Apologies for the extended delay between posts here – As you can tell, JK and I made up for the fact that his father was unable to join us for the epic trip to Scotland, and naturally we had to blog about that too. (See “Sand Rocks“)

On to Fife/St.Andrews!

Summary: In this section, I’ll discuss the particulars of our visit to the New Course, the Old Course, the Eden Course, the Jubilee Course, and Kingsbarns.  Various and sundry other locations in and around Scotland will be noted and discussed accordingly.

After our whirlwind time in East Lothian with our new friends, and in particular crossing the behemoth of Muirfield off our respective bucket lists, JK and I hopped in our tiny rental car (he drove) and we made our way to Fife as quickly as possible.  One quick tip here, it is helpful to have someone in your party that can drive stick, and then drive stick completely backwards.  There is no shot we’d have made it to Fife if I were the one that were driving.  Fortunately, we were able to navigate our way to our lodging at Agnes Blackadder Hall, and then over to the St. Andrews Golf Club.  We met with our host there who took us over to the New Course.

The New Course

As with most of the humor in Scotland, the name of this course in somewhat tongue in cheek.  The New Course was built in 1895.

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In a word, I’d describe the New Course as comfortable.  Without a doubt, it truly is a links course.  The New is tucked between the Old and Jubilee Courses.  Indeed, many of the front nine holes play adjacent to the Old Course, and it is even possible to play some of the New Course holes from Old Course fairways if you hit wayward tee shots.  However, the lack of major championship history for this course or indeed, much general knowledge about any significant professional or other championship golf reduced the insane urge that we felt to perform well in storied theaters.  JK and I stepped up to the first tee here with our host and were able to just play.  We hoofed our bags, chatted with our host about golf, Scotland, the U.S., politics, food, etc., and managed to get a perfect introduction to the history and culture around golf in St. Andrews.

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The New Course essentially acts as the locals’ home course.  Naturally, when tee times are available on the Old, they will take them as we would, but when the opportunity arises to shove off work early or get in a late afternoon round, the New Course is the first option.  As you might imagine, the course gets less play than the Old, so rounds take less time.  One would think that conditions might be better with less play, but it would be doing a disservice to the Old Course to make that assertion.  Links turf is remarkably different to any turf that is commonly available in the U.S., and is very hearty.  The greens tend to run a bit slower, of course, but no less true.

The New Course also has incredible views of the surrounding area, and of its two neighboring courses.

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View from 9th tee, I believe?

Upon ranking the St. Andrews Courses and trying to decide where we would advise our readers to play during their own trips, we agreed that the New was certainly one that folks should incorporate into their rotation if they are in St. Andrews for multiple rounds.

That Night

The date is August 4, 2016.  The time is 4:15 AM.  Two lunatics arrive at the starters tent at the Old Course upon the advice of their host earlier that evening to queue up before the break of dawn to the following scene:

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Believe it or not, at 4:15 AM, JK and I are respectively 11th and 12th in line for the standby list to play the Old Course.  So we sit there for what feels like 2 days in the cold waiting for the shack to open.  We try to catch some zzz’s… Some more creatively than others:

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But eventually we are told that we should come back at 2pm and that we should have a tee time shortly thereafter.

Dutifully, we arrive at 1:30 and are told that we are to report to the first the tee at 3:50pm.  Ecstatic, sleep deprived, and hungry, we trudge over to the Dunvegan pub.  More on this amazing place later.

The Old Course

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The words that come to mind when I think about the Old Course: Timeless, Unique, and Epic.

What can I say about the Old Course at St. Andrews…. Well, I sat for about two hours pondering this exact question, and it turns out that I could say quite a bit.  However, what I’d say you could read in any number of likely much better written reviews than this one.  JK’s initial post about our trip sums up my particular experience with the Old Course, which was memorable to say the least.  (Not so humble brag… I shot 74, my career low to date).

I’ll limit my observations on the Old Course to the following two:

  1. If there were only 1 course I could play for the rest of my life, it would be the Old Course at St. Andrews.  If this were the case, I’d still play golf every single day, and twice on Saturday because it’s closed on Sunday.
  2. If you get a chance to play, on your way back in, be sure you pay attention to the town of St. Andrews on the horizon periodically.  It’s truly awe-inspiring to see this tiny little town grow and grow until it surrounds you as you walk back toward the R&A clubhouse.  This is one of the coolest unintended effects of the Old Course that I feel is an underrated part of the experience.  A very small piece of this is captured in the images below.

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The Dunvegan Pub (again)

Yeah, we got hammered after that round.  And drank more Kummel.

The end.

The Eden Course

The one memorable thing about this course was that we almost played the wrong hole at one point.  Had we not run into the only other person playing this course, we likely might have only played 11 holes and wondered where the rest of them where.

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I shot 78, JK did not.  Our thoughts as we were waiting for the shuttle back to the Old Course clubhouse after the round: “why did we just play that course?”  Guess you can’t win them all.

The Jubilee Course

The Jubilee course, like Spyglass Hill, is a wonderful example of a course that would be more well-known if were located more than 10 yards from one of the most famous courses in the world.  This course was truly fun.  The course felt a bit shorter than the other links courses that we played, but much tighter and more fraught with danger.  Nearly ever hole includes some incredibly menacing rough or bunker that a careful player must avoid or contend with.  I honestly can’t remember a single shot that allowed the player to lay back or make a small mistake.  That being said, I also don’t remember hitting a single long iron, so really, there shouldn’t be many mistakes…

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The Old Jigger Inn

JK ate Haggis.  Gross.

Kingsbarns

And finally, one of the true jewels of this trip – Kingsbarns.  This Kyle Phillips masterpiece was truly one of the finest courses I’ve had the chance to play.

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Panoramic view of 18 from the clubhouse at sunrise

To get a few non-golf things out of the way: 1) the non-golf experience at Kingsbarns is far more typical of the experience at a high-end U.S. resort than the other Scottish links.  That is to say, there are at least two sets of tees that almost no one should be allowed to play for the sake of enjoying the game, the food and drink are actually quite good, and your wallet is going to be a good bit lighter when you leave.  This is due in part to the fact that the owner of Kingsbarns is actually an American that lives in Pleasanton, CA.  2) The clubhouse was one of the best I’ve seen anywhere, ever. 3) They have their own whisky.  It’s really good.

Regarding the golf: awe-inspiring is the phrase that comes to mind for me.  Nearly every hole has an epic view of the North Sea.  The whole course was built upon a fairly flat spit of land, and apparently required over 200,000 cubic meters of dirt to be moved for its construction.  This allowed Kyle to create some truly stunning golf holes that likely wouldn’t be easy to form naturally.  It is one of the few courses we played that had any kind of a forced carry, but even those felt quite manageable.

One hole that stood out to JK and me as not really fitting with the rest was the par three 15th.  This hole required a forced carry over part of the North Sea to a tucked green.  While it was a great hole in its own right, it didn’t feel like it fit with the typical style of the area.

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View from the 15th tee at Kingsbarns

JK also took issue with driveable par four 6th hole.  I’m not sure why, honestly.  I loved it.

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View from the 6th tee at Kingsbarns.  (Hole is above the two bunkers on right side)

In my opinion, Kingsbarns could be one of the best ever.  It looked as epic as Pebble Beach on every tee shot, played like a true links, and had incredible shot value.  While some shots didn’t fit the true links style, the result is still a course I feel could be imminently playable any time of the year, and could certainly host an Open Championship any time.  The one piece of advice JK and I agreed on for this course that we wish we had followed was to take a caddy.  Oh, also, I hope you’ll agree, Kingsbarns was far and away the most photogenic course we played.

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Odds and Ends (Rapid Fire Edition)

  • If you get a chance/invite – visit either the St. Andrews Golf Club or the New Club.  Great insight into the difference between the attitude toward golf in the U.S. and Scotland
  • Agnes Blackadder Hall is the best kept secret for lodging in St. Andrews.  Your own room, good shower, and breakfast for £40 a night.  We booked using Hotels.com.
  • If you’re going to wait in line at the Old course, get there at 4am or earlier.  Bring warm clothing and sleeping bag.
  • Amazing pro tip: there are LOCKERS at New Course Club House that you can use for free (£1 refundable deposit) that hold a full size golf bag.  Store your crap here between rounds, or while you’re waiting in line to play the Old Course.  Be careful about leaving things overnight though – not sure of the policy here.
  • If you’re a stickler for having “official” gear, be careful of shopping anywhere else besides the St. Andrew’s branded pro shops at the clubhouses.  There are lots of duplicates and unofficial suppliers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make good stuff.
  • Belhaven’s Best Beer.  Locals call it Bell’s Best.  Drink it.
  • If we were going to do it again, we’d eliminate the Eden, and wait in line to play the Old again.  If you want other recommendations in the area, we heard great things about Crail and the Castle Course.
  • Finally, if you’re lucky, you might get a view like this one before you leave:

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Thank you for reading!

As JK mentioned in his earlier post (Scotland 2016), his aim was to provide merely a taste of our experience in Scotland.  An amuse-bouche of our adventure, if you will.  In the remaining posts, we will endeavor to provide more complete reviews for each of the regions we visited:  Glasgow, East Lothian, St. Andrew’s/Fife, and Carnoustie.  For the more OCD readers, unfortunately these reviews will not appear in chronological order.  We would apologize, but once they’re all written, you can just open different browser tabs and put them in order if you really need to.  Another brief aside: for these reviews, we had to borrow more photos from the internet than we would typically like to, but the conditions were relatively poor for photography purposes during our visit.  Thank you in advance, Google Images.

First up, East Lothian!  (A map of our travels in East Lothian)

During our visit to East Lothian, JK and I stayed at a property called the County Hotel located just off the main drag in the town of North Berwick.  We found the rooms using a combination of Google Maps, TripAdvisor, and Hotels.com.  Mostly, we just wanted to find a place where we could do as little driving as possible, and the County Hotel fit the bill.  Before I get into the course reviews,  I want to mention that this place was a perfect place to start a golf trip not only because it was a good “golf” bnb, but also because it captured the feeling of golf in North Berwick.  The rooms are basic, the beds comfortable, and the showers hot.  There’s a fantastic pub downstairs that’s as likely to have a group of golfers visiting as locals from town.  In fact, we met a group that was traveling from Wales on their own buddies golf trip.  There was a distinct small town vibe and quirkiness that was absent in our other destinations that made North Berwick very special to us both.

North Berwick – The West Links

In a word, the West Links at North Berwick should be described as fun.  It very well might have been the most fun course that JK and I played in Scotland together.  At just over 6,100 yards from the tips, this par 71 layout does not require the player to hit extremely long drives to have scoring opportunities.

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Panoramic view from the second hole at dusk

The course plays directly along the northernmost point of a peninsula that juts into the North Sea.  This leads to some phenomenal views of island-like features and geological formations such as Bass Rock that border this area as captured above and below.

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Bass Rock

While the front nine felt more like the typical links style golf we played in Scotland, the back nine took on a life of its own.  The course had a number of features that were unique to the West links including a series of stone walls that run through the course:

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These walls play as true hazards on at least two holes, with the most memorable being the par 4 13th “Pit” hole.  This hole requires a well-placed drive up the right side of a narrow landing area, and then a cleanly nipped short iron or pitch over a 3-4 foot stone wall to a small green.  Birdies must come at the price of one’s first child:

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Photo borrowed from a Google Image search – it was raining when we played this hole, so cameras did not make an appearance.

Other memorable features included the original Redan par three that features an off-axis green that tilts away from the player (Read more about Redan holes here):

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Also borrowed.

And finally, the most ridiculous green either JK or I have ever seen on the par 4 “Gate” 16th:

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Also borrowed.

yes, that’s about a 6 foot drop right in the middle of the green, which effectively makes this a hole with alternate greens.  JK made a nice birdie on this hole in some pretty questionable conditions.

Other memorable shots included the drive on 2 and the drive on 18.  2 felt very much like an inverse of 18 at pebble beach (slightly different scenery, but way better for a hook), while 18 felt almost like a copy of 18 from the Old Course.

JK and I agreed that if we were to do this trip again, we would try to schedule multiple rounds at the West Links not only to have another crack at some of these crazy holes, but also because the entire course seemed to have very high replay value.  Even from morning to afternoon, these links must play very differently, and even a slight change in wind would impact club selection on some of the shorter holes.

Gullane #1

(Disclaimer: My review of Gullane #1 likely won’t do the course justice, but our round there had us chasing the sun and rushing in to drink a couple of beverages to warm up.  I couldn’t imagine a more fun way to see a course quickly than the round we played there, but it doesn’t make for good review fodder.  Clearly, a return trip is in order to fill out this review.)

During the afternoon of our first day in East Lothian, we were treated to a game at Gullane #1.  This property actually has 3 courses, with number 1 being the most well known and the one we’d recommend playing if you only have time for one round at the facility.

JK and I were already both quite tired due to jet lag at this point, but did not want to miss out on the opportunity to play.  Luckily, we were playing with two gents from the area and were able to settle on teams for a foursomes game.  For those unfamiliar, foursomes is a team game where partners alternate shots on the same ball; four players will play two balls.  Teams alternate tee shots regardless of who holes the last putt as well.  If you are tired, but still want to see a course, or have limited daylight, or just want to play a fun new format, we highly recommend foursomes/alternate shot.

A quick look at the map (located here) will show the difference in the shape of overall layouts of Gullane and North Berwick.  While NB is a more traditional out-and-back style links, Gullane is a sprawling property that has spectacular views of many holes and several prominences that offer spectacular views of the North Sea.
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If North Berwick should be described as fun, Gullane #1 should be described as breathtaking.

The view of the second hole from the first tee was unlike anything else we saw in our 9 rounds:

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Borrowed from golfnook.com/gullane.htm

The second hole itself might have been one of the hardest holes we played during our trip as well.  In any event, the course continually offered wonderful challenges, long driving holes, and the need for a solid short game.  More than almost any course during our trip, elevation change played a significant role in the course routing.  The exception maybe Kingsbarns.  It is not surprising that this course has hosted numerous championships in Scotland and is on the Scottish Open rota.

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A view from the blue tee on the 13th hole – Hole Across (178 yards)

Kümmel

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No.  It’s not a golf course.  Kümmel is the local drink in North Berwick/Muirfield.  From what I can tell, it’s actually a German liquor, but 1/3 of the world’s supply is consumed in East Lothian.  No one ever poured a single of this marvelous beverage, and we never questioned it.  We highly recommend you drink the kümmel

Muirfield

Much ink has been spilled about Muirfield’s wonderful lunch, tradition of playing fourball in the morning and foursomes in the afternoon, and its recent vote not to allow female members, so I will focus on my opinions of the course and experience.

Let’s see.  If North Berwick = Fun… and Gullane = Breathtaking … then it must be true that Muirfield = Prestigious.

Even walking up to the clubhouse (which one must do in coat and tie) inspires the distinct feeling of arriving at an exclusive private club which I have only experienced in the United States.  As with all of the courses of that ilk that I have been lucky enough to play, Muirfield was in nearly perfect condition.  The week after our visit the club was set to host the R&A’s Boys Amateur Championship.  Accordingly, the course was being prepared and the rough was grown to a height that we did not experience anywhere else in Scotland.  I don’t recall what happened with JK, but my bag left considerably lighter due to the lack of golf balls after our round.

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View from the 3rd Fairway at Muirfield

As with most very private clubs, we limited the number of pictures we took and just enjoyed the experience.  Muirfield is also known for playing rounds very quickly, so we didn’t want to spend a lot of time pulling phones out and being tourists.

The course was one of the finest we had an opportunity to play.  Particular highlights included the par 4 3rd (pictured above) due to the fantastic second shot and the fact that I made birdie, the par 4 6th due to the incredibly difficult approach after a very tight drive, the par 5 9th (also made birdie), the par 4 11th due to the blind drive, the par 5 17th with its fantastic second shot and green complex (and my third birdie), and of course, the iconic par 4 18th where Phil won his Open Championship.

Odds and Ends

Other places we visited and liked in North Berwick included a wonderful pub called The Golfers Rest, the Turkish Kebab House three doors down from The Golfers Rest (second best meal we had in Scotland), and a San Francisco-style coffee shop called Steampunk Coffee from which I’m now regretting not buying a mug.  There was also a beautiful cemetery behind the County Hotel that surrounds the ruin of an old church that JK and I had a chance to walk through one morning.  It was quite an experience to see families have 6 or 7 generations buried in the same plot, with some predating the American Revolution.

Additionally, what we would call a “semi-golf” experience: right next to the West Links is a putting course that costs £2 per person.  While neither of us would recommend playing this course directly prior to playing a round at the course due to the fact that it runs at roughly the speed of Congress deciding where to eat lunch, we would suggest it as a great place to settle wagers or enjoy a brew after a good day on the links.  Also, thanks for the putter cover, JK!

Finally, if we had a chance to play more rounds in East Lothian, we would have considered Archerfield, Gullane #2, The Glen, and Craigielaw in that order.  The order comes from no other rationale than the number of times we were told by others where we should play, and where the group of travelers from Wales I encountered at the County Hotel said they were playing.

Preamble: I have been sitting at my computer for roughly 15 minutes now trying to figure out how to start this review.  I feel like this used to be easier, or maybe I just used to be better at this…  Also, I apologize in advance for the lack of photos in this review.  The photos I took do not do the course justice, so I decided not to use them.

Let’s just rip the bandage off and start writing.  For the last several months, I have been living in the Detroit, MI area and attempting to keep my hands warm enough to hit a few balls.  See LG on golf in the tundra.  One great takeaway I’ve had from my time here is to learn just how excellent Michigan golf can be.  Don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure Michigan has 3.2 golf courses for every golfer that lives in this state.  Northern Michigan also has some of the most breathtaking courses I’ve ever had a chance to play.  Later, I’ll post a review of my 9 hole round at Arcadia Bluffs.  The pictures cannot begin to show the elevation change and character of that amazing property.  More to come there.  Another added benefit of having so many amazing courses – tons of selection, quicker rounds than I’m used to in California, and excellent courses are highly affordable!

Now for the good stuff.  Today, I review Blackheath Golf Club located in Rochester, MI.  So, I was sitting on the couch last night trying to decide where to play.  Not having a set of golf buddies in Michigan, any sense of which courses are worth playing, and no last minute access to the Red Wings game, I decide to tool around on golfnow.com and golfadvisor.com to book a tee time for Saturday morning.  Blackheath catches my eye for a few reasons: 1) bent grass greens 2) links style course 3) $37.  That might be enough to sell me alone, but the reviews on golfadvisor confirm that the course is generally kept in very good shape.  Anyone that knows JK and me knows that this is a no brainer.  I book the 10:18 am spot through the course’s website because it’s cheaper than golfnow.com.  (Sorry to out you, golfnow, but hey, you weren’t the cheapest).

Upon arrival, I know I’m coming to a place that is purely about golf.  The only visible structure on the course is the pro shop/maintenance shed.  To the right is the practice facility where you can take your mish-mash bucket of balls and warm up, or just head straight to the first tee.  Don’t expect a large menu in the grill, mainly because there isn’t a grill.  The staff will happily make change for you for the vending machine, however.  No bells, no frills, just golf.  I love it.

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While the course had not grown in entirely from the winter, I can confirm that the bent grass greens were in immaculate shape.  These could be the best greens I’ve had a chance to play in Michigan, and they definitely rival the condition of many I’ve played in California.  My deepest thanks to the greenkeeping staff!

As far as the layout is concerned, my immediate impression was that this Par 71 is a true links style course.  Don’t let the yardage fool you.  6700-6800 yards here will play much longer than the scorecard yardage when the wind is blowing its normal pace.  That 73/137 is no joke.  The gentleman in the pro shop told me it is more of a “heathland” style course (see definition found via the Google), which was a fascinating new term for me to learn.  In either case, this is truly one of the courses any golf trip to the area should include, and residents of the area should play regularly.  For a course located in an area that is generally flat, there was a surprising amount of elevation change built into the course.  While most of this must have been manufactured by the architects, it did not have the “cookie cutter” quality that is generally off-putting about those types of courses.  Moreover, the architect took care to fabricate run up and collection areas with these elevation changes that play the way these features are meant to be played – fast and firm, but penal if shots are not executed well.

As I tend to do in my reviews, I focus on the par 3s and par 5 holes because I tend to enjoy those the most.  Blackheath has five par 3s and four par 5s, and they contain my favorite and least favorite holes on the course.  My favorite hole was the par 3 12th.  I wish the picture had turned out better, but today, it played 214 yards with a steady left to right wind.  The pin was cut in the front and framed between two massive heather-faced bunkers.  I drew 4 iron with the holes of holding up a draw into the breeze and softly landing 3 feet left of the flag.  4 additional shots later, I’m walking off the green with a spoiled round and a giant smile on my face.  Golf does that some times.  If there’s a criticism of this course, it must be the design of the par 5 11th.  The 600 yard hole bends sharply around the outside of the course’s par 5 8th.  Without any real penalty for missing the drive, the prudent way to play this hole is up the 8th fairway to take a large bite out of the yardage.  While I believe that courses should always allow for some creativity off the tee, the play should always be to the fairway that the hole is designed around.

All in all, for a true links (heathland) style experience, I would highly recommend Blackheath golf club.  Towards the summer when the course firms up and the run up areas play as they are designed to play, this will be a true test of a complete set of golf skills.  The course is kept in immaculate shape, and the lack of trees on the course will keep the greens and fairways firm, fast, and playable throughout the season.  If played from the appropriate tees, this would be an excellent course for players who may not carry the ball very far or who may be newer to the game.  This style course lends itself to “ground play” and can help build confidence of players who may have trouble getting the ball into the air.  Moreover, only 3 or 4 holes have water or hazards that may come into play, so if you’re trying to figure out where your driver is going, this could be a good test round.

That’s all for now, folks.  If I get a chance to play again, I’ll update this post with pictures.

When you think of Torrey Pines Golf Course – South Course, what is the first image that comes to mind?  The 2008 US Open. Tiger Woods vs. Rocco Mediate.  The 18-hole playoff wasn’t enough.  Golf played at one of the highest levels in any tournament was on display.  In the end, Tiger won his 14th (and, still, his most recent) major.  Nearly five years later, I found myself in San Diego for the first time in my life.  I couldn’t pass it up. After playing two other local courses in the days prior, I was ready for Torrey.

To start, Torrey South is a beautiful track and an icon of US Open history since the Tiger/Rocco duel. For anyone who makes it to the San Diego area, it’s definitely on the “to do” list–assuming you can stomach the nonresident greens fee. The course proved to be worth the money for a one-time play, although I’d have to find a way to play for less money the next time I go. Regardless of what you pay, the views are tremendous:

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San Diego area courses in general seem to be relatively short as compared to most Atlanta area courses.  Torrey South, at just over 7,050 yards from the non-tournament tips, is one of the longest tracks in the area.  Even at that, the course did not feel particularly long.  Several holes did feel long, but I did not feel like there were many long approaches in general.  Most par 3 and par 4 holes had 6-iron or less into the green, and most par 5s were at least nominally reachable in two.  For example, for the 18th hole, I had an 8-iron into the green to reach in two.  Not exactly stupendously long.

When I played Torrey South (at the end of February), the course had recently hosted the Farmer’s Open, a PGA Tour event won by–guess who–Tiger Woods. As such, the conditions were about as good as I would expect them to be. Greens were probably rolling at 11 on the Stimpmeter, and the fairways were lush and green–although I didn’t hit one all day (0/14 fairways in regulation). Although the pros often complain about the Poa green surface, I did not notice any substantial disturbance (although I was playing very early in the morning, so the Poa may not have budded yet). At least as compared to almost every bermuda green I’ve played, Torrey was exceptional.

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Playing Torrey South confirmed one of my general suspicions about PGA Tour courses–namely, you can hit the ball basically anywhere and survive. With 0/14 fairways, I still managed a 77 with 9 GIR. The dearth of trees on the course makes it very playable for a long hitter. Although I did not play the US Open tees (I decided to go easy the first trip), I found the course very playable and had a number of close birdie putts even with my failings off the tee. Perhaps it’s just that I’m used to playing bermuda rough in Georgia, so the fescue rough at Torrey was just no big deal.

Generally, I didn’t hit any fairways because they are difficult to hit.  They are not particularly wide and are typically sloped to kick the ball off the fairway if it does not have the proper flight.  Greens are fairly large but are very undulating, and being on the wrong side of the hole can lead to some poor putting/chipping statistics. It has always amazed me how undulating greens are on the Tour stop courses that I’ve played (East Lake, Pebble Beach, Torrey, even Glen Abbey). However, the course is right in front of you, and if you miscue a shot, you can’t blame the course for it.

What surprised me to some degree was the forgetability of many of the holes.  Although the course is absolutely stunningly beautiful, it isn’t as if each hole has a particular character that must be dealt with.  Sure, there are some–3 and 18 most notably–but many of the par 4s are reruns, slight doglegs, 4XX yards, fairway wood – short iron type holes.  Of those holes, I don’t remember each one.  Having played Tour-caliber courses on several occasions, I can say that most if not all of the holes of each Tour stop that I’ve played have been remarkable golf holes.

A benefit of playing Torrey is that it is one of the few places in San Diego that polices the pace of play.  Want to play a 5+ hour round on a Saturday morning?  Play somewhere else (anywhere else in San Diego, really).  Even though we were on pace, marshals complained to us about the group ahead of us and even hassled us at one point.

Altogether, Torrey South was a great golf experience.  Having seen the Farmer’s Open and walked the North course a few weeks earlier, I can confidently say that the North course is no slouch, and may be every bit as good as the South, although lacking in history.  However, $240 to WALK the South Course on a Saturday morning at 6:30 AM is hard to swallow, especially knowing the locals are paying $75.  It might be worth it to hit the North course to get the same great experience at a lower price.  Halfway house food was expensive too.  That doesn’t get cheaper for locals.

Overall, I had a great time and am glad I got to play Torrey South, as courses with that much history are few and far between.  However, I am interested to play the North course and see how it stacks up–it may turn out to be a cheaper alternative simply for its name. The course was well maintained, but probably not to the level of a $240 course. For two Franklins and two Jacksons, I expect a course to be pretty near perfect. All in all, I’m very glad I went.

Price: 3
Value: 5
Conditions: 9
Greens: 10
Playability: 8
Views: 9
Staff/Service: 7
Overall: 8

Torrey South Scorecard

First, I would like to extend a sincere apology to our readers for not having posted in such a long time. I have unfortunately been travelling too much to post regularly, but have also accumulated a wealth of other material for reviews that should keep the posts coming through the winter. Now, on to the review!

Today, I review the Course at Wente Vineyards. Wente has been a long time coming for me. I heard about this Greg Norman design course when I moved down to the Bay-Area from the Sacramento area, but I never managed to make it out there because the rack rate was too high and Poppy Ridge was right around the corner. But, in the spirit of reviewing new courses for our readers, I decided to scour Golfnow for the best possible rate and was able to get a discount of $25 from the rack rate of $115 and make it worth my while to check out Wente. By way of comparison: Poppy Ridge (just around the corner – and reviewed here by the PowerFade) is $87 for 27 holes on the weekend at NCGA rates. I have also seen exceptionally good offers at Costco from time to time that bundle Wente with another course that might actually put the price below $90.

Wente does, however, make up for the difference in price with service, facilities, and wonderful conditions. The picture above is a view of the putting and chipping greens that sit next to the largely apportioned clubhouse. These greens were probably the fastest I’ve played in Northern California. I was playing Titleist Pro-v1s because I heard I’d need the extra spin on these greens, and boy, they were not kidding. By way of example, my first pitch shot on the green pictured on the right was from near the tree to the middle pin. The ball hit about 4 feet short of the hole, checked up, and rolled out another 10 feet. With that feel in mind, we head to the driving range.

One of the awkward things about Wente is how far away the driving range is from the rest of the course. The cart ride from the clubhouse to the range took about 7 minutes. The nice thing though, is that the drive is beautiful. The picture above is part of the route between the clubhouse and driving range. The other part meanders through the back nine and heads to the top of a high cliff where the driving range is situated. The range is noticeably more exposed than the rest of the course and probably provides a good sense of the worst of the conditions you will face throughout the day. The view below is from the driving range back down to the course.

Now, for the actual course. Some stats:

Black – 7181 yards – 75.8/145
Gold – 6840 yards – 73.9/141
Blue – 6266 yards – 71.6/131
White – 5637 yards – 68.7/124 or 73.4/130
Red – 4866 yards – 69.4/122

I played this course from the gold tees on a hot, slightly breezy day in August. The course was in phenomenal conditions and the fairways were running out. Even then, however, the course felt much longer than 6800 yards. I found myself hitting much longer clubs into holes because of carries near the green, hazards, or uphill shots. On the back nine, the infamous Livermore wind picked up and really had the last 4 holes playing long as they were straight into the wind. On the last hole, a 457 yard par 4, I hit my best driver of the day to the right fairway and had to hit a perfect 3 wood to get to the front of the green. Fortunately for me, I was able to get up and down for a solid par there while a large wedding party was watching nearby. Some more views:

First Tee – Par 4

Fifth Tee – Par 5

Fifth Fairway – Par 5

Seventh Tee – Par 3

One of the most unique features of this course is “Little Lombard.” This meandering part of the cart path goes up one of the steepest hills I have ever seen on a golf course. The switchbacks that make up this part of the path give the feature its name.

The course was phenomenal. The tee shots provided a very clear view of how to play the hole, and a long, accurate drive was a must to have a chance at getting to the green in regulation. Hitting the rough at Wente meant you were probably hacking back into the fairway. To me, the views on the back nine were not as nice as those on the front, but the holes were more interesting. In particular, I recall the risk-reward 10th. This drivable par 4 (plays much shorter than the yardage) could have you tempting disaster, especially if you are in the middle of a good round. I decided to lay up with a 7 iron off the tee instead of hitting driver or 3 wood, but would consider going for it next time because there was more room behind the green than I thought.

Overall, I would call Wente a great course, but not somewhere I could play every weekend. My main reason for this comment is that the course is not really walkable (see Little Lombard). This is the kind of course where I would play a special round, or bring a client from out of town. From a purely financial perspective, Wente is not your best bet. Poppy Ridge, on any given weekend would provide you with a wonderful 27 hole experience for less than a good rate at Wente. The price does have some advantages. The course play relatively quickly because of lower traffic. I played my round in about 4 hours with a cart. Many notable names play this course often. Jerry Rice is known to frequent Wente regularly, and Annika Sorenstam hosts her charity tournament at this venue each year. In the end, I would not turn down an invitation to play at Wente, but would not think of it immediately for my weekend 7am tee time.

Scorecard: http://www.wentevineyards.com/images/headers/The_Course_Scorecard.pdf

Website: http://www.wentevineyards.com/golf/

Those common readers of our blog know we spend a lot of time playing new courses at locales of travel with the hope of finding a few diamonds in the rough to share with you. While our main goal is to give golfers in our own locales some information about the many local courses in our respective areas, we also like to share our experiences on various travel excursions. One spot that both LG and I have frequented for golf vacations (and vacations in general) is Las Vegas.

Although not ideal from a price point, Las Vegas is a great place to play golf. There are numerous options that give the golfers of the city a chance to get out and see what desert golf (or some variant thereof) is all about. LG and I have reviewed several of these courses (and played several more). And while they all have their own character, they seem to bring different features to the party that is a Vegas vacation.

On my most recent trip, I had a choice between playing Paiute in the afternoon in August or playing Bali Hai in the morning. Given that the temperature was around 110 degrees in the afternoon, I chose to play Bali Hai in the morning.

Bali Hai is one of the iconic courses in Vegas if for no other reason than it is right on Las Vegas Boulevard (aka, “The Strip”). Although other courses are close (i.e., the course at the Wynn), I don’t know of any other courses that are actually addressed on the strip. As such, Bali Hai is a course that gets a lot of play year round if for no reason other than it is convenient to most major resort hotels in Las Vegas. Having heard about this course for years (heck, maybe even decades), I decided it was finally time to play it.

Scorecard at http://www.balihaigolfclub.com/course/scorecard/

Bali Hai is a south-pacific themed course with white sands, exotic flowers, palm trees, rock outcroppings, and various homages to south-pacific architecture and style. The course plays (in my opinion) very short at 7,000 yards, likely because of many elevated tee boxes and thin desert air. For example, my second shots into the four par 5 holes were made with 9-iron (531-yard 2nd), 7-iron (550-yard 7th), 8-iron (518-yard 10th), and 7-iron (550-yard 15th). Even with some long par 4s (482-yard 8th, 484-yard 17th, 486-yard 18th), I had no more than a 7-iron into any green. While the course does have a few tricky drives, there are a lot of opportunities to use the driver (something I don’t see a lot in Atlanta), and there is usually an open side if one side has a hazard or OB.



What this course has going for it is convenience. The price isn’t great (I was getting a deal at $125–the rack rate is over $200), but it’s not as egregious as some other places. For example, the Wynn course is over $500 to play. However, if you’re a person who values proximity, Bali Hai is a great value. For me, I had to play a round of golf in the amount of time my wife was at the spa, so the locale of Bali Hai was worth it for me on this trip. The photos below, showing great views from the 14th and 18th tee boxes, illustrate how close the course is to the Mandalay Bay, with the Luxor seen between the two towers of Mandalay Bay.



As far as Vegas goes, the course is OK. If this course were plopped down in an Atlanta suburb, it would see a ton of play and be voted amongst the best in the city. But in Vegas, it’s so-so. What I liked about the layout was that it had some elevation change. I’ve played a number of courses in Vegas that were so flat you could land a plane on them. Bali Hai has some elevated tees, some uphill shots to greens, etc. It also has good use of water features, with a few creeks, a few greens well-guarded, and a few interesting water hazards with sand leading down into the water.

The staff was friendly and helpful, and I appreciated their attention to detail, helping me in the process from the time I drove up to the moment I left. The course is well-watered, as they understand that the players need to be hydrated to have a good time (something very important in Vegas).

What I didn’t like about this course was the condition. I have to be fair–most courses in the area are pretty bad at the end of August, and Bali Hai (like many others) was about to close for overseeding. That said, the greens are bermuda, which is an immediate strike for me. They were running only 9 on the stimp and had a lot of burnt spots. The bunkers were inconsistent, some as hard as concrete under a thin layer of sand, some like Daytona Beach. The fairways and rough were recently cut, and apparently this world-renowned course does not have a bagging mower, because there were piles of bermuda leaflets everywhere. Also, another seasonal issue, the greens were hard as concrete. I hit two 7-irons into good spots on par 5s and ended up with the ball bouncing over the greens and into depressions that were difficult to chip from.

Further, the range was an oddity. It has a very cool automatically loading tee that allows the player to hit ball after ball without bending down to re-tee. However, the range faces the strip and is no more than 100 yards long. As such, it is entirely enclosed in netting, and your drives are essentially limited to the first 100 yards of travel. I hope you don’t have any late movement the day you play.

Oh, and, speaking of landing planes, the course is RIGHT next to Las Vegas McCarron airport. Being that it’s so close, you can expect to be buzzed multiple times by jumbo-jets bringing in starry-eyed vacationers and transporting drunken/hungover and broke folks out. It actually wasn’t as loud as I expected it to be, but it was distracting for sure.

Altogether, I think the course was nice and certainly suited my needs for the trip. However, I would probably prefer to play Paiute or Rio Secco next time I make it out, as I’ve heard great reviews on both.

Price: 7/10
Value: 7/10
Experience: 7/10
Condition: 6/10 in August
Course Accommodations: 8/10
Cache: 9/10
Overall: 7/10. Good to say I’ve played it, but won’t be back until I’ve played a few others or if I need to play quickly.

This review has been a long time in the making. For anyone in the Northern California Area, do yourself a favor and take a day to check out Poppy Ridge in Livermore, CA. (Note, Poppy Ridge is distinct from Poppy Hills in Monterey, CA – we have also reviewed that course here.)

Poppy Ridge has fast become one of my favorite facilities in the East Bay. Given the general lack of good public golf in the peninsula, I have had to venture out to find good courses. I need look no further than Poppy Ridge. The facility has 3 championship nines, full driving range and short game facilities, and award winning clubhouse. Moreover, in this area, the deal is hard to beat. NCGA members (if you’re not and you live in NorCal, what are you doing!?) get significant discounts on merchandise and tee times, as well as a free club fitting every year. The NCGA price to play 18 is $72 for Early and Prime times on the weekend, with an additional 9 for $20, or $32 for 18. In my estimation, for the quality of golf, speed of play, and ease of booking, there is no better deal than 27 or 36 at Poppy.

 

The facility has 3 distinct nines – Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Merlot. (Scorecard). All were designed by Rees Jones. From the tips, the nines are about the same length, with Merlot claiming the award for “longest nine” at 3593 yards. As their names suggest, each nine has a slightly different character. Chardonnay is the most “interesting” of the nines. The first green is one of those that appears to have an elephant buried under it. The second is a risk-reward par-4 that appears driveable, but in my experience really is not. Zinfandel shows slightly more teeth than Chardonnay with tighter driving areas and smaller greens. Merlot is the most exposed and strategic of the nines. The wind that is familiar to those who play in the East Bay really becomes a factor on this nine. Only the 7th hole provides a respite from the wind as it down in a valley between the 6th and 8th.

In my experience, all three nines are generally open for play, with tee times split between the nines so that no groups are really waiting on any others. This fact, In and of itself, this is the best reason to play Poppy, and the reason that I was hesitant to even write this review 🙂

 

A quick story – The par-5 8th hole on the Zinfandel course is one of those holes that has taught me a good lesson about being aggressive. Normally, I play this hole as a 3 shot hole even though I am generally within “3 wood range.” The last time I was out there, I had a nice tail wind and felt confident with my 3 wood given that I had just hit a solid 3 wood on the last par 5. I took a good swipe and ended up hooking the shot more than I had intended. The ball drew slowly and inexorably toward the hazard stakes over the creek. After muttering my usual string of swear words, I walked over to the hazard and found the ball sitting up in the deep rough. From here, I played my third to a bunker to avoid the possibility of hitting the creek and was able to get up and down for a par with a decent bunker shot. The point, i suppose, is that I gave myself a shot at a great score on the hole and was able to save a solid par after getting into a particularly bad position on the approach. My takeaway – be aggressive.

 

All in all – Poppy is a fantastic track. Not having to wait on a tee box, 27 championship holes, great facilities, a decent burger at the turn, and pretty solid golf conditions year round…What else could you possibly ask for? Join the NCGA and go play!