California dreamin'

Golf 's cheap and spectacular - if you're prepared to wait and play the locals at their own game.

Derek Clements
Thu, 20 Apr 2006

Spectacular Torrey Pines

Southern California…home of the Beach Boys, year-round sunshine and Torrey Pines, venue of the Buick Invitational and the 2008 US Open.

High on the cliffs, its two courses boast stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, its fairways are lined with pine trees and its greens more slippery than lip gloss.

Yet here is a golf course of the people. It's a public links, equivalent to our muni that you can play for 100 bucks. It's worth every cent - allegedly!

Let me explain.

I felt my holiday to the San Diego area just had to include 18 holes at Torrey Pines. I was staying with a pal who attended the local Golf Academy and he had a pass that gets him on the highly rated South Course where the world’s finest players compete annually on the PGA Tour and will gather in two years time for the US Open.

"Just one thing though, Derek," he warned. "We need to be there by three o’clock."

No problem, I thought, though we might be struggling in fading light to get in a full 18 holes.

"No," he said, "three in the morning!"

Apparently Torrey Pines doesn’t do telephone bookings. Prospective candidates for a fourball game have to volunteer one of their number to scout ahead on pre-dawn patrol and stand by their bag in the queue.

Twin Oaks – not an oak in sight

As much as my mouth might water at the prospect of a PGA Tour course that annually hosts Tiger Woods and local heroes Phil Mickelson and John Daly, I draw the line at queuing seven or eight hours to be called to the first tee.

A lucky escape, as it turned out. A few days later, we called at Torrey Pines to buy a few souvenirs and watched as ‘Jay Hildenberg and party’ were called for their 10.28 start time.

Jay and his buddies wearily trudged forward and one at a time, as they were announced by the starter, each nobbled their drives no more than 80 yards down the fairway.

We watched, with a mixture of horror and pity (and not a little relief) as they hacked their way along the opening hole, finally reaching the bunker that's meant to catch most modest drives, after five or six shots a piece - a trail of divots in their wake.

We learned that a round here can take six hours. Golfers who start as strangers may well have exchanged life stories in the protracted delay between golf shots. And as cries of Fore! echoed around the links, it struck me – though not literally - that the place doesn’t look that special. It’s long (over 7,500 yards) and uninspiring - apart from the views out to sea.

Encinita’s Ranch – joined by bandits

Fortunately, there are plenty of other fine courses in the area where it’s possible to play without having to sacrifice a good night’s sleep. We played Encinita’s Ranch, Barona Creek and Twin Oaks and loved them all.

Such is business on the US holiday golf circuit, that you are required to play as a fourball (some might describe it as a quaint idiosyncrasy). So if two of you roll up together, such is the demand for tee times that the chances are you will be partnered with another pairing looking for a game.

And having paid our $50 green fees and a further $20 for a buggy, we were introduced to Norm and Ellis at Encinita’s opening hole. Norm announced he played ‘off 17’ and promptly launched his ball 300 yards down the middle. Ellis ‘off 21’ spanked his riposte about 10 yards behind him.

All prospective bets were off immediately and unsurprisingly we were given a 6&5 hiding by mid-handicappers who played to single-figures, despite claiming it was their first visit to the 6,700-yard course.

In contrast to Encinita's Ranch’s immaculately-kept seaside links, Barona Creek emerges luxuriously from the desert.

Such is the guilt surrounding most Americans’ treatment of native Indians, that they tend to give them vast areas of uncultivated reservation, miles from civilisation but with guaranteed planning permission for a casino. Subsequently the Barona Creek complex comprises a vast hotel, impressive casino and a stunning 18-hole golf course and practice complex.

It cost just $55 for unlimited practice balls, a round of golf and complimentary buggy, complete with satellite navigation and an ice bucket of chilled, bottled water.

Here Hank, a recovering heart-attack victim ‘off 14’ with a replacement hip, introduced us to his father-in-law, Jack , who’s at least 20 years younger!

Mind the snakes at Barona Creek

I hook my opening drive and am advised to hit a provisional. I find my original ball in a dodgy, though not unplayable lie but am further advised by our new colleagues to ‘kick it back into play’ (I decline) – apparently this is a normal procedure, oft-repeated by our partners during the round.

On one hole Hank hits his drive into a bunker, takes four to get out and fires a glorious shot to within six inches of the flagstick.

"What d’ye take?" asks Jack. "Three," says Hank.

The course is also littered with signs warning of possible rattlesnakes just off the fairway. Hank, however, is made of sterner stuff and strides through the rock and sand flanking almost every fairway, collecting at least 20 discarded golf balls, mostly Pro V1s. Extraordinary.

Twin Oaks – great value

At our final venue, Twin Oaks, bereft, incidentally, of any sign of an oak tree, my green fee and buggy costs just $35. It’s a resort course surrounded by fabulous homes which is fine if you’re a straight-hitter. Unfortunately one of our partners, Justin from Washington, had more of a hook than Mike Tyson.

He smashed tee shots into swimming pools and they ricochetted off air-conditioning units, patios and toughened glass doors. One even bounced back on to the fairway from a rooftop.

All were great courses, but the people we met playing them were perhaps more interesting!



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