California Dreaming: Cruising the Golden State for great golf

The swallows of San Juan Capistrano aren't the only creatures flocking to California in summer. Golfers have long relied on the cooling breezes of the state's northern reaches, from the seaside splendor of the Monterey Peninsula to the incomparable variety of the San Francisco Bay Area to the mountain majesty of Lake Tahoe. It may be hard to find a better road trip in the country. Here's your golfer's GPS on what's worth stopping for.

Down in Monterey
You know you're on a winner when the road trip is almost as good as the golf. The Monterey Peninsula's staggering scenery starts with the enormous dunes just to the north at Sand City, followed by a crescent of beach and dense forest. The approach from the south, also on State Rt. 1, is even more dramatic — the slender two-lane highway winds its way between mountains and the headlands above the Pacific, taking you through Big Sur to the famed peninsula.

Everyone knows that the region's best accessible golf is at Pebble Beach Resorts, but it's also the priciest. Value seekers should zero in on a handful of other tracks that provide serious bang for the buck. Start with Poppy Hills ($60-$218; 831-625-2035, poppyhillsgolf.com) in Pebble Beach. The longtime venue of the PGA Tour's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Poppy Hills still suffers from an inferiority complex at age 23. It's a strong test that simply lacks the drama (and history) of its neighbors. Despite that, it's still plenty of golf for most of us, with towering pines and sprawling greens defining this Robert Trent Jones Jr. design.

If you experience sticker shock at the prices around Monterey, you'll find a calming influence amid the massive sand ridges at Pacific Grove Municipal ($40-$65; 831-648-6775, {C}pggolflinks.com{C}), just outside the gates of 17-Mile Drive. You can walk it for less than $50, enjoy all the ocean views you want, and play past the oldest continually operating lighthouse on the West Coast at the 16th. There's not much length at this 5,727-yard, par-70 course, and the parkland front nine won't register five minutes after you're done with it, but the back nine mimics a seaside British Isles experience as closely as any course that you'll find in the United States.

Once the exclusive domain of the U.S. Army, the former Fort Ord Golf Club has morphed into a pair of public-access must-plays. Now known by the unwieldy name Bayonet and Black Horse ($75-$160; 831-899-7271; bayonetblackhorse.com), this complex underwent a two-year facelift by architect Gene Bates, with results that would make a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon proud. New bentgrass lets the usually soggy fairways roll much better, and it also makes for smoother putting on the greens. Bates also reconfigured several holes, yanked out trees, reworked the green contouring and splashed some of the game's most artistically sculpted bunkers throughout the acreage. Both courses have never looked or played this good. Bayonet is still the slightly tougher of the two, but Black Horse can gallop alongside without missing a step.

If your connections can't get you through the gates of the hyper-exclusive Cypress Point Club (don't worry, you're not alone), the best option for an Alister MacKenzie fan is located 45 minutes north of Monterey at Pasatiempo ($220-$250; 831-459-9155, {C}pasatiempo.com{C}). Ranked No. 67 among the Top 100 Courses in the U.S., Pasatiempo debuted in 1929. This 6,500-yard course repels every attack with rolling terrain crisscrossed by barrancas, lots of bold bunkers and nightmarishly quick, canted greens. Par-4s form the meat of this meal. The 457-yard first overlooks Monterey Bay, while Byron Nelson labeled the 392-yard 11th, which Tom Doak recently restored, as one of the toughest tests he'd ever faced. MacKenzie called the 387-yard 16th, with its wild, three-tiered green, "the best two-shot hole I know." In the 1930s, MacKenzie retired to a home off the 6th fairway, stating "I have always wanted to live where one could practice shots in one's pajamas before breakfast."

Rolling in the Bay City
Your drive north from Monterey takes you away from the ocean through forest and hilly meadow. Roughly 90 minutes takes you to San Francisco, where you could spend an entire vacation sampling the attractions and never lift a club. But what kind of holiday would that be? Instead, make sure to budget time to experience the dizzying array of golf options that the Bay Area offers.

Start off near San Jose with CordeValle ($360-$390; 408-695-4500, cordevalle.com). You must stay to play at this Silicon Valley retreat, but it's worth the splurge. The Robert Trent Jones Jr. design is liberally sprinkled with oaks and sycamores that stand out against the hay-colored hills that surround the layout. Gorgeous sprawls of sand, small ravines that twist through the property and views of the Clos LaChance vineyards are highlights. After a few years in Arizona, the PGA Tour moves the Fall Series Fry's event to CordeValle this October. We'll find out if the pros agonize as much as the rest of us at the creek-slashed, 573-yard par-5 3rd.

Twenty-three miles southwest of San Francisco Airport is Half Moon Bay Golf Links ($60-$205; 650-726-1800, halfmoonbaygolf.com) a 36-hole beauty perched right above the ocean. The Old Course, dating to 1973, is an Arnold Palmer/Frank Duane design that meanders through parkland neighborhoods for most of its journey. The holes aren't awfully memorable, but with elevated greens and little roll, they play excruciatingly tough. But it's the finishing hole that gets everyone buzzing. A 418-yard par 4, it slopes downhill toward a wetland that bisects the fairway, eventually ending at a green cocooned by the stunning Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay. But the essence of the hole is the giant water hazard to your right. Poor shots will find the Pacific.

The sister Ocean Course is a 1997 Arthur Hills design that has matured beautifully. Pacific panoramas were always part of the picture, but in the past two years upgrades have helped the course to play much more like a true links, with firmer, faster fairways and run-ups into greens. Out-of-play areas now feature wispy fescues. The front nine will always be a bit cramped for some tastes, but now at least the layout plays like an Old World masterpiece. Save some camera space for the par-4 16th and par-3 17th that scoot along the cliff edge. They're truly unforgettable.

If you can tear yourself away from Fisherman's Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge, head to Harding Park ($105-$155; 415-664-4690, {C}harding-park.com{C}) for a battle with one of the nation's best munis. Home to the 2005 American Express Championship, where Tiger Woods edged John Daly in a playoff, the 85-year-old layout also proved a worthy venue for the 2009 Presidents Cup. It was at the latter event that the Tour renumbered the holes so that the phenomenal 440-yard, par-4 18th played as the 15th. Most of Harding's holes are simply rugged, if attractive, trudges through the cypress trees, but the 18th calls for a bite-off-as-much-as-you-can-chew tee shot over a lake, followed by a healthy uphill approach to a three-tiered green. It's a classic card-wrecker from start to finish.

Mountain High
An ideal Northern California road trip ends with a two-and-a-half-hour arc over the mountains along I-80, but this is no typically dull interstate slog. The summit passes might see snow even in June. Your reward is Lake Tahoe, the crystalline playground that straddles California and Nevada. On the California side is the town of Truckee, which over the last 20 years experienced golf's equivalent of a gold rush. Dozens of new courses popped up, each more spectacular than the last. The season here might be short, but it's definitely sweet.

Heading the list of newbies is Old Greenwood ($185; 530-550-7010, oldgreenwood.com), a 7,518-yard Jack Nicklaus design that once had aspirations of being a private club, but is now — thanks to the recession — open to all. The service and practice facilities are private club-quality, though, making this the best golf experience in the High Sierras. Water on six high-risk holes and penal bunkers let you know that this is a Nicklaus Signature course. Yet this is also a kinder, gentler Jack, with roomy landing areas and playable greens. Yes, you could rinse a sleeve at the par-5 6th, which boomerangs to the left around a lake, but there's room to miss as well. Some of Nicklaus's strongest tests are utter beat-downs, but Old Greenwood is pure pleasure.

"Pure" may not be an adjective that you'd use to describe Charles Barkley's swing, but his celebrity golf outings helped shine a light on Edgewood Tahoe ($140-$240; 775-588-3566, edgewood-tahoe.com) the region's best layout since 1968, when George Fazio and his young nephew Tom built it along the lake shores. It proved a stirring site for the 1985 U.S. Senior Open, when Miller Barber mastered the 6,200-foot elevation to win his third title. Over the past decade Tom Fazio has enhanced the playability, but most folks know the course best as the venue of an annual celebrity event. Despite all of the remarkable displays from hockey legends and Emmy winners, no single swing has been broadcast with greater frequency than Mr. Barkley's double-hitch, stutter-step smother hook that features a trajectory never before witnessed in golf. That swing encapsulates everything great about Tahoe and the entire Northern California road trip: Seen once, it's an unforgettable experience.

 

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