I started playing St. Mark Golf Club in San Marcos about five years ago when I was a student at the Golf Academy of America. To be honest, though being close by, it wasn’t one of my preferred tracks, largely due to spotty course conditions after years of neglect, including hard greens that often wouldn’t hold approach shots.
I recently returned to St. Mark for the first time in more than two years and am happy to report a greatly improved experience after a major investment in the main course and clubhouse as well an impressive renovation, and really re-invention, of the executive course.
The playing conditions on the main course, including an aesthetic upgrade to the tee boxes, were on par with some of the best in the county and made for a most enjoyable experience re-discovering St. Mark. Kudos to the new management for their vision and execution and for breathing new life into the place. For those who’ve never been, here’s an overview of the playing experience at St. Mark.
1. A short course – or is it? – At 6,398 yards from the back tees, I don’t think of St. Mark as a long course – by comparison, that’s the yardage at Maderas Golf Club, one of the long courses in SD, from the white tees. Yet St. Mark has one of the longest holes in the county – the 606-yard par 5 12th – and two long par 4s – the 447-yard 4th and 460-yard 10th – that seem to play longer. A lot of holes here are practically dead straight so they play to their full distance.
You definitely need to hit driver well to score here, but the course is wide open enough that accuracy isn’t an absolute must. In the review world, we call this a course that will test your entire bag, which frankly you don’t see coming from the opening holes. This is where St. Mark throws you enough surprises to keep you on your toes.
2. My Nemesis – Excuse the personal aside here, but I’d be less than forthcoming if I didn’t disclose my struggles with the par 4 4th – and I know I’m not alone. This hole is a 447-yard downhill slight dogleg left that often plays into a Pacific Ocean breeze. This is the classic draw hole where my draw won’t draw and I end up with some sort of crazy recovery behind a tree, from an awkward lie, etc.
And when I do hit the fairway, I always seem to have more golf hole left than I should. Forget birdie or par. I honestly can’t recall if I’ve hit the green in regulation here. If I had, that’d be a victory. I certainly didn’t during my last round, where I revisited my classic struggle and scuffled to a six, the first real blemish on my card.
If you get through 4 and 5 – another downhill par 4 – mostly unscathed you’ve got a real chance to get through the front in good shape. The scoring opportunities are there if you avoid the bogey potholes.
3. 12, 13, 14 – These holes are the heart of the playing experience at St. Mark and frankly a stretch you never see coming given the previous 11 holes. The aforementioned 606-yard par 5 12th, a gradual dogleg left with a tricky green, starts this stretch and I’ve seen the mere sight of a “6” on the yardage sign cause people to come undone on the tee. It has psyched more than a few golfers into a snowman. Duff a drive here and you’ll be playing catch up the whole way – and likely never will.
Then a relatively flat course makes a surprise elevation change to an elevated par 3 with a partially blind approach before the course comes to the figurative and literal apex of your round – the elevated 369-yard par-4 14th. With a pond sitting out there dead ahead at around 260 yards, this hole is the ultimate risk and reward. You’re either going for it or you’re not.
In another state and another climate, this hole make a fine ski slope, but it’ll play like a black diamond to you if you can’t make the carry. If you can, you could almost putt your way to par.
There are a lot of great elevated par 4s in San Diego but I can’t imagine a more unexpected one than 14 at St. Mark because it so deviates from the rest of the course. But in that way, it also makes it a tee shot you anticipate and a thrill if you crush it. There’s something to be said for that. Overall, brute distance and a little local knowledge goes a long way in this stretch.
4. Nemesis Two – If you get through 12/13/14 in good shape, you’ve got a serious chance to post a number on the back. After that stretch, the course reverts back to more of what you expect.
If you don’t trip on the par 3 17th, which is 210 yards but provides room to miss and recover, you come to No. 18, which is another hole where I have a troubled history.
I’ve had a few good scorecards turn bad here trying to do too much here. This par 5 plays to 480 yards, which is a tempting enough number to get you dreaming about a big finish – which can be a big mistake.
The tee shot is straight and sets you up for approach that teases you go for it, despite that gigantic bunker on the left, which is really the only trouble on the hole. The other trouble is all in your head, which again is trying to do too much.
The oddest outcome I ever had here was ripping a 3-wood right at the green – and never finding the ball. (I think we mentioned earlier that the greens previously didn’t always hold shots.)
The smarter play is to try to set yourself up with ideal wedge distance for your third – but where’s the fun in that, right?
And there’s the real trick to mastering St. Mark – knowing when to go for it and knowing when to humbly bag the hero shot and play for par or bogey.
The course is at a length that tempts you, but it has a way of taking strokes back that leaves you sometimes feeling you left a better score out there. Thankfully now that you won’t be feeling like the course conditions cheated you and you’ll admire and appreciate the hard work that has gone into recovering and re-creating a great playing and social experience.