SAN DIEGO, Calif. – If you’ve traveled much, this has probably happened to you:
You’re in an unfamiliar city, trying to get onto the highway heading out of town. Your GPS appears to be taking you straight into a neighborhood when suddenly, you make what feels like a random turn and an on-ramp appears.
Golf has been like that for decades. Most everyone is aware of the game’s existence, but even for willing newbies, it has been deceptively difficult to get going with the flow. In many places, if you don’t have a detailed set of directions or an experienced guide, you can get lost and frustrated while you watch motorists buzz by overhead.
Luckily for denizen golfers of sun-drenched San Diego, there are on-ramps to the game at all levels of seriousness and cost, from luxe enclaves to come-as-you-are munis and cheap-and-cheerful short courses.
San Diego golf’s lap of luxury
Let’s start at the top, with the toniest of toll roads. A recent first-time visitor to the area, I spent a few days at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar, one of the ritziest addresses in the region for those with golf clubs in tow. The resort, opened in 2007 at the height of pre-Recession opulence, reminds of an old Italian villa town, draped across the calmer lower reaches of a canyon, its Addison Mizner-inspired Mediterranean-American architecture – not to mention its three-Michelin-star restaurant, Addison – conferring a feeling of grandeur. From the buildings to the gracious service, you’re made to feel that if you stay here, it means you’re somebody.
Somebody who enjoys golf, most likely. Or will by the time you leave. Unlike many pros, who try to stay away from beginner instruction, Shawn Cox, director of golf for property’s course, The Grand Golf Club, leans into it. With an intimate but complete practice and teaching facility at their disposal, he and his staff giving hundreds of lessons to novice and casual players each year.
The course itself winds up, down and around the resort grounds. Originally conceived as a semi-private course, Tom Fazio laid it out a decade before the resort opened and turned it into a private club that opens tee times to overnight guests.
Fazio did a solid job of getting 18 fun, playable holes onto difficult terrain at The Grand. Periodic switchbacks and significant elevation transitions between many holes make walking a no-go for most, but the holes themselves are engaging and scenic. With many putting surfaces set in amphitheater-type complexes, it ends up being more playable than the wild off-fairway canyon scrub makes it seem at times. Many greens have slopes that can funnel a ball toward generous hole locations, although the long-par-3/long-par-4 finish is so tough that if you manage to par both holes, your forecaddie (required for resort players) is authorized to present you a special-edition club-logoed cap commemorating your accomplishment. And unlike many private/resort courses where guests can feel a bit like second-class citizens, The Grand’s membership is friendly and happy to mix with visitors, whose green fees ($300) help defray their own dues. There is even a casual Monday afternoon nine-hole game that in-the-know guests can join in.
Maderas Golf Club sits about 25 minutes northeast of the Fairmont Grand Del Mar, a solid companion-course for visiting golfers. The 2000 Robert Muir Graves/Johnny Miller design’s core-golf layout is surrounded by canyons beneath the town of Poway. Exquisitely conditioned, with impressive elevation changes throughout and a fun set of greens with plentiful gathering features, the course takes and gives in equal measure, as long as you don’t over-commit yourself with your choice of tee box. Managed by Troon, Maderas is known for a friendly staff, whose efforts go a long way toward making it a popular place to play. It has been honored three times as one of “America’s Friendliest Golf Courses” on GolfPass annual Golfers’ Choice rankings.
This establishment is top notch !! Drove out here from AZ just to play this course. The hospitality I received from the baggage drop guys, pros shop, the starter and restaurant servers was incredible. The starter , wish I knew the gentleman’s name, but WOW! He was a total professional.
Even though I only had time to stop by and take in the arresting scenery for a few minutes, no mention of San Diego golf is complete without Torrey Pines, one of America’s super-munis. Two U.S. Opens and dozens of PGA Tour events have conferred bucket-list status on it for all golfers who love to tread where the pros ply their trade. Read more about it here.
Tremendous value in San Diego’s hidden golf gems and short courses
San Diego is home to one of the greatest-value golf courses I’ve ever played. Tucked into canyons and hills 40 miles northeast of the city is the community of Ramona, home to San Vicente Golf Resort. Built in 1971, the course celebrated its first half-century by bringing in architect Andy Staples to build on the original Ted Robinson design.
Using a solid, walkable existing routing as a foundation, Staples completely reimagined the semi-private course’s bunkering and green complexes. The result is just about as much fun as a golfer can have for less than $70, and a testament to how much good an imaginative set of greens and strategic bunkering can do to an existing course with good bones.
Every green has its unique set of rolling and burbling contours, but the par-3 8th stands out as a great example of Staples’ craft. A longish par 3, it plays slightly uphill to a generous-looking, saddle-shaped putting surface. But on closer inspection, it is broken down the middle by a ridge that separates the higher right half from the lower left. Being in the wrong section can result in a putt that at first seems impossible to get close, until the golfer realizes Staples built up the edges of the green, which can help redirect the ball toward the cup. Successfully executing one of these complex putting tasks sears itself into a golfer’s memory and creates affection that more pedestrian design simply cannot match. And it proves again that great architecture doesn’t cost any more than mundane architecture, and can in fact often cost less.
I had the pleasure of being first off the tee on a brisk morning at San Vicente, joining a local named Joe, an archetypal pandemic-time convert to golf. Despite taking up the game in his mid-40s, he played with athleticism and spoke about his early exploits with the type of enthusiasm one normally hears from kids as they get hooked on golf. As the round progressed and my own appreciation of the course grew, I couldn’t help but point out several overt and subtle features of the course that were making impression on me. The crash-course came to a head on the par-4 16th, when we both stood in awe of the way Staples and his team shaped some mounds behind the green to mimic the mountain backdrop. Getting to witness and, in a small way, feed Joe’s own awakening to the pleasures of compelling golf was one of the thrills of my year on the course.
In-the-know locals and seasoned visitors laud San Diego for its broad selection of more inexpensive, casual golf joints. The king of these humbler, quirky outposts is Goat Hill Park, situated about 30 minutes north of the city in the surf-mad hamlet of Oceanside. Somewhat lesser-known, is the Goat’s near-neighbor, Emerald Isle Golf Course. It did not hit my radar until my flight to San Diego, which sat me next to Joey Bradford, a music producer, guitarist for emo band The Used and a fellow golf nut.
Bradford and his band mates play golf every chance they get on the road, from local and regional concerts around Southern California to Australia. When I chanced to meet him, he was returning from a gig in Miami. We spent half the flight comparing notes on golf, and as part of his San Diego golf introduction, Bradford highlighted Emerald Isle as one of his haunts, a place that embodies the SoCal spirit of the game.
So I caught a late-afternoon loop around Emerald Isle, and I immediately saw what he meant. From the skate-shop pro-shop vibe to the winter festival being set up in the course parking lot for the coming weekend, Emerald Isle uses every square inch of its idiosyncratic, L-shaped footprint to make visitors happy. Just as John Ashworth overhauled Goat Hill Park, owner Holly Kennedy and her husband, John, have spent the last eight years converting Emerald Isle from a run-down joke into a jewel for local golfers like Joey Bradford and scores more.
I could have flown home content with my sunset-chasing stop at Emerald Isle being my last golf experience in San Diego, but I met up with my friend Neil for one quick but illuminating loop at another of the area’s great short courses: The Loma Club.
THE LOMA CLUB— Tim Gavrich (@TimGavrich) December 10, 2022
San Diego, Calif.
A.G. Spalding, Cary Bickler
This bar/hangout spot’s par-27 is one of the best 60-minute golf experiences you can ask for. Hitting shots and catching up with @TheSheaf as the sun rose over the city skyline was epic. pic.twitter.com/y4soGW7fpX
A nine-hole par-3 course minutes from the airport, The Loma Club is hard to beat as 60-minute golf experiences go. Neil and I teed off at dawn, the first ones off. The course won’t win any architecture or maintenance awards, but it is home to one of the most scenic single holes I have ever beheld. We reached the tee of the drop-shot 5th at the perfect moment, as the orange morning sun illuminated the entire San Diego city skyline. The course and its attendant bar, mini-golf and outdoor games area do plenty of business well into the evening, but it’s the morning that makes The Loma Club splendid.
And it’s the astonishing range of golf experiences that makes San Diego one of the best cities to bring your clubs.
San Diego ranks #11 on GolfPass' list of the World Top 100 Golf Destinations.