Thursday, February 15, 2007

No, you haven't stumbled into the film version of Down the Fairway or some other Golden Age remembrance when you enter Cross Creek Golf Club in Temecula, California. Yet there to greet you are "cast members" dressed as legendary golfers. Which means Bobby Jones, dressed in knickers, argyle socks, and a starched white shirt and tie, may be wishing you a pleasant day in his mellow, Southern drawl. And Walter Hagen -- slicked-back hair, two-tone shoes, high cackling laugh -- may be your starter. The Disney-like characters and their recitation of individual career highlights might be nothing more than a silly joke if this club were a rusty antique. It's hardly that.

Cross CreekThe 222-yard 8th is Cross Creek's toughest par three.
Aidan Bradley

Designed by Arthur Hills and located in the wine and ranch country an hour's drive north of San Diego, the golf course is tucked into a housing-free basin on the rural outskirts of Temecula. The first five holes skirt Sycamore Creek, its banks lined with century-old sycamores and thick-waisted oaks. Holes six through nine, spread across open, rolling land, serve up fine views of haystack-shaped hills and distant mountain ridges. The back nine ascends to higher ground, its succession of hilly, risk-reward holes spliced by deep ravines, with citrus groves and avocado farms in view from the elevated tees. The ocean, 20 miles to the west, usually dispatches an afternoon breeze to heighten the challenge.

Hills, a minimalist, did not clutter Cross Creek with "eye candy," preferring to let the terrain do the talking. The flat-bottomed bunkers have rolled-down grass faces. The greens, small to medium in size, are perched above fairway level, oblique to the line of play, or tilted to the creek. A few have false fronts. All are subtly contoured and very fast. Cross Creek, measuring 6,833 yards from the black tees (par 71) and rated 74.1/142, looks simple, but the course cannot be bludgeoned: strategy and finesse are required to score.

Among the many outstanding holes is the par-four second, where the drive must carry the gurgling creek and the approach must find and hold a nearly convex pulpit green that sheds all but the truest shots. Take a moment to read the quote from Dr. Alister Mackenzie posted on the tee, for here it applies: "There are few first-rate holes which are not at the same time, either in the grandeur of their undulations or hazards, or the character of their surroundings, things of beauty in themselves."

The 18th, a tremendous par four of 450 yards, plays uphill off the tee and hopscotches a wooded ravine before plunging 40 feet to a well-bunkered green nestled in a grove of old oaks. Even Jones and The Haig would have been happy to finish with a four in their heyday.

Green fee with GPS cart is $60 weekdays, $85 weekends. Walkers are welcome. Golf shop: 909-506-3402. Web site: www.crosscreekgolfclub.com.

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