Golf in Southern California

Golf in Southern California: The American dream

Charles Briscoe-Knight urges you to head west and do some California dreaming

Many golfers, when thinking of a trip to the USA, believe the extent of their horizons should only reach out to Florida or maybe Myrtle Beach. Let me help you expand those vistas.

Think Southern California (SoCal) – in particular, consider a great trip from San Diego, up and over the mountains to Palm Springs. The words “vista” and “view” will become a familiar on this jaunt.

Fly direct to San Diego with British Airways and with a key to your rental car (easily available and affordable from all the usual sources – Avis, Hertz, Thrifty and Alamo) you are immediately mobile and ready to access a huge playground of golf.

My first port of call was Torrey Pines. This is the two-course venue for the Farmers Invitational on the PGA Tour, and of course the venue for Tiger Woods’ monumental victory over Rocco Mediate in the 2008 US Open. It’s also the “home club” to Phil Mickelson and Craig Stadler.

Golf in Southern California

The North course is considered the gentler of the two and will be preferable to start your trip on to help get over any jetlag. The South takes in spectacular views of the Pacific coast towards La Jolla and San Diego – watch carefully, you might see some Pacific whales migrating south.

So testing is this course – and it is a public facility owned by the city – that when the Open was staged on it architect Rees Jones lengthened it to 7,607 yards, the longest course ever to stage the USA’s flagship event. Green fees though are very reasonable and accommodation both in motels and grand hotels is close by.

A 15-minute drive from La Jolla, in the aptly named Fashion Valley, is the Riverwalk Golf Club. It used to be the site of early San Diego PGA Tour events, but declined sufficiently to be reworked nine years ago by the Californian architect Ted Robinson.

Now it is a three-loops-of-nine test, each 3,200 yards, with severely sloping greens and needing just about all your best shots. Surrounded by the I-8 freeway on one side and the Fashion Valley mall on the other, it is not the quietest course you’ll ever play, but if you have a “significant other” (USA speak for mistress, wife, girlfriend or lover) who is not a golfer, the mall has everything.

Golf in Southern California

Over on the island of Coronado, immediately across the water from downtown San Diego, is their own municipal course. This has to be the best value golf in America: green fees are $20 and it has all the practice facilities associated with a decent country club, allied with some truly breathtaking views.

San Diego is the biggest home of the US Navy and the warships seen in the distance make towns over here look small. Coronado is accessed by a huge six-lane toll bridge, which also forms a backdrop to the course, along with yachts and the famous Del Coronado Hotel (the setting for the Marilyn Monroe movie Some like it Hot). If you’re in a hurry to get to Palm Springs, take the freeway.

Personally I like the road that goes up and over the mountains and through SoCal vineyards. A short hop north will get you to Poway and then on to Mount Woodson. This is semi-private club, but where green fee play is allowed. It is also part of a small group of clubs that combine to have a “Tour Card” easing and cheapening play at five other grand clubs in the area.

Woodson is not a long track at only 6,089 yards from the back “gold” tees but it is a shot-maker’s course. Hitting you early in the round at the 3rd, a par 3 of 180 yards with bunkers left and right and a deep gully. The last is daunting as well. The drive is out of a tree-lined shoot, and can be drawn a bit, but not sliced at all.

Golf in Southern California

The second has to clear a lake, rocks and a trap. The back nine has vistas (that word again!) of a craggy rocky hillside that makes you think of a moonscape. We drove on to Warner Springs Ranch. Nestled in the foothills of the Palomar Mountain, this resort has all manner of attractions such as a spa, tennis, gliding and riding.

Golf is reasonably priced at $38 including a cart, and a two-day package of golf, dinner, bed and breakfast with free range balls is $110. The next part is arguably one of the most scenic drives one can take in the USA.

Progressing along route 79 we took the 371 at Aguanga, towards Anza. From this point the journey over the San Jacinto Mountains (highest point 10,834 feet) takes on a similar challenge to the Monte Carlo Rally. If you like driving on the road as much as driving with your Callaway, this is it for you.

At the route 74 T-junction, you can go either way. Right takes you via the Santa Rosa mountain range and drops you down into Palm Desert with sweeping hairpin and s-bends passing the Bighorn Golf Club, home to many tour players and movie moguls.

Golf in Southern California

Left will take you longer, via Idyllwild – an Alpine-style village full of small hotels, restaurants and gift shops. Most winters snow lies here, while down below on the desert floor the temperature rarely dips below 20˚C in the day. Eventually you arrive at Palm Springs via Banning and the freeway I-10. Stop at the “vista” points and admire nature’s work. It really will take your breath away.

To start your dream week(s) here, don’t get stuck into one of the very tough courses first but try the Indian Wells Resort. I particularly liked the East Course, with plenty of water hazards, beautiful bunkers and utilising the big “wash” area as a practice ground.

The 13th will grab your attention – a par 4 of only 370 yards, but with a crowned and small island fairway. Take a look back once you’re on the green at the vista – that word again! A more testing venue is Desert Falls CC, a semi-private resort facility.

Hugely playable, it is described as ‘a links-style course’ but really it is a swooping, palmtree- lined, desert course. Tour School qualifying rounds are played here and the 9th and 18th share a double green in front of the clubhouse, with water and rocks guarding.

Golf in Southern California

The 18th is considered the hardest hole on the course and at 470 yards from the back, only play it from there if your name is Rory or Dustin. Almost next door is Palm Valley CC. Although technically private, membership of another private club here in Europe and a phone call ahead will certainly do the trick. There are two courses and the Championship track is a delight, featuring plenty of water hazards, stupendous bunkering and exceptionally fast and true greens.

At both Desert Falls and Palm Valley villas can be rented at quite reasonable rates. The major up-market shopping area is close by in Palm Desert. Many refer to El Paseo as the Beverly Hills or Rodeo Drive of the desert. Jewellery shops, boutiques, restaurants and department stores can all be found here.

One nightspot even claims to be Arnie’s favourite – The Nest, on Route 111 in Indian Wells is a great piano bar with good wines, beer and dancing. Shadow Ridge resort is a Faldo design and his first effort in the USA. As a part of the Marriott timeshare portfolio, the course is a tad overshadowed by the apartments alongside the back nine, but the practice facilities are second to none.

There are just too many good holes to mention, but as an overall test this is right up there with the best on offer in the area. Perhaps by now, you are ready for a more rugged challenge. Why not try the John Cook/Mike Hurdzan-designed Desert Willow on Country Club Drive? Owned by the town, this pay-and-play facility has two masterpieces of design.

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