Golf Day Trip: San Clemente Muni

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While playing Monarch Beach last spring, I received a course recommendation from two Orange County playing partners that stuck with me: the municipal course at San Clemente.

I had been in California for eight months and that one was new to me, even though I’d played in the San Clemente area before.

“Ocean views, great value and a course that will surprise you,” they said. Intrigued, I filed it away for future exploration.

Well, on Monday, I realized my afternoon was open and decided it was a good day for a break from my regular course rotation and recalled San Clemente muni.

What I discovered was a course that fit what I was told to a T and certainly exceeded my expectations. I’ll definitely be back and want to relay to you a little of what makes this course special.

For this feature, I’ll suspend the course review format and just give you an overview, some course history and a few hole highlights.

The course begins in a very familiar muni-style – wide, straight, flat – for the first five holes, but then gradually morphs into a different course and ultimately a drastically different, and unexpected, experience on the back.

I was fortunate to walk on with two playing partners who were very familiar with the course and its history, which I knew very little prior of to Monday.

Here’s a little of the history, courtesy of the course’s web site:

The San Clemente Golf Club has long been a favorite of Southern California golfers. Built by renowned Golf Course Architect William “Billy” Bell on land donated by city founder Ole Hanson, the course consisted of nine holes on opening day in 1930, with what is now the back nine being added in 1955.

         Municipally owned and operated since its inception, the San Clemente Golf Club is aptly known as the “Pride of the Pacific.”

The golf course boasts sweeping ocean views, interesting elevation changes, a challenging-yet-fun layout reminiscent of the golden age of golf, and best of all, reasonable green fees.

         The moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean ensures frost-free winters and cool summer breezes. Popular from its very beginning, San Clemente now hosts roughly 95,000 rounds per year, making the “muni” one of the most popular courses anywhere.            

Those familiar with California golf architecture will recognize William Bell, the designer of many California public courses, including, most notably, Torrey Pines.

Like I said, the first five holes are fairly straightforward, but then you get to six, which is a dogleg right, uphill par-4. It’s the first time you really have to work the ball and, well, being in the trees on the left, I had my work cut for me.  This hole finishes next to the clubhouse and then you cross the road and discover three holes that foreshadow the experience you get on the back.

There’s an uphill par-5 going out that plays longer than the 485 on the card, and then you’re pointed back toward the coast and get your first true glimpse of the ocean. It provides the backdrop for a whole lot of golf hole – a 419-yard par-4 into an ocean breeze and buffeted by bunkers. Given what you’ve played up until now, it’s a bit jarring to be faced with such a stiff test, but it serves notice that the course plans to challenge you from here on out.

The front nine closes with a terrific little 165-yard (from the blues) par-3 with an undulating green, different than what you’ve mostly played up to know and more like what you’ll find on the back. I underestimated the wind here and flew the green, leaving me a delicate pitch back that stopped well below the hole. (Note: The greens became deceivingly quick on the second nine. Our group didn’t drop many putts.)

Previewing the back, one of my playing partners told me, “You’ve got some very special golf holes coming up.” And after three holes that were more reminiscent of the start of the course, he was right.

Here’s a hole-by-hole of 13 to the finish (yardages from the blue tees):

No. 13, 205-yard par-3: You’ve got the ocean breeze at your back as you stand looking at a fairway that’s steeply sloped on the left side and will kick your ball right. I hit what felt like a flushed 5-iron and came up short. Apparently the hole plays a bit long, too.

         No. 14, 304-yard par-4: Yes, you read that right – 304, seemingly a baby par-4, or is it? Hardly. The whole plays dead uphill through a somewhat narrow fairway to a green surrounded by bunkers. Play for placement here. Iron or hybrid off the tee and then get ready for an approach to a green that slopes away from you. Not all what you’d expect from just looking at the scorecard and the beginning of a golf roller-coaster ride to the finish.

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No. 15, 196-yard par-3: An elevated par-3, and the course’s signature hole. And what a view. Again, ocean breeze at your back and gorgeous green and palm trees below. I decided not to club down here and didn’t regret it. I needed every yard and found a little bail-out area right for an up-and-down par. Part of the reward for reaching the green here is that you get your first fully panoramic view of the ocean. And it’s stunning.

No. 16, 387-yard par-4: The trickiest tee shot on the back as it’s a dog-leg left with a huge cluster of trees blocking the middle of the fairway. You can glimpse the green to the left. You choices: Carry a chasm 250 yards and try to get close, or hit it out right and play safe but have a long approach.

What you don’t see from the tee is the drastic drop off in the middle of the fairway. You need to layup to about 150 yards to avoid having a downhill lie to an elevated green. A lot going on here. Choose wisely.

No. 17, 358-yard par-4: The back closes with parallel par-4s. As is often my fate with parallel holes, I found the opposite fairway and ended up chopping out of thick grass. Thus, I recommend hitting the fairway here and taking the easy road on this uphill hole.

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     No. 18, 408-yard par-4: You close your round with the ocean on your right and the clubhouse in the distance, a fantastic finishing panorama. It’s a great finishing hole that slopes downhill at around 150 yards to reward big hitters. Provides a great chance for a finishing birdie if you sink that last slick putt.

Since we teed off around 2, when walked off, the sun was setting behind San Clemente Island, which you can get a glimpse of from the practice putting green. It was the last beautiful surprise in a round full of them. I truly enjoyed my round here and will surely be back.

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