Golf in Carlsbad, California

Aviara's postcard 3rd
Mike Klemme/Golfoto

Picture Detroit, but with irons and metalwoods instead of cast iron and molten metal. Welcome to Carlsbad, California, golf's version of the Motor City, with perfect weather year-round.

In this coastal town half an hour north of San Diego, the Big Three are Callaway, TaylorMade and Acushnet (maker of Titleist and Cobra). Cobra arrived here first in the mid-1970s; today the Carlsbad Convention and Visitors Bureau says more than 6,000 employees at 34 companies ply the golf trade here.

Golf's best players periodically swing through town to play lab rats in the manufacturers' testing centers. Annually they visit the La Costa Resort and Spa (800-854-5000; www.lacosta.com; greens fees $175-$195). The resort staged the Tournament of Champions from 1969 to 1998 and now hosts the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

When La Costa opened in 1965, it was the first major U.S. resort to offer a full-service spa. (The town of Carlsbad was named for Karlsbad, Bohemia, home to a famous European spa in what is today the Czech Republic.) Dick Wilson, who designed Bay Hill and Doral's Blue Monster in Florida and Cog Hill outside Chicago, crafted La Costa's two courses, North and South. On paper the tracks are nearly identical. Both are par 72. North plays to 7,094 yards, South to 7,077. They have Slopes of 141 and 140, respectively, and Course Ratings of 74.9 and 74.8.

South is more compelling -- craftier, tighter off the tee, smaller greens. The 1st hole is no easy opener; driver invites danger on this 392-yard dogleg-left par 4 with trees, rough and a creek that cuts up the right side and across the fairway in front of a well-bunkered green. So much for working out the kinks. Only those who hit it long and straight (so much for the rest of us) can reach the front nine's two par 5s in two, as the holes dogleg in opposite directions. The 7th hole measures 501 yards and bends left, while the 9th plays 494 yards and favors faders.

The South's back nine is 429 yards longer than the front, and you'll feel it immediately with a 450-yard par 4 at hole 10 followed by a 210-yard par 3 and a 587-yard par 5. Take a breather -- and a photo -- with the petunias gracing the bridge at the 15th hole, for strength and fortitude are required at the par-5 17th, a 575-yard behemoth with water along the right side. "It is the toughest hole on the home stretch, known as 'the Longest Mile' because it plays straight into the wind," says Jeff Minton, director of golf.

The occasional muted roars aren't galleries, but tractors and backhoes. Purchased by KSL Resorts in 2001, La Costa is getting a facelift. One guest lodged a complaint about paying $140 (the summer resort rate) amid the construction, but the courses are perfectly playable. As posters near the hotel lobby read, "Spending $140 million dollars creates a bit of havoc in anyone's life."

The back side of the North course is easily its more memorable nine. Things get interesting at the 11th, a 384-yard par 4 from an elevated tee to a green wrapped by water in the shape of a question mark. A lake that haunts the right side of the 387-yard 13th snakes across the fairway at 14 then slithers through the right rough at the 15th before cutting in front of the green at 16. La Costa's best stretch of holes culminates at the 189-yard 16th, site of a playoff between Player of the Year Tom Lehman and Rookie of the Year Tiger Woods at the 1997 Tournament of Champions. After watching Lehman come up short and wet, Woods stiffed a 6-iron.

When it comes to epic rounds of golf, it's tough to top Steve Sprong's February 2002 visit to Aviara Golf Club, Carlsbad's other big-time resort course (800-332-3442; greens fees $175-$195). Sprong, a retail store manager from neighboring Oceanside, liked to play the Arnold Palmer course at night. He avoided crowds -- and greens fees -- by employing night-vision goggles and glow-in-the-dark balls. One night, however, Sprong encountered Secret Service agents, Carlsbad police and hotel guards as he reached the 18th tee. Vice President Dick Cheney was staying at the Four Seasons hotel adjacent to the course (www.fourseasons.com); the vice president's security detail spotted a shady character carrying a large object slung over his shoulder. Freeze, Sprong!

For those who prefer golf in the light of day, Aviara is a glorious track (par 72, 7,007 yards, Course Rating 74.2, Slope 137) whose lush green landscape is brightened by vibrant, abundant flora. Rolling terrain marks nearly every fairway and most greens. While the greens are generally big, they are also heavily contoured, which makes for some long, loopy putts.

The 543-yard, par-5 fifth is Aviara's number-one handicap hole. Played up a hill only a Sherpa could love, the fairway turns right off the tee then again to the green. With deep rough left, bunkers right, scant flat lies in the fairway and a sloping green, it is a humbling reminder of the emasculating nature of this game.

Equally stunning is the view of cascading ponds between the green and tee at the 189-yard 11th hole. The 201-yard 14th is another breathtaking par 3, especially as you look back from the putting surface to the tee, which is surrounded by terraced rock gardens and wildflowers.

The two hardest holes on the back nine are the 17th, a 585-yard par 5 with a tee shot through a chute of tall eucalyptus trees, and the 18th, a 443-yard par 4 that plays around a limpid blue lake. This finisher is the super model of Aviara: alarmingly thin and strikingly beautiful. Playing in the dark, poor Steve Sprong never knew what he was missing.

While You're There... Meet Big Bertha www.callaway.golf.com

Air It Out at Carlsbad's McClellan-Palomar Airport (800-759- 5667; www.barnstorming.com). The nation's oldest vintage air-tour operator offers the Dapper Duffer Aerial Golf Tour, a birdie's-eye view of Aviara and La Costa from the open cockpit of a biplane. A 20-minute fly-over costs $119 per flight for one to two passengers; for $299 you can soar down the coast to buzz Torrey Pines.

Legomania Kids will be charmed and adults amazed at Legoland (760-918-5346; www.legoland.com), where tireless workers have turned more than 30 million multicolored plastic blocks into replicas of the Sydney Opera House, Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Mount Rushmore, Statue of Liberty and cityscapes from sea to shining sea. There are rides, too.

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