One of the most distinctive finishing holes in all of San Diego, and not just JC Golf, is the 18th at Rancho Bernardo Inn.
This closing par 5 starts with an elevated tee shot that can involve carrying a culvert and ends with an uphill approach to a triple-tiered green fronted by a creek and surrounded by two ponds with fountains.
The green view is the glimpse of the course that greets golfers at Rancho Bernardo Inn, and it’s stunning.
But for all its scenery, it’s a hole that requires more strategy than any other on the course. Rancho Bernardo Inn Director of Golf Bryon Penfield says No. 18 is one of the ultimate examples of a hole solved over time and rarely on the first try.
“You’ve definitely got to strategize there,” Penfield says. ”If you’ve playing it for the first time, you might get into some trouble.”
The hole is equal amounts trouble and temptation, which is another reason the hole is a local favorite.
“That hole is the most talked about amongst our regular players and guests,” Penfield says. “It’s got a unique design. It’s not your every-day golf hole.”
William Bell, the architect of Torrey Pines and many other public courses in Southern California, designed Rancho Bernardo Inn.
“His courses usually have some character,” Penfield says, “and No. 18 is a great example.”
Curiously, No. 18 was a much different golf hole when the course opened in 1962. Penfield says only a lake is present in photos of the hole’s original design.
“It was all grass and a lake,” Penfield says. “William Bell came back and added the water features later.”
And the lost ball count was forever changed.
The hole plays to 544 yards from the black tees, 527 from the blues and 508 from the whites. Not matter the tee, the tee shot immediately presents a challenge and a decision that makes this hole play as two different games – the first being a lone-drive contest.
A culvert crosses the fairway and comes into play off the tee. From the black tees, Penfield says it’s a 260-yard carry to cross, all be it often with a tail wind.
(Rule note: There is a bridge for golf cart crossing at the canal. For the most part, everything left of the bridge is considered a free drop by local rule and to the right is the water hazard. The area is marked in red.)
This is where the hole tempts the ego perhaps at the better judgment of strategy. It’s a macho moment to carry the culvert, but it doesn’t always prove to be the best play, Penfield says.
“There are a lot of different strategies there depending your length. Some guys will just fly it,” he says. “I’ve learned to play it as a three-shot hole.”
As have I. “Successful” crossings have sometimes left me blocked on the right side by trees. The rule here, Penfield says, is not to comprise your second shot with your first. Play short of the culvert and to the left of the fairway bunkers.
“The second shot is really big there,” he says. “Even if you make it, you’re still 220 out to an uphill, three-tiered green looking at creek and waterfall. That’s a challenging shot, probably a hybrid for most people. But a good par 5 does present that challenge.
“What people don’t realize on their second (laying up) is that the fairway slopes severely right to left. You’ve got to know to land it on the right side. If you’re even middle left, it might trickle into the water.
“You’ve got to pick your spots on every shot on 18 starting right from the tee shot. It’s a hole that always has you thinking.”
Penfield favors an iron shot on the second.
“The best way to do in most cases is to drive it short of the channel, then take a 7-iron or so layup and try to be between 80 or 90 yards in. Then you’ve got a full sand wedge to an uphill green.”
The mistake many make on their third is to under-club and bring the water into play, or they try to get too precise to a front-pin on the triple-tiered green.
What few realize, Penfield says, is that the hole offers a significant bailout area long and left. He factors it on the occasions he does try to go for eagle.
“If I go for it, I set up left and try to hit a cut. That way, if I don’t hit the cut I’m still OK,” he says. “But I’ve made it a couple times.”
Those who’ve reached in two, however, are far outnumbered by those who’ve found a watery grave for a potential birdie or par.
That sinking feeling is something nearly everyone who plays the hole has experienced, Penfield says, and it seems to only make them more determined the next time.
“We give people a golf course that makes them think a little bit,” he says. ““Our men’s and ladies’ clubs have played that hole for years and it still keeps them guessing. But that’s what a good golf hole should do.”
What’s been your experience at No. 18? Strategies? Successes? Failures you learned from? Please share your stories with us.