Golf in San Diego

Golf in San Diego

California is a state famous for many things, including its valleys. There’s Death Valley with its merciless heat, San Fernando Valley and its contributions to 1980s teenage jargon, and Silicon Valley, home to cutting edge technology companies. Add to that list “Titanium Valley,” located just north of downtown San Diego. Why the name? Because that part of the Golden State, already overflowing with outstanding golf courses, is also home to more than 30 golf manufacturers responsible for designing and building the very latest in golf equipment.

It’s easy to see why they set up camp here in San Diego County. Two hours south of Los Angeles and just 20 miles north of Mexico, the fantastic year round weather (average temperature of 70 degrees) helps makes it an ideal destination for golfers. And with 44 public golf facilities with 855 holes — plus 21 private, 21 executive, and five military layouts – you’ll have more choices than area native Phil Mickelson has with a wedge in his hands.

The famous cliche, “So Many Courses, So Little Time,” is a reality here. The variety in design, location and pricing enables first time visitors to design their own golfing itinerary. But for those looking to play the latest in San Diego golf courses, here’s a look at six new venues that have been added to this beautiful city in the last three years, plus highlights of some other options available to the public golfer.

The Encinitas Ranch Golf Course, a Cary Bickler design opened in March 1998, is 20 miles north of downtown via Interstate 5. Owned by the City of Encinitas and managed by JC Resorts, this daily fee golf facility includes two natural water hazards, 61 bunkers, dramatic changes in elevation and undulating fairways covering 175 acres of land. This 6,821-yard track is a fun course with beautiful panoramic views. The Pacific Ocean is visible from certain holes, and a noticeable sea breeze comes into play in the late morning and early afternoons.

The Riverwalk Golf Course also started operations in March 1998. This 27-hole complex was built on land previously home to the Stardust Country Club, where the PGA Tour’s San Diego Open was held in the 1960s before moving to Torrey Pines in 1968. It’s in the heart of Mission Valley, just a few minutes from the San Diego International airport off Interstate 8. Designed by Ted Robinson and managed by American Golf Corporation, this track is not extremely demanding in length (at 6,627 yards from the back tees), but small and well protected greens, combined with ponds and waterfalls that come into play on 13 of the 27 holes, add to the challenge. Long gone are the days of the flat fairways at Stardust. Today Riverwalk features an undulating layout complemented by full practice facilities, instructional areas and banquet space. It’s also conveniently located near a hotel district and shopping centers.

Designed by Johnny Miller and Robert Muir Graves and managed by Troon Golf, the Maderas Golf Club opened for play at the dawn of the new millennium, in early January 2000. Located near the city of Poway, only three miles east of the Interstate15 corridor, Maderas is snugly tucked in the hills and canyons neighboring the upscale Heritage Estates community development. The Old Coach Road, which leads to the club entrance, was a path followed by the stagecoach running between Ramona and San Diego in the late 1800s.

Maderas, a par 72 measuring 7,118 yards from the back tees, combines spectacular landscaping with strategic golf design to produce a thrilling course that flows calmly through the terrain. The planting of more than 170 oak trees and 40 acres of native wildflowers have only enhanced the natural beauty of the site.

Tee boxes and greens perched on rocky cliffs are the main feature on most holes. If a forced carry is not required off the tee, then it’s required to reach the green. Subtle elevation changes, along with strong bunkering, will make players reconsider clubbing and type of shot. The first three holes, two medium length par fours and a 583-yard par five, help ease players into the surroundings. But the last five holes are very demanding and will drain the little bit of stamina left in the player. The strongest hole overall, however, is the 460-yard, dogleg left, par four fifth, with a difficult tee shot to a fairway with a ravine and deep-faced bunkers on the left side. Don’t try to cut too much off the dogleg or you’ll be looking at a high score on this hole.

The revived Sycamore Creek flows through the course acting as an intimidating factor on four holes, while lakes come into play on three other holes. Slanted fairways provide the additional challenge of a compromised stance. Miller’s bunkering of soft sand and deep faces add to the variety of obstacles spread throughout the course. To play this track you’ll need patience. It is a true test of course management.

Ground was recently broken for a 10,000 square-foot clubhouse expected to be completed by fall of 2001. A three-tiered driving range with grass and a short game practice area are also part of the facilities, while caddies are available to those who would like to experience walking the course. Maderas is also the home course of local high-school golf teams, reflecting its committed involvement with the local community.

Troon Golf is continuing to expand its presence in San Diego County with the exclusive Crosby National Golf Club, a Fred Couples-Lee Schmidt-Brian Curley design slated to open next winter. Another public daily fee course in the Fallbrook area — a Johnny Miller design — is also in the planning stages.

The Meadows Del Mar gets plenty of votes from the locals for being the most beautiful course in San Diego. With coastal land hard to acquire, and golf course building permits equally elusive, this par 71, 6,885-yard track should remain a standout for years to come. Carved through the hills and canyons of Carmel Valley, only four miles east of the Del Mar coastline and just minutes away from the famous Del Mar Race Track, this Tom Fazio design — his first in the county — brings to town a stunning high-end public facility.

Created to challenge the advanced player but also to provide a relaxing round of golf for the beginner, this layout follows the natural contours of the land with holes running atop hills and along canyons filled with native vegetation.

In addition to menacing bunkers, chaparral-laden ravines, and strategically located pines, sycamore and California pepper trees are also used to defend the rolling fairways and greens. The architect took full advantage of the local topography to provide dramatic changes in elevation throughout the course.

A sea breeze should help drives on two of the three par fives, but the reverse will be true on the extremely demanding 476-yard par four fourth hole and the picturesque, water-protected 241-yard par three 17th. The Meadows Del Mar gives players little room to breath on the front nine, where three of the five par four holes measure more than 450 yards from the back tees. The par three holes are more forgiving on this side compared to those on the back, which measure over 210 yards. Visual deception, a characteristic of most Fazio designs, is found off the tee on the 10th and 18th, the latter featuring fairway saddle bunkers that seem to continue all the way to the green, giving the illusion of a narrow landing area off the tee.

The facilities include a complete practice area and magnificent 14,400 square-foot wood and stone clubhouse overlooking the 18th hole. Add in attention to detail and first-class treatment by a qualified staff of golf professionals, and “The Meadows” should rank high on your San Diego itinerary. The course record was snatched from one local Tour professional, Scott Simpson (66) by another one, Phil Mickelson (65).

One of the most recent additions to the San Diego golf repertoire, The Auld Course, can be found in the heart of the Otay Valley, southeast of downtown.

This John Cook and Cary Bickler collaboration meanders through original creeks and wetlands, offering players a natural setting like no other in the area. Only 100 of the 280 acres of land here are being maintained for golf. The rest will be protected as part of the overall 500-acre natural reserve surrounding the course.

In fact, the occasional sighting of deer, coyotes, burrowing owls and herrons may just distract your pre-shot routine. And in spite of its inland location, views of south San Diego Bay and the Coronado Islands are highlights of the scenery. Players will even feel the effect of the sea breeze on some holes.

Featuring pronounced changes in elevation, undulating yet generous fairways and friendly bent grass greens, the Auld Course was not designed to severely punish errant shots. Firm sand and low bunker edges are part of this relaxing, old-style layout. To the rear and side of each green are short-grass collection areas, giving players a chance to use their short game skills to save par. While the greens here do not have any sharp breaking tiers, their slope and shape allow for pin positions sure to test your shotmaking ability.

State-of-the-art computerized carts provide a sketch of each hole on a 10-inch wide color screen, indicating hazards and yardages between the tee and green via GPS positioning. The system also allows players to interact with the clubhouse, enabling you to order lunch before making the turn. The technology also allows the pro shop to keep track of pace of play by knowing the exact location of carts at all times. For tournaments with more than eight players, a real-time leaderboard is provided, viewable from all carts and in the clubhouse.

Even though the Auld Course was not intended to be a “high-end” facility, the service, the course itself, and the setting at the foothills of Mount San Miguel will give you that privileged feeling.

Back in 1932 when the Mission Indians purchased a ranch and settled in the Barona Valley — now part of Lakeside, California — they changed their name to “Barona Band of Mission Indians” and went about their usual farming business. Their former land near El Capitan Reservoir, given to them back in 1891, had just been purchased by the local government for its valuable water. For 40 years they struggled in their new settlement, using sophisticated land management techniques to take advantage of the sporadic water flowing across it. They endured again, as they had since the beginning of the “Spanish Era,” over two and half centuries ago.

In 1984 they took their first step towards their dream of self-sufficiency when they established a bingo hall on the Barona Reservation. By 1994 they had become the first Indian gaming operation to integrate a central theme into its casino and marketing. Today, that gaming operation features the largest casino in California. Progress continues as work is already underway to start construction of a renovated casino and a 400-room hotel.

And a golf course has just opened for play at the Barona Valley Ranch, giving the complex the flair of a gambling and golf resort.

Deployed like a blanket over the hillsides and valley in the Southwest corner of the Barona Indian Reservation, the Barona Creek Golf Course was built with very little earth movement. This natural looking Gary Roger Baird design consists of wide open, gently rolling fairways and spacious, undulating bent grass greens and bunkers filled with soft, snowy white, Augusta sand.

At each tee box players are greeted by a granite rock etched with the hole number and yardages from each of the five sets of tees. But the unique highlight found on each rock is the tribal name of one of the original Indian families that moved there, conveying the feeling that the family itself is hosting the players along as they play the hole. Several old oaks scattered on the course give this 7,088-yard, par 72 layout a rustic flavor.

Unlike the neighboring casino, there is little chance for gambling here. No extreme forced carries or risk-reward situations are present on this friendly course. The front nine features undulating fairways with subtle changes in elevation. On some holes, bunkering about 50 to 60 yards from the green and grassy swells gives the visual illusion of shorter distances for the approach. Trust the yardages on the sprinkler heads and markers for correct clubbing.

The back nine holes climb up and down the hillside, some of them hugged by prominent rocky outcrops. The shortest par four hole on the course – the uphill 14th, 315 yards from the back — is followed by the farthest point from the clubhouse, the 15th tee. This tee is also at the highest elevation on the course and offers a magnificent panoramic view of the lakes at the bottom of the valley and the nearby casino facilities. The finishing hole is also the toughest. A 474-yard par four into the prevailing wind, it entices the player with a wide open fairway running parallel to an elongated lake, but then demands a careful approach to a large green next to the water.

If your ideal golf vacation includes playing the top-level courses in town, then San Diego has a number of options that fit the bill. The renowned La Costa Resort & Spa is home to the World Match Play Championship (except in 2001, when it will be played in Australia), reserved for the top 64 players in the world. The Dick Wilson-Joe Lee layout offers 36 holes of challenging golf, not to mention first-class resort accommodations and services.

Aviara Golf Club is a 7,000-yard Arnold Palmer design laid out on a hilly piece of land in Carlsbad, close to La Costa. A five-star Four Seasons Resort hotel overlooking the Batiquitos Lagoon is next to the course.

Knowing the pin positions ahead of time will increase your birdie chances on the large greens here. Three challenging downhill holes round out the front nine, while a flatter back nine makes its way through a hilly valley. Opened in 1991, Aviara was as a GOLF Magazine “Top 100 You Can Play” selection in 1998.

Fifteen miles south, following the coastal Interstate 5 freeway, you’ll find Torrey Pines, San Diego’s most famous golfing destination. This popular top-rated municipal course has views that are the envy of the best golf resorts in the world. The nearby Hilton LaJolla currently offers golf packages that include a room, tee time, greens fees and cart.

Home of the PGA Tour’s Buick Invitational every February, Torrey features 36 holes by the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

It opened for play in 1957 on land used by the U.S. Army during World War II as a training facility. The original clubhouse was a war-surplus two-bedroom house that included a pro shop in the living room, and the starter collected greens fees through the kitchen window.

The North course is more scenic but less demanding than the longer South course, which was ranked 60th on GOLF Magazine’s “Top 100 You Can Play” in 2000.

A new set of tees, recently built to “Tigerize” the North, increased its length by 273 yards to a total of 6,874 thus, making it a stronger test. The South course is wide open but requires long drives off the tee, sometimes into a stiff sea breeze.

Other courses worth considering in the area are Redhawk Golf Club (1-800-451-4295), Rancho Bernardo Inn (1-858-675-8470), The Vineyard at Escondido (1-760-735-9545) and Carmel Mountain Ranch (1-858-487-9224) on the northeast.

To the south is the Steele Canyon Country Club (1-619-441-6900), Eastlake (1-619-482-5757), Singing Hills (1-619-442-3425) and Carlton Oaks (1-619-448-4242).

The variety and quality of options available in San Diego will satisfy the appetite of golfers of all abilities. Your visit to “Titanium Valley” will provide ample opportunity to test all the clubs in your bag, no matter what materials they may be made from!

For more information on the golf courses in the San Diego area, visit the website of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau (

Martin Olivera is editor of the San Diego Golf Pages.

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