Golf Day Trip: Stonehouse at TCI

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The view from the fairway of No. 3

The first time I played the Stonehouse nine at Temecula Creek Inn last year, I remember arriving at the first tee and feeling like I’d been transported to another state.

The mountains. The pine trees. The elevation changes. It immediately evoked feelings of trips I’d taken to Boulder, Colo.

And that’s how I describe Stonehouse. It’s like a little manicured piece of Colorado landed in California.

If you’ve not been to Temecula Creek Inn (TCI), it’s the 27-hole resort course you see while traveling the 15 south of the first Temecula exit. It’s actually Stonehouse you see from the Interstate. The landscaped “TCI” is the No. 3 fairway.

If you’ve played TCI and haven’t played Stonehouse, well, you’ve missed out. The other two nines – Creek and Oaks – are essentially the same nine. Stonehouse is a drastically different experience and for me is a treat to play for a number of reasons.

Once you learn to negotiate the two blind tee shots here, Stonehouse should be a scoreable nine for you, no matter your skill level. It’s more aesthetics than challenge that draws me to Stonehouse, though it does have by far the toughest hole on the course – the downhill par-4 6th, which we’ll delve into later in this post.

As much as anything, I just like the feel of Stonehouse, probably because it speaks to my Midwestern soul, even when it’s 82 degrees in November as it was on Thursday.

Also, the more I play Stonehouse, the more I appreciate how over nine holes it embodies the sound design principals of what you want in a great 18.

It’s eases you in with an easy (if you know where you’re going) par-5 and short par-4 (I watched someone with a very limited tee game par both) and then gradually gets tougher while also revealing increasingly interesting holes in a pleasing evolution.

Before fast-forwarding to No. 6 to highlight the home stretch of Stonehouse, I’ll simply offer this shot advice on the preceding holes, though you have to play them to understand.

The tee shot on No. 1 is bewildering to first-timers. I’ll just say swing away and don’t sweat it. You don’t need to be perfect and can recover here, even if you find the bunkers on the right off the tee, as I did Thursday.

On the blind, short par-4 No. 4 – there’s a complex of bunkers you don’t see on the left that you can’t possible account for without having played it. The first time, lay up to 220 yards or so and then try to bite off the whole 331, which can be done, next time. If there won’t be a next time, favor the right side, and good luck.

On the dead uphill 180-yard par-3 5th – the locals say it plays two clubs up. I don’t disagree, though it’s a bear to chip back if you go long. There’s nothing wrong with being a little short here and taking an easy par.

Now a hole-by-hole of the final four.

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No. 6, par-4, 416 yards (blues), 396 (whites) – Take in the view, because you won’t find many like it, save for at Journey at Pechanga just down the road (which you can actually see from the No. 5 tee and green and probably the No. 6 tee as well).

Like a Colorado ski slope, No. 6 is dead downhill but played to a mountainous backdrop with traffic on the 15 streaming by (noiselessly, I might add).

The fairway is actually quite wide, but the complicating factors here are wind, dead into you, and slope. The fairway slopes right, so favor the left side off the tee. It’s a tough shot, one of I’ve mostly failed at it. But if you catch one here, savor it, because it’ll look postcard pretty, soaring above the mountain peak before nestling in the fairway.

The second shot is again downhill to an undulating green placed amongst dense woods. Even with the wind, club down here as second shots are prone to going long and you’re playing for par anyway. It’s a tough hole, the No. 1 handicap.

Especially stay out of the right woods, which is a hunting expedition for your ball followed by a beastly recovery.

Make par here and I’ll like your odds of walking off Stonehouse with a nice number.

No. 7, par-4, 351, 333 – A subtle dogleg right that seems to play downwind, but, given the yardage, hardly requires a monster tee shot. Lay up to the turn and it should be an easy par. I, however, hit a draw 290 over the trees on the right with a 3-wood and made an easy bird, so obviously I’ve favorable to that approach. My ball settled in next to the third green and made for easy access to the seventh green.

On the green of this secluded hole, you see get an unexpected surprise by discovering the course’s quaint event area centered a little cottage. Part of me wishes this was a brewpub and you could stop for just one and savor the experience. The first time I encountered it, the area was lit by lights and truly gave off a special aura.

But alas, pace of play demands you press on.

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          No. 8, par-3, 165, 153 – Like the cottage, quaint could also describe this hole, a rather harmless par-3 that’s a prime birdie opportunity with a well-placed tee shot. Just don’t miss right into the woods and there’s little to trip you up here.

No. 9, par-5, 555, 540 – Negotiating a tight tee shot is the biggest obstacle here, but it’s a three-shotter (though I did reach in two with a rescue once), so mostly hit what you’re most confident with and stay in play.

The green is essentially an inland, fronted by ponds and a waterfall with landscape accents. It’s a fabulous finish, especially if your approach finds the green and you walk off with a four or a five on your card.

The tiered green is smallish, also making reaching in two tricky, and is best approached from an angle as far down the fairway as possible. If you’re still 200 out, hit and pray. If you’re much closer, just know you can’t go over or there’s cart path and OB.

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The view of No. 9

When I played it on Thursday, Stonehouse was in the best shape I’ve seen it and draped in fall accents. It evoked feelings of fall in the Midwest, except better because it was mid-November and I was golfing.

If you make it to TCI, make sure to include Stonehouse in your loop and enjoy a golf experience you don’t find in California every day.

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Sunset Season

Image         While I lament the loss of sunlight that comes with daylight saving time, especially as it pertains to the shortening of golf rounds, last year I quickly learned the silver lining of the winter solstice in California: the sunsets.

If you’ve lived here for any length of time during this time of year, like I have now, you know there’s something different about sunsets in the late fall. Because of the angle of the sun, atmospheric conditions, etc., the setting sun takes on a new persona, a bit more mysterious and even artistic than the normal classically clean and brilliant California sunset we see most of the year.

We’ve already witnessed some of these sunsets in just the first week. One evening it was the setting sun playing peekaboo amongst the clouds, teasing you with glimpses and otherwise casting a brilliant backlight to the broken cloud layer as it made its slow decent.

Another night the sun set in a brilliant orange ball that projected an array of hues a bit beyond the summer spectrum.

Yet another night, it gave what has become one of my favorite performances: when it drops from a dense cloud layer into that thin atmospheric window before the marine layer and emerges as a hazy red dot for just a few wonderful minutes. These are the sunsets I learned never to give up on last year.

And that’s the thing about late fall in the western sky: you just never know. It’s this time of year when California sunsets become like Fourth of July fireworks. You get an occasional dud, but you’re also often surprised by something brilliant. You learn to always cast a glance west at dusk, just in case.

The photo at top was taken on one such night. It came after a day when the marine layer lingered all day and nothing suggested a brilliant sunset. Then this. The sun never made a full appearance, but it still managed to announce its presence by casting an incredible kaleidoscope of color and light as it subtly slipped away.

Two things about that photo. One, it was taken from an upstairs window, which is a tremendous advantage for enjoying sunsets in general. Having such a view is like having ever-changing contemporary art of your wall. Completely priceless, eternally valuable and inspiring beyond words.

Two, if you’ve tried to capture sunsets on your cell phone, as we all have, you know the live image is often many times more beautiful, wonderful and complex than the technology can record. I sometimes send those pics to landlocked friends with the lament, “wish you could’ve been there,” conveying this.

When I was on my California scouting trip for my new life in spring of 2013, I frequented art galleries and discovered the vast and diverse world of California sunset/ocean art. I often inquired about what went into capturing those brilliant images and discovered, as is often the case in great photography, that it’s all about lighting and timing, and largely that provided by this time of year.

After a year or so of capturing sunsets, it was by looking back at those photos that I truly began to appreciate the seasonal nuances. There’s a stark difference between last fall and, say, my first California summer and in particular my first sunset, which I’ll never forget.

I had arrived in LA around noon after seven days on the road. After a trip to the driving range – please tell me you saw that coming – my LA friend and I grabbed a bite on the Santa Monica pier and lingered to enjoy the day. I had been visiting him for four years had observed some great sunsets, enough to realize and appreciate what I was witnessing.

As the sunset started to position itself over the pier, it began to descend through a thin cloud lower, a white wanderer in an otherwise clear sky. In anticipation of what was about to happen, there was a camera-carrying rush to the beach. And then it happened.

Like an eclipse, the sun seemed to split in two as it passed through the clouds. At its most brilliant, it was hard to argue there weren’t two suns. This mesmerizing effect lasted for maybe 10 minutes before the full sun briefly reappeared to again be swallowed whole by the ocean.

I recall sunset enthusiasts approaching each other with gleeful inquiries of “Did you get it?!” and comparing images to appreciate the experience all over again and maybe find an image that shows them something they may have missed. I’ve got a dozen images of that sunset, each one wonderfully nuanced from the one taken seconds before.

Yep, I was hooked on California sunsets right there. Still am. Always will be. So tonight I’ll again look to my left at dusk and, camera ready, discover and appreciate what fantastic new way the autumnal California sky has crafted to say goodnight.

Highlight Hole: No. 14 at Aviara

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Prior to teeing off at Aviara Golf Club in Carlsbad, the starter informs you that you’re about to enter an 18-hole botanical garden that also happens to be a golf course. The Hyatt resort course more than lives up to those lofty landscape expectations, providing impeccable natural accents to nearly every hole, but especially the par-3s.

Aviara gives numerous worthy candidates for a Highlight Hole feature, but I decided on No. 14 because it captures the essence and challenge of Aviara and because it’s a hole you might miss if you go as a spectator for the LPGA tourney. The hole is at the most remote part of the course, but the setting is entirely worth the trip.

No. 14 plays up to 190 yards from the blue tees, but it played closer to the white-tee distance of 164 on Sunday. Save for the water on the right, this doesn’t look like a tough tee shot. For one, look at the size of that green. As many greens are at Aviara, it’s spacious, to say the least. But I can tell you from experience, it’s one whale of a putt if you hit the green in a different zip code than the hole. You’re primed for a three-putt.

And 190 off the tee is different story than 164. It’s advisable to club up here as I’ve been told it plays long, though I’ve only played it twice. I’ll keep the technicals brief on this one because playing the hole is only half the experience.

The green view is stunning. That pond is fed by three waterfalls, which become visible once you reach the green. And then you get an elevated view of the entire water feature when you tee off on No. 15. It’s a magnificent little corner of the course and begins a terrific stretch of holes to the finish that provide a great balance of scenic and score-able, save for perhaps No. 18, the No. 2 handicap hole.

I botched 14 by pushing my tee shot right into thick rough near the water. After a  tough chip, I two-putted to bogey a hole that played probably as easily as it can play that day. Short tee. Pin away from the water. Reasonable green speed. Oh, well.

I look forward to next time and wish you well on your first if you haven’t played here yet. You should always stop to smell the flowers, as the say, when playing golf, but that’s especially true at Aviara.

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View of the shared water feature from the 15th tee box.

Discovering the Wild Side of Torrey Pines

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When I moved out to California last year, I was looking forward to taking up hiking. I’d done it on previous vacations and found it an exhilarating way to explore the boundless beauty of our state in its many forms.

I stuck to my plan for the first two weeks of my move, hiking Roy Rogers State Park and The Pallisades in LA, but then I got down coast and something (OK, tee times) distracted me from my goal.

I’m not big on resolutions, but I’ve made hiking more one of them for 2014. Even though I live here now, I’ve tried to maintain a vacation’s curiosity about California, and hiking is a one of the healthiest and most cost-effective ways outlets for that.

To renew my resolve and seek some inspiration and motivation, I recently undertook the first hike that was recommended to me when I moved out – the state park at Torrey Pines.

I’ve walked both of Torrey’s golf courses and each time I looked at the ocean views and the vistas and wondered how much the landscape had in common with the state park. It turns out, not surprisingly, quite a bit, although the state park has many unique and wonderful surprises of its own.

I ventured out on a day in September when the marine layer lingered long into the afternoon, which kept the temperature ideal for a hike. I drove the PCH down to the park entrance just north of La Jolla and the golf course, paid my $15, grabbed a map and went exploring with water bottle in hand.

I discovered that the park consists of 2,000 acres that is best navigated by six trails of varying difficulty, distance and destinations. For instance, the Beach Trail takes you to the beach, while High Point Trail leads you to a viewing area with a panoramic view of the ocean and the reserve itself.

I didn’t walk all six trails so if you’re looking for a definitive trail guide, you’re better off going to the state’s online trail guide at www.torreypine.org. I wanted to keep my hike to two hours and leave some of the park to explore later.

The first trail you encounter is the Guy Fleming Trail, which is supposedly the easiest of the hikes and consists of a 2/3-mile loop through the forest and along ocean bluffs. Considering it’s the most easily accessible trail, I left that one for another day when I might not have as much time to explore available to me.

I chose the Beach Trail, although I experienced other trails on the way there and the way back, including a portion of the hike where I wasn’t totally sure where I was. The trails are marked quite well on the way down and not quite as well on the way back, although the fault was probably entirely mine. If you know me at all, you know I could get lost in my driveway without a GPS. I had a map, but a map only helps if you can absolutely ascertain where you are.

Anyway, in a roundabout way, I guess what I’m saying is that if it’s your first time, I’d recommended taking a hiking partner, although you can’t certainly do it on your own, even if you’re directionally challenged like me. I encountered several experienced fellow hikers who were only too happy to point me in the right direction.

Now back to our regularly scheduled hike …

One of the first things you encounter on your hike is a display explaining how the park came to be. The story I’ve inserted below tells the story, so I won’t bother repeating it, but it’s obviously quite a vision she had and a contribution that Ellen Browning Scripps made to have this land set aside and protected from development to ensure that future generations can enjoy this scenic and unique portion of the California coast line.

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         After learning the story of the park, I set out to experience it, and after about 45 minutes of a slow, winding decent down sandy trails and through desert scape, I arrived at my desired destination – the beach, or at least the area overlooking it.

You actually experience the beach from the several viewpoints, and each of them gives you a different appreciation for this area is and how it came to be. And this is the major difference from the golf course, where you occasionally overlook the ocean, the beach and La Jolla, but you don’t come nearly this close. At the reserve, you can actually walk on the beach.

The first close-up view of the beach I got was from maybe a few hundred feet above. You can see all along the coastline and look down on the giant black rock formation that seems a destination unto itself for many hikers.

While taking in the view, a fellow hiker informed me that this area represents the best opportunity to view dolphins in the park, he said, and, for that matter, along the entire coastline. Apparently there’s a kelp bed that hosts a huge fish population, which draws the dolphins to feed.

Unfortunately, on the day of my hike we didn’t see dolphins, but that didn’t stop me from looking for a good half hour or so. When they are there, this has to be one of the best ways to experience them. I can’t imagine too many better vantage points.

From that perch, the trail continues to spiral down to the beach, and you eventually pass a part of the trail where you have to traverse a small sand dune. This is actually new beach being created, a slow and steady erosion process that the park’s helpful signs explain.

I’ll let my photos speak for my experience here, but I’ll just say I can only imagine how awesome this area is around dusk or sunset, although you wouldn’t want to be there, given that you’d be hiking back for a good 45 minutes in the dark.

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Image         If you’ve walked the golf course, the bluffs, vistas and topography in general will be familiar to you, but it’s presented in a less manicured and entirely native way that gives you a new appreciation of the area. I, for one, am glad I traded my golf spikes for tennis shoes to experience it and can’t wait to go back. I’m not sure how many other golfers do the same, but I absolutely recommend it.

It’s a little more arduous than, say, looping the North Course, but it’s a rewarding walk all of its own and one I look forward to taking again very soon.

Highlight Hole: No. 2 at Costa Mesa CC

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If your push your tee shot right on No. 2 at Costa Mesa County Club’s Los Lagos course, this could be your view. This stunning palm accents the hole on this par-5. Palm trees and the way they grow fascinates me. This one is unique because it’s the only one like it on the course.

Anyway, my motto of there being 100 ways to enjoy a round of golf includes discovering an amazing natural wonder like this.

Speaking of Golf and Animals …

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Since we’re on the topic, this happens to be my favorite photo of all time of animals on a golf course. It was taken at Quarry Oaks in Ashland, Neb., which used to be a destination course for my good golf friends and I when I lived in the area. Deer and turkeys are found in abundance here, and this shot perfectly captures, to me, the Quarry Oaks experience. I imagine I’ll be writing more about this place in a future post.