Category Archives: course review

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Four Observations About The Playing Experience At Pauma Valley

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There are some calls in Southern California golf that simply must be answered. You don’t turn down a tee time at Torrey Pines South, nor do you tell Sherwood Country Club, or a handful of elite others in the LA area, to hold. I’m guessing the same holds true for Pebble Beach, Pelican Hill, etc., but my caller ID hasn’t put me to that test yet (but line one is open).

Pauma Valley is one of those. You have to know SoCal golf on a certain level to know about Pauma Valley, kind of like that cool club in a tourist town only locals seem to know about it. Pauma maintains a low profile in its mountain surrounds but holds a high profile for, among others, golfers looking to retire with the game or live the lifestyle it offers.

Pauma Valley provides all of that from sun up to twilight and course to clubhouse. It’s a place where you can live the game and get lost in it in quiet isolation from the outside world if you so choose.

And for decades, host of Hollywood celebrities and others have done just that often via the club’s private landing strip, which still does steady traffic.

Intrigued yet? Here’s an overview of the Pauma Valley experience.

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A True Golf Oasis – Finding Pauma Valley is the first challenge. That’s more easily done in these days of GPS, but you’ll hardly be the first to drive the 76 and wonder if a course actually exists. Even more so than some of the covert country clubs in SoCal, Pauma Valley truly gives you no clue until the gates suddenly appear.

But when you arrive? Pure golf paradise. The stunning mountain backdrop and fountains spouting amongst the greens make an indelible first impression that speaks to any golfer no matter your level of connection to the game.
I don’t know how many courses you remember seeing for the first time … but this will be one of them.

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A Fair Test of Golf –
Pauma Valley was Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s first California course project and among his most prized anywhere (I’m told he only ranked Spyglass ahead of it). The word “fair” is a tenant of Jones’ design philosophy and it rings impeccably true at Pauma Valley. Good shots have good outcomes. The rest? Well, it’s best to learn where you can miss at Pauma Valley, but it’s rare that you’ll get a result you didn’t feel was deserved. And sometimes the course even helps you out. I had a shot stop short of a woodchip-base OB boundary that I still can’t believe held up, but it allowed me to salvage par from my best drive of the day.

And unlike some California courses that can have split-personality nines, Pauma is a consistent test, though the back is more elevated and thus the more scenic side of the two. The bunkers at Pauma visually challenge golfers repeatedly but aren’t overly penal compared to some of the other elite courses in SoCal (Torrey South, anyone?).
Also unlike Torrey South, the par 4s are of reasonable distance on a course that can be had with a hot round.

There’s no hole here that seems unconquerable (I nearly parred the No. 1-handicap hole on my first try) and you quickly learn mostly that position it as a premium for success, a true shot-makers golf course.

john wayneNo. 14

Left: The plot of the former John Wayne home. Right: No. 14.

The Legend and the Lore – The first time I played Pauma Valley, I had little insight into its rich history and its celebrity membership over the years. A passing “Oh, that’s John Wayne’s house” on No. 14 was the closest I got to a true history lesson – and that was a bit inaccurate (it’s the plot, yes, but not the house).

I got a more detailed introduction the second time … and even a book on the subject.

You can read tales about the days of Rev. Billy Graham’s time as a member as well as about when a program called “Challenge Golf,” produced by Arnold Palmer, recorded the likes of legends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player competing at Pauma Valley shortly after it opened in 1961.

These days you’re more likely to hear about Huey Lewis shot in his latest round. But there are always tales to be told at Pauma Valley.

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A Mountain Masterpiece of Design – If you truly appreciate course design, Pauma Valley must be seen – and, naturally, played. The way the mountain views unfold around you as the round evolves are the product of a master truly understanding his canvas. The course could not seem more naturally, or artfully, placed in its surroundings. No mountain course along the I-15 quite blends in its surroundings so serenely and pleasurably as Pauma Valley. You are truly at one with your golf environment in the most undisturbed way possible.

The back nine, in particular, starting with the uphill par-4 10th, gives you two courses to enjoy – the one looking forward and the one behind. A 360-view of the course is required to truly appreciate all its nuances and aesthetic touches.

If you’re prone to golf tunnel vision, do yourself a favor and pace yourself here – perhaps walk? – so you’re fully aware of the complete golf experience available to you. The pet peeves of public play – pace, etiquette, etc. – couldn’t be more removed here.

Yet if you really want to be alone with you game, this is a great place to do it and why such pros as Phil Mickelson have found their golf solace here.

A telling detail of the design comes when asking someone about the signature, or their favorite, hole. My host was legitimately stumped, as am I after playing it twice now. I have favorite stretches, but to choose a single hole over another is too much hair-splitting. It’s simply that close amongst a number of worthy candidates.

Wherever you made your last birdie is a likely tie-breaker, and here’s hoping you get that chance soon.

For information about membership at Pauma Valley, or holding a private event, you can contact Scott Shinner at sshinner@paumavalleycc.com or 760.742.3721, ext. 111.

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Southland Golf: Pala Mesa Course Overview

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Editor’s note: This got dropped from the printed draft, but I wanted to mention it because I think it’s a telling detail about playing Pala Mesa for the first time. My playing partner, Tony Starks, with me caddying him in his first round there, struck the ball fairly flawlessly tee to green on most of the front nine – and didn’t make a birdie (though he did hole out for par on No. 9 and gave a club flip for the ages). The greens here are notoriously touchy and tough to master. If you don’t end up shaking your head over putts here, your last name just might end in Spieth. But the putts, and course, are fun to get to learn. Just don’t expect to get it the first time.)

You can find Southland Golf’s online version at: www.southlandgolf.com/articles/golf-185-california-remains.html

When it opened in 1964 in Fallbrook, Pala Mesa set the standard for golf in the area and along the I-15 corridor.

More than 50 years later, its classic California layout remains untouched, but that’s about to change.

To offset the distance gains in club and ball technology, and to stay relevant on the tournament circuit, Pala Mesa is looking to extend the tees on eight holes of the 6,500-yard layout to push it past 7,000, a target distance for tournaments.

Pala Mesa General Manager Kevin Poorbaugh says the course is fortunate to have the room to grow.

“We want to put in some tournament black tees – like on 9; take that back about 50 yards (to 468 from the tips),” he says, referring to the straight away par 4 adjacent to the driving range. “And we’ll build some new tees boxes on the other holes.”

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No. 9

Pala Mesa Golf Sales Manager Mark Mittlehauser says the course is being proactive with the move to maintain a strong tournament business.

“The tournaments haven’t specifically asked for that, but we can broaden our opportunity if we do,” he says. “We’re going to stretch it as much as can. Every little bit will help.”

Four holes on each side have been targeted for extension on a course that has a mix of driving holes and tight strategy holes.

The added distance will add challenge to Pala Mesa, but the true challenge – its signature slippery greens – will be unchanged.

The day I played, my playing partner hit the ball flawlessly tee to green on the front nine in his first round ever at Pala Mesa … and didn’t make a birdie.

Time and again, he watched short- and medium-range putts dodge the hole.

That’s the classic Pala Mesa experience and one of two reasons people who judge the course by its scorecard underestimate it, Mittlehauser says.

“The course isn’t super long but it plays longer due to some uphill shots. But the real test is on the greens, no doubt.”

No. 4Pala Mesa par 3

Nos. 4 and No. 7, both par 3s

The course’s strength is its par 3s, each of which prove a par 3 doesn’t have to be 200-yard behemoth to be challenging. The longest is only 166 yards from the blues. But finding the green off the tee on a par 3 at Pala Mesa is no guarantee of anything.

Undulating greens and strategically defensive pin placements have coaxed many a three-putt on the par 3s. But they are fun to play nonetheless and score-able with solid iron play and a steady putter.

Overall, course management is a premium to score well at Pala Mesa, Poorbaugh says.

“It’s a very favorable course,” he says. “It rewards goods shots. A But the ones that aren’t as good will penalize you.”

With the closing of San Luis Rey Downs in nearby Bonsall, Pala Mesa is experiencing something of a renaissance by inheriting many of those players. Its weekly men’s league has more than doubled to 80 players.

A course that normally hosts around 47,000 rounds already surpassed that mark in July.

That patronage and the drilling of a second well all bode well for the future of Pala Mesa as does the opening of college residences for Palomar College nearby in three years.

“It’ll be great because we’ll be able to introduce a bunch of college kids to golf,” Poorbaugh says.

That’s already happening of a junior level at Pala Mesa, which hosted the Future Champions tour in July as part of the Junior Worlds.

By the time the college students arrive, Pala Mesa will have undergone a management change and a renovation to its course and resort. The property is in the process of becoming a Hilton Doubletree.

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The resort has 133 rooms, which at 400-square feet are large by industry standards, but out of date.

The rooms will be refreshened, Poorbaugh says, which will only increase the lure of the property and boost its already thriving wedding business.

The property currently hosts 70 to 80 weddings a year.

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Besides golf and weddings, Pala Mesa has found additional ways to utilize its space and introduce people to the property.

The course hosts an annual vintage car show which draws around 20,000 people and a country music festival.

Even with golf and weddings thriving, Poorbaugh says the staff is constantly considering innovative ways to introduce people to the Pala Mesa experience.

“It all gives us exposure.”

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Pala By The Numbers

8 – Number of holes to be lengthened for tournament play

50 – Number of yards to be added to the par 4 9th, which currently plays to 418 from the tips

80 – Golfers in its men’s club, more than double from a year ago

47,000 – Past annual rounds for Pala Mesa, a number it has already surpassed in 2015

1964 – Year the course opened

Southland: Balboa Park Golf Course Turns 100

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It may seem hard to be believe that a course sitting in view of San Diego’s city skyline could qualify as a hiding gem, but, alas, that’s the fate of Balboa Park.

The oldest course in San Diego, opened in 1915, is a local favorite yet may barely register regionally or to tourists due to little promotion as one of three city courses run by the city of San Diego.

If outsiders have heard of it, it’s likely in reference to Phil Mickelson playing his formative rounds there – or him still joining his kids for an occasional loop.

Another possibility is catching word of Sam Snead’s course record of 60 shot in 1943, a mark that still carries a magical aura due to the legend attached.

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Beyond that, Balboa exists as a humble home to loyal range of local golfers looking to catch a round downtown. But others who don’t experience the place are indeed missing something.

The course is narrow, a bit quirky in places, but it provides unmatched golf course views of downtown and a great walk to boot.

“It’s a cherished treasure in San Diego,” says Paul Cushing, the Assistant Deputy Director for the City of San Diego’s courses. “It has an incredible local following.”

With both an 18-hole and 9-hole course on property, Balboa is a golf venue for all ages – and at a value.

“For $14, you can get out and play nine holes,” Cushing says of the executive course for residents. “You can’t find that hardly anywhere anymore.”

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The 18-hole hosts 60,000 rounds a year, the nine-hole 50,000. That’s an impressive amount of play for a game that’s supposedly on the decline.

Cushing says rounds are actually on the rise at Balboa, partly due to recent improvements, such as a new irrigation system and new cart paths along with tweaks to a few holes.

The next steps to increase the lure of Balboa are plans to renovate and update the clubhouse, restaurant and pro shop.

There isn’t a definitive start date, but there is a definitive intent: To attract more non-golfers.

“We’re looking to attract more non-golfers through an upgraded restaurant and more attractive clubhouse experience,” Cushing says. “People in the community really like coming out to Balboa to eat and we’re looking to improve their experience.”

Maximizing the clubhouse view of downtown, which is spectacular, is part of that plan, including adding a patio space.

Expanding a limited pro shop space will similarly expand the options for golfers, many of whom, Cushing says, cherish the exec. course as much as the 18.

“It’s a great, fun golf course with a good variety of par 3s and 4s,” he says. “You can hit every club in the bag, and it’s a very easy walk with trees and rolling hills. People just love it, and it’s very affordable.”

When you play the 18-hole course, aside from the opening tee shot, which is elevated and gives you the first glimpse of downtown, you’re likely to remember the similarly scenic closing stretch. A brief tour:

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No. 16, par 5, 555 yards – The fairway bottlenecks, making for a tight tee shot, but if you avoid OB, you’ve got a great chance to score here. Regardless of birdie or bogey, the view from the green here offers the peak view of downtown.

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No. 17, par 3, 198 yards – This skyline remains in view from the tee of this elevated par 3. The last of a strong group of par 3s, club down and don’t go long here and you’ll keep par in play.

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No. 18, par 4, 316 yards –
Nicknamed “Cardiac Hill,” this tight closing par 4 is dead uphill, thus the moniker for walkers. Avoid the trees on the left and a walk-off birdie in the shadow of the Balboa clubhouse could still be yours.

After being treated to a fun round and a unique view of the city, it’s hard to imagine a round on San Diego’s oldest golf course ever getting old.

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Balboa Park By the Numbers

1915 – The year Balboa opened, making it the oldest course in San Diego

1943 – The year Sam Snead carded the course record (60)

28 –
Snead’s score on the front nine of his record round

27 – Holes at Balboa (an 18 and 9-hole exec.)

110,000 – Annual rounds played at Balboa’s two courses

$14/10 – Rate to walk the executive course for residents and seniors

For more information about Balboa Park, or to book a round, go to www.sandiego.gov/golf

SD Tourism: Four Great Golf Finishing Holes in San Diego



Editor’s note: This post is part of an occasional series for the San Diego Tourism Authority – www.sandiego.org – promoting golf in San Diego. http://blog.sandiego.org/2015/07/great-finishing-golf-holes/

Like the ending to a great book or movie, the 18th hole of a golf course should offer an experience that’s both satisfying and memorable.

Few things in golf beat a walk-off birdie, so consider this a short bucket list of places you’d like be lucky to score one in San Diego. The following is a list of some of the best finishing holes San Diego golf courses have to offer:

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1. Rancho Bernardo Inn –
William Bell, the designer of Torrey Pines and many other public courses in San Diego, did some of his best work on No. 18 at Rancho Bernardo Inn, a hole that’s as scenic as it is strategic.

This closing par 5 begins with a decision off the tee: Do you try to drive the culvert crossing the fairway at around 250 yards or do you lay up? From there, it’s all about positioning to this uphill hole protected by ponds and a stream. That’s a lot of watery waters for things to go wrong trying to reach this narrow, triple-tiered green. But whether you make birdie or bogey, the setting, which includes two fountains, makes the hole and experience unforgettable.

Aviara Golf Club

2. Aviara Golf Club – Possibly the most beautiful finishing hole in San Diego is also its most difficult. This dogleg right par 4 wraps around a lake with a magnificent waterfall and offers a gorgeous view of Batiquitos Lagoon on the left. The lake is a popular destination for tee shots – and second shots, as finding the fairway is no guarantee of anything. The second shot, while played to a sizeable green, is deceivingly difficult. The approach is played into a Pacific Ocean breeze that can push your ball right into the water or out of bounds left. Par feels like a birdie here. The pros on the LPGA Tour are even tested by this one.

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3. Maderas Golf Club –
This straight away par 5 starts with an elevated tee shot over a ravine to a fairway where a majestic giant oak marks the right side. Aim for the oak and then pour all you’ve got into your second shot on this long finishing hole. The green is situated in front of the Maderas clubhouse, which has the look of an Italian villa. You can putt out and then retire to the patio and enjoy a great view of the hole you just played.

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4. Torrey Pines (South Course)
– Design-wise, this flat, straightaway closing par 5 may seem fairly ordinary, but what’s happened here makes it extraordinary. As the finishing hole for the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open, it gets the most TV time of any hole in San Diego. But the lore of No. 18 really ties back to 2008 and the iconic U.S. Open. This is where Tiger Woods trickled in a tricky 12-foot birdie to force the playoff with Rocco Mediate that made that Open legendary and turned Torrey into hallowed ground in golf. Here’s your chance to recreate history.

Honorable mentions: Golf Club of California, Balboa Park Golf Course, La Costa, The Vineyard, Coronado Municipal Golf Course

Chris Mayson on KUSI: Lesson No. 6 – Playing No. 14 at Maderas

Chris Mayson’s latest video lesson is about the monster par 5 14th at Maderas, which is arguably the course’s signature hole. It’s certainly the most talked about and a favorite despite its difficulty.

Chris walks you through how he plays the hole. Most critically, he tells you to figure the yardage for the approach over the canyon. It’s difficult because it’s even more uphill than its looks and a side wind is sometimes a factor. If you’ve played this hole, you’ve likely sacrificed a ball or two to the canyon gods before you learned to club up significantly.

Anyway, as always, Chris is here to help.

Four Observations About The Playing Experience At The Palms GC

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When you’re a golf writer in Southern California and you haven’t played in the desert, that’s what they call a gap in your resume.

Fortunately, an invitation from The Palms Golf Club in La Quinta earlier this year allowed me to finally have the experience – and what an experience it was.

The Palms is a private club in La Quinta where some 50 PGA and LPGA [pros are members, including Fred Couples, who designed the course. So you’re playing at one of the homes of the pros. They winter here.

The collective achievement of the club’s professionals are celebrated in a huge display case in the clubhouse and on place mats in the dining room that give you an overview of the titles won by its professional and amateur members as well as other accolades. A too brief overview: six Masters victories; 19 Ryder Cup appearances; four members of the World Golf Hall of Fame and 131 PGA Tour wins.

Their impressive professional membership roster is part of the reason the Palms has the lowest club handicap in the desert and the nation. Yes, they take their golf seriously here, thus there being a most impressive short-game practice area and no pool.

Palms Director of Golf J.D. Ebersberger hosted me for a practice round and tour. Ebersberger has been with the club since it was being built and gave me insight into the inspirations of the designers. This was a treat for me, because I love course design, and there’s plenty to admire here on a course that has more palm trees than any I can recall. The Palms is indeed aptly named.

When you go online to read about the Palms at its web site, www.thepalmsgc.org, you find something under “pace of play” that causes you to do a double take. It says the average round here takes just over three hours, which brings us to our first observation …

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1. The Fastest Golf in the West – The pace promise was one of the first things I asked Ebersberger about and he assured me our round would hold to it. “Unless we get done sooner,” he said. “We play fast here.”

The course also doesn’t have tee times. It’s the ultimate ready golf.

Having slogged through my share of pokey public rounds, you forget golf can be played this way. The best part is that the pace just happens organically. There’s no one pushing you. The players just play the right way and with a group commitment to keeping it moving.

The pace certainly helps your game, but it isn’t so fast that you feel rushed, which is great because there’s much to see and appreciate here. And speaking of fast …

2. The Fastest Greens in the West? – The greens at The Palms are immaculate, but they’re also undulating and challenging with several false fronts. And the day I played they were faster than a BWM on the I-10 in LA. It took me five holes before I stopped blowing my putts a mile past the cup.

After my first putt raced past the hole and back down into the fairway, Ebersberger informed me: “They were rolling 13.5 yesterday. We dialed them back.”

Had I played the day before, four-putts would’ve been a real possibility. As it was, I probably set a career record for three-putts and putts into the fairway. It happened again on a downhiller on the back nine.

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3. Inspired By The Classics – The course has elements of three of Couples’ favorite courses – Augusta National and Riviera as well as Oakmont in Ebersberger’s home state of Pennsylvania.

The Augusta holes present them on the front. There’s a hole with a meandering creek that reminds you of Rae’s and then you play a long par 4 to green guarded by a lake, which is by far the biggest water feature on the course.

The creek crossings on this hole are stone bridges that resemble those at Augusta. They’re even brown. Ebersberger painted them. They also match the course’s mountain surroundings. This attention to detail stirs your golf soul when you’re standing on the tee.

The only thing missing to really put you amongst the pine trees at Augusta is the white sand bunkers. There’s a reason for that.

“Yeah, I did a test bunker,” Ebersberger says, explaining that Masters sand contains crystals. “I got in there in mid-July and it was 140 degrees, and I couldn’t see.”

For the record, the day we played in February, it could’ve have been more pleasant. But we all know what it can be like in the summer. Ebersberger says Palms members play there mostly eight months out of the year and then seek cooler-climate courses during the high heat.

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4. Palms Aplenty – Besides having more palm trees than any course I can recall, The Palms also has the most unique collection of them.

They grow every which we way here and there a couple where you wonder how they’re standing. Others are just unique in ways that just have to be seen to be truly appreciated. The course was built on what used to be a date farm so it inherited those trees and the club bought more.

When choosing the trees, Ebersberger accepted some trees that were deemed less-than-perfect palms by the nursery. Those trees now add a great deal of character to the course.

And Ebersberger protected some trees the construction crew wanted to remove, such as one behind the green on No. 10. Members call it “the snake tree,” because that’s exactly what it looks like. It’s a palm that grew downward, then turned up, like a snake raising its head.

“They wanted to push the green back farther to lengthen the hole. I told them to leave it and put the green in front of it.”

I gained the added appreciation of having to chip over it.

There are other places in the course where the trees are growing in such clusters that you’re not sure how many there actually are in the bunch. And there’s a small citrus orchard on the back nine, adding another cool character quirk.

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As we walked off No. 18, Ebersberger asked me, “How did we do?” He wasn’t asking about the scorecard. He wanted me to check the time.

Sure enough: three hours flat.

Great golf played quickly in a destination where discovery awaits you on every hole, just as golf should be. In that way, The Palms is its own piece of paradise in a place that has a lot of it.

For information about membership, you can contact Ebersberger at jd@thepalmsgc.org.

SD Tourism: Five Camera-Phone Worthy Golf Holes in San Diego

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Editor’s note: This post is part of an occasional series for the San Diego Tourism Authority – www.sandiego.org – promoting golf in San Diego. blog.sandiego.org/2015/04/five-camera-golf-holes/

With nearly 90 courses to choose from, golf in San Diego is a veritable feast for your game – and your senses.

From jaw-dropping elevation changes and stunning sweeping vistas to breath-taking ocean views and brilliant botanical beauty, San Diego courses have all.

The following is all-too-brief list of some of the most camera-phone worthy holes in San Diego.

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1. No. 3 (South Course) at Torrey Pines (La Jolla)

This iconic par 3 on the South Course, site of the 2008 and 2021 U.S. Opens, is San Diego’s most famous golf hole. Golfers worldwide make the pilgrimage just to hit this elevated tee shot and watch their ball soar into the blue horizon of the Pacific Ocean in the backdrop. There’s also the captivating view of La Jolla in the distance. Played mostly from 160 or 149 yards, this isn’t the toughest hole at Torrey by any stretch, but it’s certainly the most memorable – and photogenic. Its sister par 3 is No. 6 on the North, which features a nearly 200-foot drop to the green and plays directly into an ocean breeze. A birdie on either hole is a bonus. A whale sighting is a double bonus.

No. 6 at Journey

2. No. 6 at Journey at Pechanga (Temecula)
After playing irons shots at Torrey, it’s time to pull out driver to play this awesomely elevated par 4 at Journey at Pechanga. Trust us when we say you will remember the first time you get glimpse of this tee shot. You’re basically hitting the ball off the side of the mountain and watching it soar like a dimpled seagull to the dogleg-left fairway below. The backdrop is a vast overview of Temecula that makes it seem like you can see all the way to wine country. And cheers to you if you hit a big one here. You’ll feel like Paul Bunyan.

aviara 14

3. No. 14 at Aviara Golf Club (Carlsbad)

Aviara, which is literally an 18-hole botanical garden, has several worthy candidates, but we have an affinity for No. 14, which is in the most remote part of the course. Like holes No. 3 and 11, 14 is an impeccably landscaped and elevated par 3 played over water. The green here is huge and gives you a second scenic treat when you reach it. To the left is a beautiful waterfall complex that’s home to an array of water birds splashing in the pond and soaring in the skies. A Golf Channel announcer said of No. 14 once, “If this hole doesn’t make you want to play golf, I don’t know what would.” Our sentiments exactly.

No. 3 at Coronado

Photo courtesy of www.greenskeeper.org

4. No. 3 Coronado Municipal Course (Coronado)

The setting of the Coronado course – surrounded by San Diego harbor – makes it unique, but the glimpse you get of the Coronado Bay Bridge, a San Diego landmark, on holes 2 and 3 in particular is something special. We’re going with hole No. 3, a par 4, for the list because it gives you the most unobstructed view. As you progress through your round, you’ll also catch glimpses of passing Navy ships, downtown San Diego and the Hotel Del Coronado. Being perfectly flat, it’s an ideal course to walk and take in the evolving scenery around you.

No. 7 Encinitas Ranch

Photo courtesy of www.jcgolf.com.

5. No. 7 at Encinitas Ranch (Encinitas)

The view at the par-4 7th at Encinitas Ranch isn’t so much about what’s in front of you as what’s behind. Looking back from the tee box, you can see a sweeping view of the two previous holes and a familiar blue hue in the background (the ocean). The scene is a pleasant surprise the first time you play the course and something you forward to when you return. And a bit like No. 14 at Aviara, this hole offers two distinct visual experiences. Your downhill approach is to a green accented by two star pines and a vast view of the valley beyond. When walking off the green, don’t forget your clubs – or to take a picture.

Photo Post: Ben Brown’s Golf Course In Laguna

I made a completely pleasant golf discovery last weekend that I wanted to share with you.

I was invited to play the nine-hole Ben Brown’s Golf Course at The Ranch at Laguna Beach. This is one of those local-secret courses, but it’s too good not to share. From the online description, I gathered little about the course I was about to play after being invited. I recalled a course sign being where this supposedly was – a mile from the ocean off PCH, just past Dana Point – but I’d never heard anyone talk about it.

Finding it is the first issue, though my phone app. got me there no problem. But the turn-in is sparsely and confusingly signed (what’s Aliso Creek?) and easy to miss, especially if you’re still fixated on the ocean.

But what you discover will surprise and amaze you. It’s a beautiful nine-hole layout that wanders through an incredible canyon setting. Every hole is a discovery of fun golf and wonderful scenery, including caves, that’s best taken in on two feet as this course, a SoCal rarity, is completely walkable. In fact, hardly anyone rode the day we played.

The course stretches to 2,221 yards from the blues and presents a fun mix of alternating par 3s and 4s that makes you work through most of your bag. The course and greens were in impeccable shape and provided enough tough holes to keep things interesting. There are at least two holes, both involving creek carries, here you’ve got to play at least twice to figure out how to club right. And I definitely recommend looping this course twice, mostly because it’ll take you no time at all. The pace was terrific here, too.

Oh, and when you arrive you hear rumors about deer. Sure enough, we saw them on our second nine. Deer in Laguna. Who knew?

Anyway, this is where I power down my fingers and let the photos do the talking. Here’s a glimpse of a great, and somewhat undiscovered, south Orange County golf experience.

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(Zoom in if you can’t see the moon.)

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9th at Laguna

Five Observations About The Playing Experience At The Crosby

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The Crosby is an exclusive country club located in Rancho Santa Fe. The club is named for the famed entertainer Bing Crosby, whose legacy is celebrated by, among other things, the main street – Bing Crosby Boulevard – being named after him and tee markers designed as musical notes.

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Once you pass through the double gates at The Crosby, you discover a golf experience unlike any other in San Diego and only one other – that I know of, anyway – in all of Southern California.

I played The Crosby for the first time two years ago when I was still fairly new to the area. I’d played a handful of Southern California country clubs at that point, but nothing like The Crosby. I felt instantly transported to a golf experience that redefined the ultimate experience for me.

I had no comparison for The Crosby until I was fortunate enough to play Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks. The mountain backdrops, the stunning vistas and elevation changes immediately evoked comparisons to The Crosby.

I returned to The Crosby recently with that reframed appreciation and giddy anticipation golfers get when they know they’re about to play the game at its highest levels.

Here’s an overview of what can expect if you are fortunate enough to experience golf at The Crosby.

1. Eases You In – I’ve played The Crosby twice now and felt instantly comfortable both times. I attribute that partly to the layout, which eases you in. The course opens with an inviting par 5 and a short par 4. I birdied the par 5 the first time I played it, which always helps your comfort level, especially on a new course. Another score-able par 4, though it’s the No. 1 handicap, and a second par 5 follow. You can score early here without having to be perfect.

fiverock

2. Elevation Elation – The Crosby has elevation changes with the best them – and it starts with the 5th hole. This is the beginning of The Crosby you’ll remember and the first of a trio of elevated par 4s. No. 5 offers a stunning sweeping view of the valley that evokes the feeling in a golfer that you can drive the ball to infinity. You get the same feeling on the par 4 7th and again on the 9th. The seventh fairway is framed around a massive boulder, one of many incredible rock, or exposed rock, formations on the course. The 9th is a downhill drive-able par 4 surrounded by gleaming white bunkers that give The Crosby a touch of Augusta as well. Now about that sand …

3. Bring Your Sand Game – If bunker practice isn’t part of your normal warm-up routine, call an audible and take 5 minutes here. The driving range, which is spacious and spectacular, has a short-game area with a practice bunker that’s not as severe as some of what you’ll find on the course, but adequate to get you acclimated. The Crosby’s greens are well defended, and though my ball didn’t find many traps, it was sometimes a doozy of an out when it did. You’ve got to be able to throw the ball high here, and that can apply to some of the collection areas as well. An ounce of sand practice prevention here can save you a pound of painful bogey recovery on the course – trust me.

waterfall

4. Nos. 16 & 17 – The Crosby’s layout is a bit akin to a book or movie with a surprise twist toward the end – but a pleasant one. After 11 holes of elevation and undulation, your cart suddenly arrives at a pond filled by cascading waterfalls, a water feature shared by these two holes. It’s an aesthetic change up you don’t see coming (Note: By now, you haven’t seen water since the 4th hole.). The 16th is a par 5 with a reverse crescent moon-shaped fairway that plays along the pond and the waterfalls and will involve an approach over water if your second shot finds too much of the left side. The 17th is a long par 3 where a touch of wind from the right can get your tee shot wet. But pars or birdies at 16 and 17 set you up for a strong finish on 18, a mid-length par 4.

par 3


5. Pace & Tranquility –
As you’d expect from a premium exclusive country club experience on a weekday, course traffic was light. Only 12 people total were on the course when I started, and I didn’t see any of them until the 16th hole. That made for the possibility of a speedy round but, as famed former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden used to say, you want to be quick but don’t hurry. Give yourself time to get lost in The Crosby experience, which is largely one of tranquility. Save for a few stretches of stunning homes, you’re largely alone with the golf experience and can surrender to your natural golf Zen. Devoid of the distractions you find on many courses, particularly public, you can simply be at one with your shot and the scenery, which I think is another reason I’ve settled into my game quickly and played well here both times. I had a similar experience and success at Sherwood, or The Crosby North, you might say. So far, they rank as my two ultimate Southern California golf experiences.