Highlight Hole: No. 12 at Eagle Crest

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Photo courtesy of Eagle Crest General Manager Mark Hayden

If you’ve played Eagle Crest Golf Club in Escondido in the past but haven’t been in a while, you’ll notice some changes when you return.

Since coming under new management late last year, Eagle Crest has embarked on some course-improvement projects, mostly involving reworking tee boxes and bunkers.

To date, the most significant change you’ll notice is around the green on the par-5 12th.  What used to be a sizable and steep sand trap on the left has been converted into a water hazard, returning the hole to its original design.

From a playing perspective, it raises the risk when thinking about going for this green in two on a hole that plays to 529 yards from the blues and 514 from the whites.

Granted to do that, you’ll have to get off the tee box in decent shape first, which is a stumbling block for many.

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Tee shot on 12

From the blues, the tee shot looks narrower than it actually is. That said, your best bet is to favor the left side as the right side of this fairway is tree-lined and mounded. You’ll either likely have an uneven lie or be hitting a knockdown if you end up there.

The second advantage of the left side is that it’s bowled a bit to keep errant tee shots in. I used that to my advantage on Sunday and was sitting about 260 out. That’s not ideal “go” range here especially when hazards lurk left (water) and right (traps) and there’s plenty of room to lay up short to a green with a very narrow opening.

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The look on your second – notice you can’t see the water on the left yet

I hit a rescue to within about 90 yards and then had no trouble hitting wedge to the back of the green and making par.

This hole comes in the middle of a very score-able stretch of the golf course, being preceded by a short elevated par-3 and being followed by a short par-4.

When deciding how much you want to push it on No. 12, you’ve got something new to consider that’s more penal than before.

I’m guessing the course’s flock of wood ducks will like the hole’s new design more than you will if you miss left.

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Fearsome Foursome: The Demanding Par-5s of Maderas

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The view from the 18th tee at Maderas

The majority of the par-5s in Southern California are of the grip-and-rip variety that after two solid shots either result in a putt or short pitch for eagle or birdie and you usually end settling for par.

Not so at Maderas.

As a group, the par-5s at Maderas Golf Club in Poway require more precision, strategy and execution than any other group of 5s in So Cal. I’m open to other candidates, but right now this is my pick.

You don’t settle for par on Maderas’ par-5s; you savor them.

If you haven’t played Maderas, it’s a public course with country club amenities located just off the 15 past Rancho Bernardo Inn. It garnered a top 100 ranking among U.S. public courses by Golf Digest for the first time in 2013.

To quote the course’s own yardage book, “Maderas golf club is quietly tucked away amidst the rolling hills of north San Diego … (It) offers a unique combination of golf course strategy and design mastery, while taking the concept of upscale golf to exhilarating levels.”

Maderas is love at first sight to a golfers’ eyes but that design mastery can induce initial misery without a little guidance. It especially takes a few rounds to learn how to properly club the highly strategic front nine. The back nine is more open, but distance becomes the challenge as the course lengthens out considerably.

But the meat of Maderas is the par-5s, all of which incorporate a carry either off the tee or to the green. In that way, Maderas is like the Crossings, the difference being you can get away with a mistake at the Crossings more so than Maderas.

So here’s a look at a group of great par-5s that test you off the tee and then are likely to give most of your bag a workout. We’ll offer a few strategies along the way that at the least might keep you in play, which is a victory unto itself at Maderas. (Note: Yardages are given from the blue tees, fitting the 10-handicap perspective of this blog.)

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No. 3, par-5, 540 yards

The yardage book says: “Inspired by nature, this is the first of several elevated tee boxes. On the second shot, lay back of the creek safely leaving a short-iron approach.”

My take: This hole is golf’s answer to bumper bowling. As long as you don’t go extreme left or extreme right, a bowled fairway will not only keep you in play but probably bring you back to center. In that sense, this is the easiest of the par-5s. It’s also the only one that’s downhill start to finish.

Less than driver will do off the tee if that helps you hold the fairway. You’re unlikely to get home in two on your second so be smart. Going for it on your second will likely land you in the ravine that’s waiting for you about 120 yards out from the hole.

I know because that was my fate once after ripping a 3-wood. I found my ball next to a boulder and made a crazy up-and-down off the boulder that I don’t care to repeat. I’ve learned to take my 6-iron/7-iron layup and like it.

The other likely outcome is carrying the ravine but being right of the green and watching the slope run your ball off into the woods OB. I’ve done that, too.

So take the layup, cozy a wedge in and take your chances on Maderas’ slick roller coaster greens. The opening four holes might be the most score-able stretch on the course if you’ve got your game together. Take advantage by being smart.

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No. 8, par-5, 507 yards

The yardage book says: “The Sycamore and Thompson creeks merge here, so the fairway is a must. Most will use a fairway metal or long iron off the tee. A lofted club for your second shot over the tree will you leave you a short iron to an elevated and tightly guarded green.”

My take: The par-4 5th is the No. 1 handicap. My Maderas member friends think this hole’s tougher.  Either this or the tee shot on No. 16 has to be the toughest tee shot on the course.

Sliding a drive past the tree in the middle of the fairway and keeping it from going OB left is position A, but it’s also a very tight fit. Anything less brings that huge tree into play and will likely leave you to execute some sort of knockdown shot to a narrow uphill fairway to give yourself any kind of look at the green. And anything right into the lake or right of the lake is OB.

If you get your second past the tree, then comes the aforementioned tight approach, which presents OB left and a raised bunker complex on the right. (Have I mentioned yet that par is a very good score here?)

If I hadn’t experienced a par-5 at Dove Canyon that played like hitting it down a high school hallway, this would get my vote for the toughest par-5 I’ve played in SoCal. It doesn’t help that my draw does my absolutely no good off the tee here.

Take the book’s advice here. Obviously I’ve got nothing but bogeys and scars to show for my rounds on this hole.

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No. 14, par-5, 505

The yardage book says: “Blended in native hillsides and natural creek features, use caution when hitting your second shot with a fairway metal or long iron as the ravine can approach quickly. Play an extra club for your third shot as it is uphill and well guarded.”

My take: Don’t believe the yardage here. This hole plays much longer. And if you’re really want to feel what it’s like to have a lot of golf hole on your hands, try it from the 552-yard back tees.

The tee shot isn’t so much the challenge here. I’ve missed this fairway left several times and been able to get back into position. The problem is biting off enough fairway on your second to put you in reasonable position for a very difficult approach over a ball-swallowing canyon.

The green is elevated, thus the extra club, but I advocate one more. You can only afford to be short here if you find the bailout left, which I did last time after going 3-wood/rescue/7-iron.

I still made bogey as my pitch caught up short of the green.

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This is a the first of two long-distance par-5s on the back that don’t give up par, much less birdie, without a fight.

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No. 18, par-5, 555 yards

The yardage book says: “With signature oak trees and dramatic elevation changes, this fairway slopes left to right. A fairway metal or long iron second shot will clear the corner and leave players with a short iron to a well-guarded green.”

My take: What a finishing hole. First of all, the bird’s-eye view of the 18th fairway also provides a glimpse of the back nine, giving you one a stunning perspective and appreciation for the course.

The key to your tee shot is the mature oak tree sitting on the right side at the turn in the fairway. This is your aim line. You ideally want to end of left of it, leaving an ideal angle for your second. Even right of the tree, leaves with you a shot. The sand traps left aren’t crippling for your par chances, but OB left or short is.

I have a witness to testify that I’ve reached this green in two, but it took a flushed 3-wood. With a decent tee shot, a more conservative play will leave you in scoring range and not risking the green-side creek on the right.

After No. 3, I deem this to be the second easiest of the par-5s, but the caveat is the undulating oblong green. Depending on pin placement, you can get some breaks on this green that will simply defy belief. Once you experience it, you’ll know.

But all in all, this hole does what I think a great finishing should do, which is give you a last chance at glory. After stumbling through 14, 15 (tough par-3), 16 (par-4 w/tight tee shot), I’ve often salved my round on 17 (short par-3) and 18.

That’s another reason I’m partial to this hole. It’s shown me a little mercy on a course that doesn’t show you much if game isn’t spot on.

Yet, I still keep coming back hoping to be up to the multiple challenges Maderas’ par-5s throw at you. Maybe next time I will be.

Highlight Holes: Nos. 14, 15, 16 at The Vineyard

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The green view of No. 15

Most courses have a stretch of holes that amount to gut-check time in your round. It can be a series of holes that play tough under certain course conditions, or as a tricky combination, or they could just be hard golf holes.

For instance, the PGA Tour has the Bear Trap, an infamously difficult stretch comprised of a mid-length par-3 over water, a tough par-4 and then another lengthy par-3 buffeted by water at PGA National’s Champions Course in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Combined, it’s 803 yards of heart-stopping golf to negotiate.

Course designer Jack Nicklaus, for whom the stretch is named, once told USA Today about the Bear Trap, “That stretch is about precision. That stretch is about guts.”

Like I said, you can find these stretches on many courses and often in threes. At The Vineyard in Escondido, I regard Nos. 14, 15 and 16 as the stretch where your round is made or gets away.

I look forward to the challenge here every time and while my failures thus far outnumber my successes, especially on the final hole of this group, I at least feel I’ve got a good handle on what it takes to be successful here.

The following is my breakdown on this group of holes, including a few playing tips.

 No. 14, par-4, 412 yards (blues), 381 (whites)

I forget to get a photo of this hole, but it sets up like this: the fairway bubbles out into a crescent-shaped water hazard on your left and the fairway drops off into an OB and trees on your right. If you’re right, you’ll be lucky if a cluster of saving bunkers actually save you. This is the most demanding tee shot on the course. You’re only way home is to hit it straight here into about a 75-yard strip of fairway.

The fairway bottle-necks about 130 yards from the hole, making driver a really risky play. A really big hitter may have carried all this once, but I’ve never seen it, much less done it.

The play is a hybrid or long iron that hopefully leaves you in play and with 150 yards or so to get home. You only take more club than that if you’re really striping it. Otherwise, you’ll be on way your way to the big number than many take here.

Hybrid has long been my play here, but I tried a 4-iron off the tee on Thursday. It hit it solidly down the right side, but I had an undesirable 188 left to get home. With wind at my back, I hit a flush 6-iron that ended up just short and found the front-right sand trip, which is a difficult out. There’s also a sneaky pot bunker lurking back left here.

The biggest bummer on No. 14 is to negotiate the tee shot and then give the hole away in a hazard, which is basically what happened to me Thursday. Normally if I’m at 150 yards or less, I’m looking at a nice number here.

As a sidenote, the homes (mansions) on this hole spectacular, as is the backdrop. This is the last hole played toward the mountain backdrop that gives the back nine a much different feel than the front, besides the back being nearly 400 yards longer and undoubtedly being the tougher of the two nines.

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No. 15, par-5, 551 (blues), 523 (whites)

From the tee, this hole doesn’t look like much. It’s just a straightaway par-5 with a cluster of bunkers on the right off the tee and then another cluster left near the green. The trouble can be what you don’t see: a sometimes stiff head-wind.

Nos. 15 and 16 are normally played into at least a breeze, making them play even longer than their hefty yardages. I’ve never played this course in the morning, but that’s mostly likely the best time to tackle this stretch.

There’s plenty of room off the tee on 15 as it extends into a hilly patch of land behind the 13th green. The trouble with going there, though, is the risk of tricky side-hill lie and possible trees. I find the bunkers on the right more desirable, so I’d favor the right side here and hope you find the middle.

Stringing two decent shots together here will put you in prime position for a birdie, and anything less than par here normally feels like a big letdown – especially since this is the only par-5 on the back and of only two on the course – but I’ve seen it done many times and many ways.

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No. 16, par-4, 453 (blues), 425 (whites)

When the GPS on your cart informs you that this is the No. 1 handicap hole, it does so with an exclamation point – and for good reason.

This is one of my nemesis holes, but I know that I’m hardly alone in that regard. Par is a rare score here and birdies are on the endangered species list.

What’s tough about No. 16? Ummm. Everything?

It starts with a demanding uphill tee shot, often into the wind. Because of the slope, you don’t get much roll-out here and when you hit the fairway, it seems you’re always about 15 to 20 yards short of where you’d like to be.

The second shot is daunting because of a huge sand trap in front and because you may have as much as long-iron or even hybrid in hand if you’re a short-hitter.

I’ve often doubled my fun (heavy sarcasm) here by pushing my tee shot right into a stand of trees and sometimes the 11 fairway. By doing this one day, however, I actually discovered a risky route home that you can actually executive intentionally.

If you go right, through the trees, you catch a sidehill. If you don’t end up tree-trapped, you can end up within about 140 yards of this green on the right side. It’s a much friendlier attack angle than what get in the fairway since you probably take the front trap out of play and you have a sizable green to work with.

I’ve nearly parred the hole this way. I’ve also nearly parred the hole playing straightway. But I’ve ALWAYS bogeyed this hole no matter what. Many people consider bogey victory here, but I’m determined to make par or better at No. 16 in 2014.

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The green view of No. 16

I’ve you had success at No. 16, please post details in the comments and let us take inspiration from your achievement.

I don’t always play it well, but I do really enjoy the back nine at Vineyard and think the downhill par-4 18th is a very cool closing hole. I always look forward to that, especially if I’ve taken my lumps on 14, 15, 16. That stretch seems to need a nickname. The Cellar, perhaps?

 

Highlight Hole: No. 18 at Stoneridge CC

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If you haven’t played Stoneridge County Club in Poway, it’s now publicly available on Mondays at Golfnow.com.

It’s an interesting layout with a distinct split personality. The front nine alternates between rolling and flat terrain while the back features drastic elevation changes on nearly every hole.

Your back-nine roller-coaster ride comes to an end at No. 18, which is a tricky finishing hole for first-timers. The yardage (424 yards from the blues) says driver, but that’s not the play here. This is a pure position hole.

No. 18 is a dog-leg left from an elevated tee with a second shot played to a partial island green buffeted by four towering palms. It’s a great way to finish in that it’s by far the best view of the course, but it’s also a potential birdie hole if you play it right.

The key here is to be middle or right off the tee. Left is dead in that you can end up in a sand trip that rings a cluster of boulders (see photo below), or you could also end up blocked by trees.

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A hybrid or long iron is plenty of club off the tee here since you’ll get a big yardage bump from the downslope. Then it’s a just a short iron into a smallish green with a huge sand trap looming on the right.

As with every hole at Stoneridge, the challenge comes on the green, where you face some of the swiftest green speeds in San Diego County. They were humming along at a 13 the day I played.

The greens are in terrific shape right now while other parts of the course are a little rough maintenance-wise, but you still get the gist of the experience. I’ve cruised through the front nine twice nine while crashing my round on the back nine. Like I said, it’s two very different golf experiences, the second half of which requires a little course knowledge to be successful.

So be prepared to take your licks the first time around, but at least you know what to do now once you reach No. 18. Good luck, if you go.

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View from the tee at 18

The Year in Par-3s, Part III

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Photo courtesy of http://www.sandiegogolf.com

I conclude my three look at 2013’s most memorable par-3s with three more holes that made indelible first impressions.

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No. 3 at Aviara Golf Club (Carlsbad)

As a group, the par-3s at Aviara are the best I’ve played in San Diego County.

They’re a sensational mix of distance, difficulty and beauty. The long uphill par-3 6th is the only one not played over water, and it’s undoubtedly the toughest of the bunch. How often do you say that about a course?

The answer I’m probably supposed to give in this space is No. 11, since it’s the signature hole and certainly botanically beautiful, as almost all of Aviara is.

But I’m going with No. 3, which is plenty gorgeous in its own right, because it was the more memorable hole from personal experience and from attending the LPGA’s Kia Classic.

As you can see from the photo, No. 3 is a short par-3 played to a green, by far one of the smaller ones on the course, with water looming left and right. It can also be water short and right depending on where they put the tee box. This holes has multiple tees that vary how the hole is played tremendously, which is one of the things I really love about it.

I remember walking up on this hole at the Kia and just marveling at it. It’s a short par-3 that is beautifully framed and accented, but this beauty is tougher than it looks.

At the Kia, I watched this hole be feast or feminine for the pros. It’s a terrific tournament hole to watch because you get such a great range of golf.

Personally, I found the water right (Splish!) and then right (Splash!) again the first two times I played it. The third time, my ball finally found the green on the right side, leaving me a devilish downhiller that I nearly sank for birdie.

Amongst my golf friends who play here, No. 3 is one those holes that becomes like soap in the shower: Birdie slips away time after time on this hole even when you think you’ve got it down and know every putt by heart.

Another cool thing about this hole, and the course itself, is that you can really appreciate the change of seasons here. It’s beautiful year round, but, as you can see at top, spectacular when the course is blooming.

You may not par all the par-3s at Aviara, but changes are you won’t have to think too hard to remember them.

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No. 16 at Barona Creek (Lakeview)

I might nickname this hole “The Speed Bump” because it kept from me shooting what should’ve been a pretty nice number on the back nine at Barona twice.

It’s not a long hole – just a shade under 140 yards – but I can’t seem to club it right, and, as you can see, save for leaving it way out left, there’s no good miss here. The myriad of deep bunkers short and long, not to mention the deep native grasses, have the pin here protected like Fort Knox.

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This hole and the one I posted from Wilshire CC have a lot in common, but this one’s tougher.

If I can solve No. 16, I’m confident I can break 40 on the back at Barona as long as the green speeds are reasonable.

I look forward to giving it a go on what certainly was one of my favorite courses this year. I have yet to find a golfer who’s played here who doesn’t speak longingly about going back.

There is a seductive quality about the course and a challenge that, intentionally, always seems just a round away from being met. I plan to meet it in 2014.

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No. 17 at Dove Canyon CC (Dove Canyon)

California is blessed with an abundance of elevated par-3s, so much so that people seem to take them a bit for granted, like par-3s are just born that way. Being from the Midwest, I can tell you they aren’t.

That said, I can’t imagine anyone taking 17 at Dove Canyon for granted.

When you come to the tee on 17, especially the back tees, you can’t help but do a double-take and then just laugh. It looks like you’ve discovered the Grand Canyon of golf. It’s a golf hole that seems a bit preposterous, yet totally great.

You’re so high up that the flagstick stick looks small, like you might be mistaking it for a landscaping stake or something.

It seriously feels like you’re hitting it off a 10-story building. And no matter where you tee it up, I deem it to be about a two-club drop.

From the blue tees, I hit an easy 8-iron that nearly flew the green. I surely could’ve gotten home jumping on a pitching wedge.

But the tee shot is only half the story here. The green has dramatic drop-offs on the front and back. My ball landed beyond that back tier. Figuring I’d have to muscle it up the five-foot rise to get it to the hole, I watched my putt clear the ridge and shoot right past the hole. A two-putt comebacker left me with a bogey.

This is really the kind of hole where you’d love to take a shag bag to the tee and just drop wedges and short irons to see if you could get lucky. It certainly rated as one of the most fun holes of the year.

I also recall that as I walked off the green, I spied a speck of white in the bushes. I plucked out a lost ball stamped “The Olympic Club” – you know, that little place where they played the U.S. Open two years ago?

One of my rules is that you can tell the quality of the course you’re playing by the lost balls you find. And this is the course were I saw the 20 deer.

Yes, Mr. Nicklaus has created quite an experience here. And hats off to you on No. 17.

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The Year in Par-3s, Part II

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My look at the golf year that was continues with a look at another fantastic trio of par-3s.

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No. 3 at Torrey Pines (South Course)

It says it all that when you think of Torrey Pines, this is probably the hole you picture –  unless it’s No. 6 on the North Course, which is its equally incredible ocean-view par-3 counterpart.

Both holes give you that spine-tingling dramatic elevation change. Both holes are played to the stunning Pacific Ocean backdrop. Both holes give you that mesmerizing glimpse of La Jolla in the distance. Both holes also play slow because, well, you just have to take a picture. Have to.

No. 3 gets the nod for the blog this year because we’re not debating which is the better hole. Rather, it’s which one was more memorable to me, and for that I have two moments.

The first came during a practice round for the Farmers Insurance Open. I watched pro Darron Stiles nearly ace the hole. He dropped a shot within 6 inches and then simply turned to his caddie and traded an iron for his putter. There may have been a fist bump, but I know the level of celebration didn’t seem to match to moment. I know it’s their job, but still …

Anyway, there was no such lack of celebration when I dropped my tee shot there to 10 feet in November. An easy 9-iron just cleared the lip of that menacing bunker fronting the green and settled in gently below the hole – a perfect birdie opportunity.

My only regret is that my putt stayed a hair outside. If I could use one retro mulligan for my season, I’d burn it there.

If you want a less adventurous route to par, there’s a significant bail-out area to the right. And left or long is OB.

If you don’t club the tee shot right, it can ugly, which would be a shame on such a gorgeous golf hole. Club down one, trust your swing and you could experience that magical combination of a great golf shot meeting a truly great golf hole.

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No. 6 at Sherwood Country Club (Thousand Oaks)

I gave this hole its own post during Tiger’s World Challenge, so you can look that up if you want to read even more about this one, but you’ll have to look for No. 15 because that’s what it played as during the tournament.

I won’t repeat all of that post here, but I will add a little post-script to that post from the World Challenge.

You can may recall that this hole took a bite out of the pros on Saturday of the World Challenge. Of the 17 players in the field, 11 found the sizeable water hazard in front of the green that day. It turned into one of those golf TV train wrecks you simply can’t take you eyes off of.

Having been there, I have to say that I never saw that coming, but also the wind didn’t blow there the day we played and the commentators said gusts rushing down the mountain baffled the pros all day.

I believe ball No. 11 going in the drink was followed by one of those “boy, that wind really has these guys fooled today” kind of comments from the booth.

Even without the wind, birdie was hard to come by. This green is one of the slickest at Sherwood.

I knocked a 7-iron into the back of the green and then watched my putt turn into a freight train on the down slope. Bye, bye, birdie. Hello, three-putt bogey.

I didn’t feel so bad when I saw that happen to a couple pros.

The day I played, we were in a scramble format and I played his hole on the latter half of the round. After being stunned and amazed over and over, seeing No. 6 for the first time still took my breath away.

Played to the towering backdrop of the Santa Monica Mountains, the way the hole is framed is the complete flip of No. 3 at Torrey, but still entirely awesome.

Several waterfalls feed a group of ponds in the front creating one intricate and fascinating water feature that made the hole an absolute rock star on TV.

I hope I haven’t played this hole for the last time, but if I have, I’ll never forget it.

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No. 7 at Wilshire Country Club (Los Angeles)

During a fairly fantastic two-week stretch of golf, I played Sherwood and Wilshire on consecutive Mondays. Played any time, they would be great, but it was even better the way it worked out because it allowed me to really appreciate the contrast.

Whereas Sherwood is new school golf, Wilshire, established in 1919, is decidedly old school. It’s a shorter course that defends itself very aggressively with an army of rugged bunkers placed anyway and everywhere, many in plain sight, but with some hidden in dastardly places. I half expected to find one lurking in the parking lot after I got done.

So, yes, the bunkers get in your head a little.

I had a full-on case of bunker fatigue by the time I arrived at No. 7 near the end of my round (again, scramble format).

The par-3s at Wilshire are all unique – especially the one with the insanely big two-tiered green – but I picked No. 7, again, because it was the most memorable.

Playing a shade over 140 yards, No. 7 is the shortest of the bunch, but it might be the toughest to birdie. Even with a solid tee shot, the green proved nearly impossible to one-putt.

But to back up a bit to the tee shot, I recall hitting a solid pitching wedge and then absolutely holding my breath during the ball flight, which seemed to last forever. I could tell the caddie and I where thinking the same thing: back bunker.

Instead, my ball hit the back fringe and stuck like it had hit flypaper. Whew!!

That left me a downhill 8-foot slider that was the working definition of touchy. I barely tapped the ball and it never even thought about stopping at the hole. It’s one of those sneaky little putts where if you hit it five times, you might make one. Might.

My three-putt bogey was a bummer, but at least I was spared waging war with the bunkers, unlike my playing partners.

Wilshire is a great course, but it never lets you rest. It made me work for every par that day and only surrendered one birdie despite a bunch of great looks, like on No. 7.

But at least I got to see the Hollywood sign from the course, which certainly ranks as one of the year’s best moments. Hopefully I get to do that again next year.

My par-3 series will conclude with part III, likely on Thursday.

The Year in Par-3s, Part I

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No. 5 at Kapalua’s Bay Course

If you’ve paid somewhat close attention to the blog since it started four months ago, you may have noticed a slight bias toward par-3s.

This isn’t because the blog likes par-4s or 5s any less; it’s more of a visual thing. The overall goal of providing quality content on the blog includes visuals (golf’s a visual game, and perhaps the most visual game, right?), and par-3s just happen to be largely easier to photograph. That’s not to say you can’t make good or even great photos of some 4s and 5s (you can), but par-3s are just a little easier and even the most novice photographer can grasp why.

Anyway, one thing I’ve also noticed about courses is that great ones almost always have great par-3s. When reflecting on my golf season, that’s one thing that occurred to me. I tried to think of my favorite courses throughout the year and in nearly every instance I could easily recall at least one truly outstanding par-3.

And, as we know, par-3s in golf come in all shapes and sizes (legal limit being 275 yards, I believe) and beauty or appreciation can often be in the eye of the beholder (I’ll take a one-stroke cliché penalty there) with an obvious birdie/bogey bias. We don’t tend to the love the holes (or courses) that don’t love us back.

Well, regardless of what ended up on my card, I can say I love all the par-3s I’m about to list.

Since golf is a game of nines, here are nine of my favorite par-3s from the year that, I think, represent the range of what has undoubtedly been the best golf year of my life. I’m going to simply give course, hole number and reflection on these unless the exact yardages are really necessary. I’d like this to be a visual joy ride as much as anything. And there is no attempt to rank here, although my No. 1 is hardly a mystery.

Also, for the purposes of being blog-friendly, we’ll do this in three parts throughout the week.

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No. 5 at the Bay Course, Kapalua (Maui/Hawaii)

We’ll start with the hole of the year, regardless of par or score. The pinnacle of my golf season was standing on this tee box in Maui in July.

No. 5 is the second of the consecutive ocean holes on the front nine and the epitome of golfing on the ocean.

The name Kapalua means “arms embracing the sea” and you rather feel the sea embracing you on this stretch – or trying to blow you off the island depending on the day. Playing out and back on an emerald peninsula, you are completely surrounded by the ocean.

We had a gentle breeze the day we played, and I could’ve stood on this tee box for days. It’s golf heaven, as I currently know it.

If you’ve ever been, or have golfed in a similar tropical scenario, just viewing the photo probably already has transported you there.

But for those who haven’t been …

Yes, the water is that clear, and waves are crashing all around. You may need to zoom in a little to clearly see the pin, but it was in the front of an undulating green where the wacky physics of Hawaii golf are fully in play.

Arnold Palmer did some fabulous work here. I’ve never seen a hole that fits my eye more, and possibly perhaps a little too much.

The seductive quality of the hole, and the lack of a guarantee you’ll ever get back here, makes you want to go for broke and chase the ace of your dreams, risking water or crashing on the rocks into a very serene OB.

My playing partner, who had played here before, thankfully talked me out of it.

“You don’t need to go for the green,” he said. “Play it out left and let gravity take over.”

That proved to be some wise caddying. I hit a smooth 7-iron and watched my ball find the fairway and track right to the fringe of the green. I walked off perfectly content with a two-putt par.

We played a lot of great golf over three rounds in Hawaii, but I didn’t play a more beautiful golf hole than this. It speaks to your golf soul and you spend the rest of your round playing blissfully with your head in the clouds. Bogeys couldn’t dent me the rest of the day.

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No. 17 at Journey at Pechanga (Temecula)

And now for an entirely different kind of “awe” … as in awe-fully hard.

This is the monster par-3 that waits two holes from the finish at Journey at Pechanga. This was the hardest golf hole I played all year, made all the more so by playing it from the tips – 200 yards, all carry, into a mid-afternoon gust. Gulp.

A fairly solidly struck 3-wood never had a chance, although my playing partner, a former teaching pro, reached the horizontal oblong green with a terrific Rescue that just caught the right side.

A course staff member confided that he’ll go here most days and hit one from the back just to see if he can “get lucky.” Yes, this is what a golf lottery shot looks like.

Understandably, this is one of the holes that gives Pechanga its fearsome reputation, but difficulty aside, it’s also one of the holes that gives you views unlike many other places. The four “view” holes on the course highlight a course that is still pretty great when it brings you down from the mountains.

If you descend with a par at 17, you’ll have bragging rights in the bar and grill because it’s doubtful you’ll have much scorecard company.

I need another run at 17 in 2014 and to try it from the blue tees. Put a par here on my wish list for the New Year.

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No. 8 at Royal Links (Las Vegas)

I played Royal Links in February, thus the dormancy, and I was quite stoked to do so.

At the time, I was taking my Golf Course Landscape and Design class at golf school and we had just studied links courses. Royal Links, for those unfamiliar, is a replica course with holes modeled after those in the British Open rotation, all routed around a clubhouse that is built like a castle.

I had played links-like golf before but nothing that aimed to so closely recreate the British experience. I loved this place and walked away with a major appreciation for links-style golf. I can’t wait to do it again.

Until you stand on the tee box of a par-4 with a yardage book in hand that shows 10 scattered fairway pot bunkers, and you see none, you can’t truly grasp the challenge of this style of golf.

The more you know your British Open history, the more you can appreciate Royal Links. For those who don’t know, the stone hole markers that are designed like books are only too happy to clue you in.

This is No. 8, the par-3 taken from Royal Troon nicknamed “The Postage Stamp.” Played at a mere 153 yards from the tips, this is where Gene Sarazen made ace at age 71 in his final British Open appearance.

The photo doesn’t quite do this one justice, but what it doesn’t show is a square bunker off the right side of the green. I recall it clearly because I was in it.

It wasn’t the jail that many British Open bunkers can be, but it was challenge nonetheless, so for a score, let’s just go with “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” shall we?

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         Stay tuned for parts II and III of my par-3 series throughout the week.

        

Highlight Hole: No. 5 at La Costa (Legends Course)

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La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad recently completed a $50 million renovation that included an extensive makeover of both 18-hole championship golf courses.

I was part of a media contingent on Tuesday that was the first to play the renovated Legends Course (formerly the South Course). You might recall the South from its days of hosting the PGA Tour’s Accenture Match Play, which was last held at La Costa in 2000.

I have now played both renovated 18s and will have more to say about them in future posts, but for now I just wanted to give you a little glimpse of the new look of the Legends Course.

This is the par-4 5th, the last of the five par-4s the Legends Course opens with. No. 5 is a mid-length par-4 – 370 yards from the blues and 346 from the whites – that plays even shorter due to the downhill. It’s a bit of a breather after what’s actually a pretty tough stretch of opening holes, but, overall, it’s indicative of what you get on the Legends Course.

You can see the reworked bunkers waiting near the landing area, and this is how bunkering tends to be at La Costa – more strategically placed than plentiful.

There’s plenty of room left, but I pushed my tee shot right and flirted with a drainage ditch on the right side. Fortunately the healthy rough held me up 2 feet short. I had a pitch over a tree to what is the Legends Course’s best defense – small greens.

This is one thing that really didn’t change much during the redesign. Whereas the greens on the Champions Course are pretty sizeable, the Legends Course greens remain quite small by modern standards but true to the original design from 1969. Let’s just say you earn every GIR on the Legends Course.

Unfortunately, my approach hit the bank next to the green and bounded off into the bunker. I ended up making an unsatisfying five given that I was within 50 yards off the tee.

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Not the ideal approach at No. 5

There are certainly tougher holes – although this is the No. 5 handicap, which surprised me – on the Legends Course but this one is undoubtedly pleasing to the eye.

The originally routing on the Legends Course remains intact, but the greens on Nos. 1, 12 and 15 were slightly relocated during the renovation and the 17 green was moved most significantly, closer to the water. That doesn’t me mean much to those of us, like me, who barely knew the old course (I only played it once) but members are certain to appreciate the changes, which actually made the course play a little shorter. It’s now 6,587 from the blue tees and almost 7,000 from the tips.

No. 15, a dandy dogleg left par-4 with a carry over a creek on the second shot, starts what the pros used to call “The Longest Mile in Golf,” named for the lengthy finishing holes, often played into a stiff ocean breeze, that stood between them and the finish. I can tell you the wind was dead into us on Tuesday and it wasn’t pretty on the scorecards.

While La Costa is a private club, it is open to public play. My understanding is that daily play for members and guests will rotate between the two courses with the members having sole access to one course each day.

If you’ve played the South Course (Legends) in the past, you may find one thing disappointing when you return. The signage that used to commemorate famous shots from the pros – such as Phil Mickelson driving the green on 15 (really????) and Tiger Woods being the first player to reach the par-5 17 in two – are gone.

It’s a shame that history won’t be marked going forward, but I guess the reasoning is that it isn’t the same course, which, in the case of No. 17, for instance, is certainly true.

Still, the Legends is a serious test of golf and La Costa, especially with its glorious Christmas tree, sparkles as a venue and gives you that feel of being in one of golf’s special places.

If you play the renovated courses and read this, feel free to post your comments on the new-look La Costa as there are certainly many who are more familiar with the courses than I and can give a more informed take.

For more extensive details about the renovation, you can go to www.lacosta.com.

No. 18 at Sherwood CC: Well Done, Mr. Nicklaus

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What you see above is the view that greets you after you walk through the clubhouse at Sherwood Country Club. This is the green view of No. 18.

Seeing Torrey Pines for the first time and seeing Sherwood rank as my most memorable California golf course first impressions. At Sherwood, you can’t help but just stand there, take in the scene and then begin to contemplate what it’ll be like walking down that 18th fairway. And then when you do it, it completely delivers on the experience.

No. 18 could well decide the tournament on Sunday as Tiger takes a two-shot lead into the final day of the final World Challenge at Sherwood, where Woods will seek a sixth title.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching this event on TV the past three days and found especially entertaining the travails the field had at the par-3 No. 15 on Saturday (11 balls in the hazard, making it the course’s toughest hole).

No. 18 doesn’t seem to trouble the pros too much, despite a tight tee shot. Tiger in particular has been content to fly a 3-wood to 160-170 yards or so and play from there.

But the second shot is what makes this hole so memorable. What golfer wouldn’t want to be looking at this for a second shot? Isn’t this the challenge we all live for?

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It’s about as pretty as it gets, but daunting as well. The day I played, my drive found the right rough of the fairway. I had a clear shot at the green, but I was very leery of the water. The last thing I wanted was to execute the drive and then rinse my approach. So I clubbed up and hit a fabulous 4-iron that carried to the back of the green. It was a club more than I needed, but I was dry.

That approach shot replays in my head every time I see the 18 green on TV. Yes, it was one of those shots.

From the replays, I expect the pin position to be in front today, as it was the day we played. That left me a super slick downhill that I mishit and then I lipped out my par putt. Oh, well. Being on in regulation was one satisfying feeling and rates among my better golf accomplishments for the year.

But enough about me. Let’s give credit here to the designer, Jack Nicklaus, and his fabulous creation. Check out sherwoodcountryclub.com’s hole description to gain a little more appreciation for No. 18.

Nicklaus calls the 444-yard par-4 eighteenth hole the finest finishing hole he has ever created. The tee shot is blind and must be played down the left side allowing the left-to-right slope to take the ball to the middle of the fairway. A mid-to-long iron approach awaits.

The second shot must be played to a multi-level green that presents an extremely visually intimidating shot. The green is protected in front with a rock-filled pond that flows into a waterfall on the right and is connected to another waterfall and stream on the left leaving very little room for error short of the green. There is also a bunker on the left that will catch balls that are missed slightly left. The back right portion of the green is protected by the waterfall, a deep pot-bunker, and a deep grass-bunker. Most shots left short of this green find the water, but balls over the green face a chip or pitch from the deep rough to a green sloping away from the player, taking the shot right back toward the bunker and water.

This is truly a classic finishing hole that ranks as one of the finest in the world.

I’ve hardly played everywhere in the golf world, but I don’t know of a finishing hole I’ve played that rates above it.

So take a minute to appreciate No. 18 today and lament that we might not see it on TV again.  It’s a masterpiece to play and a wonder to watch and a hole that can’t help but make you love this great game just a little more.     Image

The view as you walk off No. 18

Sherwood CC Bonus Hole: No. 17

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Seeing as Tiger won’t be back next year, might as well clean out my Sherwood files, right?

Yesterday’s post got a fairly good response, so thought I’d post another hole. I realized this morning I’ve also got a great shot of the 17th hole at Sherwood, another par-3.

Again, I’ll let sherwoodcountryclub.com do the introductions for No. 17:

The tee shot on the 166-yard, par-3 eighth hole is from an elevated tee to the smallest green on the course. A large, very deep collection bunker gathers most of the shots short of the green, and a small hazard with a waterfall protecting the back of the green. Missing the green to the right will often result in a bounce off the bank onto the green. Needless to say, club selection is very important on this innocent-looking hole.

From the tee, this looks like a sure par. What I didn’t account for was flying the green and having to hack out of a tough downhill lie to a green sloping away from me. That turned par into bogey.

Doubt the pros will make that mistake, but will curious to see how many birdies this hole yields. Hardly the toughest hole at Sherwood, but certainly a fun one.

photo-131The view behind the green