Thursday, February 15, 2007

Thanks to its geographical destiny -- 50 miles south of San Francisco and 90 miles north of the Monterey Peninsula -- San Jose comes out Miss Congeniality in a golf destination beauty contest with its two higher-profile neighbors. It has nice courses, plenty of good restaurants and even has its own international airport -- but it lacks the cosmopolitan stature of its northern counterpart and spectacular layouts like Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill, and Spanish Bay found to the south.

Cinnebar Hills Golf ClubThe secluded Canyon Course at Cinnebar Hills Golf Club. Joann Dost

All of which leaves San Jose overlooked and underrated by visitors, especially golfers. But locals know that there has never been a better time for golf in California's third-largest city. In the last seven years alone, this capital of Silicon Valley has compiled an impressive roster of courses, including five new upscale layouts and three more affordable daily fee tracks. The icing on the cake? A truly classic layout -- Pasatiempo Golf Club, designed by legendary architect Alister MacKenzie -- is located just 45 minutes away in Santa Cruz.

With few places being hit harder by the economy's downturn than Silicon Valley, most courses here have been offering some creative pricing options to fill their tee times. Even Pebble Beach ran an ad in the San Jose Mercury News earlier this year promoting special winter offers. Weekends still draw big crowds at area courses, but show up on a weekday and your chances of walking on are better than ever.

And while San Jose State University has produced its fair share of famous golf alumni, including U.S. Open winners Ken Venturi, Juli Inkster, and Patty Sheehan, as well as Roger Maltbie, Mark Lye, and Pat Hurst, actual playing options were more limited a decade ago. That began to change in 1996 with the opening of San Juan Oaks Golf Club .

Located almost an hour south of San Jose in San Juan Bautista, San Juan Oaks was designed by Gene Bates and Fred Couples, the duo's first California design. Ten minutes east of Highway 101, begins the long entry road, which cuts through an organic farm before reaching an impressive clubhouse styled like an early California hacienda. Bates and Couples went to great lengths to retain the natural feel of the area -- it was once 2,000 acres of cattle ranch and hay fields -- by planting native grasses and oaks. They clearly succeeded.

The front nine is the more visually appealing, with rows of planted oaks defining the parallel fairways. It's easy to see why the par-three sixth is one of Couples's favorite holes. At 204 yards from the tips, it's both scenic and strategic, thanks to a green framed by oak and eucalyptus trees and protected front and right by bunkers. Toss in some swirling winds and suddenly the bailout area left of the green becomes a popular choice.

But there's more drama on the back nine, which rises and falls with holes set among ridges and hills that turn a stunning golden brown during the summer. A trio of holes makes for a strong finish. The 539-yard 15th climbs uphill on land where a gun battle between two local families over squatter's rights took place in the 1800s. You'll have to fire three solid shots -- all uphill -- to claim par. Standing on the 17th tee, you'll be towering 150 feet over the fairway of this long par four. Do not go long on the approach shot -- a 40-foot drop awaits behind the green to lead your ball into a small creek. The 461-yard, par-four 18th is the sharpest dogleg on the course, turning hard right halfway home and leaving an approach between large oaks on both sides of the fairway.

The layout is just minutes from the small town of San Juan Bautista, famous for its mission, a church that was established in 1797 to bring Catholicism to the local Mutsun Indians. The town exudes an Old West feel and is the site of numerous arts and crafts events that draw thousands of visitors each year.

With no real estate, it's as quiet as can be at San Juan Oaks. Plus, the 15-acre practice area is one of the best in the region. Future plans call for another 18 holes (to be designed by Bates and Couples) and possibly a small hotel. It's a great place to stop if you're taking the inland route to the Monterey Peninsula, which is only 40 minutes away by car.

The biggest name to come to the San Jose area is the Golden Bear himself, whose efforts are on display at Coyote Creek , 25 minutes south of downtown. The best features of the facility, a Jack Nicklaus Signature design, are its green fee (as low as $40 for 18 holes) and its location. Highway 101 runs through the eastern edge of the property, which has its own exit. Fortunately for visitors and residents alike, a $52 million project to widen the road between San Jose and Morgan Hill -- bringing two extra lanes in both directions -- was completed this past winter, helping to alleviate the rush-hour traffic jams common in the past.

San Juan OaksSan Juan Oaks started the areas surge in upscale layouts.
John R. Johnson

The more interesting Tournament Course , which opened in 1999, starts off on the clubhouse side of the property before tunneling underneath Highway 101 for the second through eighth holes. Nicklaus injected a little more flavor here, with elevated tees, banked fairways, and perched greens. Some of the latter are guarded by overhanging trees that look like goalpost entrances to the putting surfaces. The 17th is a solid par five at 535 yards, while the par-four, 431-yard 18th curls gradually around three lakes from left to right.

A number of holes on the Valley Course , which opened in June 2001, were built on a site previously occupied by the old Riverside Golf Course, which debuted in 1957 and hosted some professional events in the 1960s. Here Nicklaus built straightforward holes, with tree-lined fairways on the front and wide-open holes on the back. The wind -- which usually kicks in before noon -- can be a major factor.

The best-looking hole on the Valley may well be the par-three 16th, which requires a carry over a lake to a green backdropped by the Diablo Mountain range in the distance. A creek that crosses in front of the greens on the 439-yard 10th and the 441-yard 18th make those holes a bit more interesting.

The funkiest green comes on the 380-yard 12th, where three sharp tiers look like steps leading to an invisible door. One look at it brings to mind the Winchester Mystery House -- San Jose's leading tourist attraction -- where Winchester Rifle heiress Sarah Winchester filled a 160-room Victorian with stairs that lead to ceilings and false doors that open to walls. Legend has it, this was done in an attempt to soothe the spirits of those killed by the rifle. The Valley player-friendly Course has the same effect -- it may ease the pain of higher scores shot on the area's tougher courses.

Eagle Ridge Golf Club sits against the foothills in Gilroy, a town known as the Garlic Capital of the World. Don't laugh -- garlic is serious business here, both financially and socially. The annual Garlic Festival, which attracts 125,000 people, celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer. Football fans may know Gilroy better as the hometown of Jeff Garcia, current starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.

Opened in November 1999, Eagle Ridge was crafted by Ron Fream and David Dale, who worked with Johnny Miller to build one of the more beautiful courses you'll find within a housing development.

Each hole contains plenty of personality. The 90-plus bunkers, many large and steep-faced, will be visually intimidating to higher handicappers. Fortunately, dense grass around many bunkers was cut down after the first year of play, greatly enhancing speed of play. And there's a carefully placed bailout area on every hole as well. The greens are either wide and shallow, or long and narrow. But their degree of difficulty, as well as that of the entire layout, is evidenced by the course record being a mere two shots below the par of 70.

Things get hairy quickly at Eagle Ridge, with a plummeting par three as the second hole. That hole and the next feature the longest and largest continuous bunkers on the course. A nasty little pot bunker just short of the green on the par-three sixth even gave Johnny Miller fits when he played it, so don't feel bad if you get stuck there. The 409-yard eighth and the 452-yard ninth are the most secluded holes on the course, heading back into a canyon away from the clubhouse and sans houses.

The views of the valley get even better on the back nine, especially on the downhill, par-four 11th and the 330-yard 15th, where a blind tee shot leads to a surprisingly generous landing area. Keep it in the fairway, and you'll enjoy your round at Eagle Ridge.

You'll find the area's best-looking nine at Cinnabar Hills Golf Club , whose 27 holes opened in 1998. Designer John Harbottle, based in Tacoma, Washington, was already familiar to California golfers through his work at Stevinson Ranch south of Modesto and Monarch Bay in San Leandro. But here he created three distinct nines, the highlight of which is the breathtaking and secluded Canyon nine , which also has the tightest fairways of the trio. You'll either love it or hate it -- but the natural look, with plenty of mature trees, creates some scenery that definitely dazzles. Bunkers only come into play on the 555-yard ninth, which tumbles down toward the clubhouse from an elevated tee to a three-tiered green protected on the right by gum drop mounds.

The Lake nine features a man-made water hazard that comes into play on three holes, while the wide-open Mountain nine is the most straightforward of the trio, with wind often a factor.

Getting Around
Many hotels have a concierge on duty, ready to answer questions and fulfill requests from guests. But a concierge for an entire city? The San Jose Convention & Visitors Bureau offers just that -- a free service available to residents and visitors seven days a week during regular business hours. Services provided include help with tee times and accommodations, restaurant recommendations, and area attraction discounts. For more information, call 888-726-5673, go to www.sanjose.org, or visit their office located inside the San Jose Convention Center at 150 West Carlos Street.

The best combo to play is the Lake and Canyon. Wetlands and a natural creek come into play on nearly half of the holes. Every green is accessible to run-up shots, yet the undulating putting surfaces make chipping and putting the key scoring ingredients.

Real estate developer Lee Brandenburg, who attended San Jose State with Ken Venturi in the 1950s, spearheaded the project, as he did at San Juan Oaks. His imprint extends to the clubhouse, where his outstanding collection of golf memorabilia would make a fine wing in the USGA Museum. Among the items on display are President Dwight D. Eisenhower's green jacket from Augusta National; displays focusing on Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, and even Mac O'Grady; and the set of clubs used by PGA Tour pro Chip Beck to fire a 59 in 1991 at Sunrise Country Club in Las Vegas. Brandenburg, a Long Island, New York, native, has played in countless pro-ams over the years, meeting Tour players and through them adding to his still-growing collection.

Cinnabar Hills is one of the few area tracks where you won't see marshals on the course -- fittingly for a Silicon Valley course, they instead rely on a high-tech GPS system in carts to communicate with golfers and monitor pace of play. While all 27 holes are solid, call ahead to see which are open for play since one of the three nines may be closed at times for maintenance.

If the classic Fairmont Hotel is San Jose's ultimate luxury accommodation, than CordeValle is its golf counterpart. Every aspect of this facility is first class, with the fees to prove it. Opened in 1999 just 30 minutes south of San Jose in San Martin, the Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout is a straightforward and traditional test that calls on stategy more than brute strenth. Various design influences are apparent throughout, including Tillinghast, MacKenzie, Ross, and Robert Trent Jones Sr., but this is far from a replica course. Large oaks and sycamores stand throughout this former cattle ranch tucked in a canyon. The ninth tee is the literal high point of the course, offering sweeping views of most of the holes as well as a vineyard, which will begin producing its own wine in a few years.

Discerning the top holes among such a strong crop is a challenge, but you'll probably hear talk of the uphill, 418-yard 13th, the reachable but bunker-strewn par-five 15th, and the wind-affected, par-three 16th, as the best in this stellar collection.

Some questions have been raised in the local media regarding just how accessible the course is for the general public. Here's the deal: It's a private club, but if you stay in one of the property's 45 plush bungalows, villas, or homes overlooking the course ($330 to $1,400 per night), you can arrange a tee time on any available day for $155. If you're not a guest, tee times are available only on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays at $275 a round.

How good is CordeValle? Attractive enough to persuade General Manager Joe Root to leave Hawaii to come on board. There's the men's locker room (with a roaring fireplace, plasma-screen televisions, and full bar), a luxurious spa, and even an extensive golf library just off the clubhouse entryway -- all top notch. Stay and play here and you'll probably rub shoulders with any number of Bay-area corporate bigwigs, celebrities, and athletes in a remarkably low-key atmosphere.

On GOLF MAGAZINE's most recent Top 100 You Can Play list, Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill were the only California courses ranked ahead of Pasatiempo Golf Club , which came in 15th. Founder Marion Hollins and designer Alister MacKenzie, who lived here during the last years of his life, worked together on the incomparable Cypress Point in Monterey and then combined forces again here in the hills just north of Santa Cruz. Their timeless effort remains short on yardage, measuring just 6,439 yards from the tips, but its impeccable pedigree and seemingly impenetrable green complexes make it a must-play.

Time and nature had taken its toll on the layout, but noted architect Tom Doak has been overseeing gradual renovations for the past decade, removing trees and restoring bunkers and greens to the original designs. Today it's simply the kind of course where you will remember every hole for a long time.

Quick Facts
Coyote Creek
408-463-1400 $40-$90
www.coyotecreekgolf.com

San Juan Oaks
800-453-8337 $55-$95
www.sanjuanoaks.com

Pasatiempo Golf Club
800-950-PUTT $135-$150
www.pasatiempo.com

Eagle Ridge Golf Club
408-846-4531 $65-$108
www.eagleridgegc.com

Cinnabar Hills golf Club
408-323-5200 $80-$120
www.cinnabarhills.com

CordeValle
408-695-4500 $155-$275
www.cordevalle.com

Los Lagos
408-361-0250 $29-$42
www.playloslagos.com

Santa Teresa Golf Club
408-225-2650 $35-$50
short course $11-$15
www.playloslagos.com

San Jose Municipal Golf Course
408-441-4653 $31-$44

Please contact the course to confirm green fees.

Something special awaits at every turn, starting on the first tee with views of the rollercoaster down on the Santa Cruz boardwalk and Monterey Bay in the distance. There are few par threes anywhere better than the 217-yard third, while the 521-yard sixth features MacKenzie's old house still overlooking the left side of the fairway. On the par-five 10th, you have to avoid the massive, bottomless bunkers short and left of the green. The 384-yard 11th, with its fairway cut in half by a barranca, was said to be Ben Hogan's favorite two-shotter. The 426-yard 14th has both a creviced swale down the left side of the fairway (lay up short of it if possible) and Juli Inkster's childhood home set off to the right.

The 15th is a short par three with a restored bunker that wraps around the back and left side of a tricky green. But no putting surface provides more of a challenge than the multitiered version on the 395-yard 16th, described as MacKenzie's all-time favorite par four. It slopes severely downward on the front tier, and is guarded by three tough bunkers. The par-four 17th will now receive more attention after being opened up a bit thanks to some tree removal. And the closer, a par-three that plays to its full yardage (173 yards from the back tees), requires a gutsy carry over a deep gully.

Grab a bite after your round at the MacKenzie Grill in the clubhouse and check out the photographs illustrating the course's storied history. Pasatimepo is located right off Highway 17, a busy road year-round but especially in the summer when the inland crowds travel to the beach. The course hosts 40,000 rounds a year, with members playing about 60 percent of them, so call well in advance.

San Jose is not without bargains, with three more-affordable courses all within a short drive of downtown. The newest and closest is Los Lagos, which opened last April on a site just east of the city. One of two city-owned layouts -- the other is San Jose Municipal -- its newness is evident in the still-plush conditions. Los Lagos is a Brian Costello design, with seven holes on the far side of a riparian area and connected to the rest of the course by a long wooden bridge. Although it's a par 68 and just 5,393 yards, it plays bigger than the scorecard indicates. There are five par threes on the front side, and the par fours are all less than 390 yards (go for the green on the 291-yard fourth). The biggest was saved for last, with the 18th a sturdy 583 yards from the back tees. A lighted driving range is also available for practice before or after the round.

Local resident George Santana, known for shooting his age into in his 80s, designed the Santa Teresa Golf Club just south of downtown. The layout caters mostly to locals, who can book tee times a week in advance, but your chances of walking on are pretty good. The fairways are lined with pines and some well-placed oaks, and all of the par threes are long and challenging. The front is mostly flat, while the back has some modest hills that add elevation, especially on the par-three 16th, which has a great view of the surrounding valley.

A four-year project to rebuild every green at Santa Teresa was completed last summer to positive reviews. While there is a driving range on-site, there's also a fun short course inspired by the famed par-three course at Augusta National. Bates was brought in to do the design, which includes lakes and bulkheads in a layout that spreads over 13 acres. Course conditions are great. It's perfect for beginners looking to start learning on a nice layout, or for better players seeking short game practice.

San Jose Municipal, a Robert Muir Graves design that opened in 1968, is located 10 minutes north of the city center. This flat layout is a good walking course that draws plenty of locals -- approximately 100,00 rounds are played annually. "It's the kind of course that really surprises people who are used to certain conditions for a muni course," said Bob McGrath, general manager since 1985. "It's in great shape -- a real feel-good layout that won't beat you up."

The course used to stretch to 7,000 yards but was shortened in the 1970s (most dramatically on the 18th, which went from 600 to 499 yards) to enhance the pace of play and to improve safety on certain holes. These days, there are minimal forced carries and the fronts of the greens are open. Two dogleg par fours -- the 405-yard second and the 420-yard 15th -- are the most interesting challenges.

Travel logistics for a San Jose journey could not be easier (see "Getting Around"). With more than 8,000 hotel rooms in the city, there are plenty of options. The big chains are represented (a new 506-room Marriott is scheduled to open this spring); there's The Fairmont , which last year opened a $67 million tower with 264 guest rooms, bringing its total capacity to a little more than 800 rooms; and there's the funky, art-deco Hotel DeAnza on Santa Clara Street, with 100 rooms and its signature neon signs.

For nongolfers, the city offers seven museums, highlighted by the Tech Museum , a 132,000-square-foot structure with four themed galleries and an IMAX Dome Theater. There also are a host of great ethnic restaurants, especially in the SoFA and San Pedro Square neighborhoods, and a Light Rail line that connects the city and some suburbs to Minetta International Airport, three miles north of downtown.

And some locals know that the labels of "overlooked" and "underrated" currently assigned to San Jose may be things of the past very soon. "Gradually the word is getting out that you don't have to leave the area anymore for good golf," says Jim McGrath, an East Bay native and general manager at Santa Teresa Golf Club for the past 15 years. "All of the new courses that have been built are just spectacular."

Maybe San Jose will never quite match what the Monterey Peninsula and San Francisco can offer on and off the course. But these days it's a golf destination that has gotten remarkably better looking, and one well worth a visit.

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