butler says. “It’s a lot of hard work for us, but it’s a really fun day for the golfers.”

The toughest trick for the staff is turning the golf carts after the 8 a.m. shotgun to get them out for the 2 p.m. shotgun, Butler says. What happens in between for the golfers is part of what makes the tournament unique.

In the course’s beer garden, a band is playing and food and beer are being served. Hooter’s girls dole out around 1,500 hot wings. Meanwhile local breweries – this year it’s Ballast Point and Mother Earth – provide beers for tasting and Hornito’s does the same for tequila.

Golfers seek to sample some of all of it via a “passport” they’re encouraged to complete.

Butler says the beer garden experience makes the day as much as what happens on the golf course.

“It’s just a fun tournament that is different than what most people associate with a golf tournament,” he says. “This is more about the atmosphere of the event than the actual golf.

“We want people to just have a good time.”

As for the golf, Butler says the unique set up of the course includes two holes on the par-3 17th. Called “Seeing Double,” the hole provides a closest-to-the-pin contest to either pin.

Of the more than 200 golfers that participate in the day, a few choose to play 36, Butler says.

“Only the brave actually play both,” he jokes. “Historically we get about four foursomes that will play both.”

For the price – $55 a player, $220 a foursome – Butler says the tournament is an incredible value for players.

“To be able to enjoy at all that for $55 is a really good deal. It’s crazy.”

A few spots remain for Golfers Gone Wild. You can sign up at http://www.jcgolf.com or by calling 760.591.4700.

JC Golf: Carmel Mountain Ranch Joins the JC Golf Family

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The signature par-3 11th

          JC Golf is proud to announce the latest addition to its golf family: Carmel Mountain Ranch.

         Situated just 25 minutes from downtown San Diego, Carmel Mountain Ranch has been serving golfers from all over San Diego County and beyond since 1984. In the past, it has even hosted U.S. Open qualifying as well as a variety of other tournaments and events.

At 6,599 yards (from the back tees), Carmel Mountain is a mid-length course that requires a good deal of strategy but also has a fair amount of holes that allow big hitters to let it fly.

Prior reviews of the course have called it “a true shot-maker’s course,” and it is that, especially on some of its short par-4s, which take a few rounds to learn.

Carmel Mountain General Manager Kevin Hwang says the course has a reputation for being rough for first-timers.

“The course has a reputation for being tough, but we’re in the process of trying to ease that burden for people,” Hwang says.

That’s mostly by managing speeds on the course’s undulating greens. Hwang says the course’s tiered greens can yield a bevy of three-putts if not managed properly.

“The greens are a little tricky, which is why don’t let them run too fast,” he says.

The course has many unique holes, but the signature is the beautifully landscaped par-3 11th, which plays to 158 yards and involves a carry over a pond and waterfall. The pin was front right the day I played and I just missed having my tee shot pull back to the hole on the undulating green.

“It’s actually our shortest par-3. It’s a lot fun to play,” Hwang says.

The following is a look at few more things you can look forward to during future rounds at Carmel Mountain Ranch.

1. Great Driving Holes – If you’re striping it off the tee to start, you can really take advantage of the first two holes, both of which are downhill par-4s. You’re set up for a similarly strong start on the back with the downhill par-5 10th and then there’s another dramatic downhill on the par-4 14th.

The par-5 10th is most definitely reachable in two with a solid drive, and the wide fairway offers multiple angles of attack as long as you avoid the bunkers on the right. The large, receptive green makes a great opportunity to kick off your back nine with a birdie. This used to be the starting hole, by the way, until the nines were reversed. So if you haven’t played the course for a while, be aware of that.

2. Unique Views – Having beautiful mountain vistas as a backdrop is common in this part of Southern California, but what is a bit uncommon is how much the course’s design incorporates its surroundings.

For instance, on the drive to the par-4 14th, you’re greeted by a field of huge boulders and actually drive between two of them to reach the tee box. It’s stunning every time you experience it, but particularly the first time.

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You’ll find similarly sized stones in fairways and sand traps throughout the course.

Also unique to the area are the hawks and falcons you’ll see soaring and circling above, riding the breeze and giving you a glimpse of nature’s wonders at work.

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The par-4 7th

3. Unique Holes – Because the course was designed to maximize course exposure for the homes, many holes are set off in their own amphitheater.

The product of that design is an uncommonly unique layout.

“We’re definitely not parallel fairways,” Hwang says. “And you don’t see two holes that look the same.”

Two of the most talked about, and unique, holes on the course are two short and highly strategic par-4s.

The first is No. 7, which plays to 311 yards from an elevated tee. The number probably already has many of you ready to pull driver, but hold that thought.

There’s a huge boulder surrounded by a sand trap lurking about 280 yards out. If you don’t make the carry, your ball could hit the boulder and bound OB or leave you in some other tricky predicament.

An iron or rescue to a comfortable second-shot yard is the preferred play, but doesn’t dissuade many from going for the green.

Driver isn’t an option, however, on the 325-yard par-4 17th. Front by a sizable pond, this short par-4 is a true two-shot hole.

Carrying the water on the second shot has been many players’ undoing, Hwang says.

“There’s no running it up there. You’ve got to hit a shot.”

And to a somewhat smallish green. I played the hole 7-iron, 6-iron, which was more than I wanted on my second shot, but I still managed the land the ball on the fringe and make a two-putt par.

It may take you a few rounds to learn the best way for you to club No. 17, but you’ll find par to be a plenty good score there.

4. Practice bunker/short game area – As someone whose greenside sand game tends to be inconsistent, I find it a relief any time there’s a practice bunker available. Carmel Mountain Ranch has one is its sizable short-game area.

I practiced sands shots for about 15 minutes and it saved me a few strokes during my round. The bunker is a bit benign in that it doesn’t have steep walls, but it’s enough to get in some solid practice.

There’s a separate green designated for chipping as well.

All the pros say the fastest way to shave strokes is around the green. For your round, arrive early and make use of this valuable practice resource.

The course used to have a driving range, but a virtual range has replaced it.

5. The Clubhouse – As you wind your wind up Carmel Ridge Road, you’ll know you’ve arrived when you see a stately Colonial-style clubhouse.

The building gives a country-club presence to the course.

“We’ve got great curb appeal,” Hwang says.

Besides the pro shop, there’s a bar and grill/lounge area and an upstairs banquet facility with a patio.

Feel free to stick around after your round and relax with a beverage and join us in a symbolic toast to the newest member of the JC Golf family.

Carmel Mountain Ranch officially becomes a part of JC Golf on April 1, thus benefits for JC Players card members begin on that date. To book a tee time, please call 858.487.9224, ext. 1.

 

Highlight Hole: No. 18 at Aviara

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The view of No. 18 from last year’s tournament

         As finishing holes go in San Diego, few, if any, come much tougher than No. 18 at Aviara.

         This dogleg right par-4 wraps around a lake that runs along most of the fairway and to the green, providing a serene and aesthetically pleasing finish, but also one that’s been known to swallow a lot of golf balls.

This hole was a major factor in the LPGA’s KIA Classic last year and not just because it hosted the two-hole playoff won by Beatriz Recari. It played as the toughest hole of the tournament, averaging well over par.

Aviara Director of Golf Renny Brown says the hole plays unusually tough for the tournament because of a unique circumstance.

“From the fairway, the grandstand build-out blocks the wind, so the flag doesn’t move. A lot of girls were coming up short last year because when the ball would get above the grandstand, the wind would knock it down,” Brown says. “They had trouble gauging the wind.”

The wind on 18 blows off the Pacific Ocean and Batiquitos lagoon, making it play even longer than the 413 yards from the blue tees, which is what the Kia uses.

The tee shot alone is challenge here to say the least. Besides water on your right, you’ve got out of bounds and bunkers lurking on your left. With the wind blowing, this fairway can feel very small.

According to a review of Aviara at worldgolf.com, Arnold Palmer once described this as the toughest finishing hole he’s ever designed.

It quoted Palmer as saying, “You have the lagoon on the left and a pond and waterfall to the right. Even if you hit a strong drive, you have to think on the approach, because the fairway narrows to 20 yards.

“It took me a long time to realize you need to be safe and go for the back of the green (on your second shot) to stay away from the water.”

At the Kia media day, Recari offered her professional opinion on how to play 18 from the tee.

“You have to play to the right, just inside the bunker,” Recari says. “I usually hit driver, but I hit 3-wood there last year (in the playoff) because the wind was up.

“If you land it to the right of that bunker, you’ve got a good chance.”

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         Recari plays a draw, as do I, which makes a driver a nervous play here for me. I took Recari’s advice on media day and pulled 3-wood. I hit the best shot I’ve ever hit on 18 and, though a little too close to the lake, I had 160 to get home and a good lie. And then … yank. OB.

I’ve done this the last three times (grrr) I’ve had played this hole. I suspect the wind is at work, though it mostly factors in in that it leaves me one club longer than what I’d prefer – my 7 iron.

Therefore, unfortunately, I can’t speak to going for birdie or par here, but Brown has a tip about reading putts on 18.

“Forget about putts breaking to the ocean,” he says. “Once you’re standing on the green, look back toward the fairway and use that tilt to judge the putt.”

Speaking of putts, new this year is a plaque on 18 honoring where Recari hit her winning putt from the fringe last year.

As well all know, hitting Aviara’s helipad-size green is one thing; putting them is another.

And given how straight the female Tour players hit it, putting is everything at the Kia, Brown says.

“The winner out here is going to be someone who’s top five in putting,” he says. “The greens are so massive out here that it becomes a putting contest.”

While 18 has a fierce reputation, Brown says it’s actually the second of closing one-two punch for the women, given that No. 17, a par-5, is the longest hole on the LPGA at 565 yards.

That leaves the drivable par-4 16th as the best last stand for birdie. Because if it comes down to 18, you’re really going to earn it.

For my part, I plan to stake out 18 this week until I see a birdie, just to see what one looks like there. And while I’m waiting, maybe I’ll go see if any of my old approach shots are still buried beneath the brush on the Batiquitos trail.

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The Aura of ’08 Still Shines Brightly at Torrey Pines

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USGA and local officials celebrate the 2021 agreement

In a way, it’s still very much 2008 every day at Torrey Pines.

The mystique of the epic ’08 Open, site of Tiger Woods’ dramatic sudden-death victory over Rocco Mediate, now draws golfers from around the globe to tee it up on the South Course and walk what has become hallowed golf ground.

Merchandise with the ’08 Open logo still sells, stories of that week are repeatedly, and happily, retold and golfers mostly ask, “Hey, when’s that going to happen again?”

Now we know.

Torrey was granted its long awaited and much anticipated encore Tuesday when it was officially revealed “America’s Championship” would return to Torrey in 2021. City and USGA officials jointly announced and celebrated the agreement, passing out 2021 hats and having photos taken with a replica of the U.S. Open trophy.

The sentiment of recapturing the magic of ’08 was expressed by everyone, including the new mayor, using words such as “electricity,” “passion” and “excitement” in what they hoped to recreate in 2021. They’ll will be hard pressed to match the original, but we’ve now got seven years to ponder about how it could be topped.

After the announcement, I asked a few of the Torrey Pines staff members why it is that the 08 Open captured people’s imaginations in a way that few sporting events, not just in golf, rarely do. Think about it: Are people still talking about the 08 Super Bowl? The World Series? The Final Four? No.

Heck, people aren’t still talking about those things from a year ago.

Aside from the Hollywood-level drama, what’s different is part of what makes golf different.

“You can actually play the course where they played the U.S. Open,” says Torrey Pines Head Pro Joe DeBock. “Torrey Pines became very popular just for that fact. The course brings back those memories in a way that just going back to a stadium doesn’t.

“And it was one of the greatest championships ever.”

For comparison, you can try to recreate Christian Laettner’s iconic NCAA Tournament shot, but you can’t do it at the free-throw line of The Spectrum in Philadelphia.

However, you can walk to the 18th green at Torrey and recreate the 12-foot birdie putt Tiger drained to force the championship into an extra day.

And DeBock has. Many, many times now.

“I’ve recreated that putt so many times,” he says. “I originally did it for the media, but people still ask about it all the time.

“It’s a hard putt. If you get it too left, it stays left. It you get it too high, it stays high. It’s a tough putt to recreate.”

But it’s all part of the daily Open conversation at  Torrey.

“I talk about the U.S. Open in every lesson I give, and every tournament we have causes people to reminisce about it. It’s always a hot topic around here and will be even more so now.”

Possibly the only thing DeBock gets asked about more than the 08 Open is when there’d be another one at Torrey. DeBock said he’d been harboring a hunch for a while that it’d be back in 2021.

“When they announced Winged Foot (in New York) for 2020, I started to feel good about us getting it back in 2021,” he said. “When you look at the East/West geography balance, it made real good sense. And enough time had gone by.”

For those that don’t know, by the way, the 2019 Open is at Pebble Beach.

They opened the press event on Tuesday with a video montage of the 2008 Open and seconds later, Tiger was emphatically fist-pumping all over again.

“I still get chills watching that,” confided USGA Vice President Dan Burton. “And I know Rocco does, too.”

In a way the legacy and stature of 2008 has only grown since Tiger’s last putt fell, largely because that’s where his major march toward Jack’s record came to a historical hault.

For what will be six years now when Tiger tees it up at The Masters, Torrey has been the point of reference for his last major title in what still ranks as the most compelling storyline in sports.

Tiger will be 45 when June 2021 rolls around. Where his major odometer will be by then is anybody’s guess, but if he’s still in need of another to break the record, you’ve got to believe this will be coming too late in the game.

But that type of speculation led to a fun thought from Paul Cushing, the City of San Diego’s maintenance manager for golf operations.

“Who knows where the 2021 U.S. Open champion is right now?” he said. “He could be in high school. He could be in another country.

“It’s fun to think about it.”

It is. And we’ve got seven more years to do it. Let the game begin.

ImageFor $36, pin flags from the 2008 U.S. Open still sell

The U.S. Open Returns to Torrey Pines in 2021

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Just wanted to get something up about the big news of the golf day out here – the U.S. Open returning to Torrey Pines in 2021.

This is huge news and long anticipated, basically ever since Tiger Woods’ last putt dropped on his epic sudden-death victory in 2008, which, as we all know well, is his last major victory. I’ve got a post coming about the aura of the 2008 U.S. Open and how it still shines at Torrey every day, but for now I thought I’d give you a glimpse of the new hottest piece of golf gear in SoCal as of, oh, 1 p.m. today.

Traffic to the pro shop should be picking up any minute now. A great and well-deserved day at Torrey and for Southern California golf. Congrats to all the staff members who worked hard for years to make this happen for San Diego.

More thoughts on all of this to come.