By Tod Leonard
Standing on the first tee of Coronado Golf Course one recent summer morning, as the sun began to rise over San Diego Bay and its light reflected off the top of the city’s skyline, I felt a slight chill run up the back of my neck. My thought at that moment: Life doesn’t get much better than this.
I have been a San Diegan for most of my lifetime, and I’ve never grown tired of the beauty and the variety of my surroundings. You can be sinking your toes in the sand on a beautiful beach at one hour of the day, and the next hour you can be hiking in the hills among sagebrush and cacti.
There are so few places like it on Earth, and though San Diego is the eighth-largest city in the country, it has never felt that way. Driving is still mostly a pleasure, and you can travel across major parts of the county in no more than an hour. Growth has changed this formerly sleepy Navy town to be sure, but it hasn’t forsaken its laid-back soul.
As for the golf — if there is more variety and quality, at better prices, with better weather — I challenge anyone to find it. The inventory of public golf facilities is large — around 50 — and that has kept green fees reasonable. Most of San Diego’s courses charge between $40 and $80 for green fees, and for a true golf destination, that is remarkable.
There are five fairly distinct regions to San Diego golf: North County inland and coastal, central San Diego, East County, and South County. A sizable portion of San Diego’s courses lies along the inland corridor, minutes in any direction from Interstate 15.
In fact, when traveling south, the first course in the county visible from the freeway is Pala Mesa Resort in Fallbrook. Pala Mesa ($49-$59) features a wooded layout with plenty of elevation change and tight doglegs. The resort is particularly popular with residents of Orange and Riverside counties, and the Aquaterra Restaurant, featuring seafood and steak, has been named among the finest in North County.
Several minutes south of Pala Mesa and just off the freeway is one of the most underrated layouts in the county. Formerly named Circle R after the cattle ranch that once occupied the land, the semiprivate Castle Creek Country Club ($50-$66) fell into disrepair for some time — but it’s back to being better than ever, and the 54-year-old facility has all the quiet charm of a country course.
Twenty minutes farther down the 15 is Rancho Bernardo Inn, a Spanish-style oasis in the middle of a quiet residential area. Rancho Bernardo Inn ($64-$89) is one of several JC Resorts properties in San Diego — a stable that includes Twin Oaks Golf Course ($56-$76) in nearby San Marcos and Encinitas Ranch Golf Course ($76-$98) on the coast.
Take one step inside the warm and cozy lobby at Rancho Bernardo Inn, and all tension melts away. The 287 guest rooms and suites are top-quality, as are the spa and pool. Locals and visitors alike enjoy the fine cuisine at El Bizcocho, the highest-rated restaurant in San Diego by the Zagat Survey. The patio at The Veranda, overlooking the golf course, is one of my personal favorite spots for lunch in all of San Diego.
Minutes east of Rancho Bernardo Inn are two very different playing experiences. Maderas Golf Club ($135-$210) in Poway is a Troon Golf-operated facility that is impeccably maintained and rolls through the hills with demanding shots at every turn. Mt. Woodson Country Club ($45-$65), a semiprivate course named for the rock-strewn peak it wraps around, is one of the area’s must-see courses. It’s short (few drivers required), tight and stunning, with some greens perched as if they’re on clouds.
For those who want to feel like they’re truly in the country, father east of Mt. Woodson in Ramona is San Vicente Inn & Golf Club, which has resort rooms, a popular eatery and a sporty golf course ($47-$57).
Highway 78 winds down from Ramona and moves west out of Escondido toward Vista, where in the hills east in Bonsall sits San Luis Rey Downs Golf Resort & Country Club. The nearby horse training center buzzes with activity in the summer when the ponies are running at Del Mar, and the San Luis Rey course ($34-$64) has its own colorful history, which includes a young Gary McCord sleeping in the red caboose that sits off to the side of one hole.
Staying in Vista, an impressive offering awaits golfers at Shadowridge Country Club. Though the course is private, it affords the SCGA membership an opportunity to experience club fitting at its newly opened state-of-the-art Player Development Center. The club added this one-of-a-kind fitting center, which features Motion Analysis Technology by TaylorMade, in March of 2010. There are studios for full swing and putting, as well as a fitness and flexibility offering from its trained experts.
“I know this is ambitious, but we think we have a much bigger and greater experience than anybody else has,” said Shadowridge General Manager Jimmy Letourneau. “That’s what we’re going after. Nobody has the setup that we have.”
San Diego’s northern coast boasts a number of pleasing high-end options. Almost literally across the street from each other in Carlsbad are the historic La Costa Resort & Spa and the beautiful Park Hyatt Aviara.
La Costa ($175-$205), of course, is recognized around the world for having hosted PGA Tour events for 35 years, while serving as a current venue for the LPGA Tour. The Tournament Course (which combines holes from the South and North courses) is only occasionally available to play, but either course will bring back memories from La Costa’s glory days — whether it’s playing the “Miracle Mile” finish on the South or the par-3 16th on the North — the site of Tiger Woods’ brilliant shot to beat Tom Lehman in the 1997 Mercedes Championship playoff.
Aviara ($215-$235), the only course in San Diego with design contributions by Arnold Palmer, is one of the county’s most picturesque venues. Flowers adorn many holes, as do several lakes and groves of eucalyptus trees.
If you’ve got the family with you, staying in Carlsbad makes perfect sense. A quick jaunt down Palomar Airport Road is the LEGOLAND California theme park, and within view of the top of the rollercoaster is The Crossings at Carlsbad, a 3-year-old city-operated course that is more luxurious than many munis. Eighteen years in the making because of environmental concerns, The Crossings ($90-$110) is a wild ride of big elevation changes and wickedly undulating greens.
In Del Mar, there are two options for resorts. For ultimate luxury, there is The Grand Del Mar ($195-$215), a $270 million Mediterranean-style resort that opened in 2007. It’s home to a Tom Fazio-designed layout, which opened 11 years ago as the Meadows Del Mar. A few miles east of the Del Mar Racetrack in Rancho Santa Fe is Morgan Run Resort and Club, an older, more casual resort that features 27 holes by designer Jay Morrish.
From Del Mar, it’s less than an hour’s drive to the East County and one of Southern California’s most stunning tracks. Barona Creek Golf Club in Lakeside, set in a bucolic valley alongside a high-rise casino and hotel, has received rave reviews from the day it opened in 2001. Designed by Todd Eckenrode and Gary Roger Baird, Barona Creek regularly ranks among Golfweek’s top five public courses in California, and a number of high-profile professional and college events have been played there, including the Nationwide Tour Championship. Barona ($120-$160) is special in every way, from the links-like, hard-and-fast fairways and greens to the stark white, jagged-edged bunkers.
In the backcountry of El Cajon is another property located on tribal land — Sycuan Resort, which is familiar to longtime golfers as Singing Hills. The Sycuan tribe has renovated the resort, but the golf courses — the championship Willow Glen and Oak Glen ($57-$79) and the executive Pine Glen — are perfect just the way they are, lined by pine, sycamore and oak trees and wonderfully maintained.
The beauty of making a base at Sycuan is that there are 117 holes within a couple of minutes of the resort — 54 at Sycuan, 27 at the Gary Player-designed Steele Canyon Golf Club ($59-$139), and 36 at friendly and old-school Cottonwood Golf Club ($35-$59).
Another East County stay-and-play option is Carlton Oaks Golf Club in Santee. From the black tees (7,225 yards) incorporated in a redesign by Perry Dye in the late 1980s, Carlton Oaks ($49-$69) is second in difficulty only to Torrey Pines South, and its demands have attracted several professional qualifying school tournaments and the 2010 NCAA Western Regionals.
It doesn’t get more central in San Diego than Mission Valley’s Hotel Circle, which has a couple of dozen options for accommodations. Within a driver’s strike of most of the rooms are the 27 holes of Riverwalk Golf Club. Placed on the footprint of the old Stardust Country Club, Riverwalk ($89-$99) is flat and fun as it moves around large wetland areas of the San Diego River. Shiny red trolley trains regularly whiz past on the track that bisects the course.
Chula Vista is only about 20 minutes from downtown San Diego and has two courses worth checking out. Salt Creek Golf Club ($59-$79) sits at the foot of Mount Miguel and is wonderfully natural and blissfully quiet. The semiprivate Eastlake Country Club ($37-$55) is a modern housing tract course but is playable and fun.
From downtown, there is one last trip to be made — the drive across the Coronado Bridge, to a semi-island that feels like it’s been encapsulated in a simpler, bygone time. The city’s Coronado Golf Course opened more than 50 years ago, and very little has changed since then — including the prices. It is still only $30 to walk, whether you live down the street or in Tokyo, and for that value there are few more attractive courses in America. The front nine offers views of the bridge and the city skyline, and the back hugs the waters of the Coronado Yacht Club and affords glimpses of the spires of the famous Hotel Del.
Sunrise on Coronado is gorgeous, but just as inviting is a late-afternoon round, followed by drinks and dinner at one of the island’s best-known spots, Peohe’s. From the patio there, you can sit and watch the sailboats glide by as the facades of the downtown skyscrapers glow in orange light.
And you can say it again: Life doesn’t get much better than this.