An Epic California Golf Road Trip

It’s approaching high noon, and it’s clear that the upcoming duel will be severely one-sided. It’s me against U.S. Open host Torrey Pines South, and a couple of minutes before my 12:00 p.m. tee time, the starter says the rough is a healthy five inches and even locating balls is problematic. “If you can’t find it,” he says, “no problem. Just drop one—no penalty.” The rough did leave me feeling as though I were wielding a bag full of pea shooters. Hacking the ball 100 yards up the hole was a feat—I had never played a course with such a punitive setup. And the U.S. Open was still three months away, plenty of time for the U.S. Golf Association to continue to arm the 7,607-yard layout.

Despite the difficulty, the appeal of playing a U.S. Open course has packed the tee sheet. It has lured customers like John and Bev from Pennsylvania. They had driven by several times on previous trips before deciding to play because of the U.S. Open.

But the rough made for some ridiculous scenes. Bev’s ball of choice was a Precept—in both pink and yellow. On the par-5 9th, she teed off with a pink model, which she pulled into the rough. She couldn’t find it, so she dropped a yellow one. She eventually holed out with the same-color ball she started with, but had to switch colors three times in between.

There were other muni-golf scenes you won’t find at the Open. From my room at the Lodge at Torrey Pines next to the 18th green, I watched several groups finishing. At least one player from each foursome hit into the pond guarding the green. And nearly every one of them went after it with a ball retriever. That just doesn’t happen at a place like Shinnecock Hills.

A ball retriever is a quintessentially muni accessory, and I applaud the USGA for awarding the Open to Torrey. The act is almost enough to excuse the rough.


1,498 Miles
Torrey Pines was the starting point of a California road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway that ended in Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, more than 600 miles away. But much as I zigged, zagged and backtracked in search of balls in Torrey Pines’ rough, my actual route was far from direct. I logged 1,498 miles, enjoying the new and noteworthy courses, food and sights of the California coast. Robert Louis Stevenson has received credit for calling the Monterey Peninsula the most felicitous meeting of land and sea in creation, but the description is perfectly apt for just about any stretch of the coast.

It also applies to Torrey’s cliffside 483-yard 4th. With full marks in both beauty and beast ratings, the 4th ranks with oceanside par 4s like Pebble Beach’s 8th and Pacific Dunes’ 13th.

Torrey occupies a former army base, and the luxurious Lodge has replaced the barracks. Evoking a strong sense of place, the California Craftsman-style hotel only could be in the Golden State, the way the Breakers is out of place anywhere but Palm Beach, Florida.

The USGA will take over the Lodge during the Open, and after a tough day of torturing the field, the blue blazers can reward themselves with a meal at A.R. Valentien. If they’re half as savvy about food as they are at growing rough, the game’s guardians will have the tuna carpaccio starter. Given the proliferation of fusion cuisine, raw tuna—tataki, tartare, carpaccio—has become about as commonplace as shrimp cocktail. I was skeptical, reluctantly assenting when the waiter suggested the carpaccio. But chef Jeff Jackson has taken the dish to another level.

It would have been great to live like a USGA committee member for a couple more days, but the schedule was tight and it was time to move up the coast.

Pelican Brief
I pulled out of Torrey Pines and turned north. The worst aspect of road trips is the driving itself, so it was nice to have companionship for the first half. Mike and I have been friends since junior high, but he is useless as a navigator. He has such a bad sense of direction that he has gotten confused on New York City’s street grid. So what, you say. A lot of people have.

He lives there.

If my opinion seems harsh, it’s payback for when we were on the same youth-league basketball team. Mike was the point guard, and no matter how open I was, my only chance of touching the ball was a rebound off one of his heaves.

Long-standing grudge or no, Mike’s sense of direction is hopeless.

No matter. The idea was that we would be fine as long as we kept the Pacific Ocean to our left. Along the way, there were plenty of sights, both natural and artificial. (It is California, after all.) If we stopped at every interesting sight, the trip would have taken months. So we decided to make only crucial detours: for golf and food—preferably outdoors with ocean views. We were also in search of local fare—breakfast burritos, fish tacos and In-N-Out Burger, the cult-favorite fast food chain.

Pelican Hill Golf Club in Newport Coast met all the requirements. Its Ocean North and Ocean South courses re-opened late 2007 with a new clubhouse after a renovation by Tom Fazio. In addition to unseen work like adding an advanced, environmentally friendly water system, Fazio opened up vistas of the Pacific Ocean from both layouts.

Ocean South is closer to the water; Ocean North, which we played, is higher on the hill and provides better views. One of the most memorable holes is the 411-yard 14th, which has a skyline green that from the fairway seems to extend to the horizon like an infinity edge pool.

The course re-opening is the first step of the Resort at Pelican Hill, scheduled to open in the fall with 204 rooms and suites, as well as 128 villas. If the new clubhouse is any indication, the Resort at Pelican Hill will rival California’s top resorts. The centerpiece of the clubhouse is the Pelican Grill. After a morning round, we enjoyed lunch on the terrace, a setting that added to the enjoyment of the California cuisine like spicy tortilla soup.

Until the resort opens (and even afterward), visitors can stay at the nearby Island Hotel, also owned by the Irvine Company.

Sideways Country
North of L.A. is the first hint of rugged coastline. California has numerous beaches, but most were sparsely used, even on a nice day that anywhere else would have beaches teeming with pale humanity.

But in California, there seems to a sense of entitlement about the water. Locals don’t see a day at the beach as a stolen moment but a birthright. It even happened to us. At first, we would stop at nearly every turnout, gawking at the meeting of water, rocks and hills. But when it is a neverchanging background, we became inured to its beauty.

Civilization breaks up the scenery, and Santa Barbara is a must-stop. Civic pride sometimes results in dubious slogans—Eau Claire, Michigan: cherry pit spitting capital of the world—but it’s hard to argue with Santa Barbara’s claim: most beautiful downtown in America.

With its Mission Revival architecture, the shops and restaurants of State Street are best explored on foot. Santa Barbara’s main thoroughfare provides plenty of allure, but the real charm of State Street lies in the courtyards and alleys that hold a sense of mystery and romance. During my first visit, I pictured Santa Barbara as the setting for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.

There is plenty of golf in the area, but only Sandpiper Golf Club sits on the ocean. Of its five waterside holes, the best is the 532-yard 13th, which requires a heroic carry to reach the green in two. But the risk may be worth it, because like the 15th at Augusta National, the downhill lay-up area requires a perfectly judged wedge.

As a twosome, we sped through the front nine before being held up on the 12th tee, where we joined Steve, a regular. On the final tee, we asked Steve for a dinner recommendation. He suggested Beachside Bar Cafe, down the road.

I rarely take course recommendations, but welcome dining tips. I’ve wasted days of my life deciding where to eat; this way, there is somebody to blame if the food is bad.

Mike wasn’t so sure. He is a big fan of Sideways, the movie about a similar road trip, through the area’s wine country. He wanted to go to Hitching Post II, which plays a key role in the movie. So our choices were a place where an actual person had enjoyed many meals and another glorified by a character in an overindulgent movie.

Despite my ambivalence toward the movie, I wasn’t entirely against the idea—what if the waitresses were really like Virginia Madsen? But I was starving and the Hitching Post was more than half an hour away. So we compromised: dinner at Beachside, which turned out to be a fine choice, followed by a stop at the Hitching Post for a glass of wine.

It turned out that the Post closed at 9:30 (we got there at 9:37), which seemed to be the norm for the area. We were a long way from fast-paced Southern California—as we moved up the coast, galleries and bistros gave way to souvenir shops and barbeque joints.

The next morning, we had an early round at Monarch Dunes in Nipomo. Routed through eucalyptus groves and a community called the Woodlands, the layout offers a reward for Central Coast visitors smart enough to venture north from Santa Barbara. The most alluring holes are the 13th through 15th, two par 4s followed by a long par 3. With a minimalist look, ragged bunkering and undulating greens, the stretch was reminiscent of Bandon Trails.

Despite the setting, I was in a foul mood afterward. For years, I had been a far better player than Mike. But recently, he had worked hard on his game while I had gotten worse. I would help him with tips, advice and encouragement—in golf, our relationship was that of mentor and protégé—and I would find myself spotting him fewer strokes every time we played.

By this trip, he was playing the best golf of his life, and it was better than the worst golf of mine. After winning at Torrey, I was swept—straight up, no less. Instead, my triumphs came in the radio game; I ruled the ’80s one-hit wonders category, highlighted by the naming of “Safety Dance” by Men without Hats.

Far from being a proud mentor of a protégé’s success, I was stewing. Until now, my deteriorating game hadn’t bothered me enough to actually improve it. We will plan another golf trip this summer, and I’ll be ready.

As I sulked, we drove through Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay before entering a no man’s stretch—mile after mile of natural coastline in the world, broken up by one of the most impressive dwellings in the world: Hearst Castle.

William Randolph Hearst wasn’t a golfer, but he set a couple of examples for today’s golf developers. Had he built a course on scale with his vacation residence atop the “Enchanted Hill,” Steve Wynn would have felt that his unlimited budget for Shadow Creek was too small. In addition, Hearst showed that guests would travel to the most remote places if the payoff was impressive. Indeed, that’s what Mike Keiser found with Bandon Dunes.

My thoughts then turned petty. To see the entire property, visitors must take five different tours, a total of $126 during peak season. It seemed incongruous to spend so much just to gawk at a publishing tycoon’s part-time home. Hearst was an art collector—wouldn’t selling a couple of pieces subsidize the tour prices? Feeling ripped off, I resolved to cancel my subscription to Hearst Corporation’s O, The Oprah Magazine when I got home.

Much about California has changed in the decades since Hearst received guests like Errol Flynn, but this stretch of coastline has remained unsullied. This is especially so in Big Sur, where the two-lane road winds, climbs and dips as it follows the coast. It is necessary to slow down, so allow for plenty of time, especially if you’re trying to get to a tee time at Pebble Beach.

Pebble vs. Torrey
After miles of mountains plunging into the sea, the Monterey Peninsula emerged like a mirage through the marine layer sitting along the coast. With the possible exception of the Hamptons on Long Island, no area in the world contains such a concentration of golf in its most highly evolved form.

The most famous course is Pebble, which will host its fifth U.S. Open in 2010. Pebble and Torrey would seem to have plenty of similarities: along the Pacific, open to the public, U.S Open site. But the experience of playing each is quite different.

At Torrey, you feel like a spearholder in an epic opera celebrating public golf. The prima donna is the game itself, along with the millions of everyday folks at its foundation.

At Pebble, you are the headliner, and the spotlight shines upon you from the 1st tee to the 18th green as you navigate one of golf’s most rarified grounds. The day is about celebrating your game and your achievements, so go ahead and bask: You’ve earned it.

As we watched several groups on Pebble’s 543-yard 18th, we noticed not a single pull cart or ball retriever. Instead, there were plenty of shirt logos and bag tags to impress, and no doubt, one of Pebble’s three shops would add to the collection.

But there is plenty more to the area than golf. In Carmel, we noticed a fitting road-trip sculpture. Anyone who has looked for license plates from different states on drives would be interested in the map of the U.S. made up of license plates at the Hanson Gallery.

Bibliophiles should check out Cannery Row in Monterey. No longer a working sardine factory, it was the setting for John Steinbeck’s eponymous novel. Cannery Row’s fishery, bar and whorehouse have been replaced by hotels, wine tasting rooms and an aquarium, but the legacy of Steinbeck, who grew up in nearby Salinas, as well as a bit of the grit described in his novel, remain.

To varying extents, all road trips pay nods toSteinbeck’s Travels with Charley and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. And any mention of the Beat Generation must lead to San Francisco.

The Naked Truth
I had lost the services of my navigator by the time I reached San Francisco. So Lawrence Donegan, golf writer of England’s Guardian, joined me at Harding Park, the city’s premier muni.

Lawrence had just moved back to the area after living in his native Scotland for several years. During his previous posting in the Bay Area, he had played Harding often and spoke glowingly of the course, proudly pointing out that his finest round ever had been a 76 in the San Francisco City Championship. Funny how munis tug at the heart and instill a sense of nostalgia the way no private club can.

Whether it’s Dan Jenkins recalling cross-country gangsomes at Goat Hills in Fort Worth, Texas, Lee Trevino developing all the shots at Dallas’ Tenison Park, or Rick Reilly finding inspiration at Ponkapoag outside Boston for the fictional Ponkaquogue in his novel Missing Links, munis have provided plenty to golf’s grand oeuvre.

But munis, even those as refined as Harding Park, aren’t without quirks, and a friend had warned me about poor service and slow play. Teeing off at 7:30 a.m., we had no problems with either. The starter was friendly; on the 6th hole, a marshal came by to ask us whether one of us had dropped a headcover on the previous hole, pointing to a black object through the trees. In fact, the furry mass had been a dead skunk, which is what we told him. Laughing, he went off to investigate.

San Francisco similarly has first-rate parks and beaches. After the round, I visited windy Baker Beach at the Presidio. It was surprising to happen upon a photo shoot—a woman in a bathing suit posing on the rocks with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

I soon learned that at certain times of the year, she would have been overdressed. Bold residents use a portion of the coast as a nude beach. Didn’t Mark Twain observe that the coldest winter he had spent was a summer in San Francisco? But a park employee said September and October were warm, and the nudists often build shelters among the rocks.

Later, I checked, and found that the average high temperature in September is 71 degrees—still seems pretty cold to be walking around in the buff. On the walk back to my car, it started raining. Although there were passengers in the car parked next to mine, I eschewed modesty and changed into dry clothes. Given what else goes on at this beach, I figured the odds of being charged with indecent exposure were slim.

Having evaded arrest, I went to the SoMa (South of Market) neighborhood and one of my favorite eateries, a small French bistro called Fringale. Besides the food, what I like about the place is that it has the friendliest French waiters—neither oxymoron nor backhanded compliment. They are funny and genuinely helpful.

Chef Tripp Mauldin asked about the trip (no pun intended), and said that a chef friend had been hired at Pelican Hill. Small world.

For the Birds
Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, I headed to Bodega Bay, a tourist destination that was the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Our avian friends were well behaved at the Links at Bodega Harbour, which overlooks the town, but that may have been because they were grounded by the wind gusting across the exposed layout. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., Bodega Harbour touts itself as a links-style layout. Normally, the oceanside setting and rolling topography would bestow credibility to such claims, but the houses lining nearly every hole is far from links-like.

Still, aside from the fear of breaking a window with a wayward tee shot—signs were emphatic that golfers would be responsible for damage caused—the course was plenty playable in the wind. Playing as a single, the round was a great way to reflect on the past week—the golf, the food, the natural scenery that is impossible to articulate in words or even pictures. The only way to appreciate the California coast is to see it in person.

Although Bodega Bay was as far north as I would get this time, it wasn’t the end of the line. I hear that the coastline of Oregon is just as spectacular, if not more so. So who knows? Maybe there is a part two of the Pacific coast voyage: the road to Bandon Dunes.