In the spirit of the PGA Tour being in the heart of it's west coast swing through California I would like to take this time to write my second golf course blog post on golf in the state of California. This post will cover only a portion of golf in California because there is just so much quality golf in the state that in my three trips to the state I have not even come close to playing all the courses that I would like. I have been fortunate to play a large number of the state's great tracks beginning with my first trip, five years ago to the San Francisco/Monterey Peninsula area. Here I played courses that opened my eyes to the world of golf course architecture, how golf was meant to be played and ocean golf, which is difficult to top. Below are brief summaries of the courses that I had a chance to play as well as others in the area that I have yet to play but should be on every golfer's hit list if they are in the area.
* INDICATES PRIVATE GOLF CLUB
Olympic Golf Club (Lake)*
The Olympic Club in San Francisco is the oldest athletic club in the United States dating back to 1860 although golf did not become part of the club until some time later. The Lake Course is the more popular of the two 18 hole courses on the property, hosting 5 US Opens the most recent of which coming in 2012. The holes wind along the hillsides of San Francisco with the sloped fairways lined by huge cypress trees. Views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Lake Merced can be enjoyed in areas of the course while the golfer tries to navigate the extremely challenging golf course. In my opinion the most interesting feature of this course is the fairways which are notorious for their uneven lies but many holes flow away from the slopes rather than with the slopes, thus the challenge. Hitting an approach to a dogleg right hole with the ball above your feet pushing the golfer away from the small, fast greens of Olympic forces the golfer to think their way around the golf course and pay great attention to detail. Olympic Club is a great test of golf and has already been named to host future major championships as well as a Ryder Cup.
San Francisco Golf Club*
San Francisco Golf Club is rivalled by very, very few other golf courses in America in my eyes. You cannot see the course from the busy streets of San Fran nor can you see the streets from the golf course which gives the golfer complete solitude from the outside world from the moment you enter its hidden gates. This was the first A.W. Tillinghast experience and from the first tee to the 18th green I was mesmerized by the bunkering and dramatic features of the course. The course winds through and around some gullies and ravines but one in particular is noteworthy. Just off the right of the down hill par 3 7th sit two stone markers in a wooded gully. This is the sight of the last legal duel in American history and gives the hole its name, "The Duel Hole". What I love the most about SFGC is its atmosphere and policies. When you enter the gates of SFGC you are not permitted a cell phone, no rangefinders are allowed on the course (the mandatory caddies will help you there), you will not see a pool or tennis court, and everyone is very respectful of the game of golf, its history and traditions. It is a pure golf club where you leave the outside world behind for a few hours. Unfortunately, in order to get a round at San Francisco Golf Club you will have to befriend a member or pull some strings but if you can find a way, you will not be disappointed.
Other San Francisco Area Courses:
California Golf Club* - This is at the very top of my must play list. This A.V. Macan course had all the bunkering redone by Alister Mackenzie and appears to have all of the same amazing features of SFGC brought to life by a recent Kyle Phillips restoration. Another private club but an amazing golf course that I have to see soon!
TPC Harding Park - Yes, finally a public course. Harding Park was laid out by the same craftsmen that laid out the highly aclaimed Olympic Club which is located across the street. The course has hosted a number of WGC and PGA Tour events most recently the WGC Match Play in 2015 won by Rory McIlroy.
The Meadow Club* - Another Alister Mackenzie gem about half an hour north of San Francisco that underwent a Mike DeVries restoration that brought the course's bunkers and greens back to Mackenzie's original intent. Another private club but any Mackenzie course you can get on has to be worth trying to get a tee time at!
Monterey Peninsula (Shore)
Considered the better of the two 18 hole courses at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, the Shore course was redesigned by the late Mike Strantz and flows along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. One of three courses in the rotation for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the Shore course offers beauty that is often over shadowed by its neighbour, Pebble Beach. The fairways roll naturally along the coast line and the greens feature bold contours that can be utilized to work your ball along the ground to a tucked pin without having to fly it all the way to the pin, over a bunker. This course is a must play course if one is in the area and the views here may not be as famous as those at Pebble Beach, they definitely don't suck:
*Photo credit: Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems)
*I have not had an opportunity to play the Dunes course but a 36 hole day on Monterey Peninsula Dunes & Shore would be a tough one to beat! The dunes also plays right up to the Pacific Ocean and is no slouch itself:
The second course in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am rotation, Spyglass Hill is widely considered the toughest test of golf on the Monterey Peninsula. I would tend to agree. The front nine tumbles down to play with magnificent views of the Pacific leaving memorable shots early in the round then turns up the hill to play the remainder of the round through tight tree lined fairways. As with many Robert Trent Jones courses the difficulty is ever present and for some is tough to over come when asked on their opinion of the course. The most unfortunate aspect of the course is that the most beautiful features (playing along the ocean) are used in the first 5 holes of the routing and the Pacific is never to been seen again in the round. If you are after a challenge on a longer course with fast greens that the pros play every year, this is your golf course. Try to leave expectations in the car and enjoy the fact that you are golfing in California.
Pasatiempo is, in my opinion, the best public golf course in California rivalled only by Pebble Beach. Designed by Alister Mackenzie and restored to Mackenzie's intent by Tom Doak, Pasatiempo has two very different and equally interesting 9 hole loops. The front nine falls south toward the Monterey Bay and features modestly tree lined fairways, Mackenzie's master class bunkering and bold but fair greens that are found throughout the property. On the 6th hole you will find Alister Mackenzie's home just off the left of the fairway. Yes, he loved this course so much he chose to live on the property. The back nine offers more dramatic features as the course plays over, and along large ravines called barrancas. It is almost impossible to pick one stand out feature of the course but the 16th green definitely garners the most attention from players. This green is a severe 3 tiered green which photos simply do not do justice (pictured below). As one member of our group noted as a playing partner putted from the bottom tier to the top, "This green is two stories tall!". In case you haven't guessed by now, this course is one of my favorites and a course that I would recommend building a golf trip around!
*Comparison to show how severe the ravines (barrancas) used to be!*
And finally, the best golf course I have ever and likely will ever play, Cypress Point. Also designed by Alister Mackenzie, I could go on for some time about the genius and beauty of Cypress Point but I will try to sum it up. Cypress is known for its stunning ocean holes 15, 16, & 17 and for good reason but, it is much more than that. The inland holes feature bold bunkering, rolling fairways and a routing that uses the once fully exposed coastal sand dunes extremely well. The course is very playable for golfers of all levels but will adequately punish offline golf shots with its natural sand areas or well placed bunkers. Notice how offline shots are not punished by a lost or unplayable ball? Something there needs to be more of! The golfer begins to catch a glimpse of the ocean as they come out of the dunes on the back 9 and are fully exposed on the 15th tee. The 15th, 16th & 17th is arguably the most beautiful stretch of golf anywhere in the world and I will let the below photos explain why. If you can find a way to experience this golf course, do it whatever the cost because it is a once in a lifetime opportunity and a round you will cherish for the rest of your life.
Other Monterey Area Courses to Play:
PEBBLE BEACH - I was very fortunate on this trip to play the courses I did but one that I have not played is the most popular course in America, Pebble Beach. The featured course of the PGA Tour stop that bears its name and host of multiple US Opens, Pebble Beach is at the top of every golfers bucket list. The cost is great but I am yet to hear anyone say that it was not worth it. Although I would love to see the course restored back to its original, rugged look it is still a course I need to experience for myself one day.
The Preserve Golf Club* - If for some reason you are looking for a break from ocean golf, 30 miles into the California hills lies The Preserve Golf Club. The very secluded Tom Fazio course has received rave reviews online and often ranks ahead of courses such as Torrey Pines and PGA West.
Links at Spanish Bay or Poppy Hills - Two other overlooked course with public access are Links at Spanish Bay and Poppy Hills. Spanish bay lies just north of Monterey Peninsula Country Club and boasts the same breath taking view of the Pacific. Poppy Hills lies inland as most of Spyglass Hill does and is lined by large trees and now exposed native sandy areas thanks to a water conservation inspired renovation. Tip of the cap to Poppy Hills for that undertaking.
As I said before and throughout this article, I was very lucky to play some of these courses and I wanted to share the insight I gained from this experience with all of you. There are many, many other courses in the California area and if given the opportunity to experience a golf trip of any kind in this area, you should go without hesitation. And if you do, try out as many of these courses as you can. They gave me a greater appreciate for how golf is meant to be played and how beautiful the game can be.