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Southern California golf on a budget

torrey pines aerial
Torrey Pines is just one of So Cal's public gems

TORREY PINES, Calif. – In the name of full economic disclosure, there is nothing – short of people-watching and road rage – that can be done inexpensively in Southern California. The area from Los Angeles to San Diego dominated a recent Forbes magazine list of most expensive zip codes, regional gas prices ($2.09 per gallon) rank well above the national average and San Diego Padres ticket prices ($27.43) ranked 12th out of 29 teams in 2008, this for a team that hasn’t won a post-season series since 1998.
So it went that the notion, if not the execution, of a Southern California golf odyssey would require something resembling the GDP of a small Caribbean nation.
That’s not to say the idyllic landscape that stretches from the Mexico border into the OC is devoid of quality golf. Far from it, La Costa Resort, long a Tour staple, offers architectural variety and lavish accommodations. Nearby Four Seasons Resort Aviara is a pleasing mixture of comfort golf and rolling vistas, and no national ranking is complete without the classic likes of Los Angeles’ Riviera and Bel-Air country clubs or Santa Barbara’s Valley Club of Montecito.
Yet, without the means, or an accommodating member, it would take a federally funded bailout to enjoy Southern California’s “A list” offerings. Or at least it seemed until Jamie Mulligan, the director of golf at Virginia Country Club in Long Beach, mused: “You could start in LA, play Recreation Park, Pelican Hill, Torrey Pines, all the way back to Tijuana Country Club. You could have an amazing golf trip and do it pretty reasonably.”
From Mulligan’s soulful insight was born the idea of SoCal on a budget. Start in downtown San Diego, play Coronado Municipal Golf Club – considered by many the hidden gem in the Southern California haystack – and Balboa Park Municipal Golf Club before hopping the regional rail line, “The Coaster,” to points north.
Located on the south side of the Coronado hardly 15 minutes from San Diego International Airport, the muni opened in 1957 and, at least from a pricing standpoint, never progressed. Advanced tee times are $38, $25 if you want to take your chances for a walk-up round. For the truly cost conscience, twilight rates top out at $13, that’s without a golf cart but includes all the sweeping views of San Diego Bay one can manage.
“(Coronado) has seven holes right on the bay and the fairways are always in great condition,” said Jon Law, a former Tour rep and life-long San Diego native. “It’s harder to get on than Torrey Pines, but it’s worth it.”
Before jumping on The Coaster – fares are $5 and include up to two hours of transfers – enjoy a quick nine at Balboa Park. Green fees are slightly higher and the views not as engaging, but no tour of Southern California golf is complete without at least a taste of Balboa and its dramatic 18th hole, dubbed by some the original cardiac hill.
The Coaster starts slow, like a Coen Brothers movie, winding east, away from the Pacific Ocean, out of downtown and through the northern suburbs before wheeling left just past Miramar Marine Corps Air Station and into the heart of Southern California golf – Torrey Pines.
The Solana Beach stop is about three miles past the seaside muni, but the ride back down Old Highway 101 and the anticipation of visiting the historic pitch is worth the double back.
Asked once his favorite among Torrey’s twin gems, Tour player and Southern Californian Charley Hoffman didn’t hesitate: “The old South (Course, before the 2001 Rees Jones makeover) and the new North.”
If Jones’ redo of the South is of the Extreme Makeover variety, the North has undergone only slight alterations since William Bell unveiled it in 1957. The subtle nip/tucks play well with the locals and the hired guns who assume the run of the place early each Tour season for the Buick Invitational. The North may be one of the shortest on Tour (6,874 yards) and easiest (the North ranked 34th out of 54 courses in 2008 with a 71.542 stroke average), but its postcard views and classic qualities make it a favorite for part-timers and play-for-pay types.
“It’s kind of sad, my course is a parking lot right now,” lamented Brandt Snedeker, who carded a back-nine 27 (he started on No. 10) on the North seven rounds into his Tour career in 2007, during last year’s U.S. Open which was played on the South layout.
Snedeker’s “parking lot” was a reference to the amount of infrastructure built on the North Course during last year’s U.S. Open. But the layout has rebounded quickly and was back in the Buick rotation less than seven months after Tiger Woods made history with his 14th major championship.
“The golf course operations staff did a phenomenal job (on the North Course),” said Tom Wilson, the Buick Invitational tournament director. “We had planned to reopen the North on Nov. 1, but by Sept. 1 we were able to reopen all 18. It just kept getting better and better.”
Overnight in Del Mar, the center of the North County area and home to two of the region’s best watering holes, The Brigantine, located on the edges of the Del Mar Race Track and home to the must-try fish taco, and Jimmy O’s, a second home for many caddies Buick week.
Oceanside is at the extreme north end of the county and convenience, almost as much as curiosity, drives the traveler off the train and seven blocks inland to Center City Golf Course at Goat Hill. Only semi-affectionately dubbed “The Goat,” Center City lays claim to the title of San Diego’s oldest course and for just $12 a player can cover an interesting, if not a tad dated, layout.
San Juan Capistrano is the first stop in the OC and the first deviation from the blue light tour. Monarch Beach Golf Links in Dana Point is a few miles, and more than a few dollars, off the itinerary, but a justifiable indulgence.
Monarch Beach is pricier than any other stop, with rates ranging from $85 to $190 for weekday times, and the golf demands full concentration throughout, but the views are worth the cost to your budget and psyche. The Robert Trent Jones Jr. design features some of the best on-course ocean scenery this side of Cypress Point and a pair of thinking man’s golf courses that eschew today’s bomb-and-gouge mentality.
The final stop on the SoCal leg is Long Beach and the William Bell-designed Recreation Park Golf Course. Although non-descript at first blush, the “Big Rec” is every bit the classic muni of Torrey Pines or Bethpage in New York. For $30 players can walk the same fairways that produced the prolific likes of Tour twentysomethings John Mallinger and John Merrick.
Long before Paul Goydos sported a Long Beach “Dirtbags” hat at last year’s Players Championship, he was a member of the Recreation Park men’s club, winning the club championship in 1981, ’84, ’85, ’86 and ’88. The two-time Tour winner is still a member of the men’s club and can be found combing its well-used fairways.
“If you told me I had to pick one course to play I’d put on some jeans and head to Recreation Park,” Mulligan said. “They have Poa greens and holes that go right and left. It’s just fun golf.”
The golf – like so many SoCal bargains – can be affordable as well, but Mulligan didn’t have to add that.